Curbed: Rem Koolhaas is the real diva
In the final installment of our summer series, Curbed’s architecture critic re-reads all 1,344 pages of the Dutch architect’s “S,M,L,XL”
Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange takes a fresh look at classics of the architectural canon.
S,M,L,XL does not hide its ambition: 1,344 pages. Three inches thick. A dictionary, a chronology, a comic, an excerpt from Delirious New York, plans, diagrams, photographs, poetry, dialogues, history lessons and, last but not least, the work of Rem Koolhaas and his office since 1972. Three authors are listed on the cover of the book, which was published in 1995: OMA, Koolhaas specifically, and designer Bruce Mau. In recent years, editor Jennifer Sigler has also received her fair share of credit in press about the book.
In the first edition, the cover is silver with black and yellow embossed type. One name is in yellow, in lights: Rem.
The first two weighty books I re-read for this series wore their organization on their sleeves. Christopher Alexander worked in numbered patterns, starting with the largeness of the city and working his way down to the smallness of decor. Virginia McAlester organized her field guide chronologically, folk to colonial, Victorian to modern.
Ostensibly, this one is no different. The work of the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Koolhaas’s firm, is organized into, yes, small, medium, large, and extra-large categories. The texts are interspersed between visual sections. Dictionary entries, definitions drawn from hundreds of sources, run down the left side of the page beginning with Abolish, Absence, Accepted. The result is a jumble and a wave, a wash of information that doesn’t actually hold you by the hand. We aren’t wading in to the work of OMA, but taking the plunge. The first line of the introduction is “Architecture is a hazardous mixture of omnipotence and impotence,” and already the audience is like, You aren’t kidding with that!
I call you and me “the audience” because this book is really a performance. You can get what S,M,L,XL represents without reading a word. You can get it by reading all of the words and flipping by the pictures. You can open it at a random place and see what happens (I landed on a competition model for the Center for Media and Technology, Karlsruhe, 1989-’92). You can use it as a doorstop slash trophy.
A door is propped open by the a large book with the title S,M,L,XL on the spine. A potted plant sits atop the book. Illustration.
My question, 24 years later, concerned the feat of endurance that warranted that trophy. To what audience is S,M,L,XL playing? Does it work? I wouldn’t want all that labor to be for naught.
There is a person in here I actually like. An overtired, vulnerable young man who feels jerked around by jet lag, clients, culture, committees. He isn’t saying, Fuck you for being interested in me, in the way Rem Koolhaas has been ever since the book’s publication pushed him to starchitect level. Even at the book’s launch event at the Architectural Association in London—his alma mater—Rem declined to charm. Here’s the book, he says in so many words; must I explain?
You get the clearest sense of that appealing Young Rem in the haiku-containing essay “Learning Japanese,” written in 1993. OMA was invited to participate in a Tokyo architecture exhibition; seven days later he is there, experiencing Japanese architecture culture for the first time.
Instead of obligations embedded in generic free time, free time in Japan is exceptional condition excavated from general condition of obligation.
If you’ve been paying attention to recent reporting on the culture of overwork in Japan, you’ll see that little has changed from the 1990s. But the Japanese are hardly alone. The sense of obligation Koolhaas describes is the obligation of the architecture school studio and the architecture office, a culture of overwork that drives people away from the profession.
The only way to succeed in that culture is to work like a cyborg. In S,M,L,XL Koolhaas quotes a memo from Toyo Ito, the dean of Japanese late-20th-century architecture, which compares Koolhaas to a “mechanical baseball pitching machine.” “Only from a Japanese / such a compliment / would not be an / insult.”
Unpaid internships, underpaid competitions, overtime, not to mention labor conditions on construction sites have all chipped away at the image of architecture as somehow more civilized, more artistic, and more fulfilling than other professions. The first point in the 10-point manifesto of The Architecture Lobby, an organizing group dedicated to improving working conditions in the profession, is “Enforce labor laws that prohibit unpaid internships, unpaid overtime; refuse unpaid competitions.”
The first few pages of S,M,L,XL include charts showing the size of OMA’s workforce, the firm’s income and expenditures, employee turnover, employee travel. Project credits for the work inside are rendered as a two-column list, people and projects, with crisscrossing lines. Correct but illegible. It’s easy to flip past most of these, as the graphics float over grainy and unfluffed photos of the office (piles of paper, leftover takeout). It is a statement, as the cover is a statement, as naming your firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture is a statement, that the work, like the book, is a collective project.
Data visualization would increasingly become part of the OMA project, a rhetorical device, as Shannon Mattern has written, used in tandem with words and more old-fashioned representations like models and drawings. For the public, sometimes uncomfortable with judging aesthetics, watching chunks of square footage assemble themselves into a stack connected by ramps, as at the Seattle Central Library, seemed like an architectural proof. Charts also become a way of representing architecture anonymously.
