Rem Koolhaas wrote film scripts and news dispatches before he designed buildings, and when he attained fame as an architect he did it backwards: he hadn’t really built anything, but he’d written Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978), and that was plenty. Eventually he began building, but by then it was in a way too late. He was a (delirious) modernist at heart, dreaming of dizzying the skyscraper and the grid with the fever of surrealism, but the reactionary years of Thatcher and Reagan were upon him, and he had to act on their stage. He continued with architecture – his firm’s buildings include Beijing’s CCTV Tower (2008), Seattle’s Central Library (2004), and Porto’s Casa de Música (2005) – but he also struck on a method for shielding himself: he would supplement his practice with writing.
The logic was twofold. Architecture, he explained, is a slow vocation. You have an idea and you build a building, only to find the world’s changed. To have any chance of keeping afloat you have to engage in agile and almost limitless research: not just in urbanism, but sociology, anthropology, politics, media, and all the other cultural ingredients that make up a zeitgeist or predict a future. From this imperative came AMO, the think-tank arm of Koolhaas’s architecture firm, OMA.
The second strand of his literary turn was motivated by a stunted critical impulse. To carry the work of high modernism into the neoliberal era meant facing up to a debilitating irony. Your architecture, conceived with the intention of a tempered, twenty-first century avant-gardism, would soon be realized as a fully commodified monument: a splashy museum beckoning tourists, a vanity project for a dictatorial regime, a mixed-use housing project with no illusion of affordability, topped off with offices and a luxury hotel. Even if these practical problems were skirted, there would still be the issue of representation: what did all these virtuoso displays of spectacular lightness really signify, if not the free-floating fantasy of finance capital? Spectacle and lightness could be rebelled against, as Koolhaas frequently attempted, but any advancement of the sublime or oneiric in architectural history still seemed too easily absorbed by a triumphal capitalism, or smacked too much of a precious formalism. It became apparent that the only way to build and critique would be to build and then critique; Koolhaas has continued to pursue critical writing as a bid to stake out a semblance of independence in a profession awash in money.
With the success of Delirious New York and a few buildings under their belt, AMO began releasing massive, thrillingly strange books: first S,M,L,XL (1995), then Project on the City (2002), a multivolume work undertaken alongside the Harvard School of Design, where Koolhaas teaches. S,M,L,XL surveys OMA’s architectural projects, presenting them alongside a literary panoply of diaries, travelogues, fairy tales, critical essays, fables, photos, and sketches; Project on the City led off with Great Leap Forward, a volume on the Chinese urban corridor fusing Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and a host of other cities along the Pearl River Delta, and then turned out a second volume, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, that examined consumer space at the paradoxical moment of the mall’s ubiquitous overhaul of urban and suburban space, on the one hand, and the first stirrings of its decline on the other, its growth eroded by online shopping and boutique-y urban renewal schemes. Enclosed in the Guide to Shopping was a stunning polemic, Junkspace, now reissued by the New York Review of Books and paired with a response by art critic Hal Foster.
Junkspace falls into a tradition of left writing (Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Benjamin’s “One-Way Street,” Debord’s Society of the Spectacle) that gestures in and around its subject with fragmentary theses or jottings. Like Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Koolhaas’s Junkspace attempts to describe its subject and inhabit its rhythms mimetically, to produce a literary junkspace that mirrors the shiny cluttered hell of the contemporary built world. Junkspace appears to be a concept, but it’s not, really; it’s more a slogan, one meant to umbrella over every bit of architecture thrown up, torn down, remodeled and distended since the Thatcher/Reagan years, and like its subject it resists concision and reaches for tentacle-like elaboration.
How to sum up its elaboration? The essay is a “jeremiad,” as Foster notes, one full of angst and apocalypses, and alongside Koolhaas’s adumbration of contemporary nightmares is a funerary mourning for modernism, for an era of planning and function structured by the welfare state. Junkspace eclipsed planning or deformed it into something unrecognizable. After planning’s disappearance, space surrendered to consumerism. Malls took over, and buildings became additive and proliferating, with extensions clipped on and glued together, their expansiveness enabled by air conditioning, just as the skyscraper’s was by the elevator. Part of Koolhaas’s argument is technical: instead of holism and perfection, we have sloppy conditionality, “orphaned particles in search of a framework of pattern.” The sloppiness grew disorienting, as Fredric Jameson famously showed with Los Angeles’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel, becoming what Jameson describes as a world in itself and trading material presence for image-making and atmospherics, “a lifelong immersion in the arbitrary” in which historical signs rushed by one another and buildings became so many film sets: “13 percent Roman, 8 percent Bauhaus and 7 percent Disney (neck and neck), 3 percent Art Nouveau, followed closely by Mayan.”
