"I had never pronounced the word 'preservation' until eight years ago," said world-renowned architect and outspoken urban theorist Rem Koolhaas at a recent media preview of his exhibition Cronocaos at the New Museum (through June 5). "Now preservation is outpacing us." By "us" he meant architects, but the accompanying displays, artifacts and installations arranged along a rhetorical circuit by the Dutch urbanist and his firm OMA reinforce to what extent the profession's arrested development affects the rest of us too.
The show's location couldn't be more apt, not only on the Bowery, one of the city's starkest abutments between old, new and futuristic New York, but also inside a former restaurant supply store bought by the New Museum a few years ago. Half its deep, cavernous space has been converted into the white-walled, cement-floored international gallery standard, and the other half was left in its gutted wholesale shop state. Along one wall, OMA's photos of project sites pre-construction hang alongside the previous tenants' city permits, certificates, excellence awards and yellowed Polaroids. It's a handy example of what Koolhaas called the "deliberately schizophrenic world" engendered by conflicting imperatives to preserve and develop.
The exhibition itself, first mounted at last year's Venice Architecture Biennale, brings together photos, quotations, case studies, historical charters and statistical data to underline at what expense preservation has become the dominant mode of contemporary architecture. Conservation is now so wrapped up in tourism industries and real estate developments that often interest in a historical structure leads to its further deterioration, or its stagnation as an aestheticized showpiece—adjacent photos of two bazaar booths in Damascus illustrate this process jarringly. One of several impressive maps shows the distribution of that twelve percent of the planet's surface that's protected in one way or another. For Koolhaas and OMA this conservation craze is alarming not only because it often leads to the sanitization of historical buildings—like many top-tier university campuses' gutted Gothic and brick structures—but to preservation-minded new buildings.
The points made most forcefully in Cronocaos, though, concern the selectivity of preservation efforts that have deemed many structures from the second half of the twentieth century unworthy if not intolerable, and the related belief that architecture is a benign discipline that should interfere as little as possible. Images of condemned and imploded public housing projects (reminiscent of French art star Cyprien Gaillard's interest in monolithic apartment blocks in Paris' banlieues and abroad), utopian buildings fallen into neglectful disrepair and the former parliament of East Germany in pre-destruction shambles suggest a global preservationist culture more concerned with aesthetics than politics and ethics. Buildings of unquantifiable historical significance, if deemed ugly, simply don't stand. Hence the relentless erasure of architecture from those post-war years when concrete and brutalism reigned supreme, often in service of the type of socio-ecological project with which architecture's commercialization has all but done away.
Now, as Koolhaas noted standing on the sparse, renovated side of the old Bowery store, there is an "unspoken contempt for architects." A nearby poster relates OMA's experience in a competition to design Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern, during which all participating firms received an email warning that most artists polled preferred building conversions "where architectural intervention was minimal." The exhibition offers some solutions to this devaluation of architectural practice, like the need for a theory of destruction to counterbalance the hegemony of preservation, and more arbitrary patterns of conservation to allow for urban renewal and regeneration. Koolhaas' often-polemical tone—everywhere evident in the exhibition's text—has the added value of re-calibrating viewers' attitudes towards urbanism and architecture. Singular, remarkable and demanding structures suddenly outweigh the plainly beautiful, and the city starts to feel less like a showpiece and more like a laboratory for living.
(Images courtesy Rem Koolhaas/OMA, the New Museum)