Merete Ahnfeldt-Mollerup is associate Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. This article originally appeared in GRASP.
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Architecture is inseparable from planning, and the huge challenge for the current generation is the growth and shrinkage of cities. Some cities, mainly in the Southern Hemisphere, are growing at exponential rates, while former global hubs in the northern are turning into countrysides. In the south, populations are still growing a lot, while populations are dwindling in Europe, Russia and North East Asia. The dream of the Bilbao effect was based on the hope that there might be a quick fix to both of these problems. Well, there is not.
A decade ago, few people even recognized this was a real issue and even today it is hardly ever mentioned in a political context. As a politician, you cannot say out loud that you have given up on a huge part of the electorate, or that it makes sense for the national economy to favor another part. Reclaiming the agricultural part of a nation is a political suicide issue whether you are in Europe or Latin America. And investing in urban development in a few, hand-picked areas while other areas are desolate is equally despised.
Koolhaas is probably the most influential architectural theorist of the late 20th century – it remains to be seen whether his influence will remain as strong in the post economic crisis era. In this context, what is important is the coolness and clarity of his analysis. While many of his followers cherry-pick the facts they use for their analysis, one sometimes gets the impression that Koolhaas himself has an intellectual obsession with real facts, even when they run against his theory.
Koolhaas’ theoretical points of departure were the two great cities of New York and Berlin, which, at the time (1970s), were in different but similar states of decay. At the time, there was no hope in sight for either city in terms of economy or population growth, but both were intellectual and artistic centers on a global level. Koolhaas, however, set out to understand the historical foundations of Manhattan as the world’s financial hub, rather than the (then) reality of a depressed shrinking city, and from that understanding, he developed a theory of the sound, expanding city; since then he has been testing this theory in both theory and practice, with several failures in his portfolio.
One very powerful element in the theory of Koolhaas is the concept of “complexity of program”. From the early 20th century and on, a fundamental tenet of architecture and planning has been that of separation of programs. In the cities both industry, government, shopping and housing were separated in areas. In houses, sleeping, dining, relaxing, working, cooking, bathing and playing had separate rooms. I’m old enough to have been taught design in these terms. If you draw a bedroom, you can define all the essential properties, and thus the most excellent placement of the bed, the window, the wardrobe and the doors. And then onwards. Design becomes a social engineering puzzle.
Koolhaas criticizes modernism by showing examples of rugged, cross-intuitive programming. Eating oysters with your boxing gloves on. Dancing in an office building. Building a successful city where production, administration, living, recreation and creativity co-exist in every square mile. Ignoring all historical/European ideas about the city.
At the time (1978), it was impossible to claim N.Y.C. as an example of a successful city, since the consensus then was that cities were per definition not successful. Still, “Delirious New York” is a model of progressive architectural theory.
Since then Koolhaas and his collaborators have published a number of important works, expanding this initial masterpiece, and dealing with the post 1989-reality of a boom economy and unpredictable societal structures. Throughout this body of work is a certain sense of depravity or nihilism, similar to the work of David Bowie, which is fascinating but also alienating for a lot of people. So even if Koolhaas is a starchitect, he is an outlier in the field, someone who points both backwards and forwards, and someone whose spectacular projects are driven by very complex layers of knowledge.
As I said earlier, these are issues which is almost impossible to deal with politically. One might suspect that some of the nihilism of OMA and its sister AMO grows out of dealing with real politicians who need creative wordings for inescapable realities. Who will say out loud that we may need gentrification of certain areas? Or tearing down villages that are unsustainable? Or inviting immigrants because population is dwindling?
In this context young Danish architectural practices like Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) represent an optimism and interest in the human scale and perception not found in the Dutch tradition after Koolhaas, or among the international elite of starchitects like Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron or Foster. Especially outside Europe, Danish architecture has come to represent the dream of friendly management of urbanization, a country where even the so-called ghetto housing looks like luxury condominiums built in bountiful parks, and the “say yes”-philosophy of BIG seems to be a promise that everything can be happily designed for everyone. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the future.
In Copenhagen, among young architects and students of architecture, there seems to be a strong reaction against what they call “Dutch architecture”. This puzzles international students who come to study at the alma mater of Bjarke Ingels or work as interns at BIG. I think the reaction to some extent has to do with the reality of the construction business here: most of the work is either on big welfare and infrastructure projects like hospitals, nursing homes and metro development, or within the area of renovation and transformation, and in these contexts, the programmatic optimism and disregard for details which are characteristic of BIG are not useful. Someone showing a portfolio of diagrams and happy pictograms is not going to get work.
At the same time, there is an awareness internationally that the above-mentioned management of urban change must be understood within the contexts of climate change and a less expansive economy, even in the BRIC countries, which is another reason the High Line is such a good example of what will come. At last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, one of the most poetic and inspiring exhibitions was the Angolan pavilion, telling about a visionary greening project for a large slum-area. The winner of the Golden Lion was another slum-project, a Venezuelan favela-café. The winner of the last Mies van der Rohe award (the most prestigious European prize for architecture) and a huge inspiration for young architects was David Chipperfield’s Berlin Museum renovation.
Another interesting position, which seems to be garnering a lot of interest globally, is the tendency in Japanese architecture towards an extreme minimalism, where the technology of the buildings are pushed to the limits, and new building typologies are invented in order to subvert conventional uses of space. SANAA in particular are established as the new anti-starchitects, literally inverting the concept of statement architecture with strange, soft and barely there buildings, which are less experienced with the eye and mind, and more through the movement through and around the spaces, while interacting with other people. Their European buildings challenge the whole system of building here, in ways that are useful for all architects. In New York and in Japan, where the coastal cities are dense both in population and information, their airy and cool buildings seem almost cloud-like and unearthly.
So it seems, as of right now that we are heading towards an era of less expressive and less programmatic approaches to architecture, where the knowledges of technology, of human sensory, emotional perception, and of socially inclusive planning are prized.
Merete Ahnfeldt-Mollerup is associate Professor at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts