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AR CH

QUESTIONS

BIG NE SS. LARGE

U T R AL C E TI

ON

SMALLNESS

AR3A160

actices

Researc

thods e M h

Design Pr

Kaegh Allen


‘The Skyliners’ - The fantastical stars of Bigness. L Feireiss. 2012


“Beyond a certain scale, architecture acquires the properties of Bigness. The best reason to broach Bigness is the one given by climbers of Mount Everest: “because it is there.” Bigness is ultimate architecture.” Rem Koolhaas. Bigness. 19921

A compelling manifesto. Rem Koolhaas’ Bigness was a proclamation of its time, an address at the impotence of architecture to address the rapidly changing cityscapes. In this essay, which forms the main theory of much of OMA’s agenda, describes various aspects of Bigness that are deemed to be important and the role that architects should play. Through his raging text Koolhaas reject the importance of architecture, yet through his processes and by exploiting capitalistic frameworks his architecture has become some of the most important in the world, and he the shining star. Amongst these are ‘Theorems’1, statements of intent, motivation and justification; 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a BIG Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a singular architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. The impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, which is different from fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole. The elevator-with its potential to establish mechanical rather than architectural connections-and its family of related inventions render null and void the classical repertoire of architecture. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot. The ‘art’ of architecture is useless in BIGNESS. In BIGNESS, the distance between core and envelope increases to the point where the façade can no longer reveal what happens inside. The humanist expectation of ‘honesty’ is doomed; interior and exterior architectures become separate projects, one dealing with the instability of programmatic and iconographic needs, the other- agent of dis-information- offering the city the apparent stability of an object. Where architecture reveals, BIGNESS perplexes; BIGNESS transforms the city from a summation of certainties into an accumulation of mysteries. What you see is no longer what you get. Through size alone, such buildings enter an amoral domain, beyond good and bad. Their impact is independent of their quality. 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 issue. It’s exists; at most, it coexists. Its subtext is fuck context.

Intentionally impressionistic, fragmented and lacking in depth it forms perhaps a weak manifesto but creates an extremely compelling and accessible agenda that shapes opinions (and cities) for years to come. The aim of this position paper is to create a counter to Bigness, a manifesto for our post-recession landscape - one wrecked by excess, where total global consumer democracy reigns over abandonment, unemployment and severe indifference. Also it is an affirmation of the role that I believe architects should strive to fill – a character that perhaps needs to be defined.


‘The Citizens of No Place’ - The future architect. Jimenez Lai, 2012.


Through an amalgamation of views from various influential professionals what should arise is a new set of Theorems. Smaller and meeker perhaps, but no less important. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a call of arms to consider this approach to the architectural discourse, one that runs deep and requires questions to be raised about everyday contemporary practice to historical educational institutions. One that is not necessarily new, but is gaining powerful momentum – especially in ‘our era of austerity measures, global economic turmoil, and resource depletion’9. The importance of the architect is under new scrutiny. The contradictory faces of the current practitioner are flawed. One of the cold, arrogant and sparkling starchitect, the other the old caricature of the underpaid, overworked and awkward draughtsman, must be rethought – we must be savvy, versatile and collaborative. A jack of all trades that can master relationships – a facilitator of change, an urban translator. The various texts that will be referenced propose for a move toward either a minor mode of practice or at the least a more involved mode of conduct. These texts set out their agenda sensibly, through historical and philosophical reference – academically thorough. But their impact is less brutal than that of their rival, Bigness – they are thought out battle strategies rather than a punch to the face. Jill Stoner’s book ‘Towards a Minor Architecture’ sets out characters that she uses as vessels to express her opinions about a move towards a more localized and minor architectural agenda – the prisoner, the blind man and the peregrine falcon. These characters are all minor architects in her opinion; they rise against the major oppressions of power in their own worlds and change it. The prisoner through imagination turns a cell into a room, where he is the ruler. The blind man through drawing gives insight to the sighted. The falcon inhabits the urban landscapes of cities – thriving in the concrete cliffs. ‘A minor architecture is not constructed in a minor language, instead it arises from within a structure of a major language, that is the language of power - minor architectures embody these desires: to de-territorialize, to be political, to find a collective voice and to re-territorialize’2 ‘Spatial Agency’ also proposes a new character that architects should consider embodying; ‘The story that follows here, therefore, is that of the architect as an anti-hero, someone who co-authors from the beginning, someone who actively and knowingly gives up authority. Someone who doesn’t work in the foreground, but takes a step back. Someone who is part of the process, and sometimes but not always the initiator of the project.’3 This idea of releasing control was raised in Bigness; ‘By reintroducing the notion of teamwork-inevitable on that scale-it also liberates one from the narrow identification of a single architect with “his” or “her” object; it makes it less personal.’ 1 But here it is viewed through glasses of a different tint - where in Spatial Agency release of ownership promotes appropriation, in Bigness this autonomy permits for a distance and disconnection. ‘The major architectural work in the world are part of the contemporary aesthetic, which is one of distance. As a result that we are totally ignorant of the full effects of ruptures.’4 The architect as a character is a recurring idea in these contemporary architectural literature; in this time of architectural identity crisis perhaps it is time to re-create this


