Architecture Two Dot Oh

Rem Koolhaas
Rem Koolhaas

Friday 9 November 2007 more than a thousand Dutch architects gathered in ‘De Doelen’ theatre in Rotterdam to hear Francine Houben, Wiel Arets, Ben van Berkel, Willem-Jan Neutelings, Winy Maas, and Rem Koolhaas speak - all the big names of the SuperDutch generation, plus Rem Koolhaas. The name of the conference: Architectuur 2.0.

It was a remarkable day in many ways. For me it was the first time I saw so many architects together. The sheer mass of the public, combined with a dream team of lecturers made an atmosphere emerge that was actually thrilling. There was tension.

And not just because of Rem Koolhaas, who was strategically put at the finish of the program. He had to share the attention with his colleagues, and was eventually outshined by Willem-Jan Neutelings who halfway the day won over the public and set the tone of the debate. Koolhaas, half an hour too late, not only ended the debate between the speakers that had just started, but also killed it by ignoring the debate to talk about his own problems. So in the end it would be SuperDutch + 1.

In this post I will summarize the lectures shortly, in chorological order, beginning with the opening of the new director of the Dutch Architecture Institute, and former editor-in-chief of Archis, Ole Bouman. The agenda of the day, Bouman promised, was to optimistically speculate about the future. That doesn’t happen anywhere in the world, and wouldn’t happen that day. There is no future, just today.

Some of the speakers, Ole Bouman said, ‘organize space’ (Ben van Berkel, Winy Maas, Rem Koolhaas), while others ‘design space’ (Francine Houben, Wiel Arets, Willem-Jan Neutelings). Which is only partially true of course.

Francine Houben, of Mecanoo, gave the most corporate presentation of all. Starting with the one-liner, “you can only go somewhere if you know where you came from”, she stated that she was born in the hilly south of The Netherlands, and therefore imagines cities and buildings like mountains. Francine Houben likes that kind of simple logic, she also talks like that about her designs. This, because of that. Simple, effective.

With an office of 80 people Houben currently does a huge amount of projects. Most of the projects are in Holland, but the most prestigious ones are located in Taiwan and Spain. Houben criticized the projected Gazprom tower in St. Petersburg, because it would not be suitable for the city, but later honestly admitted she started to feel the temptation herself, because ‘success is addictive’.

Worth mentioning was Francine Houben’s argument for the winning design of Mecanoo for the new railway station in Delft. The railway tracks are relocated underground, which “makes it basically an underground station.” So Mecanoo looked at the architecture of the metro stations in Moscow. Now big vaulted forms are being thought-out for Delft. Moscow, Delft, what’s the difference?

Wiel Arets’ talk featured all his fascinations – high density, stacking, and abstraction – but also surprised by the vastness of the portfolio of his office. A new element in his architecture language is the stack of shifted boxes - very fashionable. He finished with a laugh: Because of regulations Arets had to build the demanded museum in Wijlre underneath a stable/greenhouse for chickens and orchids. Bureaucracy, that is also Holland.

Ben van Berkel (UN Studio) also talked about his familiar themes, but cut some new stuff in there too. He started with an isolated quote from Baudrillard: ‘Do we always have to look at the value, of architecture?’ And is that value simply commercial?

Then the lecture really started with the image of box-blob, an image that in my view has become the central obsession of Van Berkel. The box-part of this ‘design model’ is the utilitarian part, Van Berkel analyzed, while the blob-part is the infrastructural part. Most of his work can be related to that image, I would say. And now in Graz, he is actually going to build it. On the renderings it looks horrible, but who knows… I hope it works out.

The Moebius House and the Mercedes-Benz Museum on the other hand remain amazing. The complicated forms of the Moebius House look ‘calm’ by using only angles of 7, 9, and 11 degrees, Van Berkel claimed. (Research shows a limiting of roof-angles also calms the look of a neighborhood) It was a design that emerged from the ambition to build a house without dead ends. (Next: a house with only dead-ends?)

The Mercedes-Benz Museum remains astonishing with its diagonal views from the ramps on the cars and from one floor to another. Absolutely devastating is the tornado (!) in the central void that can be created on command to forcefully ventilate the building in case of fire. Normally compartments are needed for such a building, but Van Berkel wanted an unobstructed view so came up with this solution. UN Studio had to do four demonstrations before the authorities accepted it. But the solution is now added to the building-regulations in Germany. (More tornado’s to come.)

