Urban Reason I

September 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

Rem Koolhaas is not an architect. Neither could he be regarded.

as an urbanist. Well, in some way it is undeniable that he is engaged in architecture or the design and arrangement of urban environments. So it seems that he sometimes behaves as architects or urbanists do. Yet, there is something more about his way.

Koolhaas is a story-teller. As a good story-teller he also is a great listener. Koolhaas is treating builts and buildings in a very special way. Not as built matter, but rather as a story. Story-telling always means, and so also in the case of Koolhaas, to weave a particular fabric. The specialty of the fabric established through the story is the densification of potentiality that appears in the course of telling a story and listening to it. As the fabric, the story starts with a series, a thin thread, recurring to almost the same place after it has been departing to almost the same distant.

A story differs in precise way from a “normal” text. Alike, story-telling is not presenting. By means of the story one does not try to say something particular. One does not try to say.  Quite in contrast, stories play with the potentiality to do some magic with the particulars. Particulars are much like the facts after we have fixed them, after we have stopped talking about and playing with them (The same holds for universals.) The story makes them vanish at some point and re-appear at another point. Even the point here is a deliberate, that is a designed illusion. Magic is best if words and acts amalgamate, denying such the importance they pretend. Think of Shakespeare and his plays.

Stories are not bound to particular media. We can create it as a novel, as a play in the theater, as a “tele novela”, as a movie, but also as the unfolding of possible events in a building or the arrangement of potentiality in urban builts. As a play with potentiality, the story is not even bound to a particular form. We could tell the same story in very different ways, yet, it is impossible to tell the same story as an exact copy a second time. Story-telling results in a deep alignment between the story-teller and the story-listeners. And between the listeners. And between the stories. Stories never come as a single one, as a particular. These alignments remain established only as long as it is not spoken about. If there is any methodology Koolhaas follows at all we may say that he aligns stories and aligns through stories.

Stories don’t actualize a particular function as well, of course. Telling a story means to play with them as magicians do. Letting them appear and vanish, not only at will, but also for one’s delight. It is in this secondary plane of the stories’ immanence where the notion of an object or materiality becomes meaningful at all. Just by the power of the story to let them appear, to make them created, to make them vanish. The story is a transfer of power while there is neither a clear origin nor an identifiable goal of this transfer.

The story tells something that neither can be spoken about nor what could be demonstrated. Story-telling is not explication, but implication. It is not just unfolding. It transcends unfolding by wrapping it into the fabric it creates. The format of the story is the only adequate response to entities that are autonomous. Behaving entities, in other words. We discussed the issue of behavior with regard to text and the urban last time.

Koolhaas the story-teller. Only as a story-teller you can invent. Skyscraper that do not scrape the (physical) skies, for instance, but rather the way of story-telling (CCTV). The skyscraper as a loop. Taken as a particular, that’s just pure craziness, a collapse of categories. Taken as a story, e.g. about the fact that the alignment by a story always comes as loop, it easily appears as a reasonable consequence.

Figure 1: Closing the Loop as story-telling by building a building that is used to produce story-telling (TV).

Figure 2: Approaching the Loop. Rendering for the Science Center Hamburg. The building as metaphor: Science is the story of telling a story about doing it over and over again. Though the loop is not a smooth one.

Without stories there is only habit, and here I mean a blind collective habit, swarms, the fashion of the neurons. Only as a story-teller you can transcend matter, the built, the particular, the structure and the grammar. Only by means of stories new materiality is created, usually first in the realm of the symbolic, as or by new symbols. In the beginning there is the story. Without stories, the world is full of necessities and givens, the world would be even almost synonymical to those. Without them there would be reality only (which fortunately is not possible), but no potential. Stories and necessities are mutually exclusive. I prefer the story. It is the story, and only the story, that opens the future, creates potential relationality that establishes culture as the Conditional II, III, IV …

Koolhaas the cross-medialist, who happens to tell stories by building and buildings. Humans can’t be without stories, of course. Even if not explicitly told, any social alignment brings it to the surface, at least implicitly. Even if there is no story at first place, it will invade the dead claim of the given, like the plants, the animals, small and large, the relations, close and distant, like the succession of an ecosystem on a blanked piece of rock. Stories are invasive. Koolhaas is invasive, patiently.