CCTV Clash. Bigness vs Smallness. Iwan Baan, 2011.


image. The stage is set. This stage is a new landscape of unforeseen circumstances where nothingness is the prerogative form, as Marc Auge describes in Non-Places ‘‘The global obliterates the local. The global local, the local with tints of the global, the expression of the system, its wealth and its ostentatious affirmation. Each of these projects has its specific local and historical justifications, but ultimately their prestige accrues from their recognition at world level, as Rem Koolhaas put it in a vigorous and highly descriptive phrase {“Fuck the context”.’4 These ideas are perhaps most clearly illustrated in OMA’s infamous latest project ‘De Rotterdam’- like a fantastical morphing robotic seizure, it rises from the Mass riverbank in Rotterdam – a modern monster. Purely and simply a shining example of Bigness it is essentially Rem Koolhaas’ plaything – a fanciful experiment whose existance is explained as “The most important thing about this project is your perception of its size and mass as you drive over the bridge, that’s all you need to see. The rest is just a cheap office building,”13. The words of a proud creator. “The building is a cynical and brutal monument to the city’s delusions of grandeur,” says Wouter Vanstiphout, professor of design and politics at Delft university. “While Amsterdam is trying to fill its empty offices, Rotterdam is building more and more, but there’s no one to go in them. It is madness when there is 30% vacancy across the city – it follows the same logic as saying, ‘Let’s build houses, because we need more people.’13 The other characters in this story are equally intimidating and beautiful ‘The absence of a theory of BIGNESS-what is the maximum architecture can do? Is architecture’s most debilitating weakness. Without a theory of BIGNESS, architects are in the position of Frankenstein’s creators: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok and are therefore discredited.’1 These horrific goliaths maintain the status-quo, watching over – ensuring things remain as they would like. Blinding with their state of the art accessories – fooling through innovation that they are creating something exceptional, simply by highlighting their uniqueness they become outdated - ‘By appealing to the old rhetoric of the new, Koolhaas liquidates its very possibility’5 What are the current virtues of BIGNESS how do they translate to smallness? How do the ideals proposed in OMA’s manifesto relate to issues in today’s post-recession landscape? What are the theorems that apply to our current landscapes and what form will the new architect, the hero (or anti-hero) take? ‘The joke is that architecture is supposed to be practical, but it keeps tripping over its pretensions’10 The only thing that seems to be able to save the characters in this story is a new form of hero one that re-asumes confidence and responsibility yet accepts his place humbly and intelligently. Well versed in the outdated language of Bigness, but fluent is smallness – and preaching it with rapture. Smallness is resilient. It embraces the context and understands that cities rely not only on large icons but on the flux of interaction that goes against the norm. The other. Smallness flourishes with versatility, it shines bright in the post-recession landscape while its monolithic relatives wallow in a lacklustre puddle of rust. Smallness is humble, it is repulsed by the waste that surround it. It is not ashamed of the unglamorous reality. Like the dog eating the scraps from the table – full, content and dirty.


‘The New Architect’s Atlas’ - Helsinski Design Lab, 2013.


Potential Theorems of Smallness: 1. Fuck scale. An undermining and debilitating obsession of architecture is that it always needs to make something relevant. Material. Big. The relevance of architectural design is in providing better environments. This can manifest itself in a whole array of ways – many of them not a building. 2. The internet. The new agenda is control of production. The last decades set up frameworks for design to optimize consumption. The new prerogative is a democratization of production. Every consumer will be their own maker. The small mall. 3. It doesn’t matter what you see. The networks that must be implemented for smallness to function are many and are immaterial. Form does not follow function. Function flows freely. 4. Morality is inescapable. If you cant do something good, don’t do anything at all. 5. Love the concept. In situations where context is irrelevant, conceptual ideals are of optimal importance. The power of the idea is in the idea. The key to smallness is ever-changing; the research that must be implemented to keep the door open must be thorough and deep. ‘Most importantly perhaps, we are beginning to understand that there are certain characteristics required for this new work, one that often concerns spatial qualities but only as part of wider brief, with different drivers other than the building. Here, this role is often dubbed the ‘professional generalist’, a leader-type that must have the ability to talk convincingly with the wide range of people involved in a job – whether city, building, platform, product, service, business model.’9 Every small rebellion leads to a revolution. Davids are many – they are fast, clever and easily fulfilled. Goliaths are few – they are sluggish, outdated and expensive. Only the small survive. ‘That buildings are both symbols and instruments makes architecture deceptive and fickle, sometimes comic. It is possible for a building to look as if it is doing something when it is not, or is even obstructing its apparent aim.’9 ‘Where morality was once measured against nature, freedom is now held up to the standard of a new synthetic nature: Bigness’5. This new standard reeks with contradictions. It speaks about being relevant in it’s ability to be devoid of control – but by actively choosing to not have an agenda are the issues being addressed. Active rejection is not necessarily constructive. If you can’t beat them, join them. If you can’t join them go BIG small. ‘Even as BIGNESS enters the stratosphere of architectural ambition-the pure chill of megalomania, it can be achieved only at the price of giving up control, of transmogrification. It implies a web of umbilical cords to other disciplines whose performance is as critical as the architect’s: like mountain climbers tied together by life-saving ropes, the makers of BIGNESS are a team (a word not mentioned in the last forty years of architectural polemic)’1 The idea of team as raised as radical by Koolhaas back then is now the most important idea in architectural profession – and this team must engage and react to issues of control, and power. ‘Architecture has been popular in recent years. Ironically, however, its growing popularity is inversely proportional to the increasing sense of political powerlessness


