Architecture for today’s metropolis

When the new outlets of the Italian fashion designer company Prada open in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles next year, consumers may find themselves involved in an entire new shopping experience. If everything goes as planned, they will feel smoothly transported to a world of make-believe, where racks of clothing can be made to instantly disappear to give way to an open, breathing space and transparent glass doors will turn into four-way mirrors upon the customer’s entrance into the fitting rooms. In Prada’s smartly designed shopping cocoon, the act of buying clothes is no longer seen as money spent for style, nor is it simplified to an urban, luxurious recreation. For renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, whose office has undertaken this design, the underlying concept is that shopping can actually be transformed into a cultural experience. At a time when the term culture has been stretched to full capacity and the idea of a cultural way of life has become so pervasive, to equate shopping with a cultural experience does not seem all that strange. This perhaps helps explain why Rem Koolhaas, being the architect of contemporaneity that he is, likes to build structures that communicate these current cultural values to the broader public. In a lecture that he gave during a short stop in Athens, the celebrated architect and Harvard University professor Rem Koolhaas talked about his recent projects, drawing special attention to the intersection of the commercial sector with architecture and cultural life. One of his central arguments was that the market economy, and shopping in particular, has been a central force in transforming cities and our experience in them, and that such developments have in turn fostered new types of architecture. In Shopping, for example, a recent addition to his prestigious theoretical treatises, Koolhaas analyzed the ways in which retail consumption affects the contemporary city and revolutionizes architecture. One of the analogies between the shopping experience and architecture is drawn in reference to a store’s escalators; as Koolhaas noted during his speech, it is this kind of smooth transition, the sense of being carried almost unconsciously from one level to the next, that he tries to impart in his architecture. In fact, the sweeping curves that have become so favored in contemporary architecture are, according to Koolhaas, a replication of this sense of smoothness in structural form. The effect of flowing movement, together with an element of surprise, has become a typical attribute of Koolhaas’s work, eloquently captured in the architect’s design for the amphitheater of the University of Utrecht, where the floor slowly curves up to become the room’s ceiling. That abstract forms can be based on something so mundane as the marketing tools of shopping may sound disenchanting, but the truth is that that shopping has become so hybridized and diffuse that it has become engaged with all aspects of our life. The Prada project, for example, captures the spirit of shopping and the market economy in all its infiltrating force and is a model of how the commercial sector draws on cultural cues in order to spread its impact. The reverse, the ways in which culture has incorporated aspects of the commercial sector in order to survive, can be found in the growing expansion of museums’ commercial services, such as stores, restaurants and cafes. In this light, the close vicinity of the Prada store in downtown New York to the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim Museum seems eminently fitting. For an architect so absorbed in examining how accelerating urbanization creates new spaces of cultural recreation, it is also quite appropriate that Koolhaas has also been commissioned with the expansion of the New York Whitney Museum (an initial postmodernist design by Michael Graves a few years ago was never implemented). In his design proposal, Koolhaas opts for a space that fosters an authentic experience with the art on display while both accommodating the museum’s rising public attendance and maintaining the acceleration of its commercial services. The Whitney Museum expansion is, like most other New York projects, a most challenging call largely because of the city’s dense construction and urban sprawl. But it is mostly New York’s identity as the quintessential metropolis that fascinates Koolhaas. Its urban intricacies were in fact the subject of one of his best known books, Delirious New York, a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan written in the late 1970s in which Koolhaas talks about Manhattanism, its culture of congestion and its profile as the city of the exceptional, the excessive and the extreme, a set of values which are seen as America’s primary contribution to architecture. The cool architectural style of Koolhaas is resonant of this urban sophistication so often attached to the city of New York. It is perhaps appropriate that a few years ago New York’s MoMA featured a retrospective exhibit on Koolhaas. It is also appropriate that the exhibit focused on his public architecture. Expressed through large-scale, multipurpose buildings – the EuraLille civic center housing the high-speed train hub in the northern French city of Lille is an example – public architecture is, along with urban planning, what Koolhaas seems to enjoy the most. Through OMA, his multinational Office for Metropolitan Architecture that Koolhaas founded in the mid-1970s with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp in London, Koolhaas and his associates have undertaken public projects all over the world. OMA, which now occupies almost 100 architects and has won major international awards, among them the Pritzker prize last year, has realized projects worldwide. Through major competitions it was awarded the projects for the design of the Kunsthal and Museum Park in Rotterdam, the library of Jussieu and the Tres Grande Bibliotheque in Paris and the design of large apartment blocks in Fukuoka in Japan; large-scale projects in Asia resulted in the foundation of OMA’s Hong Kong-based Asia branch. Another project concerned the study of the possible relocation of the Netherlands’ main airport offshore. Current projects include the new Seattle Public Library, a new Ian Schrager hotel in Manhattan (a joint venture with the Herzog and DeMeuron), the Ludwig Museum in Cologne and the Hermitage in Las Vegas. The construction of a concert hall in Porto, Portugal, the construction of a new city center for Almere in the Netherlands and the new Dutch Embassy in Berlin are also among OMA’s ongoing activities. Each project is based on detailed research, a work method which lies at the core of OMA’s practice and which gradually led to the formation of AMO, a new branch strictly devoted to the study of theoretical issues and architectural concepts (much of the work is done in affiliation with Harvard). By drawing knowledge from such diverse fields as media, finance, technology and art, AMO’s objective is to draw up new strategies for the future but also carry out experimental projects without the strictures of implementation. During his speech Koolhaas said that one of the problems with contemporary architecture is that it can seldom keep up with broader developments as they occur, so that by the time a planned project is ready for implementation, new changes may require new architectural solutions; this is where AMO’s work fills in the gap. Coming from an architect with such experience, prestige and dedication to exactitude, this claim can be considered justifiable.

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