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Cornell University’s new Milstein Hall for architecture studies, designed by Rem Koolhaas
(Photo: Lee Rosenbaum)

It’s not entirely finished yet and it’s been under the radar in terms of press coverage. But Rem Koolhaas’ new Milstein Hall, tucked behind the Arts Quad at Cornell University, has opened for the new school year, providing much needed studio space and meeting areas for students in Cornell University’s architecture program.

This highly anticipated 47,000-square-foot facility is part of a sudden burst of starchitects on the Ithaca campus: I.M. Pei, Richard Meier and Thom Mayne, all Pritzker Prize winners, are helping to shape my alma mater for the 21st century.


Lee Rosenbaum


On the record … OMA’s vast publishing output on show at the AA School, London. Photograph: Architectural Association

In Britain we’re sceptical of the idea of the architect as intellectual. Most people probably aren’t aware that there’s a whole realm of architecture that doesn’t involve erecting buildings. But from Vitruvius in the 1st century BC and Alberti and Palladio in the Renaissance to Le Corbusier in the 1920s, architects have always produced books, not just to publicise their work but to lay down the latest architectural rules.

Often these titles tend to be monographs. Light of text and glossy of photograph, they are hefty volumes, records of achievement – a chance for the architect to say “Look on my works, ye mighty, and leave them casually stacked on the coffee table”. But Rem Koolhaas’s books, produced with his Rotterdam-based practice Office for Metropolitan Architecture, are different, as a new show at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London’s Bedford Square demonstrates. On a plinth in the middle of the room sit 400 volumes bound together in black folders. They look like endless meeting agendas, but they are the complete works of OMA from 1978 to 2010. If you stood this object on the floor, it would be as tall as two people, one stood on top of the other. No wonder the show is called OMA Book Machine.


Justin McGuirk

Photo: Hermitage Museum

Palace Square is the heart of imperial Russia,” says Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. The heart of its immense collection is housed in the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian czars…

The current annual budget is close to $30 million and approaches $40 million when taking into account the Greater Hermitage Project. Partially funded by the World Bank, this expansion is transforming the East Wing of the General Staff Building into a showcase for contemporary art. Piotrovsky’s goal is to encourage a dialogue between classical and contemporary art, an exhibition strategy, dubbed Hermitage 20/21, that was launched in 2007 with “USA Today,” a show of contemporary American art from London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is overseeing the reinstallation of the museum’s Islamic and Chinese galleries and working with the museum to conceptualize ways of incorporating the history that took place within the palace walls into exhibitions and to shape the museum for the 21st century. Everything is scheduled for completion in 2014, the museum’s 250th anniversary. The construction of the Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Center, a state-of-the-art repository on the edge of town, will also be completed by then.


Sophia Kishkovsky
Art News

Rem Koolhaas (Associated Press)

Rem Koolhaas’s massive, doughnut-shaped CCTV building in Beijing survived unscathed in February when a fire engulfed a nearby tower belonging to the same complex. But the event signaled the ending of an architectural era.

“I don’t even know about the word ‘downturn,’ ” said Mr. Koolhaas in his office in Rotterdam recently, reflecting on the global economic slowdown that has stopped the architecture world dead in its tracks. “It’s seems simply the end to a period.”

All around the world, major architectural projects are under threat. In November, construction stopped on the Russia Tower, a 600-meter-high Moscow building designed by the London firm Norman Foster & Partners. Meanwhile, another Norman Foster Moscow project, called Crystal Island, featuring a 450-meter-high, funnel-shaped skyscraper, has also been put on hold.

A few weeks after the Beijing fire, Harvard University, which has seen the value of its endowment shrink dramatically over the past year, announced that it was slowing down construction of its new billion-dollar science campus, meant to be a showpiece of sustainable architecture.

Mr. Koolhaas’s firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is moving forward with its planned projects, including a theater complex in Taipei, a library in Qatar and new buildings in Mr. Koolhaas’s native Holland. But the firm, with offices in Rotterdam, Beijing and New York, has been forced to cut back its staff from a high point of 270 employees in summer 2008 to 220. While OMA has not seen any projects actually cancelled, Mr. Koolhaas said, “There are a number of things on hold.”

The CCTV skyscraper marked the climax to a world-wide boom in iconic architectural projects that commenced in 1997, with the opening of Frank Gehry’s shimmering Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. One of several innovative buildings designed by Western architects for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Mr. Koolhaas’s headquarters for China Central Television quickly became a signature of the Beijing skyline. Now, with a global recession threatening future architectural projects of all kinds, the building seems like a souvenir of days gone by, even though it has yet to be occupied.

“A reappraisal is going on in the architecture world,” said Cecil Balmond, the London-based engineer who has worked closely with Mr. Koolhaas for over two decades. “In a time of plenty, there is a bravado and a push to make more and more sensational [architectural] statements.” In the current climate, he noted, “a very spectacular iconic project might now get the pause button.”

On Feb. 9, the Beijing sky was lit up by a smaller adjacent tower in the CCTV complex, as its flames dwarfed everything around it. Mr. Koolhaas was in Milan that night when he got the news. “I took the plane right away and I was there the next day,” he said.

According to CCTV, the fire was caused by an unauthorized fireworks display, believed to have been organized on the site to celebrate the end of the Lunar New Year holiday. Images of the blaze were quickly distributed by Beijing citizens, who captured the fire on their cellphones and camcorders. Those initial images of the blaze suggested that the tower might be nearly destroyed. However, said Mr. Koolhaas, “they are simply rebuilding it as it was, because there was no structural damage.” As a result of the fire, one firefighter died and several others were reportedly injured.

