Rem Koolhaas, “Life in the Metropolis,” 1977.
Hays: “In the very mist of an antimodernism that vilified the utopian aspirations of architecture between the wars as a manifest will to power whose desire for a collective freedom had been converted into a totalizing formula of a steel and glass cage, there arose a sensibility altogether different, characterized by its ironic, parodic take on the psycho-aerobic exercises of modernism and its maintenance of what should still be seen as functionalist and programmatic concerns, but now directed toward almost surreal scenarios.” Koolhaas’s work with OMA (est’d 1975) was part of this surrealist critique, and we see in this essay that it has as much to bear on Modernism’s absolutist grip on architecture and social ideology as it does on the ideology of postmodern architects regarding the relationship between architecture and culture.
For those who have not read Delirious New York, go get it. It is easily one of the most entertaining and fascinating works of history I’ve had the pleasure of reading. That aside, in the context of this anthology it is best to approach this essay (which preceded the 1978 publication of the book) from two angles, the first as a piece of critical history and the second as the covert deployment of that history against contemporary architectural debates.
“Life in the Metropolis” is essentially a brief review of three case studies that would appear in Delirious and the three “conclusions” Koolhaas draws from them. These case studies—arranged sequentially—are Coney Island, the Downtown Athletic Club, and Radio City Music Hall. Coney Island’s primary significance is as laboratory for the schemes that would play out on Manhattan itself—primarily the conversion of nature into artificial, technology-driven, preferred alternatives. We are given some of my favorite historical images as examples: 24-hour beach swimming—made possible by enormous electric lamps above the ocean—and a romantic ride called the “barrels of love” that simulated the random interactions leading to romance that one might encounter in the city.
The Downtown Athletic Club (1931) represents the perfectly surreal exploration of the skyscraper’s potential. Divorced from rational programmatic juxtapositions through the infinite replication of space, the skyscraper (and the elevator) turned the modernist Plan and Function into something altogether unrecognizable. “Raymond Hood (the most theoretical of Manhattan’s architects) defined Manhattan’s interpretation of functionalism: each plan as a collage of functions that describes on the synthetic platforms an episode of Metropolitan rule.” The Downtown Athletic Club was essentially a Dalí-inspired program, a completely ridiculous agglomeration of functions where “eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the 9th floor” was a very real scenario.
As the Modernists imposed their ideology through urban grids around the world, with Radio City Music Hall Koolhaas gives us the opposite (and synchronous) condition in the Metropolis: “planning in Manhattan [consisted] of the imposition on the explosive substance of the Metropolis of metaphoric models (…) that [replaced] literal organization (…) with a form of conceptual control.” The Metropolis is a material reality that is full of surreal juxtapositions, exploding beyond the control of Modernist theory—where control is exercised in metaphorical interior universes instead—and intentionally interpreted as an ironic and contemporaneous parody of Modernist theory. Any kind of ‘control’ on the part of the architect was exercised through simulated artificial realities within the material buildings. This division between the external and internal architectures would grow into a primary narrative element in Delirious—what he called the ‘great lobotomy.’
The enthusiastic, popular conversion of the natural and orderly into the artificial surreality of the Metropolis was made possible by popular “ecstasy about architecture.” But the enabling role of the masses in Koolhaas’s history of the Metropolis is potentially the hidden secondary function of Koolhaas’s game. In a way, this history of the Metropolis could be reduced to ‘how mass hysteria toward the artificial and technological enabled the evolution of unique architectural conditions, despite predominant architectural ideology,’ or more easily put: ‘how architecture moves forward without theory.’ In a climate where popular understanding and levels of legibility dominated architectural discourse, a climate of crisis where theory was seen as the savior of architecture, we must expect that Koolhaas’s history served a thinly veiled vision of an alternative possibility.
It is noteworthy that the Downtown Athletic Club was turned into a workable diagram—its section converted into a plan—and reappeared as OMA’s entry into the 1982 competition for the Parc de La Villette, “which further explored the relationship between a rigid, nonarchitectural device and the contingent programmatic effects it can generate.” From this we could argue that Koolhaas’s ironic yet critical history took on a third role, that of generating new work whose participation in postmodern intellectual atmosphere was more implicit than explicit—in the way that Eisenman’s was explicitly theoretical.
I should also point out, if only for my own gratification, that the surreal yet ‘s poignant early projects of OMA—the Welfare Palace Hotel, The Hotel Sphinx, and the floating pool, all imaged above—take part in different tradition: the ironic but critical (and weird) graphic. These graphics have the character of being the real medium of the architectural content, not unlike the graphics of, say, Superstudio, or Archizoom. Just a thought I’ve been working on for a new series.