Despite designing a range of high-profile, iconic buildings, Rem Koolhaas is outspoken in his dislike of a specific typology and the concept of the “starchitect” – a successful architect who is hired to design a building in their own signature style. Becoming defensive over the idea of working as a “starchitect” on the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, Koolhaas explains that, “any building of that size always has a symbolic side, that can’t be avoided. But it’s not one of those sticker images, it has an enormous number of different angles to it, it always looks different, depending on where you’re looking from” (in Rauterberg, 2008). Comparing the form of de Rotterdam to Casa da Música in Porto (see Figure 1.1), it becomes evident that OMA reject the expectation for all buildings to fit into a certain style.
In S,M,L,XL, Koolhaas proposes the idea of The Generic City, where the contemporary city would become like the contemporary airport – that is, indistinguishable and characterless. Koolhaas recognises the loss of a city’s identity as an opportunity for liberation: “What if this seemingly accidental – and usually regretted – homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity?” (1998, pg. 1248) Koolhaas is often criticised for ignoring the context in which his building sits, instead designing a building as an alien structure that could belong to any site. It is clear that, in writing The Generic City, Koolhaas means to justify his approach to design as revolutionary and progressive, not arrogant and careless. Koolhaas finds the traditional approach to urbanism frustratingly restrictive, describing it as a “straitjacket” and suggesting that to sacrifice our attachment to identity would liberate the city and allow it to adapt to the needs of a growing population. He describes the Generic City as “nothing but a reflection of present need and present ability… If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is equally exciting – or unexciting – everywhere” (1998, pg. 1250). The Generic City endeavours to represent the city as it is, not the city as it wishes to be.
In the essay Bigness (or the problem of Large), Koolhaas suggests that the Generic City is the resulting development of the concept of Bigness. There is a scale that an architectural project reaches, when it can no longer function as a single “architectural gesture”, but must instead become a collection of automated parts (1998, pg. 502). With Bigness becoming the norm in the industry came the introduction of the elevator, a structural component that Koolhaas claims to “render null and void the classical repertoire of architecture. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot” (1998, pg. 500). Koolhaas claims that the very nature of a building of this scale means it can no longer fit in the existing urban tissue of any city – “Its subtext is fuck the context” (1998, pg. 502). Furthermore, if society demands buildings of this scale, Koolhaas’ argument dictates that the breaking of a city’s urban fabric is not only practical, but unavoidable. The Generic City is an analogy of the current state of the city and a justification of the contemporary breaking the preconceived conventions of its context.
In Delirious New York, Koolhaas outlines the idea of The City of the Captive Globe, an analysis of Manhattan and a justification of the grid system:
“The Grid makes the history of architecture and all previous lessons of urbanism irrelevant. It forces Manhattan’s builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another…The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos” (1994, pg. 296).
Koolhaas claims that the regularity of the grid provides a platform for each building to become an independent entity, not restricted by the form of its neighbour, through a necessary distinction between blocks. The illustration of The City of the Captive Globe (see Figure 2.1) displays the desired form of the regular, refined by the irregular. The influence of The City of the Captive Globe is evident in The Generic City, where Koolhaas describes the importance of the car, “The urban plane now only accommodates necessary movement, fundamentally the car; highways are a superior version of boulevards and plazas, taking more and more space; their design, seemingly aiming for automotive efficiency” (1998, pg 1251). Similar to The City of the Captive Globe, the Generic City offers a systematic and segregated urbanism, with an order only varying through architectural individuality that forces an automobile-dependent society.
James Howard Kunstler’s description of the modern America in Home from Nowhere criticises the very idea of relying on experimental architecture to dictate the character of the city:
“When we drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk that we’ve smeared all over the landscape, we register it as ugliness. This ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems – problems that relate to the issue of our national character” (1996).
