Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Rem Koolhaas

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Mar 5, '12 5:14 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    Koolhaas in the haas. Omagawd!

    [Photo from Chauhaus--our cafeteria--courtesy of Paul Cattaneo.]

    Koolhaas just introduced the study-abroad Rotterdam studio he's teaching in the fall, and now...he's giving a talk called "Current Preoccupations," with Q+A led by Sanford Kwinter and K. Michael Hays.

    6:30: Mohsen at the podium: ...Tonight, under the title 'Current Preoccupations,' Rem will be speaking about some of his current preoccupations. [check!]

    RK: "I've been asked to give a lecture relatively briefly so there will be time left to discuss." ...I also want to sketch the strategic domain that an architect like me is currently operating, that define our possibilities but also our impossibilities.

    Slides of various architects in the press. 60s, 70s, 80s. TIME Magazine covers stopped showing architects; architects stopped being taken seriously.

    [Comparison of exhibitions in Paris' Grand Palais in 1909 and 2011.]

    "Here, visitors browbeaten into submission" in 2011. Something we should worry about.

    [Satellite image of world at night. North America is dark.]

    RK presents the notion of moroseness and exuberance. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama declared the "end of history," which was a morose viewpoint, and for RK, one which particularly characterizes the west right now.

    Uneven distribution of power in the world: In the satellite image, the dark part in which we currently live and exist is the part that produces the reality for the light part.

    [graph] I wanted to show how limited the room to manoeuver is. I'm not complaining about my situation.

    Here is the starchitect; my main work now is to undo the expectations of this condition.

    OMA recently completed a bank in London; it's in such a tight urban space that nobody will ever see it in its entirety. It's right up against a building by Foster. In order to reveal some of London's history, we lifted it off the ground. You can see an incredible richness of the city.

    In the same relatively sober mind, you have to consider a building we did at Cornell. A typology that has been almost universally considered exhausted: the box. We put the box on an artificial hill. You can rarely see the whole; only fragments. Initiated by "your current dean, at great effort."

    With an appropriate modesty and focus on serious issues, and avoidance of [extremes].

    The morality of the world is still driven by its most morose part. We might notice that in that morosity, we're not particularly generous in letting more exuberant nations celebrate their moment of emergence. CCTV: all western critics are insisting that it is sheer extravagance, but I'd suggest that in its own context it is serious, and serves its process well.

    One thing that for me is not very noticed is that we were able to establish in China and Beijing, which is a city and political system dedicated to stability and clarity of interpretation, a building that is anything but stable and looks different from every angle.

    The same is of the interiors: there are usable spaces but everywhere elements of structure, like art. This is an exciting moment for me when architecture and structure have merged to form a new hybrid.

    That's our built work, and I want to be explicit as I can in placing it in the current context.

    I'm about to start writing again...on the countryside. For some reason I was frequently in a single village in Switzerland, able to observe a number of changes. Initially I didn't think to look for a pattern but in the end a pattern became almost inevitable. It's become my highly personal preoccupation.

    The countryside is not what it used to be. It's become a completely artificial construction. This Swiss meadow which looks authentic is anything but.

    This is the Swiss village; it's original size. The village has become twice or three times as big even though the original inhabitants have left. [problematic]

    The situation there is of rigorous preservation; no modernity.

    Three women who are brutally imported simply to walk the dogs, keep the house, and look after the children.

    If this is the graph of urbanization, and this is the graph of declining--I hesitate to call it "agriculture"--of farming. I've contributed to the thinking of [urbanization] but now want to think about [what is happening in rural areas.]

    You could look at tractors, and seemingly familiar elements like this one have through the digital world become completely different. It's become a computer, measuring the yield, creating an individual cocktail for each pixel [on the field, to maximize agricultural output].

    Milk production is a more mechanical effort, as is reassuring animals. "I'm not saying that's bad but it's ironic that such transformations are barely on the radar of our schools or thinking. I want to find a way to discuss and think about it."

    Nature is over: anthropocene.

