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Reinier de Graaf on the insular nature of architecture academia

Dominated by old boys, architecture academia in the US has become insular and out of touch, says Reinier de Graaf

Source: Reinier de Graaf on the insular nature of architecture academia

“Can I see some hands raised? Who in the audience think of Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park as contextual?” (No hands raised.) “Who think of it as not?” (No hands raised.) “Since apparently none of you know, let me tell you!”

What follows is a lengthy exposé about what, according to the person asking the question, is a highly contextual piece of architecture. Speaking is Jeffrey Kipnis, theorist, designer, filmmaker, curator, educator, founding director of the Architectural Association’s Graduate Design Program and professor at Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University.

The exchange (if one can call it that) takes place during one of the parallel sessions at the biennial. Apart from Kipnis, the session includes Patrik Schumacher, design director at Zaha Hadid Architects; Peter Eisenman, principal of Eisenman Architects and a pivotal figure in American academia (present and past positions too many to list); Theodore Spyropoulos, founder of architecture studio Minimaforms; and me, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The panel has been assembled to express its views on a potential agenda for 21st-century architecture.

The composition of the panel seems odd: most of the panelists’ formative lives have been lived in the 20th century, and all the panelists are from a part of the world to which – unless all current indicators are completely misgiven – the 21st century will not belong.

The venue is The Gold Room in the Congress Plaza Hotel. Tickets have sold at $50 and, while that ticket price suggests the event is in high demand, the room is only half full, making its grandeur perfectly inappropriate for the occasion. One of African architecture’s rising stars speaking at a venue next door appears to have drawn a larger crowd. Still, the modest turnout hardly fazes the panelists. The epicenter of American academia thrives even in the absence of an audience.

Schumacher’s opening salvo is a proclamation of the end of pluralism (delivered with an impeccable German accent) and of the imminent global dominance of a single remaining master-style – his own. Eisenman, who is next, suggests a change of format: “Only Patrik should present, while the rest of us put up a collective resistance.” His request is denied and Eisenman has to content himself with “agreeing to disagree”. His presentation calls for “heroes instead of stars in architecture”. Not something anyone could agree to disagree with, although Spyropoulos tries. But here, in the context of an all-male, all-white stage, his call leaves a somewhat dubious taste.

After Eisenman, it is open season, not just for each of the panelists’ individual obsessions (in order of appearance: parametricism, Alberti, Gehry, Piketty and robots), but also for the audience. Someone, who introduces himself as humble teacher at a humble university, asks why there are no women on the stage. With almost Trumpian bravado, Kipnis replies that he LOVES women, but is dumbfounded by the stupidity of such a question, which he then views as a logical explanation for the career progress (or lack thereof) of the questioner. In an attempt to rescue the situation, Eisenman murmurs that women have become so popular these days that they have become unaffordable. We simply have to assume he means as panelists.

It is Kipnis’ turn. His idea of offering the audience value for money is to subject it to a kind of intellectual waterboarding. His positions are invariably introduced via the same discursive formula: “Did you know…? You did not…? You should! Since you don’t, let me tell you…” It is unclear to what extent – if at all – he is seeking a discussion. Kipnis tempts the audience with long pauses, invariably followed by “let me finish!” when someone interjects.

The main topic of his presentation is the Guggenheim Helsinki museum competition, a competition that to this day has not produced a realised building and doesn’t look like it’s going to any time soon.

He presents the many entries to the competition as a repository of contemporary design intelligence, showing a meticulously categorised inventory of apparently simultaneously emerging families of design solutions to particular problems. Akin to the prolific genres in contemporary music, certain “design waves” are identified and tagged with a name. Any link to the individual authors is discarded. Trends take priority over signatures. Originality is no longer a paradigmatic feature. The myth of individual genius is dismantled in favor of architects as a virtual, yet largely unaware collective.

His argument takes a bizarre turn when he digresses into a strange and unexpected endorsement of Frank Gehry, who in many ways personifies the exact opposite. Unlike the struggling souls of the Helsinki competition, Gehry is the ultimate signature architect. His approach to architecture is his and his alone, it permits no following other than through imitation. In bringing up Gehry, Kipnis turns his own suggestion of architecture as a form of collective progress into scorched earth even before it has landed.

Kipnis seems blissfully unaware of the contradiction. He proceeds to explain Gehry’s design intentions as if he were the oracle of Zeus. The silence that ensues at his question about the contextual nature of the Pritzker Pavilion is not so much a sign of the audience’s ignorance as it is of its bewilderment. Don’t all Gehry’s buildings look the same?

It is clear to everyone in the room (at least to those who have built a building) that whatever the magnitude of the intentions that go into a design, it must ultimately subside to the prevailing perception – however unfair – of its physical presence, at which point the only correct answer to Kipnis’ question is that it is irrelevant. If legacy is ultimately a question of numbers, what constitutes the more significant intellectual fact: one person’s supposed insight into Frank Gehry’s design intentions, or the vast majority’s willful ignorance of them? Who holds the key, Kipnis or the Simpsons?

As the evening progresses, the event turns into a painful X-ray of the current state of American academia: a strangely insular world with its own autonomous codes, dominated by some antiquated pecking order with an estranged value system and no hope of a correction from within. The often grandiose character of the debate stands in stark contrast to the marginal nature of that which is being debated.

The western architectural ivory tower has become a theatre of the absurd, blind to its decline into irrelevance. Self-referencing and obsessed by minutiae unrelated to the built environment, our academics need to break out of their closed information loop and get back into the real world.

