July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
Some years after “The Generic City” Koolhaas published
a further essay on the problematic field of identity: “Junkspace” (JS). I think it is a good idea to introduce both of them and to relate them before discussing the issues of this field by ourselves.
Unlike “The Generic City” (TGC), which was constructed as kind of a report about a film script, JS is more like a “documentary manifesto,” certainly provocative (for thought?), but also not a theory. “Junkspace” throws a concept in/out, according to its message, one could say. As in TGC, Koolhaas tries to densify and to enhance contrasts in order to render the invisible visible. Its language thus should not be misunderstood as “apocalyptic” or the like, or as a reference to actual “facts”. We else must consider that even documentations are inevitably equipped with theories and models, intentions and expectations. The biggest difference between the two essays is probably the fact that in JS Koolhaas does not try to keep distance through the formal construction of the writing. Hence, it may be legitimate to read his essay indeed as kind of a seriously taken diagnosis.
In many ways, JS reads as a critique of modernism and of post-modernism, not just as attitudes in architecture, but rather concerning the whole culture, ending in a state where the “cosmetic is the new cosmic.” Albeit critique is not made (too) explicit, trying to avoid bringing in explicit value statements, the tone of JS appears negative. Yet, it does so only upon the reader’s interpretation. “Junkspace is a low-grade purgatory.” In Christian mythology, everybody had to pass it, the good ones and the evil ones, except the bravest saints, perhaps. Failure is expressed, but by referring to a certain otherworldliness: “We do not leave pyramids.”
The style of JS is ambiguous itself, presumably intentionally so. On the one hand, it reminds to mathematical, formal series of sentences. Sections often start with existential proposals: “Junkspace is …”. Together, as a series, or a hive, these imply unspoken axioms. On the other hand it seems as if Koolhaas hesitates to use the figure of logic, or accordingly of cause and effect, with regard to the Junkspace itself. Such, Koolhaas exhibits performatively a clear-cut non-modern, or should we say “meta-modern”, attitude. By no means this should be taken as kind of some irrationality, though. We just find lines of historical developments, often even only historizing contrasts. This formal structure is anything but a self-righteous rhetoric game, it’s more like a necessary means to maintain some distance to modernism. The style of JS could be considered as (empty) rhetoric only from within a modernist attitude.
Before we deal further with modernism (below, and more extensively here), I first want to list my selection of core passages. The sections in Koolhaas’ text are neither enumerated nor divided by headlines (no hierarchies! many “…”! a Junkspace…), so I provide the page numbers in order to facilitate reference. Additionally, I enumerated the pieces for referencing them from within our own writing.
Here is the extract from Junkspace; it is of course hard to do such a selection—even if we allow for a total of 59 passages—, as JS is rather densely written. Koolhaas begins with some definitions before turning to its properties, readings and implications:
Précis of “Junkspace”
1. “Identity” is the new junk food for the dispossessed, globalization’s fodder for the disenfranchised … […] Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built […] product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessings of science, universally. Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown.
3. It was a mistake to invent modern architecture for the twentieth century. Architecture disappeared in the twentieth century; we have been reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it would turn into a novel;
4. […] our concern for the masses has blinded us to People’s Architecture. Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing. the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning.
7. Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts, an abandoned petri dish: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realization. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. […] A fuzzy empire of blur, it […] offer[s] a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed. […] Junkspace is additive, layered, and lightweight, not articulated in different parts but subdivided, […].
20. Instead of development, it offers entropy.
21. Change has been divorced from the idea of improvement. There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways …
22. Everywhere in Junkspace there are seating arrangements, ranges of modular chairs, even couches, as if the experience Junkspace offers its consumers is significantly more exhausting than any previous spatial sensation;
23. Junkspace is fanatically maintained, the night shift undoing the damage of the day shift in an endless Sisyphean replay. As you recover from Junkspace, Junkspace recovers from you.
24. Traditionally, typology implies demarcation, the definition of a singular model that excludes other arrangements. Junkspace represents a reverse typology of cumulative, approximative identity, less about kind than about quantity. But formlessness is still form, the formless also a typology.
25. Junkspace can either be absolutely chaotic or frighteningly aseptic-like a best-seller-overdetermined and indeterminate at the same time.
