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Rem Koolhaas, Wyly Architect: Unrivaled Genius, Indifferent Slummer

by Jerome Weeks 30 Apr 2012 2:34 PM

Rem Koolhaas, co-designer of the Wyly Theatre in the Arts District, has occasionally issued controversial manifestos. His newest one is the occasion for a clear-the-decks career analysis in The New York Review of Books.


The current edition of The New York Review of Books has an essay by former House & Garden architecture critic Martin Filler assessing the works and career of Rem Koolhaas, co-designer of the Wyly Theatre. The occasion for “The Master of Bigness” essay was a recent career retrospective  at the Barbican Art Gallery in London and the release of Koolhaas’ latest provocative tome, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (“Metabolism” was the name given a radical style of post-war Japanese architecture).

The Barbican exhibition, OMA/Progress (OMA, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, is Koolhaas’ firm), featured the Wyly as one of Koolhaas’ “truss-dominated structures,” but Filler never mentions the theater, preferring to concentrate on bigger projects (hence the essay title) — notably the Chinese government’s new Central Television Headquarters in Beijing (above).

Filler’s judgment of Koolhaas is captured in his opening and closing (to save you from reading the whole thing). He manages to fuse together the two schools of thought on Koolhaas. Here’s the fanfare that opens “The Master of Bigness”:

With his prodigious gift for invention, shrewd understanding of communication techniques, and contagiously optimistic conviction that modern architecture and urban design still possess enormous untapped potential for the transformation of modern life, no master builder since Le Corbusier has offered a more impressive vision for a brighter future than the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. To be sure, there are other present-day architects also at the very apex of the profession who do certain things better than he does. Robert Venturi is a finer draftsman and a more elegant writer; Denise Scott Brown has a more empathetic feel for the social interactions that inform good planning; and Frank Gehry displays a sharper eye for sculptural assemblage and a keener instinct for popular taste. But when it comes to sheer conceptual audacity and original thinking about the latent possibilities of the building art, Koolhaas today stands unrivaled.

But here is the much more downbeat, even glowering ending:

Some critics consider both his subject matter and methodology de-haut-en-bas [from ‘head to foot’ — totally] slumming. As George Packer wrote in The New Yorker in 2006:

That impulse to look at an “apparently burning garbage heap” and see an “urban phenomenon,” and then make it the raw material of an elaborate aesthetic construct, is not so different from the more common impulse not to look at all.

In much the same way that artists like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami have appropriated ideas put forward by Andy Warhol and taken them to extremes the originator could scarcely have imagined, so has Koolhaas proceeded from Venturi and Scott Brown’s premises and transmogrified them in ways that can seem like grotesque parodies rather than sincere homages. There can be no doubt whatever about Koolhaas’s once-in-a-generation talent. What remains in question is whether his seeming indifference to progressive values will make future observers wonder why this cultural potentate was so reluctant to confront Chinese oligarchs with the same fearlessness he once marshaled against captains of capitalism on American museum boards.