Selling Junkspace or One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Multi-Million Dollar Residential Tower

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.


The Subversive High Rise Designs of Rem Koolhaas and OMA

rem koolhaas high-rise designs
From left to right: 23 East 22nd St.; 111 First Street; The Zac Danton office building

Rem Koolhaas and OMA are perhaps best known for the controversy and spectacle of the CCTV Building in Beijing, the Seattle Public Library, and the sci-fi designs in the Middle East, but I think some of their most successful buildings are the subtle subversions of the classic high rise. There’s a—I don’t quite want to say “deftness”—to his high rise work, but there is a definite sense of wit that’s often missing from contemporary architecture projects at this scale. This embrace of ironic banality is evident in the recently announced 23 East 22nd St. building in New York, the 111 First Street tower in Jersey City, and the unbuilt Zac Danton office building in Paris’ La Defense district.

OMA’s first building in NYC, 23 East 22nd St. (we really need to get this building a name) lampoons the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the building codes that require setbacks from the street as a building rises in height. 23E22 takes the setback one *ahem* step further, and actually steps back, looming over the adjacent low-rise buildings. But you can still sell it by saying the “asymmetrical from simultaneously provides views of Madison Square Park whilst maximizing light penetration to the neighbors below.” Well played, OMA. You’ve convinced people that an ironic game of peek-a-boo at the scale of one of the world’s largest city is really all about practicality.

111 First Street, the Jersey City tower announced last year and currently in design development, is 52-story mixed-use building containing retail, apartments, lofts, and live/work space for artists. Here, the office tower is again subverted — this time, with a massive 90 degree turn. “The stacking maintains the independence of each block, optimizes views from the site and creates a dynamic relationship between the building and its surroundings: Spectacle from Convention.” That pretty much says it all.

The unbuilt Zac Danton office building, the final example and sort of proto-koolhaasian high rise, was planned to be built next to Jean Nouvel’s stunning (and also unbuilt) Tour Sans Fin in Paris’ La Defense disrict. Koolhaas’ reaction? “When faced with the sublime, how can you be anything but banal?” Yet even Koolhaas’ banality is soaked in irony as he turns one of capitalism’s greatest icons against itself: the classic office tower is split into two disjointed units by a scrolling marquee displaying anti-corporate messages.

Koolhaas’s unprecedented Realism lends itself well to a critique on the modern high-rise. a whimsical disruption of corporate architecture that is, in some ways, reminiscent of Mannerism’s attitude towards Classicism. There’s no doubt that the man can create a formal spectacle, but using the tropes of Modernism to do so give these high rises a sarcastic reverence that make me remember why I started liking Koolhaas in the first place.

Related content:


“It’s Like a Group Grope,”

“…People choose one building by me, one by Norman Foster, one by Zaha, one by Jean Nouvel, one by Daniel Libeskind. It becomes a cabinet of horrors.” So sayeth global architecture overlord and Simpsons character, Frank Gehry, describing the architectural orgy that is Abu Dhabi in a conversation with Hugh Pearman. If that statement sounds familiar, its likely because OMAer, Reinier de Graaf, recently used similar, if less…visceral, language in describing Dubai. Of course, these sentiments don’t stop either architect from building in the future folly-filled megalopoli. For an entertaining read, more nuggets of wisdom from Gehry, and a peak at his forthcoming Serpentine Pavilion, check out the full interview.


“[Dubai is] a collection of mutually competing theme parks where there exists a monotony of the exceptional,”

says Reinier de Graaf, of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. So what does that say about the OMA-designed Death Star out-spectacle the other “exceptional” buildings of the Dubai skyline or is it just another generic thread in the tapestry of the Middle-Eastern Metropolis? Will this be a never-ending game of one-upmanship, or will there be some sort of reaction against this new high-tech architecture? A return to The Average. [Arts Journal]


OMA Will Eat Itself

OMA hyperbuildings

OMA’s Museum Plaza (pictured left), in Louisville Kentucky, will alter the Louisville skyline in dramatic fashion. It has been described as “hyper-rational” by the Koolhaas-groomed, Josh Prince-Ramus, and is essentially composed of four legs supporting an “island” hovering 22 stories above the ground, upon which sits an additional three towers – bringing the entire $305 million structure to a height of 61 stories.

When I saw the rendering this morning, I thought it looked a little familiar, and after some perusing through the AMO/OMA book-mag, Content, I found my answer. Koolhaas is fond of recycling his ideas; we saw him do it with the Casa de Musica in Porto, and we see it again here.

The proposed Bangkok “Hyperbuilding” (pictured right; dubbed by OMA as their “brief, titillating brush with sci-fi”) appears to be both an ideological and formal predecessor to the Museum Plaza. Both buildings propose a radical rethinking of the skyscraper – a concept Koolhaas (correctly) believes hasn’t been truly considered since the 1970’s. With a series of thin towers, joined structurally above ground level, these skyscrapers –more robot hand than phallus– avoid the dreaded dark cores of tower buildings while creating spatial “knots” for program massing. The structures also both accommodate a diverse program – an affinity of Koolhaas’s dating back to his study of the New York Athletic Club in Delirious New York. Although drastically smaller in scale than the Hyperbuilding, the Museum Plaza is no less programmatically ambitious, housing the contemporary art museum for which it’s named, restaurants, retail stores, 85 luxury condominiums, 150 lofts, a 300 room hotel, office space and a 1,100 car underground parking garage.

Museum Plaza Investors are also asking the city for an additional $75 million dollars to improve the surrounding infrastructure – including nothing less than the relocation of a city street and new pedestrian walkways to unite the building with nearby museums. Transit in the building itself is provided by glass elevators traveling along diagonals, transporting people from the street to the island plaza. Again we see similar ideas in the Hyperbuilding, whose proposal included a aerial pomenade and intra-building mass transit infrastructure that also connected the building to the city system.

Construction on Museum Plaza is expected to start in early 2007 and be completed in 2010.