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.

More Than Meets The Runway: Koolhaas’s Prada Transformer

prada-transformer-1

[image via Prada Transformer website]

A oddly malformed pavilion-like object stands next to the 16th-century Gyeonghui Palace in Seoul, Korea. What is it exactly? Whatever you need it to be. Composed of four uniquely-shaped sides—hexagon, cross, rectangle, and square—the Prada Transformer is another in a long list of collaborations between the famed Italian designer and arguably equally famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. While the structure may epitomizes Koolhaas’ penchant for cross programming, the tetrahedronal pavilion does not “transform” autonomously – much to the chagrin of fans of a certain 80’s robot cartoon series, I’m sure. Instead, the pavilion will “transform” with the assistance of cranes, as shown in time-lapse videos on the official Prada Transformer website. Starting tomorrow, April 25th, the convertible construct will host a variety of events that transcend both fashion and architecture. “What was also important is that, for the first time, Prada gave up on the idea that all the activities should be separate,” said Koolhaas in Interview Magazine. Continue reading More Than Meets The Runway: Koolhaas’s Prada Transformer

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.

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Rem Koolhaas and Prada Team Up on Art Force Field in Milan

[image via ARTINFO]

Rem Koolhaas’ most recent collaboration with Miuccia Prada isn’t a store in Dubai or a high-rise in New York, it’s an ambitious interdisciplinary arts center in Milan. Koolhaas will transform an industrial complex in the Italian city for the Prada Foundation, whose director says the project’s goal is “to create a force field in which all artistic languages might converge and radiate energies that reach beyond the walls containing them into the urban context.” A force field of art. The design wil add an auditorium, tower and an exhibition building to the seven existing structures and courtyard. These new buildings will house multi-media studios and play host to symposia on architecture, cinema, and of course, fashion. Sounds interesting, right? But what about something a little simpler..? Continue reading Rem Koolhaas and Prada Team Up on Art Force Field in Milan

Rem Koolhaas, Tunisia, and Sandcrawlers

It would appear that the Star Wars Universe owes another debt to architecture. A reader sent in the above image with a note saying that the Hotel du Lac in Tunisia may have served as the inspiration for the Sandcrawlers used by the Jawas to travel across Tatooine. Another visit to Wookiepedia (an increasingly important Life Without Buildings resource) tells us that filming for A New Hope largely took place in Tunisia, so it’s entirely possible that this building did, in fact, have an influence on the production design. BONUS: a little trivia for you Extended Universe fans — “du Lac” was the origin of the “Dulok,” the natural enemies of the Ewoks. But wait, there’s more! Continue reading Rem Koolhaas, Tunisia, and Sandcrawlers