    You can see it as..the final phase of modernization. Whether we want it or not, this terrain [becomes part of our work.] Anticipated by Buckminster Fuller and Superstudio.

    "No country will be more affected by global warming than Russia." "Russia will be affected positively."  Its livable area may be doubled. But there are not enough people there, not enough labor there to do the agriculture that could become possible there.

    No country is less prepared to think that change [than Russia]. That's a paradox we're trying to--not resolve, of course--but penetrate. Vladivostok. Isolated remnants of the Soviet state [in apartment blocks].

    Middle East. Will only talk about Doha where they've been working.

    Downtown Riyad. "In our eyes, impossible: Arab families in public space" having an existence that we always think are not possible. Or a train where men and women are traveling in the same compartments. A new culture in Doha emerging where old separations are becoming undone.

    What Qatar is trying to do is form a modern face or model of contemporary Islam, which can become a leading example or prototype for developments to come. That is clearly their mission and I'm very interested in how they work on it.

    Takashi Murakami exhibition that could not have been possible currently in the west: a long mural; after all the cuteness and sweetness, the demons and ghosts that are part of Japanese history, that also resonated with the people there.

    Project Japan. my position only produces books that are increasingly superficial...and flimsy. For that reason it was more important to do something serious. They interviewed all the surviving members of the Metabolists. But also the people around them: "first wives, second wives, third wives."

    The book has a series of historical chapters, of Japan since the 30s, and the interviews.

    Because we were not Japanese and did these interviews relatively late in these people's life...Kiyonori Kikutake [for example] described himself as an opponent of democracy, devoting his life to re-establishing feudalism. Because of democracy being imposed after WWII.

    What we became slowly aware of is that it's a mistake to see the Metabolists as a series of individual talents, but it was crucial to see where it came from. Japanese modernism was a movement that started before WWII, in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 30s. Japan is fraught with very complicated topography--mountains, cities divided in small plots, vulnerable for earthquakes and tsunamis. What the Japanese discovered in Manchuria is wide open land. So they discovered there the need for large scale planning--previously unknown in Japan. This invested these architects with a great deal of importance.

    Imperial Japan used architecture for its language. This was its first modernity, but it's not the modernity we know; it's one that is very Japanese.

    Kenzo Tange project during the war: imperialist project. The irony is that the atom bomb in Japan created the same tabula rasa that they found in Manchuria, so they could [apply what they learned there].

    Tange was at the same time a real teacher and real architect, with the ingenuity to run both offices and an academic environment: an incubator for the Metabolists. His home had a permanent crew of young, gifted architects eating together. Tange and his wife took it upon themselves to also find brides for these young architects, and to marry them in their home.[!]

    He didn't thrust his superiority on his [students], it was caring.

    We can feel nostalgia about this; this kind of event is now utterly unthinkable. We're unable to maintain this kind of intimacy and solidarity, because each of us is so incentivized to go it alone. How is it possible that such outspoken talents could nonetheless work and live together?

    In 1960 when Tange had a small stable of great talents, Tange organized a world design conference in Tokyo, and introduced extremely young people (e.g. Kisho Kurokawa, at age 24), among his peers (such as Louis Kahn). That is a unique feature of Tange to cultivate pupils and also to give them so much space.

    Tange was the author of the group, but not the center of the group; it was a way to give everyone the space and oxygen to develop.

    Architecture and the media: We live in an incredibly mediated age; began in Japan in the 1960s.This photo [Tange and Tokyo Bay] shows the first time that an architecture project was rendered for television.

    Kurukawa invented the idea of the capsule; capsule mentality as opposed to uniformity [in form and thinking]. Still a wonderful and beautiful project.

    Kurokawa became a known silhouette, used in advertising. Answering intimate questions in an original way, having the contents of his pockets photographed and analyzed. A new form of masculinity in Japan. Manhood in Japan after the war had been discredited; Kurokawa and Mishima revived it. 'Rarely has an architect played such a role in the culture of Japan' and created such a symphonic effect with other cultural elements.

    Kurokawa had a TV program where for 40 minutes he could talk and theorize about whatever he wanted. "I don't say this with envy of so much media time." He used it to think about Japan.