The failed attempts to present the firm’s architecture as by OMA, and not by Koolhaas, continue. This is more the fault of the media than of individual architects, but from the outside, we can’t tell how much the subject resists. Examine the recent coverage of the deeply average addition to the New Museum, to be designed by OMA New York. Ever since OMA set up a New York office, it has been presented as a duchy with a partner-in-charge responsible for the work. The first of these was Joshua Prince-Ramus, now of REX, who was the design lead for the Seattle Central Library and the Wyly Theater in Dallas. Today, it is Shohei Shigematsu. He’s going to be the one designing the New Museum—or rather, he’s going to be the leader of the team designing the New Museum from OMA’s office in Manhattan—and yet, in the embargoed New York Times coverage, who must be quoted? Rem.
Look at the buildings we will remember OMA for, the Seattle Central Library, the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, the bid to redesign the Museum of Modern Art that called it MoMA Inc. long before it became the chilly airport-size behemoth it is today—all competitions.
He may call competitions “a form of torture,” but he is still playing the game. He’s diagnosed the problem with architecture, but has he changed anything? Hard to say. I have no knowledge of OMA employees’ hours, or the pay. (Most big-name architects, with the exception of Jeanne Gang, who once worked at OMA, have been silent on the question of pay inside their offices.) Meanwhile the articles in which Koolhaas rejects the word “starchitect” while being covered like a starchitect just keep coming.
In 2000, Index magazine asked Sigler to interview Koolhaas, turning to her because he was proving so difficult to pin down. Sigler, who was most recently the editor of the Harvard Design Magazine, asks Koolhaas if S,M,L,XL wasn’t the end of his professional adolescence.
REM: I don’t know of what, but it was definitely the end of something. You know the book was published at a moment of serious crisis in our office, so everything that happened since is part of the construction of a new office, the construction of a new way of looking at architecture that culminated in the founding of AMO. AMO doesn’t stand for anything specific, but it could be Architecture Media Organization. OMA and AMO are like Siamese twins that were recently separated. We divide the entire field of architecture into two parts: one is actual building, mud, the huge effort of realizing a project; the other is virtual — everything related to concepts and “pure” architectural thinking. The separation enables us to liberate architectural thinking from architectural practice. That inevitably leads to a further questioning of the need for architecture, but now our manner of questioning has changed: first we did it through buildings; now we can do it through intellectual activities parallel to building.
JEN: You’re continuing what you’ve always done, but now you’re making it explicit.
Naming his firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, including those laborious charts, creating AMO, these were all moves intended to take the heat off himself as a person and intended to get architects paid for all the things they do that aren’t constructing buildings. S,M,L,XL was also one of those things, research made into a saleable product that wasn’t supposed to serve as a sales brochure.
Ultimately, the book is a monument to and a polemic about labor. Its size represents the labor of designers, editors, printers, and packers, on top of the labor of the architects listed on that illegible project credit chart. The move Koolhaas made after its publication, to split OMA (the architects of buildings) from AMO (the architects of ideas), was a move to get paid for the free consulting work architects so often do as part of competitions, to be paid for writing and research, and to be paid for branding.
Mark Lamster wrote on Design Observer in 2010 that he would like to consign the “mania among design professionals for obscenely fat monographs” to history.
What catnip it was! The designer as a transformative thinker rather than merely a form-giver, a true hero for the global age! S,M,L,XL, inevitably, became a model. Who wouldn’t want a big fat doorstop advertising their genius? Fat books feel good in the hand and they feed the ego.
The fat book, he wrote, is a lazy book, powered by images and lacking the scalpel of written argument. They are also wasteful of our time and resources as well as physically difficult to read.
Martin Filler, who remains the architecture critic at the New York Review of Books, reviewed S,M,L,XL for the New York Times in 1996. He called it “user-hostile.” “Persistent readers may well experience the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome unless they use wrist supports,” he wrote. And he calls the book’s creators out for hypocrisy: “Countless architects have been the subjects of monographic catalogues deemed necessary as sales brochures to win clients.” Here, the physical aspects of the book “do everything they can to divert attention from the fact that this volume is not much different in intent from, say, the collected works of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.”
S,M,L,XL is definitely and now defiantly an artifact of the pre-digital age, created by fax, paste-up, and print-out. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the photography. You may not realize how design websites have accustomed you to sharp photography, facade, interior, detail, project description until you try to make sense of the way projects are presented in this book. I squinted at every photo, waiting for it to achieve higher resolution. The idea is that projects are presented cinematically rather than as snapshots. In a traditional monograph—the selling kind—a spread should be all you need to “get” a project. The client needs to be seduced by clarity of form. But OMA’s architecture wasn’t like that (yet). Its built projects tended to be tucked in to existing city fabric, without clear forms and clear shots. Transparent walls, ramps, curtains, elevators were all showcases for movement, so, on the page, the eye had to move.
Whatever the rationale, that approach now feels dated. I am used to beautiful, well-lit images. I am used to absorbing architecture via a few well-chosen pictures on Instagram. Is it really so bad to understand something, if not everything, at a glance? The visual sections in S,M,L,XL can feel gloomy and tedious, like a Very Serious Documentary.