Kipnis’ definition of context doesn’t go beyond the immediate physical surroundings of the architectural object. Any notion that architecture might be shaped by a larger political, societal or economic context does not seem to register on his radar. It is as though America’s architectural establishment is preoccupied with studying footnotes under a microscope hoping they will turn into a novel.

Those who attend the dinner afterwards are cautious with their alcohol intake. Even with the debate officially concluded, one has to remain alert. Dinners serve as extra time for the settling of undecided intellectual battles – a last chance to turn defeat into victory. When all other subjects appear to have been exhausted, for some unidentifiable reason the table conversation turns to the brain and the question whether it ought to be discussed as an organ or as a muscle.

Just when the vision of a brain without a skull is about to make me lose my appetite, Kipnis turns to a young woman at the table. He asks her to guess his favorite organ. When she looks at him in shock – she must be less than half his age – he smiles: “Rest assured, my favorite organ is my mouth.” Eisenman points out that the mouth is in fact not an organ. For the first time that evening, Kipnis looks genuinely unsettled, prompting Eisenman to ask the question of the day: “Jeff, have you been drinking?”

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I Will Learn You Architecture! — Volume

I Will Learn You Architecture! — Volume

I had graduated only six months earlier and in many ways my first job came as a complete shock. It was not so much the quality of the buildings I worked on that shocked me, or the gratuitous nature of decisions such as the above, but rather the fact that practicing as an architect appeared to have nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with studying architecture. The first emotional state I recall as a practicing architect is that feeling of utter uselessness. My technical knowledge fell way short of what it needed to be, making me largely inadequate, and nobody was interested in the elevated philosophical considerations I had developed during my studies. For this job I was at the same time over- and under-qualified. It was an experience that I shared with other recent graduates. We kept our spirits up and tried to feel good about ourselves. Admittedly, we worked on garbage, but this was straightforward garbage.

[…]

Pay was good and working days were neatly confined 9 to 5’s. Still, in the face of a never-ending stream of seemingly pointless tasks, every day seemed to last a lifetime.

[…]

I was confident things would change with time. As soon as I would no longer have to execute the questionable design decisions made by others – in architecture they are that by definition – things would get better. Ultimately there would be room to put into practice some of the idealism I had developed in school. However, once I began working for myself, everything that had bothered me as an employee only presented itself in an exacerbated manner. This time there were mouths to feed. I quickly found that, in the face of economic needs, the architect is a largely powerless figure. Saying no, or questioning a client’s directives, is at best a matter of gentle persuasion, but never a battle of equals.

Many of my contemporaries resorted to teaching. Some did so fresh out of university. To me that seemed a strange career decision: a kind of pre-emptive and premature capitulation at the first sign of trouble. I also wondered what somebody barely having had a taste of the real world could possibly have to teach apart from what they themselves had been taught just a few years prior. The recycling of experience obtained from university in the context of a university seemed a strangely self-referential, somewhat incestuous process, which might help people to make it to graduation, but certainly not prepare them for a life beyond.

The creation of an educational bubble, even when invoked in the name of protecting academic integrity, seems a self-defeating purpose. In forever postponing and never confronting the shock of practice – god forbid we ever realize our own insignificance – it induces a strange state of schizophrenia. On the one hand the aspiring architect is encouraged to entertain almost megalomaniac ambitions, on the other he is left largely unprepared for the world upon which he projects this megalomania. I am not talking about a lack of technical or professional competence here, but rather about the ability to come to terms with a society wholly indifferent to his ideals. Once unleashed into the real world, the architect is perplexed by an utter lack of authority, stuck in a large gap between what he thinks should happen and what he ends up doing.

The more hermetic our schools, the more distant the realities of practice become. When practice is not engaged, it tends to become romanticized. In the context of architectural education, star architects have developed into virtual deity. (Sometimes the mere knowledge that you exist in the vicinity of one is enough for people to ask your autograph…) Still, star architects only account for a negligible portion of all that gets built. It is a weird delusion that, by having every architect aspire to that status, we can achieve even the tiniest improvement of the built environment as a whole. In the 1980s conservative policies in the US introduced the notion of trickle-down economics, in which catering to the super rich was ultimately thought to create a better situation for everybody. By cultivating a limited number of venerated architects as role models for an entire profession, we have created our own form of ‘trickle-down architecture’.

As a profession, architecture embodies a strange paradox. In economic terms it is a largely reactive discipline, a response to pre-formulated needs. In intellectual terms it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future. In this capacity architecture aspires to set the agenda andprecede needs. The unfortunate thing for architects is that both conditions are equally true, making architecture a curious form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency. This also explains the often Rasputin-like nature of architect-client relationships. A former employer (shortly before firing me) once said: “the most important thing for an architect is to possess charisma!” It is only now, when writing this piece, that I understand the full significance of his statement. Charisma – probably best defined as the appearance to know something others don’t without ever revealing what – is critical because, like a state of hypnosis, it has the capacity to obscure established relations of power. It is precisely the incongruence between architecture’s intellectual claims and its economic reality that causes something as vague as charisma to be of such importance. It allows the architect to temporarily suspend the disbelief of his patrons and get the upper hand in the absence of a real mandate. Charisma is pure psychology – that which mediates between the scale of one’s ambitions and the limits of one’s power.

Do I wish my education had been different? Not really. What I do wish however, is for my education to have been candid about the status of what I was being taught, that some notion of context would have been provided… a side note to explain that what I was learning was actually a relatively marginal form of idealism entertained only by a small minority; that the considerations that went into the built environment were of an altogether different nature than the ones we were being taught. It is not that I would have made another choice, nor do I dislike my profession. However, with a little more information I would have at least known what I was in for. In hindsight I would have used the six years of relative intellectual freedom considerably differently from the way I did. I would have spent less time on studying the profession’s intricacies and more time on studying its context, would have embraced the vulgarity of the real world as the only way to ultimately overcome it, would have developed more entrepreneurial and fewer artistic interests and would not have wasted the better half of my time in awe of role models which in the present world do not allow for emulation. I would have recognised Le Corbusier and Mies for what they actually are: history.