Of course there are rules, particular structural elements, weights and preferences. Such like the box, the ramp, the script, the surprise, the opening and the closing (e.g. of perspectives and views), the pattern in the fabric, the randolation. These rules are completely irrelevant as particular, despite they are necessary. Stories play also with the rules. Koolhaas developed his use of boxes, boxes in the box, vanishing of the boxed boxes, the block as the ultra-box, the entity of the antithetic box (the ramp), the box as module and as figure, the dematerialization of the box (the script), the re-materialization of the box as behavior, into his way of story-telling and building, just to put all this something into the box again (The Dutch embassy), yet without refraining to demonstrate that the box is a box only if there is something other, the non-box. In one word, story-telling.

Figure 3a: The story about the evolution of the Box: The Box and its Surround. Note that the wall-like surround is a building of the embassy, too, containing flats for the personnel of the embassy. It is an essential pat of the whole arrangement, providing the space for cube to be perceived as a cube. Metaphorically, and such extending the story-telling, Koolhaas refers here to the ex-territorial nature of embassies.

Figure 3b: The Box that denies to be a Box. What you see here is the main functional element of the embassy, the room for diplomatic meetings. Providing a function as the purpose of the building that is outside of it and its boxedness. Of course, this not architecture, but rather story-telling.

Figure 3c: The Box and its incorporated anti-thesis (the ramp). Some years before turning fully into an architectural embryologist (Porto, see figure 4 below), Koolhaas employed the principle of creating space by melting for the first time. At that time, the ramp was already a well-established element in Koolhaas’ toolbox (see the Seattle Public Library for its mastering). The result is a simple external shape and a rich and dynamic interior structure, much like in an animal organism, but quite different from plants or even crystals (see this for different models of growth).

Figure 3d: The script as the Ariadne thread of Architecture. Where others talk about the “program” to be fulfilled by the building and try to optimize it by means of computers (e.g. Kees Christianse in Zurich near the main station), leading almost necessarily, i.e. grammatically to logically “structured” ugliness, Koolhaas refers to scripts and stories, such creating a multi-leveled and above all open coherence and consistency. Which way do you prefer?

Story-telling is weaving of potentiality and weaving with potentiality. Story-telling is aterritorial, non-geological. Nothing could be more different from story-telling than geology. (Just think of Libeskind’s or Eisenman’s titanic geomorphisms, thrown rocks [Aronoff Center, Victoria and Albert Museum], canyons made from concrete [Jewish Museum in Berlin].) As story-telling materializes particular relations it also implies the randolation. Koolhaas the String theorist. He plays a special kind of music on strings without ends. He even manages to organize whole populations of those strings and their tones, sometimes at least. As a musician-urbanist, Koolhaas belongs to the rare species of builders that are completely aware of time. He not only doesn’t try to expel it from the city, to make the city timeless, as all the modernists are trying. As a story-teller he plays with time, he creates Eigen-times, sheafs of times, planes of time, he uses choreographing deriving as a kind of applied embryology (Casa da Musica, Porto), when he melts the space out of the block, as it happens with organisms before their nativity. By that, Koolhaas is aware of time as a tool for building, not just a parameter of a formula addressing change. He also employs a concept of morphological differentiation and growth far ahead of any of his colleagues. Koolhaas, the accoucheur. Or the breeder. The pander. In “Mars attacks” the journalist asked: Do they have two sexes?”

Figure 4: Traces of Time. Koolhaas at the final demonstration of his concept for the Casa da Musica (Porto). You can see his showing of the removal of inner space, reminding strongly to the embryological principle of establishing form and space through melting tissue generating implicitly structured space, rather than by enclosing space through explicit enclosure. This way time is established as the historicity of constraints during development, quite in contrast to the time-inert procedure of enclosing.