De Rotterdam : The Moster of the Maas - Vaidas Vaiciulis, 2013.


and cultural disillusionment many architects feel about their effective contribution to the built world.’9 A suffocating situation forms that requires direct action. ‘The strange paradox was that architecture was becoming commercially very, very important, and the rise of architectural stardom was a symptom of that, but on a theoretical level there was a disinterest in architecture’ 4 ‘There is nothing more biopolitical than urbanization, which is when cities were no longer designed as a habitat or as a representation of an idea or community, but when they were designed as machines. And still today this is a fundamental sine qua non of urban development’7. These urbanized political machines must be given power, autonomy and architecture as a hugely important resource in the built landscape can have a huge influence. It can act as an important medium, a tangible channel of resources not just a façade and a handshake in front of a shiny ribbon cutting ‘…risks, until proven otherwise, becoming a large example of the conversation-pit syndrome, form that suggests community without actually achieving it.’10 Smallness is wise. It was even mentioned by Koolhaas in his 1992 essay, he described ‘In spite of its size, it is modest. Not all architecture, nor all program, nor all events will be swallowed by BIGNESS. There are many ‘needs’ too unfocused, too weak, too unrespectable, too defiant, too secret, too subversive, too weak, too ‘nothing’ to be part of the constellations of BIGNESS.’1 He described a choice to be nothing as a weakness – in my opinion it is one of the most valiant choices an architect(ure) can make. To be invisible, honest and sincere – are harder pills to swallow that success, riches and glory. How valuable is it to be something if on the journey you lose your principles, architecture offices that strive for Bigness justify themselves and ‘…employ the same world speak as great exhibitions, expos, and theme parks. They champion global harmony, the coming-together of nations, brotherhood and peace. They do so out of an innocent belief in suck ideals but, by pursuing the universal at the expense of the specific, they lend themselves to the interests of power.’10 Smallness is strange, hard to accept at times. Too simple, too radical. In many ways Koolhaas’ aims concur with those of smallness, and as times have changed it’s sure that his tone has as-well. He is not the villain, just as ‘De Rotterdam’ and many of it’s gigantic cousins that loom over our cities are innocent. They are a result, products and results of skewed frameworks that we are all responsible for - outdated models from a bygone time - and Koolhaas far from being the worst example, is perhaps the most polemic. At least he is vocal and tries to formulate his justifications. “In 1994 I wrote a piece called Bigness that explored the way in which architecture, beyond a certain scale, begins to respond to and is defined by different rules. In that essay, which really was addressed to Europeans, I suggested that contextualism was an important feature in debate. The interpretation of contextualism was that if you do a building in an environment with other buildings, the correct way is to do a building that is similar to the other buildings. Similar in scale and, if possible, similar in terms of expression. I was actually thinking that this was a very limiting way of thinking about it and that there is also another approach, which is to contrast. There are ways - like how the Surrealists were able to combine an umbrella and a sewing machine in the same picture - that architecture can experiment with those contrasts.”13 These ideas are important and valuable and are what place Rem Koolhaas amongst the greatest architects of modern times - he was radical, visionary and bold. But as with all things there is a time and a place - and it is my humble opinion that his and especially


that of BIGNESS have passed, a while ago.

References 1. Rem Koolhaas, 1995. S, M, L, XL: Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large. First Edition. The Monacelli Press. 2. Jill Stoner, 2012. Toward A Minor Architecture. Edition. The MIT Press. 3. Nishat Awan, 2011. Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture. 1 Edition. Routledge. 4. Marc Auge, 2009. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. 2 Edition. Verso. 5. Jorge Otero-Pailos, 2000. Bigness in context. City. Volume 4, Issue 3. Routledge 6. Richard Sennett, 2012. Together. 1 Edition. Yale University Press. 7. Pier Vittorio Aureli, 2011. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture. Edition. The MIT Press. 8. Jimenez Lai, 2012. Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel. Edition. Princeton Architectural Press. 9. Rory Hyde, 2012. Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture. 1 Edition. Routledge. 10. Rowan Moore, 2012. Why We Build. Edition. Picador Hardbacks. 11. Jorge Otero-Pailos, 2000. Bigness in context. City : analysis of urban trends, Volume 4, Issue 3, 379-389. Routledge 12. Footprint. Issue #4. 2009. http://www.footprintjournal.org/issues/download/agency-inarchitecture-reframing-criticality-in-theory- and-practice 13. The Guardian. 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/nov/18/remkoolhaas-de-rotterdam-building


BIGNESS : Large Questions on Architectural Smallness  
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