Koolhaas Declares War on Preservationists

May 25, 2011

Architecture’s loudest iconoclast has finally shown his true colors. Rem Koolhaas, the provocateur, tastemaker, and darling of academic architects, is railing against the “historical amnesia” fostered by cultural efforts to preserve great cities, monuments, and archaeological sites throughout the globe. Reeling after a blaze nearly destroyed what was to be his masterwork, the CCTV Tower in Beijing, the Dutch founder of OMA has found a new target for his increasingly shrill polemic: historic preservation. A show at New York’s New Museum lays out his case in lurid detail.

Neither he, nor his apologist Nicolai Ourroussoff of the New York Times, seems to be aware of the increasing threats to some of the world’s most precious historic structures, now that wars are raging throughout the Middle East and climate disasters are leveling whole cities in Asia. The Mostar Bridge will be a mere footnote when historians consider the toll taken by these new ethnic conflicts. Nor do they acknowledge the fact that the preservation movement has been, in Stewart Brand’s estimation, the only popular architectural movement to garner virtually unanimous praise from governments, civic leaders and concerned citizens everywhere. Perhaps that is why avant garde architects find it so threatening.

Koolhaas has invented a cute epithet, “Cronocaos,” to denigrate all preservation by painting landmarking efforts as elitist, nostalgic, and falsely engaged with “history.” Despite the unquestionable alienation brought on by Modernist planning, urban renewal, and the high rise megacities that he favors, he dares to suggest that saving great buildings and districts “further alienates us from the past.” What kind of past is he talking about? And what kind of history? The most likely answer is that Koolhaas continues to hold to discredited and destructive views of the zeitgeist and Hegelian historicism that are no longer taken seriously by any respected historian. His view of “reality” is as distorted as any supposed theme park operator might conjure.

Ourroussoff writes that “the show [at a chic downtown gallery] draws on ideas that have been floating around architectural circles for several years now–particularly the view among many academics that preservation movements around the world, working hand in hand with governments and developers, have become a force for social gentrification and social displacement, driving out the poor to make room for wealthy homeowners and tourists.” Where does he find the “academics” that  hold these views? And what publications can he cite in which they are articulated with proven scholarship? As a professor of historic preservation at four leading universities, I have seen nothing of the kind among respected academics in any field. Moreover, to suggest with nothing but hearsay evidence that all preservation results in social displacement is insulting millions of neighborhood residents who have remained in their homes because of landmarking efforts that stave off development and sprawl. This kind of rhetoric fans the flames of conflict and gives developers the green light to destroy more cities and landscapes with monstrous buildings like those Koolhaas has designed in Beijing.

I am surprised that the New York Times found Ourroussoff’s “critique” of this exhibition “fit to print,” for it is the worst kind of journalistic pandering to garner favor with a cultural figure whom the critic admires. There is virtually no mention of a counter argument or suggestion that people of intelligence might strongly disagree with the positions presented. One might as well read the texts presented in the exhibition or its catalog with no analysis whatsoever. The public deserves better from one of the few critics who are actually paid to cover critical issues in architecture and urbanism. NPR actually had an engineer who could discuss the effects of tornadoes on buildings, something that many people might find useful when facing death or injury in a storm. Ourroussoff is worried that his favorite bars in the Bowery might be displaced by “gentrification.” Put him on the next plane to Joplin, Missouri and he’ll see what real worries are about.

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