    Shimokobe was launched by Tange as a kind of bureaucrat or master client who systematically, almost single-handedly, gave a steady stream of commissions for this theoretical work. He produced the coherence of Metabolism. This fostered almost a military campaign, "on land, sea, and air" to deal with Japan's weaknesses. For example, the multiplication of the ground, floating cities on the sea that would not be susceptible to earthquakes, and the air--not by skyscrapers but by clustered highrise elements.

    Kurokawa wrote 480 reports over 36 years. "I feel completely inferior" in comparison to such serious efforts.

    Study of an early pixelation of the whole of Japan, from 1150, showing the development over time, to a distorted view today. An incredible, overwhelming intricacy of knowledge as it applies to their own country.

    RK's last thought is to again underline how the Metabolists worked together while still retaining and developing their own projects and trajectories.

    End. Koolhaas, Kwinter, and Hays sit down at the table.

    Hays: The relationship between bureaucratic architecture and the avant-garde...

    ...In the United Sates, in the early 80s, what we think of as a western avant-garde turns very dark, inward; the solidarity you talk about splits. "The bureaucrats become the more advanced wave, and it has to do with economic changes." Is there a third model?

    SK: I learned a long time ago that you should ask very short questions if you want interesting answers.

    RK: No, I'm waiting because I want to respond to both of you.

    SK: I'm jealous. In a way, you've forged a career and a life that are simultaneously a career and a life. Not only that, but it has to do with engaging the world and engaging the unfolding of history. I was going to ask you if this is true of Rem Koolhaas: "I design buildings when I have to, but only when I have to." Or...

    You didn't leave it on the screen very long, but you had a Kurukawa quote: "My greatest ambition is to design time." Is it yours as well?

    RK: Your question is as usual to the point. I can only give a disappointing yes. It is a very good comment. [laughter]

    SK: OK, a provocation then.We all talk about the 60s, we dream about it, have all kinds of nostalgia. but we forget how much it was rooted in conflict: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, etc. You cited exuberance, even Chinese exuberance to be provocative. How do you factor that side: you seem to side these days with the exuberance, not the moroseness. That is an important part of the history: sex, drugs, rock and roll, the murder, the gore. Most architecture comes out of that kind of apprehension of that a question?

    RK: um, I...

    SK: We're killing you!

    RK: In the past 20 years we've let ourselves... we don't have a creative way of orchestrating conflict and surviving conflict. It used to be muchmore violent, intense.

    SK: So the friendships and camaraderie were stronger, and so were the fights.

    KMH: But a critique of the rational machine was an important part of the 60s. But you still think of a kind of rationality of the market that controls architecture. But there's not a rationality; instead there's a randomness...almost a lack of use of architecture. The critique has been lost in the homogenization of the corporate and the avant-garde.

    RK: The collapse of the two.

    KMH: And the collapse of the two is the star system.

    RK: I think the star system is really interesting. Since we all use it we think we know what it means, and what the decay implies. Recently, just for the hell of it, I looked at the real brilliance of Jean Nouvel, of Herzog and de Meuron.

    SK: Did you find it?

    RK: Absolutely, in surprising quantities and evidence. You didn't have to look [very far to find it...]

    There's a self-loathing in the system but we're also blind to many of the qualities...

    KMH: I'm thinking of how the support system, but also lighting and material space, becomes architecture. Herzog and de Meuron's parking lot. Is this a return to the mechanical and structural systems as raw material for architecture, when we've concentrated so much before on the wrapper?

    RK: Mm hmm, maybe yeah. But the Swiss house is also emblematic. That pain makes everything bureaucratic an smooth. Maybe we should be more [at ease with pain].

    SK: To understand your work, I think it's interesting to look at what you ignore. Not in ignorance but what you [put out of play]. You apply a level of thought and design at a level that doesn't immediately seem to be called for--extremely large or small systems. But looking today, you do seem to have an incredible preoccupation with geography.

