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Koolhaas' Content
Alex Steffen, 26 Aug 04

Man did I love this book.Man did I hate this book.

Here's what I loved about it: There's just simply no one better at handwaving than Rem Koolhaas. Content is chock-full of professional-grade post-modernist rhetoric ("Architecture is too slow.") and semi-naughtiness ("I [heart] sheetrock" proclaims one page, several others are filled with generic "Universal Modernization Patents" -- and are the Gucci ads advertising, or comment?). It's all-you-can-eat buffet for the eyes (it's essentially Koolhaas' exercise in scrap-booking).

Most of all, this is one of a handful of books I've come across lately that could only have been created, would only make sense to think of creating, in the 21st Century. As such, it's stuffed with interesting tidbits about the world (see the extended entry below). There's a way in which Koolhaas' view of the changed world we live in is liberating and refreshing.

Here's what I hated about it: It is becoming a usual practice in certain circles to use the supposed speed of change --

"Inspired by the ceaseless fluctuations of the early 21st Century, Content bears the marks of globalism and the market, ideological siblings that have undercut the stability of contemporary life. This book is born of that instability. It's not timeless; it's almost out of date already. embraces instability as a new form of freedom."

-- as a justification for being above moral and political choices. If all that is solid is busy melting into air, what can we really say about the effects of our work on the world?

I think Koolhaas uses these sorts of excuses to cover his ass, to wave off concerns that maybe designing the headquarters for China Central TV supports, or at least lends credibility to, a repressive regime; to more-or-less completely avoid any discussion of the environmental effects of his designs; to wallow in ego rather than engage with problems. There's a way in which Koolhaas' aesthetics are a smoke screen for uncritical participation in destructive and oppressive systems.

So, is Content a Worldchanging book? I'm just not sure. That may be the best indication that it was worth reading.

From OMA's charrette for WIRED: "On average, Wired proclaimed a revolution every three months."

Koolhaas juxtaposes systems maps of "Right Wing Think Tanks" and "Left Wing Action Tanks," sizing the parts by the number of neo-conservative think tanks in each nation on the one hand, and the size of each city's anti-war protests last year on the other. I've found no better illustration for what's meant by the juxtaposition implied by the phrase "the Second Superpower."

Overlaying maps of various social indicators (illiteracy, youth, quality control standards in legal force, repression) you get an amazing sense of just where most of the world's future citizens live, and just what their lives are like. Reminds me of Shaw's quote that it is the sign of an intelligent man to be moved to tears by statistics.

A photo of the Earth at night shows bright congealing cores of urbanization: the American East Coast, Brazil's "Sao-Rio," the "Eurocore," the Ganges Delta... and a bright smudge running roughly from Hong Kong to Tokyo to Beijing -- East Asia is emerging as "the world's... urban core."

"Urbicide" -- the practice of destroying the functional fabric of a people's city as a part of genocide (think Sarajevo) -- and architecture-as-war-crime (think the "settlements" on the West Bank);

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Full Acknowledgement, hated it, loved it too.

Definitely the map of the security wall in the West Bank. Before I saw this map I actually thought: "Good idea. Build a wall, stop them from killing each other". Anyone who hasnŽt seen the map (of this utterly insane project) should refrain from making comments like that, I know now. Interesting lesson about mainstream media again.

Also like the map showing comparative cost-of-travel for western tourists and developing world illegal immigrants. € 10.000 one way trips from west Africa to Europe give a whole new meaning to the term "premium cost travel segment".


Big advertising for KoolhaasŽ architecture office, which is apparently still mostly in the business of selling yet more glassteelmarbletecture and according philosophy. Dude: The only relevant architecture for the future is green. Nobody is impressed by that anymore, save maybe east asian tiger economy states.

I saw the show "content" in Berlin earlier. Really strange, just like the book. Tons of architecture models (in really crappy craftsmanship, basically plastic trash), interviews on video tapes (on really tiny tv screens with the sound turned so low as to be unintelligible) but those really weird and interesting diagrams as giant posters, loved those. Too bad they didnŽt have any of those for sale. (Now why would I want to buy a t-shirt with the word "content" on it instead?).

By the way: the earth-by-night satellite photo composites are available in great quality at Nasa:

Too bad those donŽt show the oil fields and the night fishing I saw on some other map some way back.

The book is fairly cheap, so IŽd recommend it.

Cheers, Bjorn (Hollowcore, heh)

Posted by: Bjoern van der Meer on 27 Aug 04



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