The precarious nature of the current state of architecture and its desperate need to overcome stagnation: Renegotiating the field’s territory and exploring the state of the in-between.
“The never ending insistence on the incompetence of the architect, which increasingly becomes more true [...], is a guilt-ridden attempt to shift the locus of responsibility.”
– Colin Rowe, 1978
“People can inhabit anything […]. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that’s both liberating and alarming.”
– REM Koolhaas, 1996
“Form matters, but not so much the form of things as the forms between things.”
– Stan Allen, 1999
This paper should not be perceived as a pessimistic view of architecture. Rather, it is meant to be an attempt at constructing a new understanding of the architect’s sphere of influence. We are not mourning the death of the architect; on the contrary, we are demanding that the planning of spaces in between the architecture come under the architect’s jurisdiction. Unseating urban-planners who operate with no architectural context is necessary, as the object and field are factors that cannot be segregated. Architect-planners for urban surroundings will ensure that everything is developing in conjunction, allowing for a much needed revival of the city in more than a utilitarian manner, and if possible, not too utopian in thinking.
REM Koolhaas’s Blocks
The part-to-whole problem has become interscales, with the focus of the paper being the building-to-city problem. Koolhaas’s Waterfront City in Dubai is a great example of a literal application of a relationship of parts (buildings) theory, where neither the building nor the city is the primary concern. Instead, the focal point of this project is compositional. The relationship of parts to parts (buildings to buildings), without consideration of form, as adjacent buildings are clusters of juxtaposed, ill-defined and non-descriptive towers. The strategic composition has led to ‘clusters of the highest towers along the southern edge, allowing the island maximum protection from the sun’1. Anchored precariously on the water’s edge is a gigantic sphere that gives a sense of visual excitement that the entire ensemble could unravel. Although, this approach at first may seem like it balances utilitarian and utopian quite well with Koolhaas’s supposition is that the ‘Generic City’ is a means to contrast and avoid the over stylized environments of many developments in Dubai. Lebbeus Woods critiqued, ‘transplanting a chunk of the Manhattan [Koolhaas] celebrated for its “culture of congestion,” The strategy seems unlikely to succeed, except as another attraction in the high-end theme park Dubai has become.’ However, the fact that the underlying intent is to reflect an ‘exponential urbanism redolent of Manhattan’2 onto the shore of the Persian Gulf seems to be too Utopian in thinking. This paper’s intention is not to provide an argument on utopia vs dystopia, but most architects begin with a utopian discourse when debating architecture on an urban scale. We can no longer take a bold assumption that a projected image for an entire city could be a new and improved model that can be applied so heavily.
My distaste for the utopian pedagogy stems from the notion that utopia is a package deal, an existing one-part-whole, instead of a more appealing utopian value. Koolhaas specifies in his Delirious New York that the birth of the skyscraper has given us the opportunity to mass-produce vertical occupation, floor upon floor, aggregating habitable spaces without requiring more horizontal space. This new opportunity of program adjacency fueled many new architectural exploration, through Koolhaas’s chapter on the Downtown Athletic Club, where its normal to be ‘eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor,’ as a result of random stacking of metropolitan life. A place where the interaction between different programs is more important than its set location within the building, as it is an ever-changing configuration. This new era of vertical metropolises that are embedded into equally divided blocks triggered the emergence of the possibility of streets that have transformed the characteristics of pedestrians and walkways into the sky, as a new form of vertical congestion. These radical new moments provide a strong approach for architect-planners, where there is an opportunity to take these vertical stacks and lay them down horizontally to become an urban plan.
In 1982, a more abstract essence of Manhattan underlies Koolhaas’s proposal for the Parc De La Villette Masterplan in Paris. He collapses the third dimension by proposing a pure program organization. Koolhaas exemplifies the importance of ignoring the overall form and focuses on the proximities. ‘In this analogy, the bands across the site are like the floors of a tower, each program different and autonomous,’3 but modified and distributed across the site. This exploitation of the metropolitan condition, where architecture is used as a tool rather than being transformed into the built environment, is an initial start at creating an architectural urban surrounding that isn’t polluted with architecture. In S,M,L,XL Koolhaas and Mau reveal the long term intentions of the park and state, ‘[that] it is safe to predict that during the life of the park, the program will undergo constant change and adjustment. The more the park works, the more it will be in a perpetual state of revision. Its "design" should therefore be the proposal of a method that combines architectural specificity with programmatic indeterminacy.’4 In an urban context, starting to have a space that reacts to the usage and develops to become ‘something’ overtime is a great device to transform the random, or the unrelated, to the specific. Through the intertwining of program that eventually coalesces into an ‘organized’ space through the peoples’ usage of the place, Rafael Moneo hints that Koolhaas’s provisional tactic is that the project’s program requirements become building blocks that the architect is, ironically, not responsible for arranging. This evokes the qualities people expect when visiting a city, making this an ideologically urban landscape, that encourages exploration of routes that meant you never visited the same park twice.
