23 East 22nd Street

A rendering of 23 East 22nd Street (image © OMA)

The September issue of Smithsonian Magazine features an insightful profile of Rem Koolhaas written by former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. As a companion to that article, I wrote a piece on Design Decoded, Smithsonian’s blog on design and everyday life, looking at some of the unbuilt high-rise towers designed by Koolhaas and OMA. I absolutely love these buildings. I find them witty and subversive yet still incredibly respectful and contextual. As a sort of B-Side to the Design Decoded piece, I wanted to elaborate a little more on one building in particular, Koolhaas’s planned Manhattan tower at 23 East 22nd Street, and its connection to some of the architect’s more provocative writings.

According to OMA, 23 East 22nd Street is a “luxury residential tower in a culture of congestion.” This description succinctly expresses Koolhaas’s approach towards both the design and marketing of what would have been his first building in New York City; he appeals to a high-end clientele while simultaneously referencing his own book with a description of Manhattan as a “Culture of Congestion” –  a phrase first coined in his 1978 “retroactive manifesto” Delirious New York.

Like the nearby Flatiron Building, whose triangular shape is a result of Broadway slashing diagonally across the Manhattan grid, 23E22 is also shaped by the local context Midtown Manhattan. However, Koolhaas’s building isn’t primarily a response to the physical context of the city, but to the building and zoning codes that have regulated New York’s streetscape and its iconic skyline. The building setbacks mandated by the city are interpreted quite literally as large portions of the structure are set back to create a series of stacked cantilevers, shifting the building’s mass to the side.  By appropriating of the standard language of the high-rise –a gridded facade of glass and stone– then subverting it with single, deceptively simple move, Koolhaas wryly satirizes city planning policy.

The subversive nature of the structure is downplayed when it comes time to market the building. On OMA’s website, 23E22 is described in market-friendly terms:

“This asymmetrical form simultaneously provides views of Madison Square Park whilst maximizing light penetration to the neighbors below. Mirroring the traditional New York setback, the building’s form is at once familiar and unique.”

That relatively generic pitch uses terms taken directly from Koolhaas’s 2001 essay “Junkspace”.

“Junkspace thrives on design, but design dies in junkspace. There is no form, only proliferation…an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.”

Blurring the boundaries between artful critique and real estate strategy, Koolhaas lampoons the authorless high-rises of the city while simultaneously marketing the building with a language first developed in an essay that laments –or, depending on your reading, celebrates– the labyrinthian, generic architecture of a globalized society. Does marketing the building as junkspace undermine his own work? Is Koolhaas just fulfilling a prophecy he wrote himself?

Hyperbolic writings such as “junkspace” are as important to Koolhaas’s career as hyperbolic buildings such as 23E22. His polemics are those of a professional provocateur and often cause people to think his architecture is cynical, or at the very least to question the sincerity of declarations and designs. But hyperbole, whether in writing or in a skyline, is rooted in the context of a basic truth; it’s not a pure fabrication. Independent of any context whatsoever, 23E22 would probably seem ridiculous. In the context of Midtown however, it’s contextual to the point of absurdity, illustrating that Koolhaas is most reverent of context when he is trying to subvert a dominant cultural paradigm. It’s architectural satire. Deadpan humor in built form.

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