As Matthew J. Lindstrom and Hugh Bartling explain in Suburban Sprawl: Culture, Theory, and Politics, “New Urbanists are often characterized by their two most trenchant dislikes: suburban sprawl and the impact of the car. New Urbanists seek to revolutionize a deeply entrenched system of planning and architectural design that shapes the majority of American lives” (2003, pg. 95). Kunstler is outspoken in his position against both, instead proposing a simpler architecture, based on the city before it was defined by the car. From Kunstler’s point of view, the proposed City of the Captive Globe would be impractical and does not tackle the real issues faced in urban planning. For Kunstler, and other New Urbanists, proposals for a New Urban focus on creating better spaces for residents, in order to guarantee a safer, more sustainable economy. On the other hand, Koolhaas is proposing an urbanism that aims to fuel architectural marvel and progress large scale, high-cost projects as “cities within cities” (Koolhaas, 1994, pg.296). Kunstler expresses a distaste for contemporary architecture and its ignorance towards contemporary problems, “This kind of indulgent, narcissistic behaviour was possible only in a cheap-energy society in which little mattered in architecture besides fashion” (2006, pg. 122). Kunstler is not against the progression of the architecture industry, but against distasteful developments that do more damage than good.
HISTORIC VERSUS CONTEMPORARY
Koolhaas does not claim to intentionally disregard the historical context of a site, but actually claims that it is more respectful to contrast the existing historic context than to mimic it. He argues that the act of replicating the essence of the city’s identity does not necessarily strengthen its character, but can actually dilute the uniqueness of the city. Thoughtless replication of pseudo-historic developments can damage the character of the city, causing its legitimate context to be diluted to the point that it is indistinguishable from its replicas: “To the extent that history finds its deposit in architecture, present human quantities will inevitably burst and deplete previous substance… history also has an invidious half-life – as it is more abused, it becomes less significant – to the point where its diminishing hand-outs become insulting” (Koolhaas, 1998, pg. 1248). These are the exact gimmicks that Koolhaas insults in his proposal for the Generic City. By expressing his desire to prevent projects aimed at preserving the existing character of the city, Koolhaas suggests that the city’s character is growing exponentially and anything that does not cater for the future is actually an action against this growth.
Similar to Koolhaas, the New Urbanists believe in respecting the authentic historical narrative of a place. Kunstler describes the decision for the Saratogo Springs council in New York to spend thousands of dollars on Victorian-style streetlamps as “pathetic, because the larger design failures were ignored.” (1996) For Kunstler, it is not about preserving a certain character of a place, but maintaining the aspects of society that actually work and not repeating the mistakes that do not. There is little debate over the importance of authenticity in preserving a city’s character, but New Urbanism provides a vastly different approach to Koolhaas. In the Charter for New Urbanism, Emily Talen states that, “Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.” (2006, pg. 187) New Urbanism relies heavily on the existing urban fabric to dictate the direction of a project. Contemporary experimentation will work to a degree, but identifying an aspect of the city that already works is a far more efficient means of guaranteed success. The movement encourages more than replicating the existing, “New Urbanists are going beyond the idea that the past experiences of city planners amount to an interesting backdrop toward recognition of, to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase, a ‘usable past’. The creative tensions that this endeavor has brought out are something New Urbanists must continually address and capitalize on.” (Talen, 2005, pg. 276) New Urbanism does not argue against a natural growth of building typology, but instead insists upon learning from what has already been done and building upon the successful, instead of encouraging a perpetual pursuit of a perfect architecture through continuous experimentation and dreams of impossible utopias.
LIBERATION FROM IDENTITY
Koolhaas’ primary intention in his proposal of the Generic City is the liberation “from the straitjacket of identity” (1998, pg. 1250). A clear influence of Koolhaas, Georges Bataille also acknowledged the influence that architecture has on the city, “Great monuments are erected like dikes, opposing the logic and majesty of authority against all disturbing elements: it is in the form of cathedral and palace that Church or State speaks to the multitudes and imposes silence upon them” (in Hollier, 1992, pg. 47). Bataille believed that architecture was a tool used by authority to impose order on the masses. He inspired a number of 1960s anti-establishment architectural projects, including a number of Koolhaas’. The proposal of the Generic City appears to stem from this idea of an architectural character imposing an idea upon the city’s inhabitants. Koolhaas believes in an authentic representation of the city, and so relieving a city of any preconceived character is essential in allowing the identity to grow exponentially with the city.
