Thursday, July 21, 2011

Source: Whatever Happened to Urbanism? - Koolhaas

In 1995, Rem Koolhaas & Bruce Mau published 'S,M,L,XL', one in a line of oversized volumes so fondly disseminated by the Dutch.  Amazon mentions the work as "extraordinary, massive, and mind-boggling 1,300-page book combines essays, manifestos, diaries, fairy tales, travelogues, a cycle of meditations on the contemporary city--and complex illustrations..." giving shape to a mixed bag of visuals and texts on the work of OMA/Koolhaas and their speculations on the city.  One short essay, 'Whatever Happened to Urbanism?' by Koolhaas is fixed into the literature of landscape urbanism, quoted by many - specifically a key, oft- mentioned fragment:

"If there is to be a 'new urbanism' it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries, not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnameable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infra-structure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions - the reinvention of psychological space." (123)

The term 'irrigation of territories with potential' always struck me as akin to pissing in the wind - perhaps just in its alliteration, but as a phrase it does resonate with many of the formative elements of LU theory - particularly the idea of uncertainty, hybridization, infrastructure, and process above form.  The other important idea that fascinates me is the concept of 'urbanism' when realized in Euro-centric terms as 'study', whereas Koolhaas definitely considers urbanism as a more active endeavor, stating in the context of rapid urbanization, that "urbanism, as a profession, has disappeared at the moment when urbanization everywhere - after decades of constant acceleration - is on its way to establishing a definitive, global 'triumph' of the urban condition?" (122)

This demise of the urban is rooted in the reactions and rejections in the professional and educational realms to the mid-century pinnacle of high-modernism - which has caused a retreat into nostalgia.  Koolhaas considers the irony of this as the current form and idea of a city has totally shifted - becoming "beyond recognition," summed up as "'The city no longer exists."  Thus the clinging to nostalgia comes at the exact time when the classic idea of the city, the context urbanism, was snuffed out by rampant urbanization that erased our understanding and approaches to the fuzzy realm of urban/suburban/hinterland that currently exists.  Koolhaas claims then:

"For urbanists, the belated rediscovery of the virtues of the classical city at the moment of their definitive impossibility many have been the point of no return, [the] fatal moment of disconnection, disqualification." (122)
The result is that urbanism is gone, replaced with architecture... creating a gap in the overall understanding of the city beyond that of the architectural object.  This focus on architecture "exploits and exhausts  the potential that can be generated finally only by urbanism, and that only the specific imagination of urbanism can invent and renew.  The death of urbanism - our refuge in the parasitic security of architecture - creates an immanent disaster: more and more substance is grafted on starving roots." (123) 

While I would say there has been a re-emergence of urbanism since the mid-nineties (albeit an urbanism confused with urban design and planning), the overall idea of an urbanism project is still valid - and the resultant current dialogue/discussion is vital and gets to the root of non-design urbanism.  As mentioned by Koolhaas, "Redefined, urbanism will not only, or mostly, be a profession, but a way of thinking, an ideology: to accept what exists." (123)  Thus,
"To survive, urbanism will have to imagine a new newness... We have to imagine 1,001 other concepts of city; we have to take insane risks; we have to dare to be utterly uncritical; we have to swallow deeply and bestow forgiveness left and right."  (123)  

This is what we lost in the disaster of the modern project, the ability to think big, and perhaps fail, while trying to deal with this unprecedented urban condition.  This has left us with small ideas tiptoeing around the crisis under the rubric of safe interventions or tepid theorizations.  The final words then ring true:  "What if we simply declare that there is no crisis - redefine our relationship with the city not as its makers but as its mere subjects, as its supporters?  More than ever, the city is all we have." (123)

Originally published in 'S,M,L,XL' (OMA/Koolhass/Mau - 1995) - citations taken from Center 14: On Landscape Urbanism (edited by Almy - 2007).


  1. urbanism arguing that landscape, rather than architecture, is more capable of organizing the city and enhancing the urban ...

  2. Thanks for sharing--there certainly is a great deal to think about here. We agree, however, in the promise of new urbanism" and it's potential to positively impact lives.

  3. No doubt on potential, especially in a certain realm of activity. i just question the ability of new urbanism to tackle ALL of the urban issues and the rejection of alternative viewpoints. Sort of self-defeating in terms of a wider viewpoint.


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