5.07.2011

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.
Post a Comment