Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chaos, Indeed

Whitney Museum Expansion, New York @2001 OMA

Its difficult to imagine that the young, urbane staff of OMA/AMO does not have a contingent of aesthetically-conscious post-grads who have spent significant time in downtown Manhattan (anything in walking distance of the firm's Prada Epicenter on Broadway) at any time over the last decade or so.

However, it seems to have eluded the OMA/AMO team that the predominant retail interior of the district has for many years been the incomplete, 'raw' fit-out, that naked palimpsest of the building's previous industrial and/or dilapidated punk purposes.

For to only partially refurbish a sub-Houston Street storefront as an art gallery is a completely routine, unoriginal act. To declare it ironic or provocative, as OMA/AMO and the New Museum did in the brief display of the CRONOCAOS exhibit on the Bowery, is to be basically unaware of the interior appearance of both art galleries and retail shops in Manhattan.

Either that, or OMA/AMO/Koolhaas think their joke is a lot funnier than it really is. As seemingly every article on the exhibit, and the press release itself, seems to need to explain the partial revamp in detail (Ouroussouff, in The New York Times, called it "startling"). If a joke has to be explained, then is it really that clever?

The Binnenhof: Extension of the Dutch Parliament, the Hague ©1978 OMA

But considered in another way, it is altogether fitting that the gallery housing CRONOCAOS was half-finished and in need of explanation, for the entire exhibit, and the theorizing behind it, is a half-baked, incomplete mess.

Aside from the theorizing itself, the content of the exhibit's boards suffer from a very low standard of editing, description, and visual communication. The narrative would not meet the standards of a mid-semester pin-up at a respectable architectural school, much less what would be produced by the in-house curating team of a major New York cultural institution.

An architecture student who presented this level of sloppiness would suffer a withering review for making tutors sort through such an incoherently assembled mix of unrefined argument and unsupported assertion. The startling presence of so many typos, and the stylistic laziness (for example, putting some words in single quotes, and some in double) is annoying.

Some of the graphics themselves are not particularly convincing, and many appear to have been hurriedly churned out. Part of the problem may be that OMA/AMO's signature look, the lower-case-Helvetica-labels-over-multicolored-rectangles-as-diagram, which the office pioneered more than a decade ago in the early years of Photoshop and Illustrator, have become ubiquitously elementary, and have not aged well. Perhaps they should not have been preserved.

Meanings are elusive. Words and phrases are employed without bothering to define them adequately. Paragraphs trail off as unfinished thoughts...further lending to the breathless, bromidic atmosphere of the writing. Few opportunities to make cheesy puns or eye-rolling plays on words are passed up: the project on the Illinois Institute of Technology is titled "Miestakes"; an aspect of the Harvard Campus masterplan is named DMZ, standing for DeMoralized Zone. Statistics and facts are often either wrong, or asserted without citation. The caption of one board, for example, reads:

There is now a worldwide consensus, in all cultures and all political systems, that postwar architecture was wrong, that is deserves [sic] to die and disappear because it is 'ugly', and because it is declared responsible for many of our current ills...

In another part of the show, a board asserts that The Reichstag in Berlin contains "no trace of earlier identities..."

This may be just small nitpicking. But remember that CRONOCAOS is universally presented as nothing less than a cutting-edge visual and dialectic manifesto from the world's premier, avant-garde spatial think-tank and its celebrity-genius intellectual/practitioner.

In reality, its obvious that it is a speedy dust-off of earlier project boards, strung together in haste by interns, and while it points to many important questions, it is too disorganized, too shallow, and too incoherent to be regarded as successful museum exhibit, much less a mature architectural theory.

"Veritas:" Harvard Campus Plan to fill-in Charles River ©2001 OMA


CRONOCAOS has promise. Across its presentation, it suggests a number of very good questions about historic preservation. These are important, relevant issues which are not being debated or called into question very widely elsewhere.

But CRONOCAOS asks too many questions, and delves into almost none of them--little effort is given to moving below a titillating, ostentatiously provocative surface to a deeper discussion or understanding of the issues. It is didactic when it should be speculative, brash when it needed to be erudite.