So far, so postmodern. But the true horror of junkspace is its relentless ironic turns, the way it is dialectical without being transcendent. One would think a riposte to the glimmer of Hollywood ornamentation might be minimalism, but Koolhaas argues minimalism, too, is guilty, merely the flipside of an unredeemable dialectic. “The ultimate ornament, a self-righteous crime, the contemporary Baroque,” minimalism cloaks junkspace but doesn’t replace it, or strives to disappear entirely into post-industrial lightness.
Koolhaas takes the whole arsenal of contemporary solutions to the curb, including his own, both architectural and critical. Junkspace is the “fallout” of the modernism he once sought to revive, its “apotheosis, or meltdown.” In S,M,L,XL Koolhaas celebrated Bigness as the path ahead. Modernism had been done away with by an unlikely coalition of radicals, liberals, and reactionaries: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who winked towards a pastiche-heavy Las Vegas populism; Jane Jacobs, who railed against highways and housing projects in favor of dense neighborhoods and vibrant streets; Guy Debord, who saw urban planning as oppressive authoritarianism; and the environmental movement, pushing to scale back urban growth to something more sustainable. In modernism’s aftermath Koolhaas looked for a way to renew the project of modernization, and found it, or thought he did, in Bigness, a “programmatic alchemy” of diverse parts acting in service to a whole, channeling modernism without subsiding to its homogenizing logic. As Foster writes, Bigness “suggested a way to design at an urban scale again, ‘to reconstruct the Whole.’”
By millennium’s end the parts had unhinged and demented the whole, and no architect was exempt: “(Note to architects: You thought you could ignore Junkspace . . . But now your architecture is infected, has become equally smooth, all-inclusive, continuous, warped, busy, atrium-ridden . . .).” Koolhaas the critic implicated Koolhaas the architect, implicitly throwing himself into the swirl of a prose that takes on the stuffed, quality-less qualities of junkspace: stapled phrases, sliding ellipses, dramatic thuds, and omnipresent food metaphors, many appropriately dilettantish – “The average contemporary lunchbox is a microcosm of Junkspace: a fervent semantics of health-slabs of eggplant, topped by thick layers of goat cheese—cancelled by a colossal cookie at the bottom.”
The ironies continue. Even the sense of program and plan returns in perverse guise, as the whole world becomes subsumed into junkspace, all transport plans and pedestrian flows reduced to afterthoughts or residues of modernist infrastructure, attached and added haphazardly to sites of consumerism so that “where movement becomes synchronized, it curdles,” congesting mall escalators, airport terminals, museum exits, highway systems. Junkspace’s anti-programmatic freedom comes to resemble an authoritarian order of waiting and shopping. (How would Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati, masters of mocking the architecture and machinery of modernism, react to junkspace?) In the end everything vacillates hopelessly, trapped in Koolhaas’s unredeemable dialectic; by portraying junkspace’s incoherent sprawl, the essay makes a point of leaving architecture no room: “There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways.”
Which is where Hal Foster comes in. Foster, whose books include The Return of the Real (1996), The Art-Architecture Complex (2013), and Bad New Days (2015), is today’s left’s most thoughtful, forward-looking, principled critic – something all the more remarkable for his frequent turns as a polemicist. If leftist art criticism were strung along a pole, on one side would be Foster, and on the other the provocateur and occasional Stalinist Boris Groys, with the convincingly provocative Claire Bishop somewhere in between, sliding towards Foster while citing Groys. Foster’s criticism is systemic yet flexible, self-doubting but suggestive; it progressively captures the mood of the present while working to turn it, to redirect its drift by repurposing its elements. He displays many of these qualities here, in an afterword seeking to open up a way forward for architecture titled, with a characteristic mix of modesty and ambition, Running Room.
Running Room is at its best when it works with Koolhaas, extending and updating his argument. Sparks of insight flare out in short suggestive bursts. (Like Junkspace, Foster’s essay is scattered and fragmented, divided in titled sections.) Foster appends to Koolhaas’s totalizing sweep a quiet series of useful additions, questioning junkspace’s limits by invoking the recent growth of other spatial types: the camp, whether for migrants or prisoners, and various forms of state and commercial surveillance, redolent – Foster doesn’t quite go here – of the new “smart city” urbanist model, exemplified by New York’s High Line-adjacent Hudson Yards project.
