Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rem Koolhaas at Cornell

Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect who designed the Seattle Public Library was in New York and in the Times to discuss his new project for Cornell University's Milstein Hall. One of the things I liked about Koolhaas's Seattle Library building -- especially compared to Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project (EMP), also in Seattle, was how deliberate it seemed, how well planned and clean. Gehry's EMP struck me as a design based on a crumpled blueprint, one with little thought about how to fill the interior space and no thought to dealing with the interior shape created by the wild exterior.

Talking about his designs for Cornell, Koolhaas said he was now a part of the blob versus box war in contemporary architecture, but that he was trying do something different. That made more sense when I read Cornell's own coverage of his talk there:
Speaking of the trend toward dramatically shaped buildings, Koolhaas observed that cities are "stuck with a series of buildings that are supposed to be exceptional, but the way they perform is inferior to their effect." Whether it's the extravagance of the "Bilbao effect," said Koolhaas -- referring to the undulating surface of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain -- or the "sobriety" of the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he said, "the public receives both with equanimity."
The Bilbao museum is wrought of the same crumpled foil that Seattle's EMP is.

I actually think that the MoMA expansion is a functional success -- an underwhelming one -- but still, it works. But what Koolhaas observes about performance and effect is precisely the problem with the EMP.
"The most pernicious part of the Bilbao effect is that even major cities lose confidence and think they need extravagant buildings to remain interesting," Koolhaas said. He warned of the danger of architecture becoming "sloppy, uncritical. It's received with an enormous amount of attention and a negligible amount of seriousness."
Judging by the shit I've seen built in New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, and a few other cities lately, I don't think anyone's really been thinking they have to build extravagant structures. If only we had such a problem! Still, he has a point.

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