    RK: I would say it's a real preoccupation with politics and therefore with geography. It's interesting to come back to the issue of moroseness and the richness it can bring. It was another preoccupation, as you may or may not know, I've been involved at the political level for the past three years in the future of Europe. On a think tank with ten people. For the first time I was involved in such a way with real politicians. It hasn't been a brilliant success but I do have a positive feeling about Europe right now. It requires an enormous amount of time and creativity and I see some of it emerging. I assume my base in the morose part of the world...but from that position I also become incredibly interested in our political system and interested in what happens with politics. In the Arab situation and in China.

    SK: What were you doing in Vladovostok?

    RK: I'm teaching in Russia in a school; this year looking at the whole hinterland of Russia; everything except the cities. We had 20 students in Vladovostok.

    Question from the audience: Your charts and buildings are preoccupied with a culture of contingencies... I've noticed that your preoccupations are diverse. But can you describe how your preoccupations are contingent upon each other?

    RK: How important is that? I'm not asking to be annoying, but would it make you feel good if I could reveal a kind of patterning, or is it actually important that there are a number of separate domains that may eventually collapse into each other? ...Like a universe forming with black matter... I'm surprised with a recent preoccupation with preservation...and with nature. I see it as a series of nebulae in movement out of which occasionally clear ideas emerge, without the pretension that the whole cloud is clear.

    KMH: That's Baroque by the way. The Baroque as opposed to the classical frame of thought, starts with differences.

    Question from Mark Mulligan: I thought Project Japan was a great book and asked difficult questions. I feel like you have a sympathy for the Metabolists, but I'd like to ask you if you think they made strategic missteps or if they missed an opportunity to have a bigger impact?

    RK: You can also describe it as a total failure. In the current moment there's also an interest in certain methods, forms...of letting things happen. I could be critical of individual careers. There's something I didn't get to, which is--metabolism came to end in 1973, the famous year of the oil crisis, the Arab world, a kind of euphoria. The metabolists suddenly became very active in the Arab world where there was money, and the African world, where there was independence. Japanese architects became the architects of choice to celebrate African independence, which makes sense because if you are celebrating your independence from abuse you don't look to your former abusers. It was also an announcement of a different world, entirely without westerners.

    Question from Faye Hays: I've been thinking about the incredible capacity of surfaces. I was interested in what you called the moral attitudes or code that criticized the attitude of celebration, of CCTV. If we quickly diagnose the current situation and compare it to Japan in the 1950s. Food production: is the soybean the machine that could be reacted to critically within architecture?

    RK: I'm glad you brought up the soybean. ...I should modify the word 'exuberance.' I think that is serious work that...has little to do with exuberance. Criticality for me has always been for me a complex issue. Everything we do and absolutely critical. But I also doubt that--this is a discussion we had in the 80s and 90s--I doubt that architecture can be critical because it inherently confirms a hypothesis or need. You can be critical as an architect, but architecture itself can't be critical of anything once it's there.

    Question from the audience: I was interested in the slides where you summarized your life as a series of phases. Is that a way of saying that if anyone will historicize my life, I will do it before anyone else? Or is it a morose way of saying you're near the end of your career?

    RK: I don't think I'm at the end of my career. ...I was explaining what the phases are about, what the economy of each phase is and therefore what the range of each phase can be. It's not necessarily that I was trying to document my own life, but to use my own life to see what the structure of architecture careers is and to clarify what the possibilities are at this moment.

    SK: At the end of your introductory essay to the metabolist book, you said what was interesting they turned their late weaknesses into some kind of strategy.

    RK: Although I don't feel that I'm at the end of my career, it was interesting to [talk with] so many people who were, and to talk about that. It was very impressive how strategic... Old age--we typically think forces are waning--but old age requires an enormous strategic efficacy, because you have fewer powers but want to deploy them with the same or more effect. Because even in the most remote of them, I sensed an aggressive ambition to ....give the right kind of input in the regime. It was a strong learning experience.

    Question from the audience: You showed us a map of the world, and highlighted the part of the world that is not North America and Not Europe. In your lecture you showed us engagement of these parts of the world--but [only the wealthy parts]. I'm wondering about your plans to engage the less wealthy areas?