The education of architects is a precarious phenomenon. To disclose too early the realities of practice would probably discourage even the staunchest optimist. It would kill the productive idealism that you inevitably need as an architect. On the other hand architecture needs a real knowledge of practice if it is to produce any meaningful critique of that same practice. Architecture learns from what it applies and applies what it learns. The education of an architect is a permanent chicken and egg situation, where theory and praxis, idealism and pragmatism, resistance and surrender become entangled in an inextricable web in which it is forever unclear what prevails. In the context of architecture and its education, there is a permanent and inescapable interference between the object of critique (praxis) and the critic (the architect), who is formed by and complicit in that which he critiques. The contemporary architect – the human typology produced by this education – is generally doomed to be a mistrusted idealist even before he has properly started practicing.

How can teaching architecture prepare for practice without itself degenerating into a form of practice? Architecture exists by virtue of a conceptual distance from the arena in which it ultimately operates, as a hard earned space to think before doing (not something any of us would be keen to give up). Education is the perfect period to cultivate and explore such a space. Yet, for that very reason it also becomes hard to leave education, because it invariably means leaving this contemplative space. One learns to think only to find out that outside there is no real time to think, that one is condemned to an infernal rat race to keep up with seemingly incoherent demands. Such precisely was the formative experience of my first acquaintance with practice in London’s Docklands: a confrontation between carefully cultivated convictions and an absolute lack of demand for them.

Can architecture education be reinvented? Can it stop being a way to suspend practice in the name of thinking, and instead become a way to turn practice itself into the object of thinking? Here again, I am not advocating any form of radical pragmatism or some sort of surrender, but simply an enlarged curiosity: an eagerness to obtain a form of general knowledge of the context and conditions in which architecture is produced and with which it somehow has to come to terms. Architecture is a pinball in a maze of considerations and interests of which architects are often the ones least aware. Subject to ulterior (largely financial) motives, architecture is a fundamentally different phenomenon than for which architects hold it. More than a means to provide space, buildings are vehicles for investment, an indispensable pillar of the current economic system and, as we have seen with the financial crisis of 2008, also a potential source of its instability. Ignorance of this mechanism coupled with a misplaced hubris creates a lethal cocktail, in which the architect inevitably becomes complicit in causes antithetical to the ones he claims to profess.

Only when architecture confronts its true status can it be properly taught as a discipline. Clearly that will come at a price, as it will require honesty about all the things architecture should not claim, or at least not claim exclusively. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that nobody needs an architect to build a building. When it comes to architecture’s supposed core business, architects have become largely unnecessary. Architecture creates through design what happens otherwise by default. Buildings will get built, with or without architects. Building is a largely self-perpetuating phenomenon: the assemblage of a limited number of standardized industrial products, subject to an in-house expertise of contractors themselves. System building as a methodical science was supposed to have died along with the former GDR. Still, that is exactly what has become the dominant mode of building worldwide. In terms of technical expertise, architects are typically outwitted by contractors and even by some of their more professional client teams. The continued insistence that the work of an architect is the only way to arrive at a building, with abundant evidence to the contrary, forces architecture into a humiliating routine of self-legitimization. The vast majority of the built environment is of an unspeakable ugliness and the profession of architecture has done little to change that. Architecture’s own track record should discourage its claims to exclusivity; in insisting on it, architecture only contributes to its own demise.

What then is the ‘added value’ of architecture? What becomes different once an architect is involved?

In my view, the real merit of architecture does not lie in that it creates any less ugliness, but that it is aware when it does. That there is some internal system of critique that always offers hope for improvement. Economic pressure notwithstanding, architects are still a community of peers. They still combine a healthy mix of competitiveness with a sincere appreciation for each other’s work. There is a shared sense of quality among architects even in the absence of an overall consensus about style. Whenever one of them rises to an exceptional level, his or her colleagues are generally able to recognize it. Furthermore, a healthy dose of peer pressure mostly discourages architects from engaging in causes beyond their conviction. When they do, they know their colleagues are watching over their shoulder.

The other big difference is that architecture cultivates a motive beyond money. That makes it an exception in the current economic framework. I would not go as far as to say that architecture is not motivated by money, but that there is another goal that ultimately overrides money. Architects do not trade their labor for money. In fact, it is often difficult to find any correlation between their efforts and the financial reward. There is hardly a discipline that has made (unpaid) overtime the standard procedure in the way architecture has. This doesn’t even so much happen at the request of clients, but rather through an almost religious belief on the part of the architects in the importance of their labor.

In the long run however, any such motivation (work over money) will only be sustainable once the logic of money is properly mastered. In general, the exposure of architects to money is limited to dealing with budget constraints. The other side of the building economy, that of financial returns, for most part remains obscured from the architect’s view. Yet, it is these sums that make any financial expenditure on construction, including architects’ fees (defined as a percentage of construction cost) pale into insignificance. Buildings are invariably built too cheaply and sold too expensively. If architects would be aware, it would not only radically alter the nature of their work, but it could also mark a fundamental shift in the economy of architecture firms themselves. With architects’ indemnity insurance premiums going through the roof, ignorance of money is rapidly becoming unaffordable.

