Joost Meuwissen, 'Rem Koolhaas in Europe'. Translated by John Rudge, Kunst & Museumjournaal, Volume 2, Number 3, 1990 (Amsterdam: Foundation Internationaal Kunst- en Museumtijdschrift, 1990), 44-49.
Rem Koolhaas in Europe
In 1989 Rem Koolhaas designed three major projects for competitions which all involved posing and studying the question: what does a large building mean in Europe? He won two of the competitions, for a ferry terminal in Zeebrugge and the Centre of Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe. As ever, it is not entirely sure whether these projects will be built, particularly in the case of the Zeebrugge terminal. The third and most prestigious competition was for the new national library in Paris, which Koolhaas unfortunately just failed to win. His design for this project (Bibliotheque de France), seen this summer at the "Energies" exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, is aesthetically the most radical. The Karlsruhe design creates the first prototype of a European skyscraper, which in Europe has always been confused with a tall pillar or tower. It is based on long experience of studying high-rise buildings in America and on careful consideration of the differences between European and American architecture, which, probably for cultural reasons, remain considerable. The large dome at Zeebrugge is conceived as a unique form, one which bears no resemblance to any other and appears thus out of the blue.
Koolhaas refers to this as cultivating allergies. There is a certain critical range which gives direction to the content and the narrative of these projects, a matter of not beginning until you have listed everything you do not want. It consists of not giving expression to gravity or, worse, the triumph over gravity, no longer giving expression to a natural above or below, or in general to the victory over nature which, as the New York architect Peter Eisenman said last year, has determined architecture for twenty centuries but no longer means anything to us. Our problem is not nature but the knowledge of nature. Architecture should now be the expression of and victory over that knowledge. There has been little comment on the many resemblances between Koolhaas's design for the Paris library and the concepts, or rather models, of the universe developed in modern physics. These models are not of course very naturalistic and are devised with the aid of computers. In these models there is a cube-shaped, transparent representation of something which can best be described as the "parergon", the limit of the universe or the frame of the most universal painting full of superclusters and voids which sometimes take on the form of shell-like structures and threads and at other times that of cellular structures with spherical or elliptical voids. The picture presented is one of formless, nongeometric material at one moment and of empty space that can again be seen as an object at another.
In the Paris library design this "Scientific American" aesthetic can be seen not only in the rectangular and transparent volume. I do not mean transparent in the literal sense. Because the building beside the Seine would stand in a natural space, the transparency acquires a certain density, although this does not amount to a material density. In any event, the facade is not an organic skin but a true parergon, the point where the building ends but which itself is mainly seen from outside. But equally, the space inside the rectangular box, the content so to speak, is a space which in itself, as space, would be
empty but is now crammed with books. The building is one huge storage space, a transparent but solid bookcase in which the reading rooms for the five different libraries stipulated in the competition are scooped out. The traffic routes in the building from one reading room to another, long strings of escalators, also pass straight through the book repositories. The building takes on the form of shell-like structures and threads for traffic and then, for use, the cellular structure of a bookcase, in which spaces are left open for the spherical, elliptical or even loop-shaped libraries.
It is difficult to answer the two questions raised: why is the building designed like a model of the universe, and how does it differ from such a model? In his notes on the project Koolhaas says that in an age of electronics architecture must adopt a more modest attitude because much of what used to be solved and made possible by buildings can now be achieved through technological
scenarios. "At a moment where the electronic revolution seems to melt all that is solid, it is dangerous to imagine the building of the ultimate library. The ambition of the project is to rid architecture of responsibilities that it can no longer sustain and to aggressively explore this new freedom". Architecture seeks a new relation with technological scenarios, with digital space, rather than with natural or organic space, which always simply confirms the existence of the building as a three-dimensional form.
Thinking of the building as building – and of course this is what is involved, among other things, in developing the prototype European building – requires not only the cultural or social point of view of twenty years ago which is still widely accepted (although in his "Delirious New York" of 1978 Koolhaas tried to let programmes for buildings evolve, as it were, from themselves, as unexpected scenarios), but also, and more importantly in the development of architecture, reflection on architecture, a certain transcendence. The building, condemned to exist in a natural space (which is no more dramatic than hanging a painting on a wall or a computer standing on a desk), is too big, so to speak, to simply reconcile itself with the natural space as if the latter were something insignificant. This is certainly true in those cases where architecture itself is defined as spatial art, and in Koolhaas's three competition designs involving such large-scale projects that it is almost impossible to perceive exterior and interior, the size of the building and its function at the same time. I would suggest that this is one of the motives for the choice in the Paris library design of a model that exceeds the bounds of the imagination but can still be grasped as an idea. Or at least, if the building has edges then it must at the same time be clear that those edges are not part of the building but only of the way in which we can conceive of it in our minds. This is the theme of the Gestalt, which has played a role in architecture since Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction" of 1964. At the time this was primarily concerned with the power of imaginary perception, a psychological question, but now Koolhaas seems to be applying it directly in the service of understanding and knowledge of architecture.