26. Junkspace is often described as a space of flows, but that is a misnomer; flows depend on disciplined movement, bodies that cohere. Junkspace is a web without a spider; […] It is a space of collision, a container of atoms, busy, not dense …
27. Junkspace features the tyranny of the oblivious: sometimes an entire Junkspace comes unstuck through the nonconformity of one of its members; a single citizen of an another culture-a refugee, a mother-can destabilize an entire Junkspace, […]
28. Flows in Junkspace lead to disaster: department stores at the beginning of sales; the stampedes triggered by warring compartments of soccer fans;
29. Traffic is Junkspace, from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace […]
30. Aging in Junkspace is nonexistent or catastrophic; sometimes an entire Junkspace—a department store, a nightclub, a bachelor pad-turns into a slum overnight without warning.
31. Corridors no longer simply link A to B, but have become “destinations.” Their tenant life tends to be short: the most stagnant windows, the most perfunctory dresses, the most implausible flowers. All perspective is gone, as in a rainforest (itself disappearing, they keep saying … ).
32. Trajectories are launched as ramp, turn horizontal without any warning, intersect, fold down, suddenly emerge on a vertiginous balcony above a large void. Fascism minus dictator.
33. There is zero loyalty—and zero tolerance—toward configuration, no “original” condition; architecture has turned into a time-lapse sequence to reveal a “permanent evolution.” … The only certainty is conversion-continuous-followed, in rare cases, by “restoration,” the process that claims ever new sections of history as extensions of Junkspace.
34. History corrupts, absolute history corrupts absolutely. Color and matter are eliminated from these bloodless grafts.
35. Sometimes not overload but its opposite, an absolute absence of detail, generates Junkspace. A voided condition of frightening sparseness, shocking proof that so much can be organized by so little.
36. The curse of public space: latent fascism safely smothered in signage, stools, sympathy … Junkspace is postexistential; it makes you uncertain where you are, obscures where you go, undoes where you were. Who do you think you are? Who do you want to be? (Note to architects: You thought that you could ignore Junkspace, visit it surreptitiously, treat it with condescending contempt or enjoy it vicariously … because you could not understand it, you’ve thrown away the keys … But now your own architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden …)
37. Restore, rearrange, reassemble, revamp, renovate, revise, recover, redesign, return-the Parthenon marbles-redo, respect, rent: verbs that start with re-produce Junkspace …
38. Junkspace will be our tomb.
39. Junkspace is political: It depends on the central removal of the critical faculty in the name of comfort and pleasure.
40. Not exactly “anything goes”; in fact, the secret of Junkspace is that it is both promiscuous and repressive: as the formless proliferates, the formal withers, and with it all rules, regulations, recourse …
41. Junkspace […] is the interior of Big Brother’s belly. It preempts people’s sensations. […] it blatantly proclaims how it wants to be read. Junkspace pretends to unite, but it actually splinters. It creates communities not out of shared interest or free association, but out of identical statistics and unavoidable demographics, an opportunistic weave of vested interests.
42. God is dead, the author is dead, history is dead, only the architect is left standing … an insulting evolutionary joke … A shortage of masters has not stopped a proliferation of masterpieces. “Masterpiece” has become a definitive sanction, a semantic space that saves the object from criticism, leaves its qualities unproven, its performance untested, its motives unquestioned.
43. Junkspace reduces what is urban to urbanity. Instead of public life, Public SpaceTM: what remains of the city once the unpredictable has been removed …
44. Inevitably, the death of God (and the author) has spawned orphaned space; Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian … At the moment of its greatest emancipation, humankind is subjected to the most dictatorial scripts.: […] The chosen theater of megalomania—the dictatorial—is no longer politics, but entertainment.
45. Why can’t we tolerate stronger sensations? Dissonance? Awkwardness? Genius? Anarchy? … Junkspace heals, or at least that is the assumption of many hospitals.
