alan balfour

Rem Koolhaas
Alan Balfour for Art in Our Time
Praemium Imperiale
Sept 30 2008

This is an extraordinary imagination. In the stark originality of the work, its grandeur, the way it builds on yet trivializes the imagination of others, the way it seems to contain meaning beyond its physical self, I am reminded of Beethoven. Attempts to explain the work through theory and biography are futile; his is a creative intelligence of such complexity that external factors do little to enhance understanding and can diminish the raw experience of the work.  It must be said that Koolhaas has devoted much time and effort to attempting to explain himself – at best the writings are parallel fictions to the architecture, at times they deliberately seek to conceal and confuse. I choose to approach the work somewhat subjectively as one would poetry or music and consider the effect it has on me. 

The architecture has evolved and deepened over almost two decades and I have chosen five works which record this evolution, Villa Dall’Ava Paris France 1991, the Grand Palais, Lille France 1994, IIT McCormack Tribune Campus Illinois USA from 2003– Seattle Central library Seattle 2004, and Casa Da Musica Porto, Portugal 2005. All of which I have savored and experienced in person, consciously viewing the work as performance and my role as both audience and actor in the strenuous shifting stages they display.

The Villa Dall’Ava: the house sits among trees in Saint Cloud on the haut bourgeois western edge of the city. Outside it is awkward assembly of boxes in stone, glass and metal with some passing references to Mies and Corb: epate le bourgeoisie with the fiction of the stability. Inside it is brittle and thin. Open stairs move from level to level ending by a long narrow lap pool on the roof terrace. It was dusk, a switch was touched and instantly the pool became an intense blue light opening a surreal passage not only into the house, but into the body of Paris and in the distance, exactly on axis, the Eiffel Tower lit up in sympathy. Diving in would have felt like making love to the city. This is too small a frame to play so many games with semantics, with substance and sexuality subverting the imagination of the masters.

The façade of the Grand Palais in Lille has the mannerisms and cheap substance of the little house but at a vast scale: at first glance familiar, but on closer inspection it is full of lacerations and distortions that threaten to collapse it. Yet its interior roars with brutal originality: feel the violation as floors have been folded and twisted to create two vast public spaces and a long saw like stair bleeds red through the divide. This visceral folding of space was explored in earlier works, but here it knows no constraints - structure and material forced and deformed in the service of an architecture that has acquired a ambition all of its own.  The experience is thrilling and disturbing, an ambition bends somewhat reluctantly to human demand – suggesting the possibility of refusing or contradicting expectations.

IIT is the campus Mies built and time has not softened it. And in it’s midst this ambition is seen at its most flamboyant in placing of the McCormack Tribune student center beneath an elevated rail line.  Structure tracks and trains all captured by the building and enclosed in a vast corrugated inaccessible metal tube. The weight of which seemingly crushes all below; forcing the floor plates to fold and overlap and in the colorful spaces that emerge between translucent vectoring walls, the students are seduced to obey and play. This increasingly aggressive liberation of architecture cannot be depended on to respect needs or comforts.

The Seattle Central Library is even more assertive, going its own way the users change and follow. Inside this neglect of human needs has caused chaos and some anger – many floors of labyrinthine ramps ending nowhere. Outside an awkward lattice and faceted mass of structure, at first extremely foreign, now redefines the city- diminishing all else in the downtown - a new city hall becomes irrelevant.  Here the metamorphosis is complete - from coercive accommodation to paranoid tolerance.

The Casa Da Musica in Oporto appears at first sight like a vast boulder, a chunk of space debris just crashed to earth. Outside an awesome alien presence, inside, before reaching the musical performance all become captive in a spatial performance of total mastery and absolute originality. There is however a sense of danger, which increases the more deeply one moves into the structure - as if the building resented human presence: a fractured glass plate in the suspended bridge that carries the bar increases ill ease: though disturbing it is perversely inspiring.

Though Beethoven’s music can be dark and foreboding there is always compassion. In the reality formed by Koolhaas’ imagination there are no gods, no histories, no taint of nostalgia, but there is an underlying sense of despair: though sensual this is a pitiless world. The CCTV TV headquarters in Beijing will continue to evolve these wayward plays on a stage of epic proportions.

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