Koolhaas is pretty conscious about what he is doing. That’s certainly not true for many other architects. They could not be regarded as story-tellers. They are commas. Like a rule itself. Even if there is pretentious wording around. Else, story-telling is never deconstructivist. Derrida tried to tell a story without telling a story, by denying it. Not quite reasonable, I guess, except if you are addicted to the ancient Egyptian underworld of shadows (as Derrida was). Stories are purely positive, yet without being positivist. Denying story-telling and by the same time pretending to do it causes a downward spiral. It leads you to the point zero on the scale of human affairs, geology, physics, and titans. Consequently, Eisenman and Libeskind, and even Gehry, arrived just there, in praising the titanic geosphere. (With that mind set, they should design oil drilling platforms instead)

Thus, either all those architects are not architects at all (which is a view difficult to hold), or Koolhaas is not an architect. Here we could say, q.e.d., but that’s a different story.

Well, probably that came a bit too strong now. For it is not possible for human activities to separate story from non-story. We are language-beings, down to the last quantum. First, we all take part in the unfolding of culture, which establishes kind of a (big) story and consists of many, many smaller and tiny stories. Second, we can’t step out into a zone free of language. Third, language always triggers what can be conceived as the differential locutionarity that comes with the use of language. The concept of locutionarity has been introduced by Austin with regard to the different perspectives and scopes that we can observe and employ in language. The distinction he made is straightforward: We say something as an almost physical performance, we say what we think is and what we want, we say something for strategic reasons. These three dimensions have been described by Austin in his Speech Act Theory as locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary. .Yet, concerning story telling there is a further level. Perhaps we could call it the delocutionary aspect and this aspect is the playing with the other indeed serious levels, playfully challenging their seriousness. It is here, and only here, where culture becomes pleasant.

A similar distinction could be made for architecture. It is quite obvious that any architecture below the delocutionary aspect can easily be reduced to cause and effect, to necessities, amenable to analytic reasoning. Fortunately the world is not like that, neither in language, nor in architecture. Or should I say: hopefully? I can’t follow this trail of the possibility of “architectural acts” further here. Yet, the point should have become a bit more clear.

Koolhaas mingles texting and building, text and built. Like a chef de cuisine Koolhaas knows the procedures for creating a runaway mediatization, a self-sustaining, if not self-accelerating explosion of interpretations. A good story defies the single interpretation, the function, the strategy, the territory. It sweeps away the claim of the apriori necessary. It not only carries you to unknown shores, it even creates new currents in every moment. To be more precise here, it is not the story that causes this. It is more appropriate to say that the story is created anew in each and any moment, in statu nascendi, if the “well-formed” series (requires an author!) and networks of symbols and references invades your mind as an listener and interpreter. Many things happen through such encounters. Even a short list would distrack us here. The point is: Some pieces (stories) evoke more, taking the step into sustained imagination, others less, being kept in a static factualism that could not count as a story, perhaps as a report, at most, and some close to nil, stumbling babbling. Yet, the example of Singapore demonstrates that things are more complicated than it might appear, for the whole culture could be devoted to plans and development instead of imagination and evolution.

Koolhaas created a trilogy of texts that form their own story: The Generic City (the script), Junkspace (the play), and Singapore Songlines (the music). It is often said that The Generic City is about the city. Nothing could be more wrong than that. It would be as if one would say that the movie by Godard is about the movement of the actors, or even of the celluloid. In an interview Godard once said that he is not making movies. He pretended not to be interested in movies as such. His interest is the shaping of time. The Generic City is a story that performatively explores the story that unfolds if we conceive a movie script that could be thought to create a city. Of course, there is something generic about it, yet there is nothing about the generics of cityness, isn’t it? I suppose it is due to the gap established by the different mediality that prevents to take The Generic City as a piece about architecture, at least no more so than Blade Runner is, or Playtime (J.Tati).

