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Earlier this month Rem Koolhaas returned to the Harvard GSD in order to give one of his infrequent and multitudinous conferences. Filed under the motto “current preoccupations”, the talk, which replayed Koolhaas’s October lecture at the Barbican, showcased a bunch of different issues taking place on and around OMA’s office. And so, it was presented as a  halfly-articulated progress report that allowed Mr. K to adopt his improvisational approach to discourses of late. One of the highlights of the session  was, of course, Project Japan, Koolhaas&Obrist’s book on Japanese Metabolism and its heroes, which Koolhaas surprisingly used to grieve (again) for a lost mediatic aura that architects still had in Kikutake’s times: Today, architects have increased public notoriety at the expense of credibility. It’s hard to argue against that, even if Koolhaas’s argument, namely that an architect has not made it to the cover of Time Magazine since Phillip Johnson did in 1979, is itself pretty bland, and also a little too pro-establishment for OMA. So, in a nutshell, architects get more screen minutes today, but fewer quality minutes. However, on the one hand, Time Magazine does not hold the qualifying power it did four decades ago (if it did then). But also, Time is possibly less a desired media to be featured on today which, regardless of its historical pedigree, has a much lower impact capacity.  And above all, it does not offer the type of mediatic plateau that Koolhaas and OMA have needed to shape and sell their elusive brand image throughout the last decades.

It’s also rather amusing to hear  Koolhaas, who revels in giving conferences that are rather rock concerts than intellectual debates, complaining about the caricaturization that comes with the mediatic ubiquity of architects. Especially when he himself has been one of the main actors in the postmodern recovery of satire as a tool to (de)construct architectural discourse. Still, Koolhaas has always been a careful constructor of his own  legend, and it’s possibly here where this counterfeit argumentation, deceptively articulated as a complaint, fits -as well as his later mention of OMA’s production as modest, performance-driven architecture. Certainly, performance has always been one of the driving forces of OMA’s design, present in all-scales of his projects: It’s difficult to find an architectural practice that has put to better use Tschumi’s strategies of transprogramming,  from Jussieu to  Bordeaux, to the Kunsthal or to Porto, even if usually formalised as dis-programming. But the same could be said about Koolhas’s careful design of both his discourse and self-image, both an ongoing performance where statements can’t be taken at face value, and where there is a very conscious detachment between what he says and what he does.

“Modest” is not, however, an adjective that automatically springs to mind when thinking of OMA’s production, which since the late 80s (I’m thinking of the Congrexpo, but also of the CCTV building, the Seattle Library, the Casa da Musica at Porto,  or the unbuilt Córdoba International Congress Center) has bounced progressively towards the L-XL side of the scale. Funny, too, that he referred to the invisible quality that he found in some of his most recent buildings. Today architecture is mediatic as ever, but also fundamentally mediated by its public presence, and by the very nature of this presence in the new media. The flashy era of digital image/media/production has sworn much of current architectural production to immediacy and to a futile search for instant memorability that lead to an effective disappearance, both from perception and from memory: In a scenario where every building struggles to be distinct and claims desperately for attention, the cacophony of the whole inevitably results in a loss of the individuality of the pieces: All-new, all-different, they all look the same to the viewer. The cartoony aggregation of skyscrapers in the UAE desert that has become one of Koolhaas’s most celebrated images is pretty much the world OMA has helped create.

And then, he talked about countryside and preservation.

 Hoo-haa.

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The video of the lecture used to be online somewhere, but apparently it has been taken down now. However, a full-length video of Koolhaas’s previous conference OMA: On Progress, dealing with the exact same issues is available on youtube, along with the rest of the talks at the Barbican in London: OMA: On Prudence (Victor van der Chijs), OMA: On Generations (Shohei Shigematsu), and OMA: On Speed in Architecture (David Gianotten and David Tseng).

Even more interesting are the two shorter, “unofficial” videos that the people at Dezeen produced on the occasion of the opening of the OMA/Progress exhibition, where Koolhaas offered an improvised tour through the still unfinished rooms. There’s something akin to a guilty pleasure in the domestic atmosphere those two videos exhale, especially in the first one, where Koolhaas goes room by room , talking to the camera that follows him as he strolls through the half empty exhibition halls and speaks briefly about each project in plain, unsophisticated words (providing some amusingly partial and clumsy descriptions). Of course, one always wonders how much of this is actually very consciously staged. Truth is, the nervous rush from project to project, which could help him empathize with the viewer, ultimately contributes to the halo of mystery that surrounds him, making him look somewhat uninvolved and uncomfortable -in a hurry to just get the task done (fragility vs. disdain). To my eye, it falls on the same strategy as his carefully careless lectures. I was tempted to count how many times Koolhaas uses the pet phrase “a kind of” throughout the video (but I resisted, so if anyone bothers to do so, please email me).

In any case, this unceremoniously rushed pace with which Koolhaas goes through OMA’s visual catalog confers the video an undeniable aura of authenticity that fits perfectly the un-beautiful aesthetics Rotor chose for the exhibition (many of the items lay bare, as if directly transposed from OMA’s offices, in almost-empty rooms), itself a pretty good encapsulation of OMA’s cold and deceptively spartan approach to design. Still, the second video, where “Koolhaas discusses two of his current preoccupations: the countryside, which he is addressing for the first time; and generic architecture, which could result in neutral, copyright-free building forms” is also worth watching. Actually, the whole OMA section on Dezeen is worth a look.

