The box: A commentary on Rem Koolhaus’ lecture at Cornell

It was a nice evening in Ithaca as I ran walked to Call Auditorium where Pritzker prize winner and Cornell alum, Rem Kooolhaas was scheduled to speak. I got there about 25 minutes before the talk began, 10 minutes before the doors opened, and it was PACKED!  Naturally I took a picture of a section of the attendees, so that I could later appreciate the crowd I’d been in.


Note that these were only the people in front of me within capture range of my camera phone. There were a lot more people waiting for the doors to open. The Cornell Sun reports that there were over 300 people in the venue that evening.

The lecture began without too much ceremony, and Mr. Koolhaus began by discussing the work of his firm, OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture), which he cofounded in 1975. He talked about the current mood in Architecture, Architecture in general, and the box as form. On the current mood in Architecture he had this to say,

Crucial to talk about current mood in arch. Architecture [used to be] dignified statements human civilizations make about themselves, not private, embodies the public. in the last 30 yrs this kind of architecture has been threatened, eroded due to idolatry of market economy [especially]   in America, and Europe. It has become explicitly and implicitly the only discourse left, and we need to explore  … what it has meant for architecture and what the architect can do.

After this he showed us pictures of the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Parthenon. Contrasting between the two he described how the Parthenon is exemplary of architecture of a civilization, a memento frozen in time versus the architecture of a person, singular and selfishly expressive – the Guggenheim. According to Koolhaus, architecture of a civilization is trying to be as general as possible, a generic form.

On the profession in general he bemoaned the rise in ‘starchitecure’ and the departure from the architect as master builder. The current feeling he feels, is displayed in a picture of an architect standing and preening beside a model of his creation. It was Daniel Libeskind preening in the photo, just standing and looking pretty, not inviting criticism. 

We all like this now, perfect clowns, the celebrity that has become what is largely seen in architecture fascinated by the contrast. basking in attention, versus the unglamorous guy holding the blueprint and ensuring the perfect execution of said blueprint on site.

In returning to a time when the architect was master builder Koolhaus outlined how the architectural profession in America has largely been driven by technology, and thus not articulated , with driving technologies being:

  1. The elevator/ escalator
  2. Steel Construction , and
  3. Air conditioning.

He described these as defining technologies of American architecture and how these technologies served to both help and hamper the growth of great architecture in the United States. 

Following that, he carefully persuaded the students, professors, and visiting architects alike to return to a generic and copyright-free architecture, the most efficient container of social programming and events. The program of the box. He went through several examples of OMA’s work, and how the box was used to define, invent, and express different programs and functions into a seamless whole.

The lecture really moved me, and again raised questions I have carried in my mind for the past few years. Questions asking why the architect’s role, in building projects, in creating and manipulating human space, appears to be getting narrower and narrower; Questions requesting the meaning of the many shiny things in the sky across the world; Questions asking for direction to the purity of design; Questions of how and if our relevance would  not be debated when technology overtakes humanity.


1 Response to “The box: A commentary on Rem Koolhaus’ lecture at Cornell”

  1. September 7, 2010 at 1:11 am

    It must have been an enlightening yet thought-provoking day for you. I have also had thoughts on if the architects role is getting narrower but then I think evolving technology has some part to play…

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