It is often said the Junkspace is a (desperate) critique of the outcome of the work of swarm architects. Well, this perspective is not completely out of the world. Though it is probably more reasonable to take it (the written piece) as a staged play. Remember, there are no sentences, no paragraphs, no enumerations, no structure, no analytics. There are just waves of words. Where these waves densify, the junk becomes a medium. In Junkspace, Koolhaas explores—and struggles with—the mediality of concertant activity. Of words, of swarm architects.

Koolhaas is not an architect. And architecture is not about form. To say so, would be much like to conflate literature science as literature. Or to take Shakespeare as a person capable of writing. Or Umberto Eco as funky professor of semiotics. (The trace of semiotics we didn’t explore here, despite we could have done so.)

Of course, there is structure, of course form is important, of course there is a grammatology. But all this is not about what architecture and the urban is about. The question then is, what is the about of the city? One part of the aboutness of the city is clearly performance, and by this I do not refer to the durability of materials, as architects usually are going to interpret this term. Performance is about situating one’s own body, one could add, as part of a delicately urban story.

Figure 4a: Performance as a response to the question of the “Situated Body”, or how to situated the body in the city. Heinrich Lueber near the Paradeplatz, Bahnhofstrasse Zurich, Switzerland (2005?). Space is where bodies can relate. Relations are inevitable, even if bodies get fixed. The categorical borders to buildings blur.

Figure 4b: Yves Klein, Leap into the Void (1960). Space is where nothingness is. Despite being avantgarde, and in contrast to Lueber, Klein remains modernist as he just transposes the claim of modernism for metaphysical independence.

Performance challenges what we have called before the existential resistance of things and (situative) arrangements. Of course, the body and its image, our model about the body are rather significant for the outcome of this challenge. The other part concerns talking about that performance. Understanding this talking about implies to think about the coming along, or a bit more clearly, to think about the conditions of this talking about. This will be the subject of the second part about Urban Reason (and the story behind it).

In his more recent works Koolhaas undeniably is approaching the field of differentiation. Unlike other architects, he employs a strictly non-analytical way of creating structure, one that strongly reminds to the differentiation processes in embryos. The resulting emphasis of rich internal structure, where each of the contained sites and locations is unique, results in a much more animal-like characteristics than it is the case for any other  architectural designer. This introduces behavior as an important immaterial component of buildings, and explicitly so. it is of a major significance that this creates the context for Koolhaas’ story telling. In, or by, a crystalline building, from Seagram to Eastern Berlin, even in a fractal one, you can’t tell any story, simply because the immaterial make-up does not allow to do so in these cases. As a matter of fact, Koolhaas has been fascinated by internal differentiation and the resulting structures even before he’d built any building at all, as everyone can read in his Delirious New York.

Recently, this tendency to explore the issue of differentiation strengthened again when he published his “Project Japan” [2] together with Hans-Ulrich Obrist. This book is a collection of interviews with all the still alive propagators of the Metabolism movement. Metabolism deliberately turned away from the machine perspective, stressing the adaptivity of buildings (and partially also of cities), which should be achieved through an imitation of animal life cycles, i.e. through adaptation of the principles of birth and growth. Here, we just want to note that Metabolism took a rather simple stance towards the issue of differentiation. It does not satisfy any advanced theoretical intentions. Nevertheless it represents an important starting point. And as we just mentioned, it is highly significant, and supportive for our perspective here, that Koolhaas brought these ideas to the fore, and with it the topic of differentiation.

Koolhaas certainly and confidently departed from those positions he explored (and criticized so much) in his trilogy of the mid-1990ies (Generic City, Junkspace, Singapore Songlines). In some way he practically demonstrated the future directions of theory in architecture (and urbanism, if you still want to separate those). Yet, it would be a mistake to conceive his answer to the above mentioned theoretical explorations, particularly given by Casa da Musica and the Dutch Embassy, as inconsistent or contradictory. Those texts remain fully valid, quite in contrast to the suggestions of Jacques Herzog in his “How Do Cities Differ?” [1] Herzog eagerly writes:

The Ideal City abdicated ages ago, as have Aldo Rossi’s Rational City, Rem Koolhaas’s Generic City and Venturi’s Strip. Not to mention Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. All of these attempts to describe the city, to comprehend and reinvent it, were both necessary and useful. But today they leave us cold. Like water under the bridge, they no longer concern us. We cannot relate to them because they refer to a world that is no longer ours. The time has come to relinquish our longing for labels, to abandon manifestos and theories. They don’ t hit the mark; they simply brand the author for life. There are no theories of cities; there are only cities.