46. Often heroic in size, planned with the last adrenaline of modernism’s grand inspiration, we have made them (too) human;
47. Junkspace is space as vacation;
48. Junkspace features the office as the urban home, a meeting-boudoir. […] Espace becomes E-space.
49. Globalization turns language into Junkspace. […] Through the retrofitting of language, there are too few plausible words left; our most creative hypotheses will never be formulated, discoveries will remain unmade, concepts unlaunched, philosophies muffled, nuances miscarried … We inhabit sumptuous Potemkin suburbs of weasel terminologies. Aberrant linguistic ecologies sustain virtual subjects in their claim to legitimacy, help them survive … Language is no longer used to explore, define, express, or to confront but to fudge, blur, obfuscate, apologize, and comfort … it stakes claims, assigns victimhood, preempts debate, admits guilt, fosters consensus. […] a Satanic orchestration of the meaningless …
50. Intended for the interior, Junkspace can easily engulf a whole city.
51. Seemingly at the opposite end of Junkspace, the golf course is, in fact, its conceptual double: empty, serene, free of commercial debris. The relative evacuation of the golf course is achieved by the further charging of Junkspace. The methods of their design and realization are similar: erasure, tabula rasa, reconfiguration. Junkspace turns into biojunk; ecology turns into ecospace. Ecology and economy have bonded in Junkspace as ecolomy.
52. Junkspace can be airborne, bring malaria to Sussex;
53. Deprivation can be caused by overdose or shortage; both conditions happen in Junkspace (often at the same time). Minimum is the ultimate ornament, a self-righteous crime, the contemporary Baroque.
54. It does not signify beauty, but guilt.
55. Outside, in the real world, the “art planner” spreads Junkspace’s fundamental incoherence by assigning defunct mythologies to residual surfaces and plotting three-dimensional works in leftover emptiness. Scouting for authenticity, his or her touch seals the fate of what was real, taps it for incorporation in Junkspace.
56. The only legitimate discourse is loss; art replenishes Junkspace in direct proportion to its own morbidity.
57. […] maybe the origins of Junkspace go back to the kindergarten …
58. Will Junkspace invade the body? Through the vibes of the cell phone? Has it already? Through Botox injections? […] Is each of us a mini-construction site? […]
59. Is it [m: mankind] a repertoire of reconfiguration that facilitates the intromission of a new species into its self-made Junksphere? The cosmetic is the new cosmic… ◊
JS is about the consequences of modernism for architecture and for urbanism. Koolhaas does not hesitate to explicate it: Modernization, modernism ends in a “meltdown”. As an alternative he offers the “apotheosis”, a particular quality as a Golden Calf of modernization. Within the context of urban life and architectural activities, this outcome shows up as “Junkspace”. The essence of it is emptiness, isolation, splintering, arbitrariness. Its “victory” is named by its offer, entropy, and its essence is continuity. Probably it is meant as kind of a tertiary chaos, vanishing any condition for the possibility of discernability, unfortunately as the final point attractor. We will see.
Koolhaas describes Junkspace as an unintended outcome of a global collective activity. Obviously, Koolhaas is struggling with that, or with the unintendedness of the effect, in other words with emergence and self-organization. Emergence and self-organization can be understood exclusively in the wider context of complexity as we have outlined it previously (see this piece). The concept of complexity as we have constructed it is by no means anti-scientific in a fundamental sense. Yet, it is a severe challenge to scientism as it is practiced today, as our concept explicitly refers to a reflected conceptual embedding, something that is still excluded from natural science today. Anyway, complexity as an explicated concept must be considered as a necessary part of architectural theory, if we take Koolhaas and his writings such as “Junkspace” serious. Without it, we could not make sense of the difference between standardization and homogenization, between uniqueness and singularity, between history and identity, between development and evolution, or between randomness and heterotopia.
Modernism and its effects is the not so hidden agenda of JS. We have to be clear about this concept—at least concerning its foundations, albeit we will not find space enough here for discussing or even just listing its branches that reach not only till Marcuse’s office in Frankfurt—if we want to understand neo-leftist interpretations of JS as that by Jameson (“Future City” ), and the not so hidden irony expressed by the resonating label “Future Cities Lab” that denotes the urbanism project of the Department of Architecture (one of the biggest in Europe) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ). It is also the name of a joint venture between National University of Singapore (NUS) and ETHZ. Yes, they indeed call it Lab(oratory), a place usually producing hives of “petri dishes,” either abandoned (see 7. above) or “containing” the city itself (see section 8.1. of “The Generic City”), and at the same time still, and partially contradictory to its practices, an oratory of modernism. Perhaps. (more about that later).
Latest here we have to address the question:
What is the problem with modernism?
This will be the topic of the next post.
-  Rem Koolhaas (2002). Junkspace. October, Vol. 100, “Obsolescence”, pp. 175-190. MIT Press. available here
-  Fredric Jameson, Future City, New Left Review NLR 21, May-June 2003, pp. 65-79. available here