Koolhaas’s marriage of architecture and urban results in the divorce of architecture and the built environment. The facade work on an envelope of a building becomes irrelevant, ‘tolerated as decor for the illusion of history and memory’5 as he takes the lead in stacking program on the inside and arranging it on the outside, creating, compositionally and invisibly, a great fluctuating architectural model for the city.
Le Corbusier's Categories
At the risk of being too analytical, this quote reflects Le Corbusier did not believe that urban planning fell under the architecture umbrella. ‘On the day when contemporary society, at present so sick, has become properly aware that only architecture and city planning can provide the exact prescription for its ills, then the time will have come for the great machine to be put into motion,’6 he said. The separation of ‘architecture’ and ‘city planning’ marks an extreme antithesis of where this field needed to direct itself. This paper is going to focus on Le Corbusier’s impact on architect-planning, through the Unite D’Habitation and Plan Voisin.
As a result of World War II, the Unite D’Habitation was a massive scale solution for the housing shortage France was experiencing. Le Corbusier’s first housing project seems to naturally integrate the logic of his villas and the organization of a city, taking his idea of a ‘roof top garden’ to a new scale of a ‘vertical garden city’. The project was meant to integrate the housing with areas for shopping and leisure. This blend of private, public and communal spaces meant that it really took many aspects of a metropolitan state. They were reworked inside the building and many programs shifted to the roof, which became a garden terrace that had space for many activities. This also takes on the phenomena of stacking to distribute various programs throughout the building, revealing a sense of a ‘city within a city’ that is specially tailored towards its residents. Unlike most housing projects that treat residential units as many ‘clumps’, Le Corbusier individualizes them by allowing them to span from each side of the building and not limiting them to one floor. In a way, Le Corbusier created a three dimensional version of a traditional city block, emphasizing the conversion of the plan qualities to the section.
In my opinion, the Unite’s exemplary design falls short in one main point – the surroundings. The developed building is placed on the site without using advantage of it, or allowing the building to expand to the outside. Although Le Corbusier does not have the part-to-whole problem, he has the object to field problem, the object seems to always be submissive and passive to the environment it’s placed, with no alteration to its surrounding. This is where the architect is not a planner and has limited his tools to the traditional notion of ‘architects do buildings’. The site is viewed as a two-dimensional plan that an house many ‘objects’ on it, through this relationship, the in between is ignored and a negative space in the figure ground is created, due to the lack of connectivity of the many parts of one building to the other parts of another, this seems to have come from his previous work on Plan Voisin.
When working on the location of the Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier opposed the idea of moving to a new area and planned for the city center instead, as he believed that the center held a great symbolic value that could not be recreated. The exaggerated verticality of the plan is due to Le Corbusier’s attempt at replacing the horizontal congestion of Paris with skyscrapers, this also meant the expansion of the oppressively narrow and dark streets into wide streets that could accommodate traffic and the safety of pedestrians.
Flight of Fight
With the birth of the vertical cities, architects have become experts at organizing urban densities. However, there is now an opportunity for architecture to interconnect and become its own network as a tool for urban planning. Otherwise, it would have truly reached a stagnation point that can only develop formally. The Plan Voisin attempts to balance the geometrical infrastructure and architecture with a more natural layout of parkland. Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the mega massing of architecture versus landscape, which seems to be one of the first major missteps that have isolated the urban planners from the architects, pushing us towards decorating the urban fabric, rather than designing the entire cut. In addition, Le Corbusier’s belief that the center must remain the center in order to be able to accommodate the plan he proposes the conversion of Paris into a tabula rasa which is an extreme application of Koolhaas’s modern phrase ‘Fuck Context’. Nicolai Ouroussoff once described Koolhaas as ‘a reluctant architect.’7 I disagree. In fact, Koolhaas is in constant oscillation between the built and unbuilt. It reflects his metropolitan mindset, between buildings and their arrangements (the city), reflecting not reluctance but commitment to this precarious balance. While many architects are happily contained in plot lines, designing objects for the landscape, Koolhaas decides to bring the field into the object, allowing for a distortion of the inside, outside and the in between, which creates an extremely unique moment of ‘alles ist architektur.’8 This creates an endless process of connectivity and the elimination of the line that was drawn by planners between architecture and what is not, allowing the architecture to finally expand its territory and develop the in between. Through these means, the field can overcome its stagnation, and reoccupy its place as the city’s architect.