Even if, in an extreme case, architecture’s motives were to be exclusively idealistic, it is important to realize that also idealism needs financing. (The early communists funded their revolutionary activities by robbing banks.) To overcome the banalities of the real world you need to know all about the real world. Architecture has long thought it could defeat the real world by cultivating a form of splendid isolation. Ultimately, that will not work. In order to beat the system, we first need to play the system. Only when we know how to play the system, can we play the system against itself. Currently, the system plays us.

When it comes to the education of architects, what I would propose is a reverse play between architecture and its context, a temporary state of emergency in our educational institutions, in which for a particular duration studying the context of architecture takes priority over studying architecture itself.

With context I mean anything from high-level political considerations to the mundane financial logic that goes into buildings – an understanding of any ulterior motive that, for better or for worse, affects our work. Exposed to almost every facet of this context, architecture is in a unique position to extract from it a type of knowledge that no other party can. In a landscape dominated by specialists, the architect offers a rare perspective: that of the generalist, the narrator who can translate even the most banal combination of subjects into a form of discourse. In the context of complex construction efforts, he or she is the mediator who synthesizes various and diverging interests into an integrated whole. It is generally the architect who ends up acting as the spokesperson, even if the technical and financial complexity of these efforts far exceeds his or her professional competence.

Despite the general absence of evidence to support its arguments, architecture manages to exert a strange authority. In fact, the more it is seen to abandon the whole notion of evidence, the stronger its position. Somehow it is able to mobilize a leap of faith against the perpetual inconclusiveness of numbers. It is this ability that may well be architecture’s prime asset (and perhaps therefore also what should be conveyed in an educational context). Architecture is an ancient discipline that appears to be in possession of a wisdom no one else has. Even at his most helpless moments, the architect’s autonomy is hardly in question. (Charisma helps.) Architecture is a unique combination of both sovereignty from- and surrender to those disciplines. It doesn’t need to be territorial, as its territory is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

How should architecture use this power? When it comes to building, architecture is different from any other guest at the table. It is not one of the building disciplines, but rather a meta-discipline. It describes, theorizes and conceptualizes the very process in which it participates. It offers a possibility for a critique from within. It is informed by practice, yet in a position to turn its acquired insights against practice itself. Architecture offers space for contradiction. (Even in the context of this piece, I realize that I have contradicted myself at least five times.) As a consequence, architecture has the unique potential to become a disruptive force in the context of the self-perpetuating system that the production of the built environment has become. Architecture becomes a way of beating the system: bypassing supply and demand, cost and benefit, investment and return, LEED and BREEAM and all the other performance indicators which have come to dominate building practice. Almost by default architecture becomes political, a questioning of the ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable logic of the market economy. In a last instance, it is the mere possibility of an alternative that constitutes a political agenda, even when the specifics remain sketchy at best.

If architecture is to reclaim lost ground, it needs to accept its true nature. It should stop pretending to offer the same specialized expertise as the engineers, quantity surveyors, sustainability consultants and all the other supposed ‘experts’ that congregate around ever larger meeting tables (generally with a large hole in the middle) from which buildings now magically emerge. It should not engage in the tough talk. Only when we stop viewing architecture as a professional expertise on par with other building disciplines, can architecture be free to realize its full potential.

Arena, Blueprint, Platform, Framework, Theatre, Stage, Sphere, Structure, Façade, Base, Foundation, Model… The metaphors used to describe anything from organizational structures to corporate strategies and political agendas are proof of the ever-present conceptual force of architecture. Precisely at the moment when architecture seems wholly at the mercy of powers that be, its language is being used to articulate the constructs of those very powers. Even in the context of massive innovations in business and technology, architecture maintains a surprising degree of relevance. The thinking it has developed over centuries has enabled it to infiltrate other domains. In a final instance, that should also enable it to transcend its most important professional limitation: the obligation to produce buildings.

In the late nineties, the rediscovery of architecture as a primarily conceptual medium led to the formation of AMO. It was later applied in an educational context at Strelka. Our mission was to redefine architecture purely as a form of thinking, which could be applied to an array of subjects. Informed by the broadest possible context, it could in turn inform the broadest possible context. Apart from generating a number of interesting projects – projects which one might not immediately expect from architects – it has perhaps first and foremost allowed a progression of our own knowledge. We have become the students. With the formation of AMO, ten years after my first encounter with practicing architecture, working on- and learning from projects finally struck a balance: a catering to curiosities not felt since university, generating both a sense of engagement and personal progress.

‘I will learn you architecture’, Herman Hertzberger used to tell us as students at the Berlage Institute. In hindsight his bad English carries great profundity, a deep knowledge of the secret how knowledge of architecture is ultimately conveyed: a reciprocal process in which the question of who teaches whom is best forever deferred.

Critical Globalism: Rem Koolhaas Interviewed by Brendan Cormier and Arjen Oosterman — Volume

Critical Globalism: Rem Koolhaas Interviewed by Brendan Cormier and Arjen Oosterman — Volume.

BC: In one of the pre-essays to the Biennale you wrote that architects don’t work for the state anymore. But you seem to be an example of the opposite.

RK: Yes, yes, I am a very untypical architect. And that is not for nothing. My sympathy is with that old-fashioned kind of architecture.

BC: Don’t you think other architects have these kinds of projects?

RK: Well, they do, I don’t think I’m an exception. But my discourse has been about the influence of the market economy on architecture, but on the other hand, I’ve kind of rigidly tried to adhere to the public project.

Rem Koolhaas: the Most Important Factor in Building Design Is the Age of the Decision Maker | Vanity Fair

Rem Koolhaas: the Most Important Factor in Building Design Is the Age of the Decision Maker | Vanity Fair.