However, Christian Norberg-Schulz argues that a sense of familiarity is essential in creating spaces that people want to inhabit. In order to create “a sense of place,” one must identify themselves as an extension of that place, “Human identity presupposes the identity of place.” (1980, p.22) Norberg-Schulz implies that an individual’s identity is defined by the environment they inhabit, and it is therefore the responsibility of architecture to respect its impact upon its inhabitants. Cliff Hague builds on the idea of place-identity, elaborating on what is required in order to fulfil a ‘sense of place’, “Place implies some mix of memory, sensual experience and interpretation” (Hague, 2005, pg. 4). Berlin, for example, has developed as a city with the philosophy of exposing its history openly, with the restoration and continued use of the Reichstag building (Foster and Partners, 1999), and the construction of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Peter Eisenman, 2004) in the heart of the city (see Figure 3.1). This identity is deeply engrained in every citizen of Berlin and is an important representation of the city’s intentions. To become the Generic City by designing meaningless projects exponentially, there would be no sense of recognition in the city. Without the identity that Berlin holds, its greatest features would no longer exist. There would be no reason to visit Berlin if every city were the same. A city without character would be a dull and bleak place.
DESIGNING A NEW TYPOLOGY
Koolhaas saw the CCTV headquarters in Beijing as an opportunity to project his own influence on the Chinese society. Dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers (see Figure 4.1), OMA proposed what they saw as a new typology of large-scale building. After analysing the existing state of the television industry in China, Koolhaas identified a lack of transparency in its operation that the building could provide. Creating an accessible loop cutting through the building (see Figure 4.2) would allow the public to monitor the activity within the organisation, whilst forming “a chain of interdependence, [promoting] solidarity rather than isolation, collaboration instead of opposition” (Koolhaas, 2004, pg. 489). Similar ideologies are evident in Koolhaas’ proposal for the Generic City. Koolhaas believes that new buildings will always improve upon the already existing, because as an industry, architecture is always improving. OMA accepted the project in Beijing because they anticipated the influence on the entire urban fabric of the city that could be had through a uniquely high-profile project.
Jane Jacobs’ views would conflict with the proposal of the Generic City however. Koolhaas claims, “If [the city] gets old it just self-destructs and renews” (1998, pg. 1250), but Jacobs would encourage the organic growth of a city caused by small-scale interventions from the bottom up. Talen titles this “incrementalism” suggesting that “incrementalist reformers do not take as their starting point the need for a fundamental overthrow of the physical structure of the metropolis” (2005, pg.69). It is apparent from the failure of previous high-profile masterplan projects, such as Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, that large-scale changes are far more challenging to implement than a gradual improvement through small-scale interventions. Jacobs would, however, agree with many observations made by Koolhaas in regards to the evolution of the city’s character. Although a supporter of the use of old buildings, Jacobs suggests that diversity of the old and the new is critical for a successful city, “Some of the old buildings are replaced by new ones… Over the years, therefore, constantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types. This is, of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture” (1961, pg. 189). It is clear that, like Koolhaas, Jacobs understands the development of an urban fabric as dynamic growth, developing with the changing needs and desires of the city. However, Jacobs does reject the idea that a tabula rasa is required in order for this identity to grow.
INFINITE GROWTH VS THE CONDENSING OF CITIES
Koolhaas argues that our current urban approach to the city is far too conservative. By developing an attachment to the perceived identity of the city, we become blinded to anything else. He argues that identity is disruptive to the city’s natural development. Koolhaas dreams of an ideal architecture, “The architecture of the Generic City is by definition beautiful. Built at incredible speed, and conceived at even more incredible pace, there is an average of 27 aborted versions for every realized.” (1998, pg. 1260) The construction industry is in constant progression, with the introduction of new technology that is changing the way that structures are built. To ignore this advancement in favour of an artificial sentimentality towards urban identity is deceptive and will not strengthen the city’s character, but weaken it, “The Generic City is on its way from horizontality to verticality. The skyscraper looks as if it will be the final, definitive typology” (1998, pg. 1253). Koolhaas believes that as the density of cities increases, the buildings will have to grow upwards, not outwards. By removing the restriction of identity, architects will be free to continue to question the skyscraper typology and continuously improve upon it.
