Historical preservationism began innocently enough. The demolition in 1963 of the old Penn Station in Manhattan shocked the conscience of a certain class of urban do-gooder, and with the help of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a campaign was launched to spare Grand Central Terminal the same fate. Its success emboldened governments around the country to strengthen controls over new development, and a movement was born.
But what was once the province of the civic-minded, the protection of our architectural patrimony has today become an empire, a sprawling demesne of stasis that occupies some twelve percent of the earth’s surface. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, national and regional landmarks authorities, environmental activists, and other well-meaning persons have conspired to turn the world into a giant museum, choking off the creative-destructive flow that sustains architectural invention. If the trend continues apace, we could soon see buildings prospectively preserved—catalogued and canonized, stuffed and mounted, before they are even finished.
Such, at least, is the theme that Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas and cocurator Shohei Shigematsu explored in their New Museum show, “Cronocaos,” which ended this Sunday. Located in a new annex space next to the SANAA-designed main gallery on the Bowery, the exhibition was a marquee event of the Festival of Ideas for the New City, a street fair–cultural clambake that took over the surrounding sidewalks in early May.
The annex itself was done up as a keen satire of the show’s subject. Lately, the awning and some interior fixtures of a restaurant-supply store—one of a dwindling number of the many that used to line the Bowery—was preserved in the course of the conversion. Old furniture and ephemera stand without comment beside several aisles of hanging poster board, whose texts and photographs tell Koolhaas’s baleful account of history buffs run amok.
His real beef, however, is not with preservationists, but with what he sees as the diminished role of the designer in the twenty-first century. In the years immediately following World War II, architects—Koolhaas cites Eero Saarinen, Oscar Niemeyer, and Jose Luis Sert, among others—took a commanding role in the creation of social space, touting and designing public buildings, housing projects, and whole cities, with an eye toward establishing a new and more equitable political order. The disappearance of the crusader-architect, and the public disfavor into which so much modern design eventually fell, is rued at length in “Cronocaos,” which sees the designer in his present estate as a creature hemmed in by petty bureaucrats with docent badges. Critically, it is the old, bold buildings of mid-century modernism that Koolhaas names as the exception to his rule: even as the rest of the built environment threatens to turn into a house of wax, says Koolhaas, the buildings of heroic modernist designers deserve and need to be protected. In short, he believes modernist architecture should be preserved because its deletion is part of a larger coordinated process of erasure from cultural memory of activist architects, and the progressive politics they represented.
Since Koolhaas transitioned from theory to actual design with his firm, OMA, it stands to reason that he has come to see himself as invested in the scale and reach of the design profession. It’s not surprising that he might harbor particular appreciation to such monuments to architects’ unique powers as Niememeyer’s Brasilia, Le Corbusier’s United Nations, and Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology.
Historically, of course, this bygone golden age of architects is pure folklore. But Koolhaas is determined, over and against the perceived embalmers of the preservationist movement, to follow the course of the activist architect, and the last wall of “Cronocaos” is filled with OMA’s own proposals—in projects that range from an airport to a city neighborhood—for robust interventions that play havoc with our expectations of space, time, and urban form.
None of which designs, by the way, can be easily dismissed. OMA’s manic, hyperbolic approach has proven so incredibly effective in giving us new and ever more intriguing formal conceits. In a radical proposal for the future of Beijing, for example, Koolhaas and Co. suggest setting aside randomly selected zones for total preservation, alternating these with areas reserved for absolute dynamism and constant renovation. It’s a great, giddy-making idea, and its sheer effrontery makes the earnestness of Koolhaas’s modernist nostalgia seem quaint.
Because at the end of the day neither he, nor the show, really needs it. The preservation of modernist architecture is very much on the upswing, at least in the West, and despite a few setbacks (Edward Durell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle springs to mind) it seems likely to persist in the years ahead. Koolhaas risks showing his hand with his endorsement of high-minded architectural modernism, and would do better to maintain his famous poker face. His outsider’s skepticism of architecture and its social role was part of his appeal at the outset, and it’s not at all incompatible with what is, on the whole, a very healthy reevaluation of the sometimes morbid fetishism of today’s preservationists. Who better than Koolhaas to say of architecture what poet Carl Sandburg once said of Chicago—that it ought to be
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action:
Building, breaking, rebuilding…
Though that should only go to show: you don’t need to be an architect to think like that.
Ian Volner has contributed articles on architecture and urbanism to New York Magazine, Architectural Record, Interior Design, and Time Out New York, among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.