Arts: Desperately seeking modern

The architect Rem Koolhaas's aim is to `dismantle the gravity which still clings to the 20th century'. How is he doing?
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The Independent Culture
After his 1994 Moma exhibition in New York, Rem Koolhaas annoyed many of his critics by choosing to be photographed for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar standing in full celebrity mode before his midnight blue Maserati. Never the shrinking violet, even in a profession where egos are often greater than the mega buildings they conceive, Koolhaas has been provoking the architectural establishment ever since. Witness his continuing rise through the firmament - his outrageous chutzpah in the face of controversy. His retro-active manifesto for Manhattan, Delirious New York, became the surprise classic text on modern architecture and society way back in 1975.

From the early days of his architectural practice - the grand but blandly named Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Koolhaas has struggled to make the transition from urban theorist to built and fully understood architect. OMA Rem Koolhaas: Living, the first major exhibition of his work ever to be staged in the United Kingdom, goes some way in charting his hard-fought progress.

That no less a luminary than Frank Gehry can call Koolhaas "the [future] hope for our cities" lends considerable weight to his displayed vision and argument that architecture should be seen as a tool to channel, relax, and crystallise the flow of global events. Nevertheless, he remains a controversial figure. To date, none of his buildings have been realised in Britain.

In the grandiose upper and lower galleries of the ICA, Living publicly reveals the Dutch wunderkind's experimental working methods, probes the shifting boundaries between the private and public domain, and experientially dramatises the "dirty realism" of 20th-century existence. From the contrasting spacial conditions of the Nexus Project of 24 individually designed houses in Fukuoka in Japan, one begins to appreciate how Koolhaas successfully juxtaposes brutality and sensuality, intimate and open, concrete and abstract, heaviness and lightness to create a new urban lifestyle. It is one which is not ashamed to use modern industrial materials - corrugated metal, aluminium, chipwood, exposed concrete, naked fluorescent tubes and plastic webbing - in the creation of transparent buildings which daringly deploy the crude and the precious side by side.

There is a strong sense of collaboration in OMA's ever-more complex and radical style. Apart from the major role played by structural engineers Ove Arup, external critics, artists and philosophers all participate in the design process from a very early stage. It is this exploration of the theoretical and practical relationship between architecture and contemporary cultural situations that allows him to transcend normal categorisation in the ongoing battle of the styles.

His personal idiom foregoes the "bogus historicism" of post-modernism and "exhibitionist angst" of deconstructivism. Over the last decade, "small" suburban villas, such as the Maison a Bordeaux, the Dutch House, the Patiovilla in Rotterdam and the Villa Dall'Ava in Paris have autonomously translated widely differing conditions of occupation to specific sites, creating transparencies, obstructions and intensifications, and, paradoxically, reconciliations in the completed work.

"A series of meditations on the contemporary city," one American critic described Koolhaas's "novel" on architecture, the cleverly titled but user-hostile S,M,L,XL, pages of which are liberally plastered across the battleship grey backdrops of this exhibition. The same might be said of his domestic oeuvre, here displayed through his rotating perforated models, notebooks, elevations and perspectives and computer realisations.

In Bordeaux, Koolhaas found himself with a client who was confined to a wheelchair. In order to liberate him from the "prison" his old house had become, the architect created three houses in one. At ground level, he carved out a series of caverns from the earth; atop the house, he created two separate living spaces for the couple and their children. In between, he sandwiched an almost invisible chamber made entirely out of glass. Then to connect all three, in true Koolhaasian style, he inserted an elevator which moves freely between them entirely changing the plan and elevation of the villa every time it "locks" into the different floors.

Over the years, Koolhaas has shown what a shrewd political player and self-promoter he is. Martin Fuller once famously described him as a cross between Ridley Scott and Francois Mitterrand. The ICA has come up with an exhibition that, like much of Koolhaas's written work, throws together with a bravura abandonment ideas and philosophies which undercut the pomposity and pretentiousness which some might say are prevalent in the architectural profession today.

The show certainly appears to be drawing in youngish visitors (especially studious, bespectacled Japanese) who are only too delighted to lie supine on giant PVC beanbags to watch the films of Koolhaas and his constructive processes shown back to back on giant television screens suspended from the ceiling.

Upstairs, in darkened chambers that are now almost ashamed to show off their elaborate 18th-century stucco work and covings, visitors are offered the Koolhaas vision for the urban redevelopment of Schipol Airport. Graphs, maps, text, research data, satellite pictures, photographs and collaged images are all combined and tinted into the El Greco hues which are used so effectively in the film Edward Scissorhands. A slide presentation analyses the idea of expanding the airport on its present site. Next door, a model reveals OMA's more ambitious proposals to relocate the airport on a man- made island off the Dutch coast.

There are plenty of flashing lights, alarming sirens and ear shattering noises which, ostensibly, further highlight how increasing expediency and impermanence can liberate urbanism from self-imposed atavistic duties and preoccupations with control. Whether this wild jumble of grainy xerography, homemade cartoons, purloined typefaces and multicoloured inks and papers adds anything to Koolhaas's relatively small body of built work remains to be seen.

For the moment, though, it remains entirely conceptual.

Koolhaas wants desperately to be modern, but Living illustrates that modernity - in its old utopian sense - is no longer a realistic option. His architecture has been described as unswerving, seamless, tectonic, episodic, and pragmatic, but it is the man himself - and his emotion and enthusiasm - who will eventually succeed (or fail) in his quest "to dismantle the gravity that still clings to the 20th century".

Sometimes, during his well-attended lectures (Koolhaas is currently Professor of Architecture at Harvard), he deliberately shows slides sideways or upside down. "It doesn't matter," he comments wryly, and one has to wonder at how seriously he takes his work.

The ICA obviously takes him very seriously indeed. But then after all, like the "quantum leap into a radical future" that became the great masterplan for Lille, it has become the very model zone of maximum modernity. Koolhaas and the ICA sit comfortably enough together. The stuffed shirts may well agree to disagree.

`OMA Rem Koolhaas Living' is at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171- 930 3647) until 19 Sept

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