Places Journal Feature

Lunch with the Critics: Cronocaos

by Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster on Thursday, June 2, 2011 in Features

In the latest installment of Lunch with the Critics, Mark Lamster and Alexandra Lange visit “Cronocaos,” an exhibition curated by OMA/Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum in New York City, which was first shown at the 2010 Venice Biennale. The focus is the “increasingly urgent” topic of preservation, which OMA argues, via texts, charts, maps and photographs, is an under-examined and growing “empire” with dire consequences for the future of the built environment and the architectural profession. Lamster and Lange toured the show, then adjourned to a nearby café for iced coffee (the New Museum’s Birdbath Café has no wireless).

“Cronocaos,” by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, exhibited May 7 – June 5, 2011, at the New Museum. (photos by Alexandra Lange)

Alexandra Lange: I feel suckered that this show makes me angry. First Nicolai Ouroussoff’s review in The New York Times made me angry with its credulity. Now that I have seen the exhibition for myself, I see of course — that’s the point. “Cronocaos” is a manifesto and a provocation, and it is for small, emotional people like me to say, But! But!

But as a manifesto and a provocation, “Cronocaos” paints the field of preservation with such a broad brush that it’s unrecognizable. If in New York, right now, the Landmarks Preservation Commission can barely close the barn door at Manufacturers Hanover Trust after the Bertoia sculpture has exited the building, then can preservation really be a growing “regime”?

Mark Lamster: I found the exhibit to be a compelling work of provocation, and often at odds with itself, which is par for the course. In one panel we find Koolhaas bemoaning our “breathtaking” intolerance for modernism and its utopian agenda, and in the next advocating for the creative destruction of all urban buildings over 25 years old so that we won’t be “at the mercy of unsolvable problems forever.”

AL: Or, in another case, he is worrying about what the scale of industrial spaces (like the Tate Modern or Dia:Beacon) is doing to art, while at the same time he once proposed a great crystalline roof to knit together the disparate buildings at LACMA. An idea that his protégés — the so-called Baby Rems — have been applying to cultural projects all over the globe ever since. For Koolhaas this is the ideal approach to renovation and expansion projects because it allows him to have it both ways: to be an architect (“we who change the world”) and to preserve the authenticity he sees being destroyed by his colleagues (like Richard Gluckman or Norman Foster) with their minimalist renovations and glass domes.

Compelling, maybe, but I like a little more internal consistency in my manifestos. It is a bit like a crank’s slideshow. “I hate New Urbanism. I love Cabrini-Green.” And for one of the originators of architectural “scientism,” the anti-preservation infographics are weak.

‘The rise of the market economy has meant the end of the architect as a credible public figure. Since Philip Johnson in 1979, no architect has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. Starchitects accepted a Faustian bargain where they became more prominent, but their role less significant …” (photo by Lian Chang)

ML: I give him a bit more credit than “crank.” Koolhaas remains architecture’s most gifted crafter of maxims, catchphrases and quotable quotes. “Minimalism remains the preferred mode of conspicuous consumption.” “Preemptive mediocrity has become our dominant expression of respect for history.” “The rise of the market economy has meant the end of the architect as a credible public figure.” All of these, if not entirely true, do throw into relief ideas that we might take for granted or choose not to confront. But I agree with your criticism about the infographics, which are weak from a design standpoint (Where’s Bruce Mau when you need him?); they are also intellectually flawed. “Bestowal of heritage status triggers drastic increase in tourism,” proclaims one of these panels, but it is unconvincing. Correlation should not be confused with causation.

AL: Another example is the panel in which the spread of “demon preservation” internationally is “proved” by the existence of DOCOMOMO chapters. I hear echoes of Delirious New York in these maxims, but they lack the dream-like and image-based power of “Manhattanism” or “culture of congestion.” He’s trying too hard to get out ahead of the next wave of architectural thought — our post-boom retrenchment — and it feels as if he can’t come up with a visual as powerful as those drawings in Delirious — the cover image of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings in bed together.