OMA said the complex’s main building — Mr. Koolhaas’s gravity-defying, doughnut-shaped structure — wasn’t damaged. According to Bas Lagendijk, an OMA spokesman, the building, which was originally scheduled to open next month, may be occupied beginning in late 2009.

Mr. Koolhaas said that the “interconnectivity” of the building’s rounded form was meant to foster “an intimacy between all the parties” at CCTV. He also believes that the building, visible for miles, has had an impact on Chinese society. “It introduced a level of daring that had not been shown in China,” he said. I am very convinced that it had a positive effect on Chinese culture in general. It pushed the edge of possibility.”

Now 64, Mr. Koolhaas, who won the Pritzker Prize in 2000, was known during the first few decades of his working life for his writing and his unrealized projects as well as his finished buildings. Starting in late 2003, in what has proven to be a high point of his career, he finished three remarkable and very different buildings in three completely different urban settings, in 18 months: the Seattle Public Library; the Casa da Música concert hall in Porto, Portugal; and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin.

Mr. Koolhaas is sanguine about what the future holds for OMA. He has seen periods of tightening in the past: His firm shrunk down to a few dozen employees in the 1990s after a controversial commission for a public museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, was cancelled by the city parliament at the last minute.

For now, he said, upcoming projects such as the Taipei Performing Arts Center and buildings in Rome and Copenhagen — scheduled to start reaching completion in about two years — haven’t been affected by the recession.

“Architecture is in such a permanent state of flux and turmoil that we have no stability anyway,” he said. “That is why we are very good at improvisation.”

J.S. Marcus
Wall Street Journal

Plan of Dreamland, watercolor by Rem Koolhaas

In the evolution of the 20th-century city, New York played a crucial role. Gotham haunted the imagination of everyone from John Dos Passos and H.G. Wells to Le Corbusier and the German Expressionist director Fritz Lang. A man-made colossus, it embodied in its concrete grid and in the tidal migrations of its pedestrians the very spirit and rhythm of the modern age.

By now, that affinity is so well known as to seem platitudinous. Less well known is that, half a century later, with the dawn of Postmodernism in the late 1970s, New York City would reassert its power over the minds of a new and very different generation of architects and writers. Pre-eminent among them was Rem Koolhaas, whose book “Delirious New York” defined this new feeling and can be taken as its manifesto. His highly influential text is now 30 years old, and its influence is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s,” curated by Andres Lepik, together with Christian Larsen.

For some of us, it is an open question whether Mr. Koolhaas is a theoretician, which suggests a sustained and systematic point of view, or rather someone who has embraced the phenomenon of New York and of urban centers in general, with a new kind of enthusiasm that spills over into design. Three decades ago, what was new, if not entirely unique, about “Delirious New York” was a subjective, playful, almost spasmodic approach to urbanism that stood in direct contrast to the propeller-headed high-seriousness of the Modernists.

To an earlier generation, it was the regimented order of our grid plan and the mechanomorphic aesthetic of our skyscrapers that held out the promise of urban life as a well-oiled machine, as consummate social engineering. By the late 1970s, however, when New York had reached the perigee of its fortunes, when the very idea of the modern city had been widely discredited, Mr. Koolhaas and other young architects presumed to find in its chaos and danger an invigorating charm that could serve as a new and desirable model for social interaction. As a result, there are a great many oddities in the present MoMA exhibition; scenes of Piranesian devastation, earthquakes, and topsy-turvy distortions that celebrate New York’s clamorous and ungovernable diversity.

Fantastic architectural drawings surely did not begin to be made in the 1970s. The first image you see on entering this exhibition is a work of Hugh Ferris, from the 1930s, a typically moody and darksome exercise in the noir style that he pioneered. But that work is unique in this exhibition. Far more typical is a painting by Madelon Vriesendorp, the wife and colleague of Mr. Koolhaas, in which the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are lying enervated upon a bed, presumably after having just made out. That presumption is supported by a short animated cartoon that Mr. Lepik discovered and included in this show, in which the two skyscrapers are doing exactly that.

In another, even earlier work by Mr. Koolhaas, from 1972, “The City of the Captive Globe Project,” we see a riotous variety of architectural types set into an exact grid resembling the one Le Corbusier conceived for his “ville radieuse.” But here Mr. Koolhaas’s point is exactly opposite to Le Corbusier’s. Mr. Koolhaas seems to argue that New York, the postmodern city par excellence, is not defined by uniformity but by the unsystematic collision of unnumbered architectural styles.

“Dreamland” is made up entirely of works from the museum’s own collection. It includes images and collages by some of the most visionary architectural draftsmen of the past generation, among them Raimund Abraham, Daniel Libeskind, Steven Holl, Peter Eisenmann, and Zaha Hadid. There are even entries by more straitlaced practitioners, among them Paul Rudolph, who was really a Modernist fully a generation or two older than the men and women in this show, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the one firm that, more than any other, defined the look of postwar Manhattan.

In the “Dreamland” exhibition, the drawings hang along the walls of the Robert B. Menschel Architecture and Design Gallery, on the third floor. But in the center of the room, on a raised platform, are two dozen architectural models, many of them corresponding to projects that have actually been built. It should come as no surprise that these models tend to feel far more earthbound and conservative than the drawings. Whether in SHoP Architects’s design for the Museum of Sex in New York City or Lindy Roy’s PoolHouse in Sagaponac, N.Y., or Diller + Scofidio’s Slow House project in North Haven, N.Y., we see the return of a begrudging respect for the laws of gravity and something like architectural coherence.

Still, the mood of these projects has been directly affected by the antic spirit of Mr. Koolhaas’s 30-year-old book, even if New York City itself, the town that inspired his meditations in the first place, has fewer imaginative monuments of this sort than most other important cities in the developed world.

James Gardner
New York Sun