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.

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.

The tragedy of lives lost in a fire is always hard to bear, but particularly so when the accident might have been averted. Beijing’s recent building fire adjacent to the CCTV tower was horrific, particularly in videos that have appeared on YouTube, but the interest in the blaze has gone beyond mere empathy for its victims (construction workers mainly, who were celebrating with fireworks). A number of commentators, both in China and the West, have asked questions about the architecture, and the famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, who designed both the hotel and the communications tower next door. Did hubris play a part in the blaze? Was this a bad omen? Would western starchitects be invited back to Beijing following the disaster? Was the building safe for its prospective occupants?

In a previous post about Chinese architecture and urbanism, I questioned the country’s choice of high-profile western designers who were hired, and given carte-blanche, to remake Beijing for the summer Olympics. The billions spent on showcase buildings, all with silly nicknames, seemed ridiculous last August, and seems even more shortsighted in today’s dismal economic climate. It appears from reports of the fire that the glamorous hotel in the CCTV complex might not be rebuilt, given the enormous cost involved and the severity of the destruction. The tragedy will lead reasonable people to question the wisdom of locating so many thousands of  workers in Koolhaas’s bizarre tower next door, which offers little safety against fires. Here is why: not only is the building tall at 75 stories, it twists in a strange cantilever, preventing people on many of the floors from getting to an exit. Occupants are literally hovering above the ground with no vertical circulation nearby for hundreds of offices. The speed of the destruction of the nearby hotel indicates just how vulnerable people would be were the larger building to catch fire. The World Trade Center catastrophe would pale by comparison.

When will architects and clients recognize the folly of such experimentation with building form? Following 9/11 many architects and engineers began to question the wisdom of constructing massive skyscrapers, given the near impossibility of evacuating them in large fires. Yet this did not stop egotistical builders in many Chinese cities from erecting towers over 50 stories, the limit of safe elevator egress. To those of us who care about the environment, the era of the skyscraper is over–energy concerns will drive builders to reconsider tall buildings as heating and cooling them becomes ever more difficult. An architect who pretends to care about cities and their residents, as Mr. Koolhaas does (and his hypocrisy shows here as elsewhere), has no business constructing such death traps.

Poetic justice? Ominous portent? The Chinese have followed omens for centuries, and there is no reason to doubt them now.