Sunday, July 27, 2008

Even More on CelebritURBanism

...and on "starchitecture" in general...

An interview with Rem Koolhaas of OMA in der Spiegel presents the other side of celebritURBanism, which is best summed up with this quote from Mr. Koolhaas:

I have a very hard time with the expression "star architect." It gives the impression of referring to people with no heart, egomaniacs who are constantly doing their thing, completely divorced from any context. I believe that this is a grotesque insult to members of a profession who -- to the extent that I know my colleagues -- go to great lengths to find the right thing, the appropriate thing, for each individual case. At the same time we are, of course, driven by the market -- and by developers who try to pin us down to certain forms. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the best way for us to escape this being pinned down to the purely formal. That's why I decided to simply demonstrate it: There is, in fact, no great difference between the buildings by "star architects" and those designed by others.

And I think that is a pretty valid statement. Some people believe in the trickle down theory of design. I have heard it described by Peter Eisenman pretty well. Basically, there are people in the profession who have achieved a privileged* status, for one reason or another, and are able to produce canonical works of architecture that influence the discipline at large. These works are canonical for any number of reasons: they can be typologically innovative, they break new aesthetic ground, etc. Koolhaas, later in the interview, explains it as "This, in turn, is what makes up the credibility of European architecture in an age of globalization: That we are able to execute our formulas in a less formulaic way than others, and that we can pay closer attention to the circumstances under which other people live." Which is a very profound thought and something all urbanists should heed.

This 'canonical' work (for lack of a better word, although the idea of a canon is way too loaded) then influences other designers and they produce similar work, and it trickles it's way down from the trend setters and taste makers through all levels of the profession. Or we can think of it a different way: that as a profession we are preoccupied with the same thoughts and obsessions, we are all grappling with the similar architectural and urban issues, and are therefore coming up with similar results for the most part.

In Beijing there is a supercharged version of this phenomenon. It is commonly joked that the copy precedes the original here--driving along the ring roads you come across many buildings that are clearly influenced by CCTV, TVCC, the Bird's Nest, LAB's SOHO complex, and others, that were all fast-tracked and finished before the original buildings. This is a by-product of China's lightening fast development, the rapid change in tastes on the part of the public, the flexibility and alertness of the developers abilities to read fluctuating trends, and the slow inertia of western architects, all of which point to the need for new forms of architectural practice.

Koolhaas also discusses another subject near and dear to our hearts, sustainability. He offers an additional critique of the ubiquity of the sustainable movement: it's lack of real thoughtfulness and innovation and the danger of it becoming mere window dressing. Another form of slick corporate branding and advertising. Koolhaas states:

..Another one is the now universal demand for everything to be "sustainable." We have been interested in this idea since the 1960s, so in that respect we feel vindicated. But now sustainability is such a political category that it's getting more and more difficult to think about it in a serious way. Sustainability has become an ornament. Designs are increasingly winning competitions because they are literally green, and because somewhere they feature a small windmill...Because it's become an empty formula, and because, for that reason, it's getting harder and harder to think about ecology without becoming ironic.
*Although this idea of privilege can imply many things, I just mean that they some how exist outside the normal modes of architectural practice and are not as restricted by time, budget, and other constraints as typical practitioners.

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