The Critics - Architecture: We are still cool. But we're not the future

Rem Koolhaas Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
"Metropolitan apotheosis" (the title of Rem Koolhaas's talk) was what the crowd wanted to see enacted. But judging by the huge attendance of the faithful at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Tuesday, the speaker was already a god. We were gathered to hear the first in a series of talks as part of Radio 3's "Sounding the Century" festival (it will be broadcast this autumn). Koolhaas - architect, urban theorist, contemporary icon - is famous for the Villa d'Ava in Paris, numerous public buildings in Europe and Japan, and is most recently the author of S,M,X,XL, a book not about clothes sizes but about living in a city today.

The setting helped his godlike status, of course: bathed in a shaft of intense light that penetrated the hushed gloom of the hall, he informed us that "the city as we know it no longer exists or can no longer be made". A stifled cry from the back row (wonder, outrage?) was muffled by the sound of nearly 2,000 people wriggling excitedly in their chairs as they realised this was just the first of many Big Statements to come. "I am an architect in spite of my interest in cities." An amused ripple of admiration ran through the auditorium.

Cities, he went on, are still spoken of as places planned by architects in a master stroke. This myth is wrong. One sensed the leaders of the capital's art venues tensing up here, as they matched this Statement with the knowledge that the speaker is on the shortlist of practices vying for the job of sorting out the South Bank Centre (SBC). "It is so deeply flawed it guarantees its uniqueness over the next century," said Moses (sorry, Koolhaas). Rictus grins all round.

The speaker's Dutch accent merely added spin to the verbal assaults. "Paris, Amsterdam and New York are doomed cities, centres which have reached a point of stability from which they cannot move". He quoted the novels of Zola and Dickens, in which cities feature as centres of action and reaction - "brutal emancipatory machines" - before becoming mere shopping malls, places where, after the death of Ideology (political, social, religious), credit-card culture changed the city. "No longer laboratories of uncertainty" - you just know you're getting quality with phrases like that - "they can only become more like themselves". Nul points for Mitterand and Guiliano then. The architectural cognoscenti waited nervously to hear the verdict for London, and heard how it "accumulates different successive identities, is almost schizophrenic, dynamically unstable. It has no start nor end!" We are still cool. But we are not the future. We deny the demise of the city, the fountainhead continued. One felt a big blank think-bubble appear above the audience. No, the future city will be like China's Shenzhen and the urban conglomerations on the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong - villages only a decade ago. The Western concept of the ideal city and our foolhardy notions of urban planning have been superseded by the East, which is creating the new model of the "not-yet city", one resembling a giant montage of tower blocks, shanty-towns (there is nothing in between), car-parks, golf courses, cinema complexes and the rest. Property Klondikes, these are instant cities, where farmers now lead millionaire lifestyles in skyscrapers, where their children are sent to learn English in private schools built to resemble the Houses of Parliament. The future city is a satirist's dream.

It was a brilliant performance, with Koolhaas expounding dazzling theories while conditioning his audience to accept that there was no counter-argument. The few who tried to question him - my favourite was the man who timorously asked if Jubilee Gardens should be kept if Koolhaas gets the SBC masterplan job - were told that he didn't answer questions with the word "should" in them. That would mean taking sides and he was above all that. It would be fabulous if he gets the SBC job, but it won't be an easy ride.