One thing for sure, Rem Koolhaas doesn’t hedge his bets. He also knows how to stick his neck out and not lose his head. He has perfected the old debating trick of disarming his critics in advance. Philip Johnson was also a master at this. Before anyone could criticize the pandering commercialism of his office tower designs, he would say, “I’m a whore.” Rem Koolhaas gives this tactic a European sophistication, a rhetorically polished upgrade. He says that he is trying to “find optimism in the inevitable.” The “inevitable” sounds like fate, something beyond human control, and has an ominous ring to it. Death, of course, is the ultimate inevitable, and who could criticize someone who is defiantly optimistic in the face of that? It’s a heroic position, no doubt, if, that is, the inevitable is as certain as it is made to seem. The inevitable in Koolhaas’ discourse is the ultimate world domination by ‘liberal democracy’ and unfettered, free-market, capitalist economics at the expense of other modes of human exchange. He has set out to put an optimistic face on this inexorable process.
Koolhaas has been plying this idea for quite a few years now. In the 80s and 90s, it took the form of “in early Modernism, the heroic thing for architects to do was fight the mainstream; today it is to go along with it.” Then came “Bigness,” followed by the “Generic City,” and let us not forget “Shopping.” Now comes his big Dubai proposal, which amounts to transplanting a chunk of the Manhattan he celebrated for its “culture of congestion,” thirty years ago, in “Delirious New York,” onto an artificial, offshore extension of the city of Dubai.
Dubai is certainly the inevitable place for the realization of Koolhaas’ ideas. It is by now the capital of an economic and political New World Order. A city-state without income taxes, labor laws, or elections, it is ruled by a corporate oligarchy of hereditary rulers, accountable only to themselves and their investors. Quite a model for the global future. Built up rapidly over the past few years on the wealth gotten from the world’s greed for oil—and more recently as an unregulated sanctuary for cash—it has no depth of history or indigenous culture, no complexity, no conflicts, no questions about itself, no doubts, in short, nothing to stand in the way of its being shaped into the ultimate neo-liberal Utopia.
Unlike Manhattan, which grew incrementally on its grid over two centuries and is laden with everything from history to conflicts and self-doubt, Dubai is a kind of frontier boom-town that has to import everything to be anything, from workers to investors, from ideas to architects, from high culture to low. Now, apparently, it is importing…congestion? Sitting between two deserts, one of water and one of sand, congestion does not come naturally to Dubai. The dynamic compression of space and activity that creates a critical mass of imploding human energy called a city has to be imposed there as an idea and somehow generated as a reality over the next few years, without genuinely urban conditions. The strategy seems unlikely to succeed, except as another attraction in the high-end theme park Dubai has become. But that is not the proposal’s most disturbing aspect. Given the tabula rasa the site offers, and the apparently unlimited finances its owners possess, we might ask: is this the best vision for the future that the architect could come up with?—a gratuitious look backward at the ultimate 20th century city, rather than an imaginative look forward to the possibilities of the 21st century city.
What, for example, are the space-organization possibilities of networks of information exchange, rather than streets? What are the architectural design possibilities of synthetics, rather than steel or concrete building frames typical of high-rise construction? What are the possibilities for increasing choices in non-hierarchically organized urban spaces, rather than classical, Cartesian systems? And so on—the list of new possibilities is long.
Maybe Koolhaas doesn’t believe that Dubai is the place for a forward-looking vision. Or maybe he believes, true to his post-Modernist roots, that the past offers the best model for the future, if it is leavened with irony, and garnished with a dash of the surreal. Or maybe he simply doesn’t have a vision for the future. Who knows? We should care, however, because the world’s attention is focused on Dubai, and on Koolhaas and other architecture stars, and because—like it or not—what they do is taken as a model for the future, even when it is, how shall I say, not nearly good enough.
New York Times article on Koolhaas’ proposal for Dubai:
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- March 5, 2008 / 5:18 pm
- Lebbeus Woods