In this text, Herzog and his partner deMeuron stress the point that cities have a body, a corporeality. Cities can be, after, all vulnerated, injured or even destroyed. HdM do not follow the infamous (ridiculous?) approach of so-called emergency design. Yet, HdM are nevertheless wrong in several aspects, particularly in his overt dismissal of theory. Theory is inevitable, even for amoebas. In a previous essay we spent some space on the role of theory. Astonishingly, shortly after this dismissal the office run by Herzog and deMeuron published a space atlas for Switzerland, depicting their suggestions for a better planning in the whole country. How would one do that without theory? In the same way as in Singapore? Not so astonishingly thus is the almost dictatorial attitude they employ in this atlas.

Both, Koolhaas and Herzog & deMeuron discover the importance of corporeality, the individual materiality of the city, bundling, comprising and compressing all the historical contingency and continuity. The answers, however, that they gave could not be more different. HdM got deeply stuck in a pseudo-paradoxon:

Urban development today does not begin with Barthes’ punctum and it does not seek the most worthwhile targets; it occurs wherever a plot of land happens to be or become available. Yet the Twin Towers affect every city and their destruction affects urban dwellers everywhere. Terrorists see in them the destruction of a symbol; urban dwellers see in them a massive attack on their neighborhoods and their homes. The specific, the unique, that which distinguishes us from others, the indestructible: all these have become vulnerable, and so we have to protect ourselves. Time and again. But how? The best protection would be to aspire to “indistinguishability,” the “Indistinguishable City.” And that is the greatest illusion of all.

I just would like to remember that the “indistinguishability” may be conceived as the holy grail of modernists. Without theory, one inevitably gets drowned in factuality, one get totally disabled to see any immaterial effect of design, the associativity of material arrangements, where we find upstream and downstream effects. No wonder he denies the importance of Barthes and his semiotics. Herzog even moves the symbolic from everyday life to the side of the aggressor, which is almost a scandalous denunciation. The poor guy seems to think that neighborhoods and homes are without symbols, without symbolicity. Indeed a poor guy. A complaining modernist. Condemned to blind actions, sticking to the arbitrariness of the physical (“…wherever a plot of land happens become available.”). Obviously, HdM do not know about Immanuel Kant’s insight: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” [3]

Well, as we mentioned before, the contrast to the animate building(s) of Koolhaas could not be greater. With his theoretical and practical explorations of the topos of differentiation Koolhaas left them far behind. We will return to this topos of differentiation in the next pieces, since it is by no means a trivial one. Above all, it is a crucial yet so far completely neglected element for any concept of sustainability of urban environments. Honestly, how could sustainability be thought of at all without a proper concept of differentiation? Hence, Koolhaas’ contribution to this problematic area is drastically undervalued as well.


  • [1] Jacques Herzog, How do Cities differ? Introductory text to the course of study on the cities of Naples – Paris – The Canary Islands – Nairobi at the ETH Studio Basel – Contemporary City Institute. In: Gerhard Mack (Ed.). Herzog & de Meuron 1997-2001. The Complete Works. Volume 4. Basel / Boston / Berlin, Birkhäuser, 2008. Vol. No. 4. pp. 241-244.First published in: Jacques Herzog: Terror sin Teoría. Ante la ‘Ciudad indiferente’. In: Luis Fernández-Galiano (Ed.). Arquitectura Viva. Herzog & de Meuron, del Natural. Vol. No. 91, Madrid, Arquitectura Viva, 07.2003. p. 128. available online.
  • [2] Rem Koolhaas & Hans Ulrich Obrist. Project Japan: Metabolism Talks. Taschen, Berlin 2011.
  • [3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (KrV B75, A51)


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