The Generic City — a Précis

July 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Before we are going to discuss “The Generic City”

we want to provide a selection of its most salient sentences, (almost) without any further comment.

“The Generic City” (TGC) is organized into 17 sections, each comprising one further level of enumerated subsections, consisting often just of a single sentence. This structure and the diction of the piece reminds a bit to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, albeit this resemblance is not substantial to any regards. The status of the writing qua its style is problematic, as we will see later in the dedicated essay. It is probably appropriate to read it just as kind of a dramatization, without much explicit theoretical attitude (despite many perceive it as theoretical  work). For instance, a film or a story may have an end, if we consider them as an event, but a theory certainly does not.

Here I provide all headings and a selection of proposals that can be found in TGC, because I think that it has to be taken as an entirety. This may even be intended by the formal structure. Usually, only single proposals are cited from TGC. I consider this practice as quite problematic. Nobody would cite a single scene from a film of Godard in an attempt to describe Godard’s work. Quite to the contrast, any scene in any film created by Godard may be interpreted only by taking into account all, or at least many, of his films. Such is the quality of the oeuvre of a filmmaker. Extracting a single scene leads almost inevitably to serious misunderstanding. Approaching Koolhaas we have (to try) to respect (t)his particular pragmatics.

This précis should be helpful in our discussion of it in one of the next essays.

The headings of the 17 main sections are:
1. Introduction 2. Statistics 3. General 4. Airport 5. Population  6. Urbanism 7. Politics 8. Sociology 9. Quarters 10. Program 11. Architecture 12. Geography 13. Identity 14. History 15. Infrastructure 16. Culture 17. End.

The selection of my proposals is the following.

1.1. Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport—”all the same”? Is it possible to theorize this convergence? And if so, to what ultimate configuration is it aspiring? Convergence is possible only at the price of shedding identity. That is usually seen as a loss. But at the scale at which it occurs, it must mean something. What are the disadvantages of identity, and conversely, what are the advantages of blankness? What if this seemingly accidental—and usually regretted—homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity? What if we are witnessing a global liberation movement: “down with character!” What is left after identity is stripped? The Generic?
1.6. The Generic City is the city liberated from the captivity of the center, from the straitjacket of  identity.
3.1. The Generic City is what is left after large section of urban life crossed over to cyberspace. […] This pervasive lack of urgency and insistence acts like a potent drug: it induces a hallicunation of the normal.
3.2. The serenity of the Generic City is achieved by the evacuation  of the public realm, as in an emergency fire drill. […] The urban plane now only accommodates necessary movement, fundamentally the car. […] What is new about this locomotive public realm is that it cannot be measured in dimensions.
3.3. The Generic City is fractal, an endless repetition of the same simple structural module.
3.4. Golf courses are all that is left of otherness.
3.6. Its main attraction is its anomic.
4.4. Airports come in two sizes: too big and too small. Yet their size has no influence on their performance.
5.1. The Generic City is seriously multiracial, on average …
5.2. The Generic City is always founded by people on the move, poised to move on. This explains the insubstantiality of their foundations.
6.1. The great originality of the Generic City is simply to abandon what does not work. […] In that sense, the Generic City accommodates both the primordial and the futuristic – in fact, only  these two.
6.2. The Generic City is held together […] by the residual. Supremely inorganic, the organic is the Generic City’s strongest myth.
6.3. The street is dead. […] Public art is everywhere—as if two deaths make a life.
6.4. The Generic city is on its way from horizontality to verticality.[…] All Generic Cities issue from tabula rasa; if there was nothing, now they are there.
6.5. The Generic City is the apotheosis of the multiple-choice concept: all boxes crossed, an anthology of all  the options. […] an arbitrary gene pool that sometimes produces amazing results.
6.9. The writing of the city may be indecipherable, flawed, but that does not mean that there is no  writing; it may simply be that we  developed a new illiteracy, a new blindness.
6.10. The best definition of the aesthetic of the Generic City is “free style”.
6.11. The roads are only for cars.
6.15. The Generic City presents the final death of planning. […] its most dangerous and  most exhilarating discovery is that planning makes no difference whatsoever. […] In this apotheosis of multiple choice it will never be possible again to reconstruct cause and effect. They work—that is all .
7.1. The Generic City has a (sometimes distant) relationship with a more or less authoritarian regime – local or national.
8.1. The Generic City is  sociology, happening. Each Generic City is a petri dish.
9.2. The Generic City had a past, once.
9.3. The In spite of its absence, history is the major preoccupation, even industry, of the Generic City.
9.4. Instead of specific memories, the associations the Generic City mobilizes are general memories, memories of memories: […] a déjà vu that never ends […]
9.8. Each Generic City has a waterfront, not necessarily with water—it can also be with desert, for instance—but at least an edge where it meets another condition […]
10.2. The only activity is shopping.
10.3. Hotels are becoming the generic accommodation of the Generic City, its most common building block. […] they are closest we have to urban existence.
10.4. The hotel now implies imprisonment.
11.2. The architecture of the Generic City is by definition beautiful.
11.4. Like everything else in the Generic City, its architecture is […] an epidemic of yielding no longer through the application of principle but through the systematic application of the unprincipled.
11.5. The Generic City elevates mediocrity to a higher level.
11.10. The style of choice is postmodern, and will always remain so. Postmodernism is the only movement that has succeeded in connecting the practice of architecture with the practice of panic. Postmodernism is not a doctrine […] but a method […]. […] it creates unconsciousness.
11.12. Is there a connection between the predominance of mirror in the Generic City […] and the “gifts” that […] were supposed to be the most efficient prsent for savages?
11.13. the infinite variety of the Generic City comes close […] to making variety normal [m: if not boring]: banalized, in a reversal of expectation, it is repetition that has become unusual, therefore, potentially, daring, exhilarating.
13.1. There is a calculated (?) redundancy in the iconography that the Generic City adopts.