The only maxim in this new show that you can’t easily pick apart (because really, minimalism is the “preferred” consumption mode for only a tiny subset of the world’s millionaires) is the one about “presumptive mediocrity,” which is superimposed over a photograph of a New Urbanist “Main Street.” But is it really preservation that provokes faux-historical architecture? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It all depends on the philosophy of whoever is writing the landmark laws. Koolhaas is right that we need a wholesale reconsideration of what preservation means for the 21st century. But that we are now considering the preservation of artifacts closer and closer to our own time is not a problem — it is an opportunity.

ML: I do agree that the vitriol against preservation is misplaced. There’s a conflation of different types of preservation here, and I’m not sure they need a single theorization. In order to arrive at his calculation that 12-percent-of-the-world-is-preserved, Koolhaas includes land that’s been set aside for ecological reasons. If we restrict the discussion to the built environment, that number becomes much smaller. In his introductory wall text, Koolhaas describes preservation as a set of “regimes we don’t know, have not thought through, and cannot influence” — but that’s disingenuous, if not entirely false. Preservation is a hot-button political issue, publicly debated, and at least in most Western democracies citizens can influence it very intensively through political action. The reason we have preservation is because we fought for it, politically. The idea — and it’s becoming pervasive — that preservation restricts development (in particular the low-income kind) and limits architectural creativity is bullcrap. It’s bullcrap here in New York, and it’s certainly bullcrap in East Asia, where there is little brake on construction (including the Rem Koolhaas variety).

AL: Yes, indeed. I am always optimistic about the potential of new architecture, but the idea of cleansing Chicago’s Loop by eliminating the last 50 years of architecture in order to give today’s practitioners more to work with is terrifying. Architects: I love you, but I don’t trust you. In his New York Times review, Ouroussoff makes it sound as if the equal and opposite point of this exhibit were the selective destruction of one generation of new architecture, that of the 1960s and ’70s. I agree this is a problem. Preservation, like architecture, operates within cycles of taste, and Brutalism currently looks “ugly,” as “Cronocaos” puts it, to many people and many cultures. But it might look very different in 20 years, and the disappeared work of Paul Rudolph might be mourned like Penn Station. The very name of this exhibition, nowhere exactly defined, suggests a fear of timelessness or time-jumping. It seems to me that preservation could as easily be the solution, not the problem.

(photos by Alexandra Lange)

ML: I’m hoping it won’t take another 20 years for us to fully appreciate the work of the ’60s and ’70s, and there is, in fact, a movement now to celebrate this work not as “Brutalist” but “Heroic,” which I fully endorse. There are great visceral pleasures to be found in our concrete castles!

But as for the name, “chaos” is an apt descriptor for this show, although perhaps not entirely as intended. It lacks cohesion, it’s infuriating, it’s all over the place — a kind of mapping of Rem’s nimble mind. You compared it to Delirious New York, but I think it’s closer in spirit to S,M,L,XL and its various progeny (Lagos and Shopping) in its intellectual flights. I also find the presentation — hanging boards in a repurposed kitchen supply store — a nice antidote to the slick presentations we’re used to seeing from architects. Whatever you think of the ideas, they’re right there in your face, unadorned, scruffy at the edges, and demanding your attention.

AL: As I am sure you realize, the scruffy presentation and lame charts are all part of the faux-insurgent pose. “Poor me, if only you would stop preserving rainforests and brownstones I could get some world-changing work done.” I guess that irks me more than it does you. The exhibition is certainly a catch-all for a lot of ideas, most of which are worth considering. So maybe I am not such a sucker after all? But I want to say to all the folks eagerly ripping the OMA sheets off the exhibition walls (it is the underlying soundtrack to a visit): Caveat emptor! Don’t get caught up in the sweep of the rhetoric simply because Rem is one of the few to bring it. Let your eyes roll.

Originally published on Places: Forum of Design for the Public Realm,
a part of the Design Observer Group.
Places Journal