For my own bad memory’s sake, I’m making small summaries and reminders of Koolhaas’ texts.
First things first, let’s clear up the following two words:
Rem Koolhaas, Bigness, in: S, M, L, XL
Oft cited as if it were Koolhaas’ architectural philosophy, it is actually presented as the fifth and final property of ‘Bigness‘, the situation analysed in the text. The full quote is:
5, Together, all these breaks - with scale, with architectural composition, with tradition, with transparency, with ethics - imply the final, most radical break: Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue.
It exists; at most, it coexists.
Its subtext is fuck context.
Rem Koolhaas, Bigness, in: S, M, L, XL
Now, then, Bigness. The problem of Large.
Past a certain scale, buildings become big buildings. Big buildings have unique characteristics enabled by certain conditions (no longer controllable by one architectural gesture, buildings with Bigness have autonomous parts; the elevator, which nullifies scale; the façade can no longer reflect the interior, as the distance between the exterior and interior is too large; the scale makes buildings amoral, as they are beyond judgement; fuck context).
Bigness is a way out of the inevitable death of architecture ignited by May ‘68 that resulted in two possible modes of architecture: dismantlement (breaking the system by creating arbitrary systems1) and disappearance (virtuality 2). How?
Only through Bigness can architecture dissociate itself form the exhausted artistic/ideological movements of modernism and formalism to regain its instrumentality as a vehicle for modernization
Through contamination rather than purity and quantity rather than quality, only Bigness can support genuinely new relationships between functional entities that expand rather than limit their identities. The artificiality and complexity of Bigness release function from its defensive armor to allow a kind of liquefaction; programmatic elements react with each other to create new events – bigness returns to a model of programmatic alchemy.
Bigness no longer needs the city: it competes with the city; it represents the city; preempts the city; or better still, it is the city. If urbanism generates potential and architecture exploits it, Bigness enlists the generosity of urbanism against the meanness of architecture.
Bigness = urbanism vs architecture.
The point of all of this, as understood by me, is pretty simple. Big things are different from small things. This statement is so simple that it approaches the sort of zen-like word play you intuitively don’t take seriously or think about further, which indeed architects haven’t. That’s not to say that designing something big is different from designing something small, it is to say that a big object is different from a small one. A big building, a Bigness level building, necessarily has characteristics that differentiate it from buildings of smaller stature.
The rest is an expansion of that thought.
Noteworthy is that ‘Bigness’ is the introductory text to the ‘L’ section of SMLXL.
For me it (writing) is very brutal and primitive, because for me architecture is an intellectual discipline and for me writing is the privileged communication of our intellectual disciplines. So writing is absolutely without question necessary. We abuse the alibi of the otherness of our profession… you cannot write if you don’t have ideas. I think there is still a very strong section in architecture that somehow hopes that there can be architecture without ideas.
Rem Koolhaas, Why I Wrote Delirious New York and Other Textual Strategies, ANY magazine issue 0
Talking about his first encounter with a constructivist urban plan:
As a scriptwriter I had a revelation that maybe I should not become a film maker but that architecture was perhaps a much more interesting domain because it enabled you to write scripts without the apparent triviality of film making, which is fiction, but with a potential of also realising those scripts in the real world.
Rem Koolhaas, Russia for Beginners, lecture at Garage in Moscow.
Architecture is a fuzzy amalgamation of contemporary practice, an awkward way to look at the world and an inadequate medium to operate on it.
Any architectural project takes five years; no single enterprise – ambition, intention, need – remains unchanged in the contemporary maelstrom. Architecture is too slow. Yet, the word ‘architecture’ is still pronounced with certain reverence (outside the profession). It embodies the lingering hope – or the vague memory of a hope – that shape, form, coherence could be imposed on the violent surf of information that washes over us daily. Maybe, architecture doesn’t have to be stupid after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of thinking about anything – a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything.
It’s Rem because he doesn’t believe in grammar. That’s Rem, and that’s good. Look, when he was at the Architecture Association School in 1972, in the spring of ‘72 when he quit – because he never finish school, you have to understand – because he went to the new director and he said, quote: “I want to learn fundamentals. Where can I learn fundamentals?”
And the director looked at him and said: “We don’t teach fundamentals here. We teach language.” And then he quit. So there is a relationship between quitting the school in 1972 and Fundamentals today.
For Rem, the project comes down to the idea of how can formal and organizational constraints (the grid, for example) paradoxically create programmatic liberties? How can architecture change behaviour? He’s always pursued the same project – that’s what Delerious New York was about.
Sarah Whiting, interview with Monika Mitášová, in :Oxymoron and Pleonasm
Which Koolhaas discredits as follows: “The programmatic hybridizations / proximities / frictions / overlaps / superposition’s that are possible in Bigness – in fact, the entire apparatus of montage invented at the beginning of the century to organize relationships between independent parts – are being undone by one section of the present avant-garde in compositions of almost laughable pedantry and rigidity, behind apparent wildness. ↩
Which Koolhaas discredits as follows: “Pre-empting architecture’s actual disappearance, this avant-garde is experimenting with real or simulated virtuality, reclaiming, in the name of modesty, its former omnipotence in the world of virtual realit (where fascism may be pursued with impunity?)” ↩