Rem Koolhaas on Sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse

For those of us who weren’t able to make it to Harvard’s recent Ecological Urbanism Conference (podcasts have also recently been made available at the conference’s website) held earlier this year, Rem Koolhaas recently posted the text to the keynote lecture he gave on April 2nd. Available (here)

In it he describes the ‘Tropical Architecture’ of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry that he learned of, while studying in London in 1968 and the awareness they had for environment.
But it’s not only about humility. They were also interested in the tropics as a special domain, which is now the front line of the tensions and impossibilities that we are confronted with. They looked at these areas in great depth and were able to analyze to what extent this climate required specific architectures and planning. The studies also examined how an architecture could emerge that would actually persist in this climate without the degree of artificiality that we now take for granted.

Where is architecture today? Looking at Dubai and the icons of the last decade(s), Koolhaas writes;

Now, what about architecture? I think what the crisis will mean for us is an end to the ¥€$ regime. For those who didn’t recognize it, this is a collection of masterpieces by architects in the last ten years (25). It’s a skyline of icons showing, mercilessly, that an icon may be individually plausible, but that collectively they form an ultimately counterproductive and self-canceling kind of landscape. So that is out. Unfortunately, the sum total of current architectural knowledge hasn’t grown beyond this opposition. That is where the market economy and the evolution of architectural culture have been extremely irresponsible in letting knowledge simply disappear between the different preoccupations. I still think that architectural dialectics are between buildings like Falling Water and Farnsworth House, and are therefore not deep enough.

Finally, he chides the literal greening of today’s sustainable architecture and suggests that the next direction or evolution in practice will be infrastructural and structural/systemic? Much like the work of Buckminster Fuller and Margaret Mead many years ago. Koolhaas points to one of OMA’s current projects, the Noordzee master plan for an energy/infrastructure network uniting the countries of the North Sea and reaching perhaps as far as the Sahara, as exemplary of this type of project.




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6 thoughts on “Rem Koolhaas on Sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse

  1. I have to admit I found this talk (when it was delivered; seems he’s edited it a bit since then) pretty disingenuous. He went on and on about how “simplistic” Piano and Foster are for thinking that the environmental aspects of their buildings can be explained by simple (hand-drawn, usually) diagrams, putting up examples of such drawings and mocking them (I believe his exact words were “we still haven’t moved beyond the harmless arrows”).

    And then started discussing his plan for the reconfiguration of Europe’s energy sources, which was accompanied by… simple diagrams with arrows indicating broad ideas. I think it’s a very interesting project, but it was really ironic for a guy who’s built a practice on the clever re-arrangement of simple diagrams to be castigating other architects for simplistic diagramming (and why wouldn’t we think that simple diagrams and deeper, more specific knowledge can co-exist?). Or, for that matter, for the captain of capitulation to capital to complain about the “¥€$ regime”. He might very well be right that icons form a counterproductive and self-canceling kind of landscape, but it’s a landscape he helped build.

    • Rob,
      I haven’t listened to the lecture yet but couldn’t agree more.

      From the moment Koolhaas started his whole anti-icon icon “phase” i felt as if it was a great example of the pot calling the kettle black.
      I suppose it is nice to see a certain level of self awareness but…

      As for the North Sea/European power project i think the scale and challenges are vast and it will be interesting to see OMA try to make hay from the tangle of governments and agencies that will have a say. A little different than working for the Chinese and Arabian Gulf countries i would say, just from a bureaucratic perspective.

  2. Just finished listening to lecture. Not much difference to the available text.

    However one line i believe didn’t make it into the text which i did think was particularly spot on.

    “What is most difficult about architecture today is that architects themselves are the main commentators”

  3. actually i think you are right the order of text and presentation as spoken don’t seem to match.
    The context is same but reordered??

    As for the conference and the larger point made by that and other Klaus cartoons, I so far have found the roundtables better than the lectures but only slightly. Nothing was as groundbreaking as i was hoping…
    It seemed a lot of rehashing..

    • Point? What point?

      It was just easy, mindless satyre trying to capitalize on other people’s achievements.

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