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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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The above is a (slight variation on a) cartoon just published in the Fall/Winter issue of New York- based, Carlo Aiello-directed eVolo Magazine. Other than the cartoon itself, the magazine focuses, under the title “Cities of Tomorrow”, on recent works by Arup Biomimetics, AS/D, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, LAVA – Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, MAD Architects, Matter Management, MONAD Studio, NH Architecture, Rojkind Arquitectos, SOFTlab, Ted Givens, Terreform One, Trahan Architects, UNStudio, Vincent Callebaut, Will Alsop or WOHA Studio among others. Of course, all these are just an excuse to publish the cartoon (magazines usually require a certain minimum amount of pages to be considered as such), but the editors disguised it so well that it’s impossible to notice. You may want to check the complete list of featured works here.

EVolo also launched their 2011 Skyscraper Competition. Registration and submission will be open till January 11, 2011.

A preview, with the article “Lincoln Road: Envisioning Infrastructure Sensuality” on MONAD Studio’s Lincoln Road Capacitors Project written by Eric Goldemberg can be found here.

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UPDATE: Below you can find the cartoon in its original context as a companion to the article API – AR 2050, by John Hill, creator of A Weekly Dose of Architecture and its sister website A Daily Dose of Architecture. You can read it by clicking on the images or download them in .pdf form here, by courtesy of Carlo Aiello and John.

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eVolo 03 – Cities of Tomorrow. How do we imagine the cities of tomorrow? This is one of the most difficult questions that architects, designers, and urban planners need to answer in a time where more than half of the world’s population lives in urban settlements – a mere century ago only ten percent did.
This issue examines innovative urban proposals that will transform the way we live; projects that preserve the natural landscape with integral architecture and urbanism with deep connections to site, culture, and environment. These are concepts of hybrid urbanism that offer a juxtaposition of programs to live, work, and play for a hyper-mobile population.

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Universalism used to be a rather simple affair: the more detached from local traditions, the more universal you became. If the stoics could be called ‘citizens of the world’, it’s because they accepted being part of the ‘human race’, above and beyond the narrow labels of ‘Greek’ and ‘barbarian’. A regular scale seemed to lead from local to global, offering a compass along which every position could be mapped. Until recently, the more modern you were, the higher up you ascended; the less modern you were, the lower down you were confined.

Things have now changed a lot. What now is more universal: the American world order or the French Republic? The forces of globalization or those who call themselves anti-mondialists? Local farmers daily influenced by the price fluctuations of commodities or local teachers insulated behind the walls of civil service? Amazon Indians able to mobilize NGOs in their defence or some famous philosopher secluded on campus? And what about China? Certainly a billion and a half people will add some weight to whichever definition of the world they adhere to, no matter how local it might appear to Westerners – if there is still a West.

The situation is all the more confusing because, as many anthropologists have shown, people devise new ‘localisms’ even faster than globalization is supposed to destroy them. Traditions are invented daily, entire cultures are coming into existence, languages are being made up; as to religious affiliations, they may become even more entrenched than before. It’s as if the metaphor of ‘roots’ had been turned upside down: the more ‘uprooted’ by the forces of modernization, the farther down identities are attaching themselves. Modernization, with its clear frontlines, has become as confusing as a game of Go at mid-play.

Hence the success of the word glocal, which signifies that labels can no longer be safely positioned along the former scale, stretching, by successive extensions, from the most local to the most universal. Instead of subtracting one another, conflicting identities keep being added. And yet they remain in conflict and thus have to be sorted out, since no one can belong to all of them at once…

But if the compass of modernization is spinning so madly, how can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate glocal attachments? First we have to modify this bad habit of ranking all entities of society from the largest to the smallest through some sort of zooming effect. ‘Large’ and ‘small’ are devoid of practical meaning. It’s wrong to assume that society is made of Russian dolls fitting into one another, all the way from planet Earth to the inside secrets of an individual heart. Wall Street is not a bigger space than, let’s say, Gaza. From the boardroom of IBM, one can’t see farther outside than a shopkeeper in Jakarta. As for the Oval Office, who could think it’s inhabited by people with ‘larger views’ than those of my concierge?

What we really mean by size is connectedness. Yes, the floor of Wall Street might be more connected, through many more channels, with many other places on Earth than my study, but it’s not bigger or wider; it does not see clearer; it’s not more universal than any other locus. All places are equally local – what else could they be? – but they are hooked up differentially to several others. Apart from those links, we are all blind. Thus, it’s the quality of what is transported from place to place that creates asymmetries between sites: one can be said to be ‘bigger’ than some other, but only as long as connections are reliably maintained. It’s never the case that one site is more universal, more encompassing, more open-minded than any other, in and of itself.

Once this radical ‘flattening’ of the land has been obtained, once every global view has been firmly localized into one specific site, once attention is focused on the connecting networks, it’s possible to ask a second question: since we see something only thanks to what circulates between sites, how can we be made aware of the fragility of our own interpretations? A club is not good or bad depending on its extension – the more inclusive the better, or, on the contrary, the more exclusive the better – but depending on its ability to fathom its own limitations when it excludes or includes other members.

This is where the old label cosmopolitan could get a new meaning. Although Ulrich Beck recently tried to use it as a synonym of ‘having multiple identities all at once’, Isabelle Stengers has proposed a much more radical meaning: politics of the cosmos. How can we entertain not just many identities at various degrees of extensions, but different cosmos?

That cosmos are also up for grabs is a new and unsettling idea. Before, there existed a single nature and different cultures, some of which were ‘limited’ to a local point of view while others were broad enough to offer membership to ‘citizens of the cosmos’. But how to build the City of which they are supposed to be the citizens? Where is the common home that we could live in? Such a task can no longer be simplified in advance by saying that the wider the perspective the better it is, for there is no ‘larger’ view anymore.

In the old cosmopolitan view, there were no politics and no cosmos because the higher unit was already given: one had only to break away from one’s own attachments in order to reach it. But in Stengers’ view, there is no more strenuous task than to invent political tools capable of revealing how all cosmos differ from one another. It’s an even more risky endeavour to imagine how they could be gathered into some future common arrangement. If cosmopolitan is an adjective fit for a fashion magazine, cosmopolitics, on the other hand, is the duty of the future, the only way to build the common Domus.

Bruno Latour: On the Difficulty of Being Glocal. Domus, March 2004

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