14.1. Regret about history’s absence is a tiresome reflex. It exposes an unspoken consensus that history’s presence is desirable. […] A city is a plane inhabited in the most efficient way by people and processes, […] the presence of history only drags down its performance.
14.2. History present obstructs the pure exploitation of its theoretical value as absence.
14.3. The Generic City, like a sketch which is never elaborated, is not improved but abandoned. The idea of  layering, intensification, completion are alien to it. it has  no layers.
15.1. Instead of network and organism, the new infrastructure creates enclave and impasse: no longer the grand récit  but the parasitic swerve.
15.2. Infrastructure is no longer a […] response to a […] need but a strategic weapon, a prediction.
16.1. Only the redundant counts.
17.1. Imagine a Hollywood movie about the bible. […] Market scene: […] Now switch off the sound […] and reverse the film. The […] men and women stumble backward; the viewer no longer registers only humans but begins to note spaces between them. The center empties. […] Silence is now reinforced by emptiness. Relief …it’s over. That is the story of the city. The city is no longer. We can leave the theater now. ◊

Well, that’s it. I think it would be a misunderstanding to ask whether Koolhaas praises the advent of the Generic City or lament about it. It is also quite clear that this piece is not a theoretical work, despite the second sentence in the first paragraph (1.1.). It looks more like a script, or even a report about an unexplicated script of a not yet realized film. Actually, it is somehow very surprising that people indeed take this piece literally, whether they praise it or complain about it, as if it would describe obvious empirical “facts”!

If we take it as a script, or the report about such, the “genericity” of the theme spills over to the plot and the performance of the report and creates (dis-)harmonically breaking echoes. A script is generic with respect to the film. The report, however, treats it as a “fact”.

How could the explicated script look like? The first narrative level of that putative film would be some love story or crime story, or both together, like in Godard’s Alphaville, yet presumably in the back-office of a rhizomatic hotel, which spreads unpredictably above and beneath the “surface”. The castle, update version 7.004.
The second narrative level could be imagined as directed towards a hypothetical or phantastic Form of Life (Lebensform) in the near future, not so much different from our own. The third level of the narration would reflect the core concepts of  “The Generic City”, demonstrating their implications to the unfolding of human social and political activities. A potential forth level could demonstrate the emergent result of those activities, as emergence in the spectators minds, triggered by the film: Junkspace.

My point being here, that the genericity as it is implied by TGC requires a lot of work in order to find some actualization by constructing an instantiation. Neglecting or overlooking this necessity is not only an abundant trait in our contemporary society. It is even essential part of the whole program of modernism. We will discuss this in much more detail over here. Some years later, in the essay “Junkspace” (which we introduce in the sequel), Koolhaas critizes the modernist attitude more distinctly and visibly, on a more representational level.

To put it more directly: imho, it amounts to a drastic misunderstanding to regard the description from TGC as a description or even prescription of an actual city. It would be the same as to regard Gotham City, Alphaville or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles as actual cities. This misunderstanding can be comprehended as a response provoked by the typical belief set of modernism. It is funny to see that Koolhaas triggered that response apparently as an intended effect, perhaps fostered by the seemingly representational or even analytic-looking series of headings.

As the cinema film, whether produced in Hollywood or as “independent”, provides the possibility for processes of symbolization, TGC does as well. It exaggerates, densifies, draws in black and white what otherwise would remain fuzzy, unsayable, and unspoken. In some way, Koolhaas is a perhaps close relative of Jaques Tati, and TGC then would be the most recent sibling of “Play Time“. Even the title is already multi-faceted, invoking relations from Wittgenstein to the kindergarten.

The obvious reference to the genre of films opens a further important line of interpretation, a whole problematic field: time. Usually, time is not treated as a topic of its own significance in architecture, it is just a parameter, often even not mentioned at all. In the film, however, and historically at first in the cinema, time is not only shown through kinetics (moving bodies). Instead, cinema invented an image of time itself, as Deleuze has been demonstrating so lucidly [2]. Hence, Koolhaas’ writing “The Generic City” could be interpreted also as an implicit critique of “timeless” architecture or urbanism. Such, he would follow Aldo Rossi in his critique of modernism regarding the role of time [3].

Quite obviously, current conceptions of change in the city, or more general, of urban arrangements, follow the representational image of time, a kinetic image. At best, one would have to add, as urbanism can’t deal appropriately with shrinking cities, and what is called urban waste. It is rather telling that it is not called “urban fallow”, as in agriculture, where the fallow is part of a culture of change and cultivation. To put it directly: urbanism is lacking a theory of change, differenciation and differentiation.

This way, Koolhaas sails as an ex-static ex-modern replicate of Odysseus in the mare praespecificum, where the stars are projected to the sky each night in different constellations, where one could expect only islands of stability, inhabited by deceivingly hospitable syrenes.

This article has been created on July 14th, 2012, and has been republished in an extended form on July 26th, 2012.

  • [1] Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City”. in: O.M.A., Rem Koolhaas, Bruce Mau (eds.), S, M, L, XL. Monacelli Press, 1995, p.1248-1264. available here
  • [2] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2 – The Time Image. Athlone Press, London 1989.
  • [3] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City. MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1982 [1966].


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