Koolhaas, Mau, and Sigler’s great leap forward for the architecture monograph has been imitated, exceeded, and used for parts, primarily by the many American architects who once worked on Planet OMA. Koolhaas’s disarming dialogues with clients (and with himself) turn up in WORK AC’s 2017 book We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge, a “duograph” between principals Amale Andraos and Dan Wood.
Bjarke Ingels’s archicomic Yes is More was foreshadowed by “Byzantium” in S,M,L,XL, illustrated by Tomas Koolhaas and Louis Price and chronicling a competition for a mixed-use development in Amsterdam that OMA completed in 1991. S,M,L,XL’s visualizations have nothing on Studio Gang’s first book, Reveal, which showcased the firm’s research and diverse collaborators and had an equally complex chart of credits. Koolhaas’s own studios, at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, have led to more big, multi-author books: The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Lagos: How It Works, and collaborations like one with star graphic designers 2×4, which published its own giant monograph, It Is What It Is.
After he’s done trashing the largeness of S,M,L,XL in the Times, Filler turned to the large scale of the work Koolhaas admires, underlining his affinity for Wallace K. Harrison, a midcentury architect also obsessed with bigness (see the Empire State Plaza in Albany) and willing to play ball with oligarchs and developers.
Although at times [Koolhaas] plays the existential romantic, dramatizing the harsh realities of big-city life, he also knows how to translate his fantasies into workable solutions. He is a shrewd political player and self-promoter whose understanding of how public architecture gets assigned and built is not the least of his noteworthy talents.
For too long architects had done that work as adjacent to the highest glory, building a building, essentially donating analysis to potential future clients. Koolhaas wants to be the architect and the client, torching the historical lines between art and commerce, the gentleman designer and the businessman developer.
That’s why he admires John Portman so much. The Atlanta-based architect and developer, who died in 2017, never pretended to play the mother’s house-museum competition-concert hall-skyscraper game. He skipped right to bigness, creating the interior atriums (and the hotels, office buildings, and shopping malls around them) that transformed American cities, particularly in hot climates, during the 1970s. In the essay “Atlanta,” filed under XL, Koolhaas writes:
John Portman is a hybrid; he is architect and developer, two roles in one. That explains his tremendous power: this combination makes him a myth. It means, theoretically, that every idea he has can be realized, that he can make money with his architecture, and that the roles of architect and developer can forever fuel each other. In the early ’70s, to a power-starved profession, this synthesis seemed revolutionary, like a self-administered Faustian bargain.
While American architecture’s intellectual heroes were making works on and of paper—Peter Eisenman’s endless iterations, Lebbeus Woods’s endless drawings, John Hejduk’s endless models—Portman was building “without opposition, without influence, without inhibition.”
This is when Young Rem, at that time a screenwriter, writes Delirious New York about his travels in America. That book, like this one, is filled with appreciation for theme parks, commercial architecture, and architects who know how to pitch and when to compromise. His dream practitioner bends committees to his will, takes over sections of cities, makes it happen. Harrison, father of Lincoln Center; Victor Gruen, father of the shopping mall; John Portman, father of the atrium: These are not architecture-school heroes but financial ones.
Which is why I wasn’t entirely surprised to find, on page 1008, a thoroughly researched historical essay on the creation of Singapore, the island city-state which continues to be a repository for ambitious megastructural projects, from airports to botanical gardens, and whose citizens’ high standard of living is undergirded by an authoritarian government. This is why it pays to page through the whole bloody book: On my other trips through it, I never noticed this essay. Koolhaas calls Singapore “a pertinent can-do world” and refers to its leaders’ “ruthless determination to avoid the debris and chaos that democracy leaves in its wake elsewhere.” “Singapore is clearly not free,” he writes, “but at the same time it is difficult to identify what precisely is unfree.”
As in his description of Portman’s architecture and its effect on the city, Koolhaas is enthralled. Not laudatory, but fascinated.
After touching all 1,344 pages, this is how I feel about Koolhaas too. The headline on this piece is a commentary on constant sexist coverage of the woman who was, for a time, Koolhaas’s rival globe-trotting architecture star, the late Zaha Hadid. Her imperiousness, her clothes, her distance made her in media terms slightly monstrous, while for him the interviews in cars speeding between European capitals, the Prada wardrobe, the endless faxes begging for his attention became part of his chilly allure.
No matter how much Koolhaas tries to share the spotlight, it won’t stick. It isn’t clear to me if it is us (the architectural audience, the media) or him who ruthlessly drags the focus back to the tall, skinny man behind the curtain designed by longtime collaborator Petra Blaisse.
Could he have used his stardom to refuse competitions, establish parameters for equitable practice, set a 40-hour workweek, not work in China and the Middle East? Maybe. Did he? No.
S,M,L,XL lays out the reasons why one could try to overthrow the architectural system, but perhaps the book’s very popularity redirected energy away from revolution and toward the success that Koolhaas had, before 1995, found so elusive. (Maybe he never wanted a revolution for everyone else, anyway.) In the ambiguity of his diva-tude I can admire the prescience of his analysis and believe today’s revolutionaries should keep their manifestos short and sweet.
By Alexandra Lange for Curbed
August 22nd, 2019