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For a more accurate report of Koolhaas’s lecture at Harvard, with Michael Hays and Sanford Kwinter as partenaires, check “Goodbye stararchitecture”, by colleague and friend Zenovia Toloudi at Shift Boston Blog. A brief but interesting review of the exhibition can be found in Rory Hyde’s “OMA/AMO : Progress/Regress“, which looks back at the evolution of AMO and OMA’s production in the last decades, as portrayed by the changes in their subsequent publications and exhibitions, from Content (Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, 2003) to the Cronocaos installation they did in the Italian pavilion as part of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, and finally to the Progress show in the Barbicane.

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Last week, during the Alumni Weekend at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the exhibition “Dispatches from the GSD: 075 Years of Design” was officially inaugurated. In the GSD Website you can find all the information regarding the events that took place. For some more info and a few pics (including the stand where some of the cartoons from this blog are exhibited) you can scroll down or just click here.

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Some of the events were streamed live, and in youtube you can find videos of the reception toast by Harvard President Drew Faust, and of the looong Faculty & Student Pecha Kucha that took place as part of the 75th anniversary celebration. There’s also a short but nicely illustrated commentary on Harvard Magazine, and a brief at Peter Christensen’s site.

Dispatches from the GSD Exhibition – Main Wall.

The 2011-12 academic year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and in order to celebrate it, the GSD will host a number of events regarding the anniversary throughout the whole academic year. Along with those, the GSD is hosting the exhibit “Dispatches from the GSD: 075 Years of Design”, which will be on display for the duration of the Fall semester throughout Gund Hall, including installations in the lobby gallery, Loeb Library and fourth floor.

Instead of showing a chronological approach that would be inevitably incomplete, the exhibition, which was assembled by a team of students, professors, alumni and staff, has been divided into a succession of episodes; moments that Peter Christensen, curatorial director, describes as “journalistic dispatches from the past, each with its own narrative and artifacts”. All these fictional journalistic dispatches, whose texts have been written accordingly, have been arranged within six thematic categories: Design as Research, Design as Critique, City as Process, City as Form, The Continuous Institution, and The Shifting Institution. 

General view of the exhibition in Gund Hall’s lobby

Shown in this last area, The Shifting Institution, item [C02.21: A Comic Take on the Harvard Graduate School of Design] consists of several comic drawings, including some cartoons from “Klaus on the GSD” done in 2009 [I am sincerely flattered]. Here are a couple of pics and the accompanying text:

A Comic Take On the Harvard Graduate School of Design. July 25, 2009.

CAMBRIDGE, MA – If you want to know what happens between the walls of Harvard Graduate School of Design, the comic strip Klaustoons will give you the answer. Written by an Alumnus of the school hiding behind the pseudonym of “Klaus,” the blog offers humorous cartoons that capture moments of academic life, general student culture and critical discussions in architecture. Cartoons aren’t new at the Graduate School of Design, where the students’ drawing abilities have been known to serve satirical purposes since the 1980s.

The cartoons displayed are Changes in the GSD (Hairstyles I), Platform 2008, GSD Lectures 2008: Parametric Design (I), GSD Lectures 2008: Parametric Performances, Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk: Networks and Spheres, On Starchitecture, and Koolhaas at Harvard: Ecological Urbanism. In the same display there are three more cartoons provided by the Special Collections Department of the Loeb Library: one by Fran Hosken (c1940s), and two more signed by Wang, from the 70s-80s (Inés Zalduendo dixit)

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Dispatches from the GSD: 075 years of design
August 22–December 22, 2011

Anniversaries offer the opportunity to consider the past as an active interlocutor with the present and the future. For the GSD, this means foregrounding an array of agents—people, events, objects, and ideas—in a rich institutional history to bring the collective memory of seventy-five years into sharper focus for design practice today and tomorrow. Conjuring a comprehensive account of the institution since 1936—its thousands of alumni, hundreds of faculty and staff, and two homes—would run the risk of homogenizing a history characterized so consistently by heterogeneity and multiplicity.

As such, the exhibition employs an approach that is episodic, reveling in moments of the GSD’s history that are as singular as they are important. In the spirit of framing these moments as stories unto themselves, they have been conceived of as journalistic dispatches from the past, each with its own narrative and artifacts. Writing history in the present tense, as this exhibition does, is an attempt to make the GSD’s vitality clear and to claim a future that is at once inherited and projective.

The 120 dispatches in this exhibition begin in 1936 and arrive at the present day to include a handful of contemporary thought pieces from a cross section of the School’s faculty, each expressing in a single authorial voice a reflection on the state of design today and the challenges of its future. The historical dispatches are organized into six thematic categories: Design as Research, Design as Critique, City as Process, City as Form, The Continuous Institution, and The Shifting Institution. Each section contains dispatches that speak to a greater set of themes spanning all of the School’s programs and departments, various media, and all seventy-five of the School’s years. In momentarily stopping the clock, this exhibition hopes to enliven the GSD, and Harvard University at large, with the engagement and propulsion that the past can offer us today and tomorrow.

—Peter Christensen (PhD ’14), Curatorial Director

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Below these lines you can find some general photos of the exhibition. Make sure to check the GSD website for more pics and updates on the exhibition and events. Also, Bruce Mau Design offer a couple of peeks at the  posters they designed for the event (updated here).

Special thanks to Inés Zalduendo and Mary Daniels (Curatorial Advisors of the exhibition and masters of the Dark), Marta Fenollosa and Igor Ekstajn (all additional photographs by Igor Ekstajn)

 

 

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