It so launches (emphasis added):

Embedded in huge waves of development, which seem to transform the planet at an ever accelerating speed, there is another kind of transformation at work: the area of the world declared immutable through various regimes of preservation is growing exponentially. A huge section of our world (about 12 percent) is now off-limits, submitted to regimes we don't know, have not thought through, cannot influence. At its moment of surreptitious apotheosis, preservation does not quite know what to do with its new empire.

Architects-- we who change the world -- have been oblivious or hostile to the manifestations of preservation. But the current moments sees the perfect intersection of two tendencies that will have so-far untheorized implications for architecture: the ambition of the global taskforce of preservation to rescue larger and larger territories of the planet, and the - corresponding? - global rage to eliminate the evidence of the post World War II parried of architecture as a social project. The various elements of this exhibition attempt to show the wrenching simultaneity of preservation and destruction that is destroying any sense of the linear evolution of time and propelling us into a period of CRONOCAOS.

OMA and AMO has been obsessed, from the beginning, with the past-- though we didn't always realize it at the time. On this wall are a selection of projects that have not been presented before as a body of work concerned with time and history. On the opposite wall, we show the documentary debris of these efforts. Together, the work reveals an inability to rest with any single approach towards the past. OMA has instead deployed an array of tactics, each one super-specific to the particularties of the project and the site. If there is one constant, it is the desire for the 'preserved' - when we choose to preserve it - to not be embalmed but to continue to stay alive and evolve...

Who thought this was good copy??

Initially, its confusing in that the pronoun "we" seems variably to stand in for: AMO/OMA; Rem Koolhaas; the profession of architecture; and society. There might be "preservation regimes" that OMA or Koolhaas aren't aware of, but to say suggest that "no one has thought through" them or "cannot access" them-- who wrote this stuff?? How arrogant to state that a subject that many other people are concerned with has just recently occurred to you, so here you are, helicoptering in to grace it with your veneer. How silly to claim to have been heretofore oblivious.

Then that 12%-- what is that supposed to mean? Does this include the Amazon Rainforest? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Belgravia? Paris? Beacon Hill? The Grachtengordel? Teotihuancan? The Great Barrier Reef? There is absolutely no definition of this.

It would be bizarre to assert, in this end-of-nature era, that there is too much of the planet's surface that is defended against our consumption. The protection of just 12% of the earth's surface seems appallingly low, not secretive-danger-regime, as it is clearly suggested. And even if the figure refers strictly to 12% of mankind's built environment as being under some form of protection, that is clearly not the same as saying that it is off-limits to alteration.

Not many people think that Venice, Amsterdam, Paris or Charleston would be better off with the bulldozer; to lose architectural and cultural heritage for the sake of more building. There is also a question of whether many of the world's most popular tourist destinations would continue to be commercially viable or economically prosperous if they were built over. The only advantage would be to the builder.

As OMA well knows, tourism is a massive global industry, and one of the most effective transfers of foreign exchange to developing regions of the world. This is quite aside from the environmental and ecological considerations of endless cycles of throwing away and rebuilding our cities.


Kloten Airport 2000, Zürich ©1995 OMA.

One wall of the CRONOCAOS exhibition is covered in a wall of tear-sheet, self-assembly exhibition catalogues (clever!), indexing several of OMA/AMO's projects from the past thirty years. Some of them, such as the firm's study of Lagos, Nigeria, have very little relationship to any issue of preservation.

Others, such as the innovative proposal for Zürich Kloten Airport's expansion, in which

we identified in the existing structures of ZRH enough abandoned or under-used sections to accommodate the entire program; all we needed to do was to stitch the 'found' spaces together with infrastructure in a sequence that accommodate the intended flows

sounds utterly fascinating. But the single-paragraph board is woefully insufficient to convey the achievements of the proposal itself, much less summarize the preservation implications of the intervention.

