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Barbara Penner on Rem Koolhaas’ Fundamentals

Barbara Penner

Rem Koolhaas needs to get back to the fundamentals

The parties are over, the prizes awarded, Peter Eisenman has declared it to be the end of architecture … Is there anything left to say about the Rem Koolhaas Venice Biennale?

Most critics have already weighed in. The ‘Fundamentals’ theme has drawn mixed responses, especially Koolhaas’s effort to return architecture to its Elements (Floor, Stair, Door, Toilet, etc) in a dedicated exhibition in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion. Some hail Elements as inventive; others dismiss it as pedestrian, even atavistic. In the hubbub over content, however, less attention has been paid to another notable aspect of Elements: the way it has been put together.

Elements should be seen as the apotheosis of Koolhaas’s brand of architectural research honed over many years. As overseen by OMA’s research arm, AMO, assisted by students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Elements exhibition and accompanying 15 catalogues (one for each element) are less about conventional authorship and curation than collation and accumulation. Objects, data, images and film clips from across time and place are presented in a collectively compiled non-hierarchical assemblage. It is up to us to make sense of it all − if we care to do so.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving viewers the power to make meaning. It is part of the whole swing towards empowering audiences that can be seen in phenomena from participatory art to site-specific theatre. Indeed, it often feels as if we have few other legitimate ways of operating post-Barthes. As Koolhaas famously reminds us in ‘Junkspace’, ‘God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead,’ before deadpanning, ‘only the architect is left standing …’ (Surely he’s joking − or is he?)

‘Junkspace’ first appeared in one of two door-stopping volumes that made up Project on the City (2001-2), the Harvard faculty-student inquiry that is the progenitor of Elements. When published, the volumes’ research into contemporary urbanisation made a major impact, but what is striking now is the masses of information they featured at a time when internet resources were nowhere near as accessible as today. Each volume had hundreds of pages, dozens of authors and reams of visual data, statistics, timelines, diagrams, maps and photographs. Cover-to-cover reading wasn’t possible and wasn’t the point anyway.

In their corralling of visual and textual information under the rubric of research, Project on the City and now Elements have some obvious precedents: Koolhaas’s admiration for Learning from Las Vegas is well known, yet there is something very different about that book’s obsessive, coolly detached tone and the delirious overload of Project. The analytic acuity of the former gives way to informational hyperinflation in the latter.

It is difficult to build the basis for a new architectural design on such foundations and, in Elements, cracks are everywhere apparent. The central conceit − that architecture has never fully analysed its core elements − makes for a plausible if somewhat overstated starting point. Yet it never lives up to its potential. Too often the elements are random and prosaic; the catalogues, chaotic and contradictory. Project on the City suffered from similar faults too, but these were partly justified by the engagement with fast-moving large-scale developments in far-off places. In Elements, a project that claims to be historical and microscopic, the failures are harder to forgive.

Some of the unevenness in Elements might be blamed on practical factors (tight deadlines, low budgets, many managers, great ambition). But there is more  to it than that. Koolhaas and AMO’s brand of research, as a neutral act of collective accumulation performed by legions of students, appears to have become weirdly self-affirming, like a methodological echo chamber. With the rejection of the author (except for Rem himself), other things have obviously been rejected too: discernment, knowledge and − dare I say it? − expertise.

In the face of full Googlization, the floods of information that define Project on the City and Elements no longer seem so innovative or necessary. Architectural research should be more than data mining; scholarship should be more than aggregation. The time has come for another more considered and directed approach. It’s time Koolhaas and AMO go back to the fundamentals.

 

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