But the usual strategies for turning the present into something oppositional, shared by Koolhaas and Foster alike, seem impossible in the face of junkspace. In Bad New Days, and again in Running Room, Foster endorses an art that flaunts its critical colors by inflating market excesses to maddening proportions, with examples extending from Zurich Dada and Kurt Schwitters to, in the present, Thomas Hirschorn and Isa Genzken. Koolhaas, too, has been known to practice “mimetic exacerbation,” proposing to scale up requests for megaprojects by swelling museums or airports to the size of entire cities. The hope is to preserve an element of critical distance through an absurdist over-identification, but both Koolhaas and Foster acknowledge junkspace’s resistance to such logic, “for it is not only excessive in its own right but resistant to further excess in its very neutrality.” It’s hard to exaggerate something that has bland exaggeration as its dominant characteristic. Foster rummages through junkspace looking for a door, a window, anything, but in the end he can’t find much: the featureless, the hellish, and what he thinks might be a few cracks, “in which there is still running room.”
Where are the cracks, and how big? Foster’s hope for countering junkspace’s “fuzzy empire of blur” is to revive a sense of architectural autonomy: to figure out, amid all this bloat, a set of architectural principles that can advance architecture outside market demands. “At moments,” Foster writes, “nothing less than the survival of architecture is at stake for Koolhaas. How can architecture persist when the conditional is the norm, when ‘there is no form, only proliferation,’ and when spaces ‘search for function like hermit crabs looking for a vacant shell?’” Foster’s goal is to reground architectural practice, and by doing so to discover a “new kind of negative capability,” an ability to say no to commercial disorientation in favor of a basic sense of architectural clarity. And yet his hope seems both too marginal and too conservative. Disciplinary autonomy could imply a distanced criticality, a layer of insularity for a field increasingly transformed by related and overlapping sectors: fashion and design, digital technology, the somersaulting pace of commercial development. But could a program of architectural autonomy really flourish under present economic and political circumstances into anything other than niche academicism or defeated moralizing? And is there a way to imagine autonomy progressively, as something other than a return to modernist principles, “the recursive strategy of the neo” that Foster himself sees as “played out”?
Foster’s modest call to arms reveals, finally, a portrait of the critic in confusing times: “All of us (architects, artists, critics, curators, amateurs) need a narrative to focus our practices — situated stories, not grands récits. Without such a guide we remain swamped in the double wake of post/modernism and the neo/avant-garde, that is, in a zone of methodological Junkspace.” The critic needs something to root for, and Foster thinks he’s found it in junkspace’s narrow gaps. It’s not that he’s deluding himself, exactly, but that what he’s struck on seems too slight and withered to develop into an inspired narrative. Everything is not junkspace, and yet the tide continues to rush its way, unfazed by any progressive counter winds. A different critic would stick to – in the words of Perry Anderson – “a lucid registration of defeat.”
At times Koolhaas has been that critic, responding to well-meaning questions about teaching young urbanists to be less commercially-minded by suggesting it’s perhaps better not to foster the illusion that such an attitude is possible. Yet Koolhaas remains a dedicated student of the present; as Foster writes, he “learns from ‘what exists’” and “invents with it.” Now, at a time when attention is lavished on cities and skyrocketing levels of urbanization, Koolhaas has begun researching the countryside. He gave a talk in October on his preliminary findings. A development he seemed particularly intrigued by was Silicon Valley’s massive warehouses and server farms, clustered in sprawling empty pockets of rural Nevada, along with similar build-ups in the tech-industrial zones of Singapore. (In one of the rural Nevadan compounds, work is being done on the largest structure ever built.)
In their “unimaginable” scale these warehouses approach a new architectural sublime, unleashing hugeness and material presence on a scale far surpassing industrial modernism. They accumulate like cities in the desert and have little need for people, opening up, for the first time since the modernist era, to new industrial necessities, and returning to modernist concerns of need and function. These new industrial areas replace the directness of architecture’s social function with something more purely industrial: compounds for machines and occasional teams of tech workers, uninhabited and rarely visited, through which architecture and engineering can renew their march of historical progress. Architecture can reign in the country and leave the city as so much junkspace. If we wish for architectural autonomy, we might just get it.
William Harris is a columnist for Full Stop who has also written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM, and The Point. He lives in Minneapolis.