Willem-Jan Neutelings, partner of Neutelings Riedijk, was introduced by Ole Bouman as one of the best columnists on architecture around, and then proved that point with a terrific plea for a return to the discipline of architecture. To illustrate the subversive content of his lecture he told anecdotes instead of presenting images. The PowerPoint simply showed the names of his chapters.

‘There are architects today that claim to be scientists, but architects are mediocre scientists. There are architects today that make photographs in foreign countries, and then say they make architecture from it, but architects are mediocre photographers. There are architects today that use statistics to generate buildings, but architects are also mediocre in statistics. Architects should just talk about buildings’, Neutelings’ theatrical polemic sounded.

The rhetoric became a bit shallow when he compared the title of the conference, ‘Architectuur 2.0’ with software that periodically needs updating. But the statement stayed crystal clear. “Buildings are heavy, blunt things”, and, “without a shared language, we cannot criticize each others work, and without critique there is no discipline.”

Knowledge, skill, and evocation are currently evaporating into Wiki, modeling software, and Photoshop, Neutelings complained. The new generation is lost, he added. (I don’t agree on that one). Everybody seems to think the world has become too complex to design, Neutelings continued, and therefore have discarded urbanism as irrelevant. But a lot has stayed the same, and urban plans can still be used to design the future. The hotel room has remained the same in the last hundred years. Architecture is still architecture.

And we should not try to make a city made of icons, but should design mainly background, more silent architecture, Neutelings finished. (But, well, how much ‘background’ architecture have Neutelings Riedijk build?) And without more arguments: “We should not build for the ‘Louis XIV’s’ in Dubai.” Instead we should design the normal. (But even the ‘normal’ can be iconic, shows Rem Koolhaas ín Dubai.) Architecture is an old and slow profession. It has been practiced for 5000 years. We have to build on that tradition.

A thousand architects applauded. It almost was a standing ovation, Ole Bouman had to admit. The agenda was set.

Winy Maas (the M in MVRDV) took his turn after the lunch. “We can either be fatalist or constructivist”, he said. And Maas obviously takes the opportunistic road. Everybody copy-paste’s from each other’s work, and that is a good thing, Maas continued. Everybody does commentaries on everybody. Architecture is about constructing the visionary, being endlessly experimental.

And then: “What to do after KM3?” A self-sustaining city mainly consists of forest and agriculture, so there is an enormous green agenda, Maas analyzed. “Cities have become ‘collectioneurs’ of icons”, and MVRDV works with that, mainly from the ideal of a 3-d city.

It is a city with humor. “We have finally put our IKEA-model in the city”; Maas laughed on his design for a table-shaped extension to a museum in Rotterdam. And the pig-city skyscrapers have already been called “Stack-Attack”, he proudly recalled. That design also proved that architecture can still be hugely political, Maas finished.

The themes of the SuperDutch generation – corporate, stacking, diagrams, doing your job, and density – all continue the legacy of ‘Delirious New York’, ‘S, M, L, XL’ and OMA in general. In contrast the ‘master’ himself talked about something completely different: partnerships.

Rem Koolhaas, founding partner of OMA: “Partnerships is an underestimated theme.” Rem’s Rule: always set new agenda’s, in architecture, on conferences. Globalization before 9-11 equaled Americanism, after 9-11 the direction has changed, Koolhaas stated, the current world is ‘Europe – Middle East – Russia – India - China.’ Strong language.

After a partnership in China (CCTV), and the partnership with Cecil Balmond, the third partnership Rem Koolhaas named was that with the director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Mr. Petrovsky. The failed and much laughed-on design of the Hermitage in Las Vegas was actually a success, Koolhaas said, as a partnership. Because afterwards OMA was asked to work on the extension of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

In the case of Lagos the (incidental) crucial partnership was that with a Dutch filmmaker. While Koolhaas simply enjoyed the esthetic of the city, without the need to come up with solutions, the documentary made of his visits, which was first shown on Dutch television and later came out on DVD, had an enormous resonance in Lagos itself. An impact Koolhaas had ‘never imagined’. While Koolhaas was slowly writing his book about Lagos, film proved a far more effective and faster means of communication. (The saying ‘when you research, you change’ never was more real, I would say.) In the case of Koolhaas the irony is that while the book is not even out, the city of Lagos already has realized something has to be done, and has already started planning. Koolhaas himself has been asked by the governor to redesign a central bus-station.

After a long list of partnerships Koolhaas concluded his talk with an image showing George W. Bush behind a stand on which the OMA-designed flag for Europe was shown. “We have penetrated that world”, Koolhaas proudly said, the partnership with Romani Prodi provided us with the opportunity to think about Europe.

And then there were drinks, joy, and laughter.


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