New Urbanism would, however, argue against the idea of building with a predetermined intention to be replaced with a more developed idea. Koolhaas proposes a solution that intends to be future-proof, but according to the principles of New Urbanism, the priorities are misplaced. Jacobs saw the conversion of our cities into a state of automobile-dependency as a destructive practice, “Traffic arteries, along with parking lots, gas stations and drive-ins, are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction” (Jacobs, 1961, pg. 338). New Urbanism is pragmatic in the development of the modern society, “There are now few urbanists who would take the unrealistic view that it is possible to conduct all of life’s activities within one self-contained neighbourhood, given the reality of globalized systems of production and consumption” (Talen, 2005, pg. 98). By working on an intimate scale, New Urbanism intends to create effective spaces that people want to use, with tried-and-tested systems that encourage more efficient, localised living. The city will continue to expand, but life within each neighbourhood will remain local.
Whilst the philosophies of New Urbanism stem from the already built, Koolhaas’ proposal of the Generic City seems to be a more accurate depiction of the current reality of urbanism. Although the destruction of heritage is often protested and criticised, it is becoming more common for large, contemporary projects to replace the existing. Many European cities have already arrived at a state where they are almost indistinguishable from one another. However, the accuracy of Koolhaas’ illustration does not justify its suitability, the issue is that it lacks the human scale that New Urbanism accounts for. New Urbanism stems from the need for good public space and infrastructure, the lack of which has caused economic and social decline. Whilst Koolhaas proposes a city of infinite progress, he does not account for the inhabitants of the city trying to keep up with its growth.
The Generic City provides a platform for experimentation that is not possible in the proposals made by New Urbanism. The issue with being too conservative in urban planning is the limitation of natural progression. By acting too conservatively, Jacobs’ vision of diversity may come to life in the near future, but further development would become even more restricted. Koolhaas makes the point that “the past will at some point become too ‘small’ to be inhabited and shared by those alive” (1998, pg. 1248), suggesting that we cannot view architecture as the separate entities of past and present, but as a continuous and infinite development.
Although New Urbanism is opposed to the mindless developments of contemporary architecture, Koolhaas does make points that are relevant to the movement. Koolhaas outlines the full extent to which an attachment to the aesthetic value of a city can limit urban progress. By removing the restriction of identity, Koolhaas is able to propose the Generic City where progress is the main priority. If New Urbanism were able to achieve the same liberation, it may be possible to create the proposed spaces more effectively and approach the issues of sprawl and automotive-dependency with more efficiency. Whilst New Urbanism uses the existing as a template for future developments, its philosophy correlates with Koolhaas’ to the extent that an aesthetic attachment to the identity of a city is not necessary in the development of a better urbanism.
Hague, Cliff, and Paul Jenkins. Place Identity, Participation And Planning. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Hollier, Denis. Against Architecture: Writings Of Georges Bataille. Athens, Georgia: MIT Press, 1992. Print.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death And Life Of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.
Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York. New York: Monacelli Press, 1994. Print.
Koolhaas, Rem et al. Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large. New York, N.Y.: Monacelli Press, 1998. Print.
Koolhaas, Rem. Content. Köln: Taschen, 2004. Print.
Kunstler, James Howard. “Home From Nowhere”. The Atlantic Monthly 278.3 (1996). Print.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Long Emergency. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. Print.
Lindstrom, Matthew J, and Hugh Bartling. Suburban Sprawl. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.
Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Genius Loci. New York: Rizzoli, 1980. Print.
Rauterberg, Hanno. Talking Architecture. Munich: Prestel, 2008. Print.
Talen, Emily. New Urbanism And American Planning. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Talen, Emily. Charter Of The New Urbanism. 2013. New York, McGraw-Hill, Print.