Preservation and Its Discontents: The Word According to Rem Koolhaas

The celebrated architect, architectural theorist, and Harvard University professor Rem Koolhaas gave the keynote speech for the Festival of Ideas for the New City on Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, he introduced the exhibit "Cronocaos" in a preview at the New Museum. The exhibit, by his architectural partnership OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) and his Rotterdam design studio AMO and first presented at the 2010 Venice Biennale, offers visual arguments, mostly ones of paradox and ambiguity, about the new regime of preservation. Building restrictions and regulations designed to preserve buildings or whole neighborhoods, a phenomenon that is worldwide, not only pose difficult choices for innovative designers but also may serve to corrupt memory itself by creating artificial historical environments. "If you preserve something," Koolhaas explained, "it becomes conserved and then something artificial."

"Cronocaos" at the New Museum
"Cronocaos," an exhibit at 231 Bowery, the New Museum's new ground-floor space.

Presented in the New Museum's ground floor space at 231 Bowery, Cronocaos examines the growing trend that seeks to conserve the past but frequently ends up limiting choices for innovative design and creativity. The exhibit space is intentionally bifurcated, with the right side "preserved," with remnants of the old restaurant supply store it occupies, and the left side partially renovated. Such is the chaos that preservation places on the soul of a modernist. The documents and arguments on display, guided in order by directional arrows marked on the floor, take in a variety of concerns. The sheer fact of the growing worldwide preservationist impulse has diminished the role of the architect, illustrated here with one panel showing TIME magazines with pictures of architects on the cover. The last one was Philip Johnson in 1979. As Koolhaas discussed at the preview, this diminished public role of the architect in the age of preservation may help counteract those who often frequently call him and others of his stature a "starchitect."

Rem Koolhaas speaking at preview for "Cronocaos" at New Museum
architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas speaking at a preview of "Cronocaos," May 5, 2011

A long wall of documents illustrates many projects of Koolhaas's firm, ones that forced the designers to confront the often aggravating, and mostly limiting, restrictions dictated by preservation. Some problems they resolved successfully. Their design for ITT's McCormick Tribune Campus Center on Chicago's South Side invigorated Mies van der Rohe's original campus from 1953, but they refused to leave the building untouched, as the preservationist demanded it. Other projects had to be abandoned, like their ideas for an irregular and looming extension for the Whitney Museum in 2001. The Landmark Preservation Commission wouldn't go for that sort of thing in old brownstone New York. Many projects are illustrated and cleverly described along this wall in the exhibit. Visitors are welcome to tear off and take home these illustrations and texts, affixed to the wall in multiples like a desktop calendar.

"Cronocaos" at the New Museum
OMA history, with illustrations of the firm's history with preservation.

Along the back wall, a rather humorous and pointed set of images argues that the repurposing of older industrial spaces, often gigantic, tends to breed equally gigantic art installations that often take as their themes various riffs on the "apocalyptic sublime." The designers compare the artwork to the set designs of B-movies of the horror genre, finding their aesthetics uncannily similar. It’s a fairly hilarious highlight of the exhibit although not easily understood as thematically consistent with the rest of Cronocaos.

Speaking of preservation, Koolhaas explained he "never pronounced the word until eight years ago," thinking the word symbolized "reactionary people who resist." Now he must come to terms with it, because it's so prevalent, but we don't argue enough about what it means. "Preservation has become a kind of default position," he said. "It's part of the repertoire of modernity."

"Cronocaos" at the New Museum
a panel illustrating four iterations of Berlin's Reichstag, leaving no mark of earlier history

As buildings and neighborhoods of New York increasingly fall under preservationist and landmark protections, it’s worth addressing how much we’re condemning parts of the city to an artificial past and whether or not we’ve made enough room for constructing new urban centers that could better serve the city’s social needs. What room is left for the new New York?

"Cronocaos" opens to the public today, May 7, and remains on view through June 5 at the New Museum's space at 231 Bowery.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from May 5, 2011.


RLewis said...

This man is just plain wrong. Wait until they want to tear down one of his buildings, and then see how quickly he screams for preservation.

Teri Tynes said...

Thank you for your comment. I expect many people will resist his ideas about preservation and memory, although I think he is challenging us to think about what we choose to preserve and why we enact preservationist regulations. Some things get saved; others do not. Actually, at the preview, he remarked that one of his own buildings had already been preserved, a fact that he found absurd, given how new it is.

Anonymous said...

What horses--t. NYC isn't turning into an "conserved" "artificial" environment because of what is preserved. It's becoming as dull as dust because all that's going up are highrise luxury condos; and anything, any business, any building, any community, that has a hint of a link to the past is erased.

You name it -- from the wreck of Coney Island to the rape of Prospect Heights (AKA Atlantic Yards) to the destruction of the Bowery, you can't say that preservation is even a little bit of the problem.

Blayze said...

Rem Koolhouse is the problem. Revoke his license, send him back to Berlin where his eyesores are appreciated.

Blayze said...

Rem doesn't care for cities, he cares for his shiny and often bland towers that make him lots of money. Walk through or around a block of his condos, or whatever eyesore he's left on New York, and then walk down any landmarked block in Brooklyn, or just any block in the city that hasn't seen the scar of modernist architecture.

You tell me which one is more appealing. Preservation needs to be expanded, lest we lose more of our history to what? More generic condos and overpriced housing.

onegun said...

Thank You Blayze,
You couldn't have said it better. I cringe when I walk down a once totally intact block in NYC, and something looming is in the center-making it look like the block could sink. What I first loved about NYC was its old and intact neighborhoods. They were my link to the past and the FUTURE. I used to walk blocks even out-of-my-way, because I just loved to walk that way because of the old and wonderful block I would take. Our old historic neighborhoods need to be preserved. Where there may be a place for new architecture, it should not mar the presence of very old and historic neighborhoods. It's time to preserve our history. The only reasons developing our old neighborhoods is because they are popular, but once you destroy them, they will not be popular, just boring.

Anton Deque said...

I was surprised to find there were even measures to protect New York's architectural heritage; I rather thought that was against the grain in America, a country keen on everyone else's history but not it's own. Attacks on M. Koolhaas may be entertaining (I am afraid I find these not much so) but they are besides the point. Tynes' has herself pointed out in her piece on the new Cooper Union Art School building how a radical building can articulate (make one see better?) the buildings around it. This thought came to me looking at the Daniel Libeskind addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto in 2009. In some uncanny way it made something happen that otherwise would not and a mundane street gained a reprieve. However, suffice to say this is not always the case. Artificiality seems a strange term to address to the built environment. More of that surely?

I tried to comment on this post last week but was unable to log on.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Anton. Sorry you couldn't log on last week. There was a system-wide outage on Blogger blogs that prevented making updates and leaving comments. I couldn't even log on to let people know what was happening. Everything is back to normal.

In New York's case, preservationism became a much more vigorous pursuit in the 1960s, as many sections of the city fell to the wrecking ball. It was a particularly tough time for my neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Now the area under landmark protection has expanded. I believe this has been a positive approach, especially as the Village's identity is tied up with its older structures and meandering streets.

That said, now that the neighborhood is home to the wealthy - poor artists have been pushed out - the look of some blocks look artificial to me.

There is one school of thought that once a neighborhood is gentrified, the new ruling class of that area begins the push for preservation.