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The Stark Fist of Removal

Rem Koolhaas’ CRONOCAOS at New Museum, Lower East Side, Manhattan–

Architecture is monstrous in the way in which each choice leads to the reduction of possibility.
Rem Koolhaas

May 2011: New York City is at its greige gritty best. It is springtime and the promise of a rain is unfulfilled as storm clouds scutter uselessly across a blue sky.  In the lower East Side, where the New Museum now occupies its splendid SANAA designed building of stacked white boxes, the word CRONOCAOS is lettered in white Helvetica Medium on a chrome yellow awning on the museum’s homely neighbor, the site of a former wholesale business. The Helvetica poses as a kind of institutional graffiti, jaunty and cool in a “made ya look” way. The signage of the defunct business is still readable: “7 floors of Restaurant and Kitchen Equipment” in tasteless but functional sans serif. A large banner printed on vinyl is stretched across the windows above the awning with 4-color images of different pieces of food storage and display furniture. The names of these items are inscrutable to the uninitiated. “GVRB, GLDO, GRSD,” read captions below the images of shelving units that seem to float on sky blue backgrounds. A tagger’s mark has defaced the upper section of one of the banners, advertising a different sort of product for a different market. Art citizens might be proud to have wrested more real estate from low rent commerce. Koolhaas has something to say about that.

Inside, the floor plan of the show gives equal time to the vestiges of the previous occupancy. The floor surface is worn and creaky. A big reception counter still stands at the back of the space. Plaques and certificates declaring the integrity and skill of the deceased business owner hang on the wall beside the exhibition posters. A giant orange floor pillow sits glowing in the sun by the window facing the street. The Koolhaas exhibit, in disarmingly plain and direct fashion, guides the viewer along a path marked by white arrows on the floor, past hanging placards sequentially numbered and jam-packed with text. There’s an undeniable frisson that arises from the juxtaposition of the defunct commercial zone and the deliberate cultural zone.

CRONOCAOS is an essay/installation/manifesto, first presented at the 2010 Venice Biennale, in which Rem Koolhaas takes on the concept and practice of Historic Preservation, the darling of NGOs and city planners. This has been a surprisingly unexamined concept. It is inevitable that any architectural practice must confront a past that lives in structures guarded largely by the twin gargoyles of philistinism and committee-think. CRONOCAOS presents an impressive collection of hundreds of case studies and reports on recent developments/destructions. Bringing them together in one place exposes deep flaws in the current system of “preservation”.

Koolhaas builds his case on a large number of facts, many of them astonishing and absurd. To name a few: 12% of the world is inaccessible to new building or design due to its status as historically significant; the moon landing site has been been given U.S. Historic Preservation status; there is actually an acronym, IUJ, created by an international historic preservation NGO, for “Insignificant Universal Junk.” Koolhaas declares that in the countryside foreign farm workers have replaced farmers, a further demonstration of the replacement of the authentic with the ersatz, the enframing of the old natural-traditional order by a new techno-economic one. The story unfolds of preservation criteria that are vague, subjective and politically determined. Given this analysis, standard items of bourgeois cultural agreement such as “Postwar Architecture is Ugly and Deserves to Die,” don’t hold up. Koolhaas poses, “What Deserves Eternal Life?” and in so doing warns that the combination of a weak public sector and a decision-making bureaucracy keen on “preemptive mediocrity” will lead to the disappearance of architecture as a social project and the promotion of bland and faceless standardization which has no relevance to actual local human needs or cultural vicissitudes.

Koolhaas makes a compelling and lively case for rethinking the whole process by which structures or neighborhoods are selected for demolition or preservation. He has been ruminating on this idea for several years (see his article in Future Anterior, 2004) and the insights at the heart of his thesis are sound.  Koolhaas states  “…preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions. That makes perfect sense because clearly the whole idea of modernization raises either latently or overtly the issue of what to keep.” Koolhaas’ archi-philosophical system addresses many specific cases. An entire wall of the exhibition is devoted to a make-it-yourself book: neatly arranged padded papers printed with pictures and text describing various restoration/renovation projects OMA (Koolhaas’ firm) has spearheaded, along with examples of  “progress” that has gone to seed. You can tear off as many sheets from the pads as you wish to create your own free catalog of the show. The catalog quickly becomes a disorganized mess but reminiscent of a McLuhan screed. He speaks of the status quo’s aversion to the “non-planned city”, using Lagos, Nigeria as an example, which arises from the exigencies of its residents and the broken social contracts of its governments. For Beijing he proposes a stripe-like  plan in which new and old are evenly divided within the city limits. This formalized and nondiscriminatory plan would ensure a more equalized distribution of old and new, where “historically significant” status is not conferred using sentimental, political, or crassly economic criteria.

What if, he asks archly, all architecture over 25-years-old were scrapped? The concept of abandoning one set of worn and uninterrogated values–authenticity, beauty, significance–for a more arbitrary and categorical system is one way of showing how a truly “democratic” system exposes the subliminal issues of preservation, which declares itself to be innately virtuous but in practice has become aesthetically corrupt, standardizing and, worse, boring.

Koolhaas’ argument builds up a head of steam that isn’t diminished by its lapses of fact or logical leaps–but they are worth mentioning. He cites the demolition of Berlin’s Palast der Republik as an example of the desire to symbolically destroy the last vestiges of communism. Although undoubtedly there were politics at play, he ignores the fact that this was a troubled building site where asbestos contamination played a big role in the decision-making. In calling into question the repurposing of decommissioned factories and warehouses as art galleries, he asks, “What is the effect on art if it has to animate larger and larger spaces that were dimensioned for industry, not for the intimate confrontation with art?” In fact, the confrontation with art has never been exclusively “intimate”, and art has a long history of animating enormous spaces from Greek temples to Gothic cathedrals, to the vast outdoors. To name just a few here in the US, MassMOCA, the Geffen Contemporary, and Dia Beacon show that these formerly industrial spaces can be exciting and effective venues where art seems to thrive. Koolhaas careens forward along this line of thought, asking, and “Is it a coincidence that these spaces have engendered an Apocalyptic Sublime?” “And how different is it from Hollywood?” By way of illustration, posted on the far wall as a sort of  “off the deep end” kind of zone, are works by fine artists alongside analogous works by their counterparts in the Hollywood culture industry; renditions of the monstrous, the teetering, the devastated and the dangerously large in nuclear glowing colors, or burnt and ashen grays. These juxtapositions are mostly fatuous and add little to the more rational aspects of the exhibition’s discourse. The cross pollination of iconography between the cultural realms brings up issues that are complicated and beyond the scope of Koolhaas’ manifesto. Still, it seems like the Romantic period’s Apocalyptic Sublime is due for reconsideration after the nuclear meltdowns, tsunamis, monster hurricanes, wildfires, and killer tornadoes of the past decade. If nature continues to have its way, Koolhaas will be assured of a long and prosperous future despite preservationists.

Even if the smell of uber-sophisticated marketing pitch under laces the Koolhaas manifesto, there is always the charming threat of iconoclasm to the Koolhaas mystique. If the concept of architecture were a building with columns, Koolhaas would have had the columns removed and replaced by invisible spheres of energy. The roof would become a forest, and the basement would be excavated until it was open to the sky. Any architecture worth attention is at heart a utopian proposition not subject to the laws of gravity, but subjecting the laws of gravity to its own unique vision.

[the author wishes to thank J. R. Bob Dobb for the title]

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