You might say that, as the art of enclosing, dividing, limiting and framing, architecture ought to be able to give shape to its own edges, but what Koolhaas is concerned with is the informal, the content, a style that is no longer based on division and disciplining but on freedom. And like any category, freedom must be conceived before it can be explored. The fact that the winning entry for the Paris library competition, by Dominique Perrault, proposes a framework as the solution – a building which covers the huge site with towers shaped like right angles in the four corners – may reflect the persistence of the Classicist tradition in France. Koolhaas's design, with its hollowed-out spaces, was more reminiscent of the neo-Gothic idea of density and confined space, which has never been appreciated in France. It is more of an English style. At all events the Paris competition brought to mind the competition for the Opera House in 1861, when Eugene Viollet-le-Duc with his plan for tunnels lost out to the neo-Baroque of Charles Gamier and the pomp and splendour of his staircase. It remains a pity. The modest scale of Koolhaas's design – if you can say this in the case of such an enormous building – to some extent reminds one of the accusations made against Viollet-Ie-Duc that his plan was too modest in its dimensions and not appropriate for a metropolis.
But the big city is not the problem. The big building is the problem. In the model of the universe, the facades can in a sense be seen as a denial, as absence, but this leads to the semi-transparency of the building which assumes a certain density, so that the distance from the interior elements to the edge, from the steps and reading rooms to the facade, plays a role. The building is depth, a pure form of spatium, from which arise things which interrupt our view of the appearance but without disturbing the lines of the facade, simply because there are none. Or, rather, the libraries looming up within the semitransparent cube throw light on (literally too, through their illumination) the fact that the building has no facade. In the realisation of the model, the virtual and undetermined distance from the milky ways to the limits becomes the theme.
Inside and outside are states, but distance and proximity are activities. In the design for
the art centre in Karlsruhe, which projects almost on to the platforms of the railwaystation, visitors to an exhibition meet the stream of train passengers going in the opposite direction, just as in the design for the Kunsthal in Rotterdam (where building has now been resumed) the route inside for those going to an opening in evening dress and the route outside for the man walking his dog run parallel, separated only by a glass wall. Inside and outside are different things, but because this is not a natural boundary they are conceived in terms of activities, of distance and proximity, in terms more of time than of space. The one-off dome for Zeebrugge and its content is also conceived as time. Realisation of this project could take almost as long as building a Gothic cathedral, and the building workers should not shave their beards for the duration.
The length of time needed for realisation and the fact that the Zeebrugge dome was conceived as a once-only form unlike any other also indicate that it is not intended to be a changeable shape, at least only in time, not in space. Again this is a neo-Gothic idea. The space is confined because it does not change. Only the closed door opens – or perhaps not. Only the open door slams shut. The common factor in the three competition entries is that almost all the architectural aspects are conceived in terms of actions, of tactility, and only afterwards does perception play a role. So the image of the building that
we form in our mind need not be that of a living thing. This is the great difference from the concept of the American skyscraper, or rather the European interpretation of it, and in "Delirious New York" Koolhaas also wrote about Salvador Dali's interpretation of it as a method of viewing.
As a stack of storeys in which activities went on that had little connection on each storey or between storeys, the American skyscraper, precisely through the accumulation of all these activities one above the other, gave rise to new and surprising, unnatural, combinations. But it raised the question of its height, its form, because there was no accepted concept for this. Around the turn of the century the inventor of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, asked himself how life could be brought into this in itself sterile pile. His answer, which was to become one of the most famous formulas in twentieth-century architecture, was: "Form follows function". However, by function he did not mean the use of the building or the actions of people in it, but the inner vitality that the building was said to have as form, shape and figure. The concept of the building as a "frozen fountain" is the result. Because the activities on the different storeys bear no relation with the line of force, which is internally conceived but only to give the building shape externally, there is also no relation between the interior arrangement of the building and the vitalistic form which fixes itself in the memory as a mental image. Dali's treatment of this image involves a double reversal. The vitalistic form is freed from its frozen state and seen as a living figure, a human shape. The result is that the building appears as mobile and soft and that the line of force is no longer needed.
The changeability of the building as mental image, as Gestalt, was tested by Koolhaas in a series of projects in the mid-eighties as a way of bringing existing buildings to life by transforming them in such a way that their axiality disappeared. One example was the project for the Triennial in Milan in 1986 where Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona pavilion was turned into a segment of a circle, with the aim, as Koolhaas put it, of making "the hidden dimensions of modern architecture, if they exist, perceptible". He has abandoned this psychological tone in more recent projects.
The withdrawal from naturalistic space, the absence of a facade and the neo-Gothic density of the space (the last of these is not new – in his design for the Parliament building in The Hague in 1978 the required smoking room not only had the form of a cloud of smoke but also bore the words "smoke-filled room") mean that the whole building can be seen more as fluidity without a basin than as a changeable basin. The European skyscraper designed for Karlsruhe is no organism; it has no vertical line of force, and even the stacking of the storeys is denied through their being alternately completely open, with an empty floor surface, and woven around the storey-high supporting beams. The American vitalistic tube through which information flows, as the image of American art, is replaced by the European coat hangerwhich can carry a sea of information.