July 15, 2011
Nicolai Ourroussoff, who is said to be leaving the New York Times, ought to have at least one job offer pending: Publicist for the Office of Metropolitan Architecture. Last Sunday he once again spilled ink praising his hero, Rem Koolhaas, calling the soon to be completed CCTV Tower in Beijing the best building he has seen in “a lifetime of looking at architecture.” He is a relatively young man, and obviously hasn’t seen many architectural masterpieces.
As I’ve said before in this blog, the CCTV Tower is a death trap that will make the Towering Inferno look like a walk in the park should it ever catch fire (as it almost did a few years ago). Thousands of Chinese will risk life and limb working in the building, and will no doubt vacate it before a decade is up. It is also one of the most menacing, mute, and insipid buildings ever designed. How Koolhaas is able to pass it off as a seminal work of architecture is worth considering, because it says a lot about the pitiable state of the design professions now.
Koolhaas is one of the most insidious and chimerical propagandists ever to claim eminence as an architect, and such a list would include Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Peter Eisenman, to name just 20th century figures. Virtually all of his notoriety comes from self aggrandizing, polemical books and articles such as Delirious New York, and S/M/L/XL, his fashion parody treatise of a few years back. One building in the U.S., the Seattle Public Library, got kudos for the architect from many critics. Otherwise his firm has worked mainly in Europe on odd, mainly cultural, or retail buildings. He likes shopping. His books are bland attempts at humor in the vein of South Park.
Like many a 20th century art figure, Koolhaas makes his living as an antagonist of the status quo, though he sometimes pretends to defend aspects of the contemporary city that others find banal and negative. His cynicism is a sign for hip disengagement with all that might be considered normative. Like many charlatan-artists, he often writes or talks in syllogisms. Circular reasoning frees him from every having to claim an idea or defend one. He often offers his buildings as snide, critical jokes on their users or patrons.
The CCTV Tower is just such a building. He has written that people “can inhabit anything” now, and this frees him to create buildings that challenge users to find comfort, security or aesthetic pleasure in their spaces. None of those qualities are present in the CCTV Tower. In fact, the building fairly dares its inhabitants to figure out how to enter, circulate, or locate their work spaces in it. The public are forced to follow a prescribed, snakelike route that skirts the common work spaces that give the building its name.
Like many insecure polemicists, Koolhaas has to reinforce the importance of his work in ways that real innovators find distasteful. Presenting his building as a reinvention of the skyscraper (a type he has swooned over for decades), he felt the need to patent the design (a deliberate reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Illinois). He has also written that the surfeit of published images of the project, many in realistic photo-montage, provide a “commentary” on representation, virtual reality, and advertising. It is the latter that he cynically employs in “branding” CCTV as an OMA work. Suggesting that everything he publishes is a “meta” version of something else also smacks of smug circularity. He even pokes fun at the Chinese, his dumbfounded patrons, for spending billions on buildings like his own to build cultural capital during the Beijing Olympics.
A skilled manipulator of the media, Koolhaas has “built” his CCTV Tower on a rhetoric of sand. Inserting a bomb into the very society he clearly despises, his building is a kind of Trojan Horse. Full of hidden contradictions, dangerous hazards and armies of automatons who work for the state while also trumpeting the architect’s subversive ideas, the CCTV is an anti-tower without portfolio. It reminds me of Madelon Vriesendorp’s phallic paintings of the Chrysler and Empire State building in post-coital exhaustion, featured in Delirious New York. Soon someone, maybe me, will paint a version of the Beijing “tower” as a similarly flaccid, twisted lover, disappointed that it couldn’t remain erect long enough to reach climax.