    RK: This is part of why we were in Russia. I want to dispel the notion that this is something I've neglected. One of my great investments has been Africa, although unfortunately it has never led to a book. It's led to a film, catalog, exhibition. I'm planning to write it now, and it's also related to the morose area imposing its moralism on the light area. I was in a position where for somebody like me it was politically incorrect to even look at Africa--at Lagos. It's only now that I feel confident to say what I have to say about it. It's also easier because the situation has improved in the meantime. I'm not that kind of character who wants to see a place at its worst. But I'm convinced that poverty is our collective future and it's necessary to understand.

    SK: And resilience.

    RK: And resilience...

    KMH: It's been great to have you back and we look forward to the options studio in Rotterdam.

    End. Applause.

    Thanks for reading!


    P.S. See also this story on the talk at the Harvard Gazette.








    • aml

      hi Lian--thanks for your hard work live blogging this, i just wanted to add to the last question since it was actually mine. I also mentioned how he had engaged the 'third world' (not europe and the us, in any case) through his study of the Swiss countryside as an artificial landscape maintained by imported labor. I thought the Russia answer was buying some time at first (I don't see Russia as a necessarily poor country, although certainly with poor regions). But later in his answer he was very candid and thoughtful--he mentioned his prior work in Lagos (which I meant to mention and forgot), and how he perceived himself as completely unqualified to write as an observer of the situation there, and only now beginning to come to terms with it. In the end, he said he's planning to go back to it now. I wanted to clarify because I didn't mean the question to be an accusation (although maybe bits of it were?), I was more genuinely curious because he set up the lecture with that map. Again thanks for live-blogging, I imagine it must be incredibly difficult!

      Mar 5, 12 8:52 pm  · 
      sofia k

      Hi Lian,

      Thank you for this transcript. Was any information provided regarding the topic for the fall studio option in Rotterdam? 



      Mar 5, 12 11:04 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Yes, I believe much information was the information session before the lecture.

      Mar 5, 12 11:53 pm  · 

      Lian, thanks for another excellent liveblog, these are always highly anticipated.

      Mar 7, 12 9:22 am  · 

      The video is listed as private. Any way to bypass this? Any other location where it's posted?

      Either way, thanks for the blog.

      Mar 9, 12 3:22 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Hey Juzi, I don't know what the deal is! The video at the GSD website is also now listed as private. If it gets re-posted publicly, I'll add the link to my blog!

      Mar 9, 12 6:57 pm  · 

      So although i "picked" this post a couple of weekends ago i just read it all, slowly, "again" for the first time.

      A couple of things jumped out at me:

      I really liked this response to his CCTV designing working for Beijing critics "all western critics are insisting that it is sheer extravagance, but I'd suggest that in its own context it is serious, and serves its process well."

      This quote needs to be on a shirt or Tumblr(ed)!

      "I'm glad you brought up the soybean. ...I should modify the word 'exuberance.' I think that is serious work that...has little to do with exuberance."

      This image 


      Also do you happen to know the credit/author for that image of what I can only assume is pre-Metabolist Manchurian "large scale planning"?

      Mar 12, 12 11:48 pm  · 

      Hey Nam, if it's this image you mean: 

      It's in the Project Japan book, credited to Yoshikazu Uchida, and is labeled 'Housing Collective Scheme for Agricultural Immigrants'. The whole book is great, highly recommended.


      Mar 13, 12 1:07 am  · 

      Fred, thanks yes that is it. I have the book on my wish list. Plan to definitively buy it.

      Mar 13, 12 8:17 am  · 

      "architecture itself can't be critical of anything once it's there."

      I dont know if I agree with that, but it fits well within his lecture.
      Given that he shows charts of economic duress before displaying his design for the Rothschild bank.

      Mar 14, 12 12:50 am  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Hey! Thank you Nam, Fred, al!

      Nam, on the one hand, I surely mangled the soybean quote. On the other, that was kind of how it was. The man talks quickly.


      Mar 14, 12 7:33 am  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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