Koolhaas pointed out that decision-makers in countries like China tend to be younger, and therefore are more willing to take on newer and more adventurous aesthetics.

“My final conclusion, and this surprised me, is that the thing that matters most when it comes to designing buildings around the world is the age of the decision maker,” said Koolhaus, who is a professor at Harvard. “In China, the decision maker is 35, in Europe, the decision maker is 55. In America, the decision maker is a trustee, so they might be older.”

“Age is correlated with an appetite for risk,” Koolhaas said.

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States

Slaves of Happiness Island | VICE United States.

My message to the head of the Louvre would be to come and see how we are living here,” said Tariq,* a carpenter’s helper working on construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a $653 million Middle Eastern outpost of the iconic Parisian museum. Set to be completed in 2015, its collection will include a Torah from 19th-century Yemen, Picassos, and Magrittes.

“See our living conditions and think about the promises they made,” Tariq told me through a translator.

[…]

Recruiters promised him a salary of $326 a month—for a $1,776 recruitment fee to be paid in advance. With a cousin guiding him through the process, Tariq flew to Abu Dhabi to work for the Regal Construction company, one of roughly 900 construction outfits that employ foreign workers in the emirate.

But when Tariq arrived, Regal didn’t need him. For 24 days, he waited without pay, living in a squalid workers’ camp. When work finally materialized, he learned he would make only $176 a month. His boss confiscated his passport so that he couldn’t change jobs or leave the country. He sends half his salary back to his family. After 11 months in the Gulf, he still has not paid back the loan he took out to get there.

[…]

Though it is now only a sunbaked construction site, Saadiyat, a ten-square-mile atoll 500 yards off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and New York University, alongside hotels, shopping, and luxurious homes. It will be a cultural paradise, conjured by the country’s vast oil wealth but built on the backs of men who are little more than indentured servants.

[…]

The Saadiyat Island Cultural District is the flagship project of TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), a state-owned firm responsible for much of Abu Dhabi’s development. Announced in 2007, with an initial budget of $27 billion, according to media reports, Saadiyat will be the largest mixed-use development on the Arabian Gulf.

TDIC’s website promises fantasias of contemporary architecture. Plans show museums that look like they are pierced with moonbeams or modeled after the feathers of giant birds. After a day of culture, visitors will be able to relax at the St. Regis hotel or the Shangri-La. They will be able to play golf on world-class courses, or lounge by a series of man-made lagoons and mangrove forests, and then eat at one of dozens of gourmet restaurants run by international celebrity chefs. While construction of all these projects is happening piecemeal, Saadiyat, as envisioned by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Nahyan, chairman of TDIC and member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, may be completed by 2020. For at least five more years, the island will need a veritable army of laborers.

[…]

Workers at the Louvre are all employed by a company called Arabtec, one of the Gulf’s largest construction outfits. The government of Abu Dhabi holds a 20 percent stake in Arabtec, and workers have staged strikes against them for years.

In 2007, up to 30,000 Arabtec workers went on strike in Dubai. Men building Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, put down their tools. The strike had been coordinated with mobile phones to protest low wages and poor living conditions. Police arrested 4,000 strikers. At the end of ten days, Arabtec promised a pay raise. Managing Director Riad Kamal told Reuters that the impact on the company’s profits would be less than 1 percent.

But the strikes—and crackdowns—continued. Three thousand more workers went on strike in Dubai in 2011. They made $176 a month and wanted a $41 raise. The police arrested 70 men they claimed were ringleaders. “Their presence in the country is dangerous,” Colonel Mohammed al Murr, director of the Dubai Police’s General Department of Legal and Disciplinary Control, told the National, a state-owned newspaper.

After this, Bangladeshi workers, who were alleged to have helped organize the strikes, were banned for an indefinite period from seeking UAE visas.

[…]

Arabtec also replaced Bangladeshis with Pakistanis. It was classic divide-and-rule strategy, harking back to the British Empire. In August 2013, the tension exploded into riots between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Saadiyat Village. Workers turned their tools against one another. The police fired live ammo into the air.

After the riots, Pakistani workers were shipped off to other camps.

[…]

While wages may sometimes rise, the Emirates will never permit workers to formally organize. Workers’ councils, or any form of unionization, are strictly banned.

[…]

Ibrahim lives in one of Abu Dhabi’s labor camps, in a low-rise building set among row after row of identical blocks. Like most camps, it is hidden deep in the desert, far from central Abu Dhabi. Forty thousand men can live in a single camp. They are Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian—and work for a variety of companies. Often, since they don’t speak English, they won’t know what project they’re building.

Corporate buses ferry workers to job sites. Even these are no respite from the heat. Despite laws to the contrary, many buses have no air conditioning. Commutes last up to two hours, and the temperatures often reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ibrahim showed me a cell-phone video of the windowless dorm he shares with ten men. Outside, he has only a mosque, a hypermarket, and the sun.

On his one day off, Ibrahim told me, he would like to stroll Abu Dhabi’s corniche. But there’s no public transit. He is a virtual prisoner in the workers’ city.

Besides a few cashiers, the camps contain no women—just as the UAE, flush with laborers, is two-thirds male. Men save up for occasional visits to Ethiopian prostitutes. They too are migrants, often former maids who ran away from abusive employers. Because of their dark skin, Ethiopian prostitutes aren’t favored by the country’s Emirati elite and have to charge prices that even laborers can afford.

“We are so bored, and it’s a long time away from home,” Ibrahim told me when I asked him about the women. “We sit in that room for the whole day. We can’t go outside because of the heat, can’t afford to get to the beach or the mall.”

