OPEN LETTER TO REM KOOLHAAS
Dear Mr. Koolhaas,
Why did you participate in the Gazprom competition? We have grown accustomed in recent years to see reputable architects ready to trade their values for others if the commission calls for it. Hence it seems coherent to see a number of world-class architects lining up to design the new Gazprom Headquarter in St. Petersburg. We are not too surprised that most of them seem to have no second thoughts about the imperial gesture of placing a 300 m corporate high-rise against the low-rise fabric of St. Petersburg, nor about the dubious attempt of a ruthless energy monopolist to cleanse its stained reputation by capitalizing on the acquired cultural capital of the city.
It's not too much unlike them, but it's quite unlike you. Or are you tricking the world this time for real? Were we all too na ve to give your famous mind game of 'suspending judgment' credit as a means to help us confront those aspects of reality that otherwise would have been wiped out of our conscience by the censorship of judgment, and was it indeed a disguised means to suspend morality, as some have said? For the longest time your work seemed to harbor an irreducible residue of morality: a belief in the responsibility of the architect to commit to the unfinished project of modernity despite or precisely because of its birth-faults; to react to the social transformations and counteract some of their dramatic developments such as the disappearance of public space: the libraries in Paris ()us-sieu) and Seattle are both touching monuments to this vanishing collective sphere of the contemporary city. To all who did not quite know how to locate CCTV in Beijing with respect to this kind of work - and Ian Buruma has said about it all there is to say1 - Gazprom must seem like another step in the consolidation of a new street-smartness of OMA with regard to power.
Do you mean to say that to reject the call of power would be heroic but pointless, because architecture deprives itself of the last remaining bit of influence it may still exert? Granted. Should we read your compliance such that you have come to terms with the new political world order, an order which Heiner Mueller once described as the dilemma of capitalism having no alternative to itself after to the breakdown of socialism? Does the irresistible rise of neo-liberalism then beam us into an era of neo-absolutism? And how do you see the role of the architect in a future world dominated by absolute rulers imposing their will as they please?
If we take this mono-central organization of power as a possible description of our world - an uneasy reverberation of the dystopian scenarios evoked by many science-fiction movies such as 'Rollerball" - then the only position left for a star architect to invest his or her stardom for a transformation of society would be the one of the court jester: the one and only figure in the medieval court allowed to contradict the king under the guise of humor, the blessed idiot kept alive to symbolically transgress the omnipotence of the ruler. One could claim that only as court jester, i.e., in a position of empowered weakness, is there a possibility for the architect to still make a critical contribution, but that this critique needs to be well-disguised in order not to kill the project before it has been born.
In other words: you have to play along with the icon economy in order to be able to undermine it later. We would like to think that there was a scenario embedded in your Gazprom design, a subversive plot lurking behind what looks like a hushed allusion to Malewitch's Tectons, dressed up just enough to make it through the beauty contest of the competition while unfolding its transformative potential only later. As you did not win, we will never know. If this speculation were correct, your resistance to an architecture of rejection that only wants to keep its hands clean would make sense. But it's a resistance that entails an equally heroic hubris, the hubris to declare yourself to be capable to F... the System.
A posture for which we would openly applaud you, as it entails the risk of the opposite turnout as well.
Sincerely, Ilka & Andreas Ruby
1Ian Buruma,'Don't be fooled-China is not squeaky clean', The Guardian, July 30,2002. Also on: www.guardian.co.uk
2Rollerball is a science fiction film directed by Norman Jewison and starring lames Caan. Made in 1975 the film is a speculation about the world at the beginning of the 21st century, a world controlled by a handful of private corporations (the nation-states having disappeared In the last war), which manipulate the population to best serve the interests of the corporate world. To keep the masses obedient, 'Rollerball' was Installed, a cruel and deadly game "whose social purpose Is to show the futility of any Individual effort'