Milstein Hall, College of Architecture, Cornell University ©2006 OMA

Many of the other projects included in CRONOCAOS take a much more pedestrian, tried-and-true approach to preservation: contrasting the original architecture by adding on an unapologetically contemporary expansion (Whitney Museum; Cornell's Milstein Hall; the Binnenhof, etc.) Some like the LACMA proposal, are made slightly more interesting by the relative youth of the original building. Unfortunately, none of these undertakings are presented with any measure of depth of detail.

Again, quick sentences have been dashed off and printed up, a painful, unenlightening mash of blathering snark, overzealous self-importance, and grandiose triumphalism. The project boards do not seem to have been re-examined or edited for the show, so that there seems no attempt foundation for a greater coherent theory.

Maison à Bordeaux. ©2002 OMA

Then there is wounded Rem, poor he whose genius was so great, the French state has punished him for its: his Maison à Bordeaux was listed, and the original, handicapped occupant died, but given its protections, it can't be altered for reuse by someone more ambulatory. However, this self-serving lament does not entertain the possibility that a model of high-design accessibility might have a wider benefit to society.

Preserving Beijing. ©2003 OMA


CRONOCAOS is at its most goading when it hints that destruction should be promoted, or when Koolhaas asserts there should a destruction commission as much as a landmarks board. These are clever, but unserious and flippant, and become ridiculous when Preservation becomes a global hegemon straw-man. On the other issues central to the preservation debate, many can be discovered in the exhibit, with a bit of work.

Societies struggle with contradictory desires for new and old (especially fast-growing, non Western countries, such as China). Preservation is intertwined with the more challenging struggles of contemporary culture: fleeting authenticity and economic viability. Few buildings are built with the intent that they stand forever, and materiality makes their lifespans very short indeed. Preservation oscillates between sanctifying some landmarks so quickly that their worth has not been established by consensus or pedigree (Maison à Bordeaux; perhaps Swiss Re also).

In other instances, recent but not yet historical treasures are not protected, and therefore destroyed before future generations can celebrate them. Robin Hood Gardens is not included here, nor are the Nakagin Capsule Tower or even the recent rejection of Le Corbusier buildings by UNESCO. A board which includes an image of Berlin's Palast der Republik makes no mention of that building's story, or the reconstruction of the faux-historic Schloß on the site. A further question of whether we can presume that a newer building will be better, prettier, or more valuable could also be put forward.

Tate Modern proposal, London ©1994 OMA

It has previously been observed that preservation either freezes an object in a state of dilapidation (Greek and Mayan ruins) or overhauls it to an idealized state, which is sometimes a contemporary invention (Colonial Williamsburg; The Palace of Knossos). The choice of archaeology and restoration by their nature eliminate the other possibilities, and present a structure's complicated, meandering history as a single, static image.

Preservation favors the masterpiece over the ordinary, and so magnifies the bias of the historical record toward the elite. OMA/AMO repeatedly use the term "mediocre" --winking at the concept that ugly or average architecture should be preserved as well--in contravention of the exhibit's more prominent assertion that there is already far too much preservation.

These are mostly not new ideas, and are certainly not OMA/AMO's fertilizing of "un-theorized" territory, as has been clearly set out. Indeed, most the above issues, when related to CRONOCAOS at all, are only really explored in articles about the exhibit, rather than in the exhibit itself.

Polemically, CRONOCAOS has not been nurtured to a degree that such issues are adequately, purposefully juxtaposed, or present any fresh insights. The potential for meaningful argument struggles for attention on a surface paved with embellishment and meaningless prattle. To walk through the CRONOCAOS exhibit is to read someone's scribbled notes of a brainstorming session which you didn't attend and which no one has followed up on. It is no window into an exclusive salon of avant-garde architectural theory, nor a useable manifesto for our young century.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. as a PROVOCATION, and not as an object ready for consumption, seems like the exhibit was pretty successful to me.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Nick.

    I think part of what I am trying to explore is that there now exists some special category, "PROVOCATION" if you like, which has a lower standard for explanation and coherence than some other, more rigorous form of presenting an argument or theory.