Some workers sleep with each other. Several of Ibrahim’s acquaintances have been jailed for having romantic relationships with other men. To save face, one of them, a Pashtun, told his family he’d been charged with murder.

“A beautiful boy is like a girlfriend,” Ibrahim said. Bus drivers, among the best-paid workers, court good-looking young men with promises of meals at restaurants and cell-phone credit.

[…]

Roughly 10 percent of the UAE’s 9.2 million residents are citizens. The rest are “expats” (if they’re white-collar professionals) or “migrant labor” (if they’re working class). Foreigners can live in the Emirates for generations, but short of proving Emirati heritage, there’s no way they can get citizenship. They can be deported at whim.

Amid this disenfranchisement, Emiratis can appear to foreigners like aristocrats. One can be arrested just for flipping them off in traffic.

Pravasalokam is a hit TV show in Kerala, India. A reality program whose name means “Workers’ World” in Malayalam, the show depicts the rescue of workers who have disappeared—due to jail, poverty, or abuse—in the Gulf. The Gulf nightmare is well known, yet migrants keep coming. The $14 billion a year in remittances they send home is integral to the economies of Nepal and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh the two largest sources of foreign currency are migrant labor and garments). But migrants are pushed by war as well as cash. Many workers hail from Kashmir, Pakistan’s Taliban-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and other crisis areas in South Asia.

Whatever his country of origin, a migrant almost always has to pay a recruiter fee (which is then shared with subcontractors inside the Emirates). While hiring companies claim to cover costs like airfare, visas, and medical exams, recruiters in the sending countries and their partners in the UAE often skim a year’s potential wages from the worker himself. In some countries recruiters dodge local labor laws by hiring subcontractors, who trawl villages for the illiterate, the desperate, or those simply frustrated enough to risk the dangers of the Gulf. Workers take out loans, empty their families’ savings, or use land as collateral.

At Mafraq Workers’ City No. 2, a labor camp 23 miles from central Abu Dhabi, I interviewed workers cutting one another’s hair in an improvised outdoor barbershop. They crowded around me, telling me about salaries of $150 to $300 a month and police who hassled them if they dared visit the beach in their salwar kameez. While Emiratis are dependent on migrant labor, they’d prefer that the workers stay invisible in their off-hours.

Friends crouched in the shade beneath buses. One group sneaked a forbidden bottle of wine. The rules here were as strict as summer camp—no booze, no cooking, no gambling, no porn.

[…]

Saadiyat Island is also home to what is billed to be the most humane labor camp in the entire Gulf. In response to international pressure, TDIC created what they call the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to house all workers building Western cultural institutions. In the words of its developer, it “provide[s] an internationally recognized world-class standard of living.” Its huge cricket field, writing classes, and a library containing Steinbeck are everything a visiting dignitary could desire.

[…]

Tariq, the Louvre worker, told me, “The grounds are the only things that are good. Everything else will make you feel awful. The bathrooms always stink. We don’t even have doors there. The food given to us is inedible.”

[…]

According to Ross, Saadiyat Village is a “high-security zone” where workers are constantly monitored.

Workers live more than a mile beyond a checkpoint they are forbidden from walking to. Their only escape is a bus that runs once a week to Abu Dhabi. In the wake of the Arab Spring, security concerns are cited to outside visitors as a reason for keeping the all-male workforce in physical isolation. But if controlling and isolating workers helps TDIC manage the fallout of international pressure, it also produces a less than ideal side effect for the press-shy Emiratis: It helps workers organize and resist.

[…]

The most simplistic accusation against Abu Dhabi is that by building branches of the Louvre or Guggenheim, the city is buying culture. This logic pretends that Cleopatra’s Needle ended up in Paris through the goodness of Egyptian hearts, or that Lord Elgin didn’t just pillage the marbles that bear his name.

Those accusations also perpetuate another myth: The UAE has no culture of its own.

Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.

Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE’s oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don’t share in this largesse.

[…]

One afternoon I stood inside the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in central Abu Dhabi. Built in 2007, the gigantic structure made me gasp at its loveliness. Its design spans the breadth of Muslim art: The domes were Taj Mahal, the stucco Moroccan, the tiles Turkish, the gold palm columns seemingly from the future. It embodied the cosmopolitanism of the Muslim world, vital with the energy of this young country.

[…]

Andrew Ross from Gulf Labor stressed that an institution’s responsibilities don’t end with construction. “If you visit Saadiyat, you find NYU is the only finished building. Apart from the workers’ village, it’s surrounded by nothing. It will have construction going on for 20 years around it.”

[…]

“You know how Ford said you can have any car you like as long as it’s black? In the UAE they can make whatever you want, as long as it’s a building. They can’t make free speech or human rights,” Ahmed Mansoor told me in the curtained-off back room of a Dubai restaurant.

[…]

When I asked him about the Western cultural institutions being built on Saadiyat, he told me, “All these glittering buildings and huge names are there to hide an ugly face… Artists around the world appreciate the human struggle for freedom. In the UAE, we are only buying the image.”

Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.

I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: “By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora’s box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts.”

[…]

I asked a butcher the price of a cow’s head. The crowd screamed as undercover cops yanked him away. The butcher was arrested, seemingly as punishment for speaking to a Westerner. Terrified that he might also be arrested, Ibrahim suggested that we leave the market quickly.

[…]

“I have nothing to do with the workers,” said Zaha Hadid, the star architect behind one of Qatar’s phantasmagoric soccer stadiums being built for the 2022 World Cup, when the Guardian asked her in February 2014 about the deaths of 882 migrant laborers constructing her design. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.” Hadid is now designing the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre on Saadiyat.

