Rem Koolhaas: preservation, politics and progress

1 September 2011 (Last Updated September 1st, 2011 18:30)

Bill Millard catches up with Rem Koolhaas of OMA following the opening of the Cronocaos exhibition in New York. They discuss historic preservation and what it means for the future of architecture.

New York’s Festival of Ideas for the New City (4-8 May 2011) was too multivalent to have a centre of gravity, but it did have an intellectual motor: the opening address by Rem Koolhaas, introducing the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA) Cronocaos exhibition at the New Museum.

In Cronocaos, OMA and its research arm AMO consider a recurrently troublesome topic – historic preservation – and redefine its terms.

Preservation battles are often as ferocious as they are simplistic, with the forces of ‘heritage’ and ‘progress’ each viewing themselves as light battling darkness. AMO’s research, embodied in Cronocaos and elaborated in Koolhaas’s keynote speech, suggests that the historical practice is more complicated. Formal preservation mechanisms, he observes, have arisen during revolutions (political in France, technological in England). Modernisation invariably requires decisions about which artefacts merit protection. Heritage and progress, economically intertwined through globalisation and tourism, are inseparable, and neither camp is innocent.

In Cronocaos, OMA and its research arm AMO consider a recurrently troublesome topic – historic preservation."

AMO was shocked to discover that about 12% of the Earth – buildings, districts, natural features – is now officially protected. Intervals between the present and a preserved structure’s origin date have steadily decreased, approaching what a Barthesian might call the zero degree of preservationism: simultaneity of construction and listing, so that preservation will soon become prospective and architects need to consider potential monumental status as a building goes up (this convergence is not just conjectural: it has already affected OMA’s Bordeaux House, declared a French national treasure within three years of its realisation).

Negotiations about urban palimpsests thus occur under conditions of chronological confusion. Architecture, the profession that as a whole has no rearview mirror, often finds itself in a counterproductively adversarial relation with those who consider themselves to be acting in history’s name.

"Progress is the only direction we know," Koolhaas says, "even though we are at this point wise enough to know that real progress is not really possible."

Bill Millard: How do we get from your presentation at Harvard’s 2009 Ecological Urbanism conference to the concern with preservation here, looking at urban ecologies as well as the wider global ecology?

Rem Koolhaas: It’s been more or less simultaneous. So it’s not one thing that follows. I think that all of it is in a way a direct outcome of the work, of working with AMO… simply asking questions like, "How do we get out of this star system? How do we find a more significant contribution to sustainability? How can we deploy preservation against the excess of architecture at this moment, against the market?" – a whole series of integrated questions, not a sequence.

BM: You’re looking at urban structures for their narrative and historical value, more than just aesthetic decisions about a quality of environment. When these political battles happen with a landmark preservation committee or any other body, how can architects intervene to try to get the best results? Are those battles that you, with OMA and AMO, get involved in?

"Preservation battles are often as ferocious as they are simplistic."

RK: We haven’t had a good opportunity – in Europe the conditions are typically slightly better thought out, and there’s more dedication to this whole form of work, it’s not this systematic conflict between developers and the rest of the world. Actually, there was one preservation battle I did get involved in that was for the East German Parliament. I was part of a group that tried to save it, and all we succeeded in doing was to keep it open for five years. Then it was gone. So I definitely would be involved in it.

BM: The theme of utopian vs anti-utopian thought in Cronocaos is fascinating; the idea that there’s this black hole in history. Everybody wants to erase any memory that architecture could be socially progressive. And yet there’s Docomomo; one of your maps had points denoting the Docomomo branches around the world. Are there any grounds for optimism, points of resistance against this editing of history, this fear of the utopian period?

RK: I think that in England it’s actually quite well mobilised. I think that entities like the Barbican and the Southbank Centre in London are actually really protected. England has a good system, I would say, kind of almost exemplary. But even it recently decided not to list Robin Hood Gardens [a housing complex in East London], a magnificent building by Alison and Peter Smithson; so that’s also a cause where I at least gave my name to the battle, and I think that that’s indecisive. These matters are reasonably winnable in Europe, but there are still some issues that are more politically charged, like the Berlin Wall: you would lose any battle. That’s a possible complication of my argument: it’s not an argument for one thing and against another thing. It’s basically an argument for reading things in a more subtle way, and that’s always a complex approach.

BM: There was an interesting suggestion in one section about backwardness as a tradable element. As development moves forward in one place, there could be negotiations. Are there sites where you’ve seen anybody informally executing that idea?

RK: I think it’s something done by default. This is not counted very newsworthy, but there are certain parts of what used to be East Germany that are active in that way, as a kind of reserve of ‘historicness’, simply because they are not yet as developed and big. And I think that that would actually be an area where you could make that kind of beginning.

BM: Your firm is working in dense areas and not so dense areas – brand new areas in China. To what extent has the sprawl question, which is enormously heated and ethically fraught, come up in some of your work and the political engagements that surround it?

"Architecture is the profession that as a whole has no rearview mirror."

RK: Let me put it this way: of course, I am almost viscerally committed to density, and I really believe in it, and I think the argument that density is a kind of precondition for sustainability is in many ways irrefutable. But at the same time, I also have an instinct that it’s not the whole story. Yes, maybe monstrous sprawl is used in a kind of very decadent way, but it’s more about the limitations and commercialism of the development than per se about the phenomenon of low-rise, of not living in an urban centre. And, of course, if you look at villages in Switzerland, you can also see that they are incredibly meticulous in living with the elements, and smart in many ways that we would now call sustainable.

BM: With regard to OMA’s current projects, some are moving forward, some are on hold. Where would you like to see something go up?

RK: Well, it breaks my heart that [OMA’s proposed 2001 extension of] the Whitney Museum didn’t happen. There’s a big coincidence, of course, between preservation and class here; if you look at the landmarked districts, they are often upper class. I think that neighbourhood would have been so revived or made so much more interesting by receiving it.

BM: With digital methods allowing people to go into more detail, do you have any comments about how lowering the barrier for hypothetical design can be a prod to the imagination?

RK: So far, we at OMA have always been able to maintain a life after the death of a project, regardless of whether or not it was built. And you could say that all of S, M, L, XL [Koolhaus and Bruce Mau’s book on the contemporary city] is an effort to balance the two. But this is the product of this easier dissemination; recent projects are not published in the same way, and therefore are not known in the same way. So the system of being able to establish this kind of idea was much stronger in the 1990s than it is now. I think it’s a very plaintive example of how the ubiquity of the digital is not contributing to distribution, but actually to erasure. I feel very strongly about that.