The West’s museums lie atop metaphoric graveyards. Art’s temples have always been built on the backs of the poor. The Louvre in Paris touts its history in the passive voice on its website: “Was built to the west of the city”; “wings begun under Louis XIV were partially completed.” But what of the peasants who sweated and died in the construction? Of them, official histories have little to say. Neither do official histories mention the miners who mined the fortune that let Solomon R. Guggenheim build the museum that bears his name.

Defenders of Western institutions in Abu Dhabi are right about one thing. They are not unique. The labor abuses at the Louvre or NYU are the same labor abuses that are happening throughout the UAE. The UAE is not the worst country for workers in the Gulf, and the Gulf is not the worst region for workers in the world. Most countries sustain themselves on the labor of transient, disposable people. This may be unofficial, as in the United States (our agricultural industry would collapse overnight without undocumented migrants), or it may be institutionalized, as in the UAE.

Trying to Keep Up with Rem Koolhaas – WSJ

Trying to Keep Up with Rem Koolhaas – WSJ.

He explains that architects used to be much more adventurous than they are now. Recent decades, he says, have seen an emphasis on comfort, security and sustainability, and “those three together form a new mantra that is beginning to dictate the norms of our society, which is replacing another mantra, which is liberté, egalité, fraternité.” All that, he says, leaves little room for “any creative process of transgression.”

[…]

Is he optimistic or pessimistic about the future of architecture? “I think it’s totally obvious that you can only be an architect if you’re profoundly and foolishly optimistic,” he says, “but you can also only be an architect if you’re profoundly critical, so you have to combine a relentless sense of criticism with a stupid optimism.” He adds, “It would actually be obscene if I was not optimistic.”

Still, Mr. Koolhaas’s views don’t sound that uplifting. He looks out across the water at the low Venetian skyline in the distance. “If you look here in this city, architecture was one of…the key ambitions that the entire city collectively had, but you only have to look at a contemporary city and see that it is less and less the case.” These days, “in terms of the hierarchy of qualities that any culture pursues, aesthetic perfection is very low,” he says with a laugh.

[…]

“Do you consider yourself a visionary?” He replies, “No, but I consider myself somebody with an unlimited amount of curiosity in an almost unlimited amount of directions.”

 ‘I hate being an architect’ — Medium

 ‘I hate being an architect’  — Medium.

‘Just about everyone responds the same when I mention your name: He’s a very unpleasant man, right?
Halfway this remark Koolhaas leans back and moves away from the desktop.
He rocks back and forth.
And he nods.
Stuttering he says something like: ‘Yeah, that happens, yes. With people, yes.’
He seems embarrassed, even a little ashamed.
Outside assistants, clients, projects, calls about million dollar projects on different continents are waiting, but here, his head is so nude… those little ears that stick out to the sides… Can you describe a man of six feet tall as resembling a little injured bird?
Not much more comes out of him. The conversation is over.

I ask his associate Stephan Petermann about it.
‘Rem has a strong character,’ he says, ‘I will not deny that.’

And when does he get angry?
‘Only with work-related things. When people are not well prepared.’

Are there people who do not prepare well when they work with Rem Koolhaas?!
‘He needs the right information at the right moment. If someone says that something has not worked out yet, then that person has not been exerting enough pressure.’

Petermann also told me that he sometimes helps ‘when Rem and a team do not understand each other well enough.’
It sounds like a euphemism.

[…]

A conversation with him, Rem, goes like this: you ask a question and the answer can go two ways. The first is quite adequate, very to the point, but makes you feel a little insecure, the notion starts to rise that you could have come up with that answer yourself, or you could have found it out yourself, if you hadn’t been lazy and had not, like you are doing now, occupied the precious time Koolhaas could have spent thinking important thoughts!
Or, it gets exciting, when he does not give you a straight answer, but instead starts to associate.

[…]

Words he often uses are: assumptions, intuitions, implications, articulate, concentration, situations. He succeeds in making you feel silly in no time, constantly interrupting his narrative with more questions that test your knowledge: ‘Do you know him?’, ‘Have you read that?’, ‘You know how it started?’ Or: ‘Do you speak Italian?’.

[…]

An American student has four words for me:
‘Fifth floor. Now. Rem.’
He grabs his Moleskine and chases after two fellow students.
Petermann and I hastily follow and storm through stairwells and elevators.
Rem is approaching.

We are in a concrete colossus in Rotterdam, home to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) It’s equipped efficiently. Loads of empty spaces, where teams can set up in a second when new assignments come in. Barren floors striped of everything but the windowsills. Sometimes a few islands of desks in oceans of space. Other floors are filled to the brim with producers, designers, models and computers.

[…]

He crosses his arms tightly against his body, bows his head. I see multiple gazes turning away. Everybody is busy not looking at him, at Rem. The possibility of failure suddenly takes hold. A student explains her research in the typical American of girls her age.
‘This is, like, sort of, the why of the toilet.’
Her fellow students are dead serious
She turns to Rem: ‘We’ve discussed the use of excrements in the book…’
He interrupts her: ‘You’re taking a lot of time explaining what this isn’t’
Now she stammers. She points to the PDF.
‘I’m not totally sure why this is here, but obviously, it…., it’s because….., it is architecture’

The silences are the worst. You sense Rem is unsatisfied, but he hasn’t expressed it yet. He browses through folders with PDF’s, but also listens.
Then he starts:
‘I get no notion about how people shit in regions like China and Africa’
And: ‘Can you show me a piece of text that you actually wrote yourself?’
Also about the work of others: ‘This is so unclear. Someone somewhere has to take responsibility.’
Red blotches appear in necks
An obliging boy with a trimmed beard shows something
Reaction: ‘Is this a sketch or your best try?’
Both answers seem wrong
‘I find this extremely horrible. And it makes absolutely no sense.’
And: ‘What I expect of you is not this manner of answering politely’
Suddenly: ‘Can you stop taking notes now. It’s making me so nervous!’
In fright I snap up my notebook, but perhaps he was only addressing the students.

[…]

If he truly is the bogeyman, than I should note that his critiques were just: the texts were superficial and simplistic.
And then he does something sweet. He steps toward the girl that took most of the hits and stresses: ‘You understand this is totally not personal, right?’
She appears not to be bothered at all.
Another confusing thing, I didn’t tell that Petermann was carrying his adorable toddler during this severe session.

[…]

How can you stay focused so long?, I sigh when I am in the car again with Petermann, toddler in the backseat. A focus like that is sometimes associated with compulsive behaviour, even autism.
Peterman loosely replies.
‘Well there is the swimming of course’, he says, ‘every day. And Rem likes to be in exactly the same hotel, preferably with the same driver taking him to and from the airport.’

[…]

How did you feel about the article in the Guardian?
Well, if you look at the reality of the moment, then almost every approach is at one moment diametrically wrong compared to other moments. That’s one of the weird things about architecture; it takes a long time. So yes, you could say, in times of crisis it’s not very appropriate to build something grand. But in the long term I think that this building finally realises the ambition to involve this part of the island with the city.
Moreover, this kind of criticism is also welcome. Every well-written piece, no matter how derisive, is an asset.’

Are you Buddhist? Don’t you get annoyed?
No, seldom. I am not someone who says: I never read them. I read them carefully. I can imagine a lot of things.’

Of course he evokes these criticisms. His texts are often put in the language of the manifests we know since the historical avant-garde movements: a language brimming with visions, sweeping statements, metaphors and concise recapitulations on the zeitgeist, with compulsory paradoxes.
Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian,’ he writes.
And: ‘There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways. Or: ‘Shopping: arguably the last remaining form of human activity.
And in these writings he likes to state his ‘final lack of interest’ in architecture.
‘I have made so many assertions’, he tells me as we glide along the motorway, ‘there is always something you can throw at me later.’

[…]

Later they moved to London, but the English, she says, never understood Rem.
We Dutchmen don’t use words liker ‘rather’ or ‘quite’
The English told Rem: ‘You don’t say something is white or black, you say: ‘it’s rather a bit like’.

[…]

Another good view is given by Gerrit Oorthuys. He used to teach at a Dutch technical university in Delft and made numerous architecture trips with Koolhaas. To Prague and Russia to research the utopian plans of the constructivists and later to New York.
Oorthuys: ‘Rem would go to the countryside to buy old stuff in old shops. He was always on the lookout for the curious. He was enthralled by the fact that the homosexual salesman in an expensive fashion shop would daintily hold up the underwear before his crotch if you asked him about the size. Or that there was a little porn cinema in a well-known shopping street. Everything outside of the ordinary.’

[…]

Is every serious countermovement immediately encapsulated and stamped with a brand-logo?
‘People can distinguish between that’

But it feels symbolic of your work. Can I interpret your career also as a big tragedy? You were so interested in the collective, the community, but your fame was based on neoliberalism.
‘I wouldn’t view that as tragedy. I’ve been given the opportunity to struggle with new issues in a new way. One of the things that has surprised me the most is that my curiosity has been explained as complicity.: Koolhaas does a book on shopping, so he’s all for shopping, He does a book on the YES-regime (YES stands for yen, euro, dollar) so he’s into YES.
In a way it has enabled me to develop a critical structure and at the same time develop things that are based upon that old structure, like the library in Seattle, the concertbuilding in Porto. And on the other side there was the intelligence of some of the new stuff, like G-Star and Prada.’

No tragedy?
‘Absolutely not. Rather, it’s doing the splits on a large scale. And nothing is more interesting than working in that position. You could say that my whole story is about the splits. From the beginning up to this point: first between Europe and America, then between Europe and China. And a split position always has these elements: you feed from both sides, you make a bridge, or a schizophrenia. Those are the three models of the splits that all happen sometime, but with which you can develop a dynamic position.
I really hope you have written this down correctly, because I have never formulated this so precisely, you’re the first one to hear it.’

So the red line in your work is not in your buildings, but in the attitude that gave birth to them? A split between two worlds?
Between worlds. Sometimes it’s a split with three legs. It’s about a kind of engagement to deal with the contradictions of these times. To use an old-fashioned word: engagement.
But being critical is the basis of it all, I think that in the last 25 years the critical from outside is no longer existent. Just like Žižek, Latour and all those other ones are declaring. You can’t look at it from the outside.’
Petermann: I think the challenge of our generation lies in how to be able to organise criticism.

[…]

‘Behind screens, on their smartphones, I often don’t know if people are working or enjoying themselves. I think they don’t know it either.’

[…]

Rem Koolhaas masks with mystifications. During lectures he sometimes stands just outside of the spotlights, it looks deliberate. His sense of metaphors and symbols makes his buildings legendary. (just slightly tilted, different proportions, oblique, round skyscrapers, etc.) He loves stuff that causes friction, that evokes criticism ánd arises from criticism. And along with that he is constantly looking for the curious, often I hear the story of when he was living in Indonesia and a boy peed in the same water in which women were doing their laundry. It’s never boring around him. He chooses humor, or at least his work originates in the same area where humor originates: there, where the normal flow of affairs does not coincide with how things could also feel, or could be promised. Like when two cultures collide.