Apocalypse architecture

James Kunstler declares war on Rem Koolhaas

Published September 28, 2006 10:56PM (EDT)

On the dread horror that is suburbia, I will confess, I am one with James Howard Kunstler. Give me the countryside or give me the city, but stick me in a suburb and my soul will wither and die. I do not, however, look forward to the collapse of industrial civilization on the grounds that that will inevitably entail the annihilation of suburban sprawl. And while it might be impertinent to suggest that Kunstler is actually rooting for such a denouement, it does seem to me from his writings that the end of suburbia would be a kind of much-savored side benefit to the end of what he likes to call the "cheap oil fiesta."

However, I did not clearly understand how much of an aesthetic dimension there is to his dissatisfaction with contemporary society until I read the current essay posted on his site, "A Reflection on Cities of the Future." This is a good, quick entry into the essential Kunstlerian worldview. In short: An energy-constrained future will require the rollback of the Industrial Revolution, a reversal of the centuries-long migration of people from the country to the city, and, to Kunstler's obvious glee, the exposure and unmasking of the "transparent phoniness" of a cabal of contemporary architects.

And here's where I really have to part ways with Kunstler. Criticize suburbia all you want. I'll be right there with you behind the barricades. But when you start talking trash about Rem Koolhaas, I will bid you adieu.

Here's what Kunstler has to say about Koolhaas and others of his ilk:

"These days, a new generation of mojo architect savants such as Daniel Libeskind and Rem Koolhaas are retailing an urban futurism that is basically warmed-over [Corbusier] with an expressionist horror movie spin, featuring torqued and tortured skyscrapers, made possible by computer-aided design, clad in Darth Vadar glass or other sheer surfaces, with grim public spaces exquisitely engineered to induce agoraphobia. There's more than a tinge of sadism in all this, though Koolhaas is much more explicit in his many writings than the less-voluble Libeskind about consciously surrendering to a zeitgeist of cruel alienation. But these are also very rarified exercises among a tiny group of mutually-referential fashionista narcissists, while the general public itself -- at least the fraction that thinks about anything -- only grudgingly goes along with it as a sort of drear obeisance to the religion of art."

And then, near the conclusion:

"But the urban future isn't what it was cracked up to be when we were riding high, surfing the big waves of cheap energy in the seemingly endless summer of oil. It wont be fun fun fun 'til Daddy takes the T-bird away. It won't be a Herbert Muschamp smorgasbord of delicious, rarified architectural irony. The Koolhaas celebration of alienation will not seem worth partying for. The metaphysics of Libeskind and Peter Eisenman will stand naked in the transparency of their phoniness."

I will concede that Mr. Kunstler has a certain facility with prose stylings. But one man's transparent phoniness is another's full meal of delight. I guess I just like rendering drear obesiance to rarified architectural irony. I think Koolhaas is, well, pretty cool. I love his design for the headquarters building of Chinese Central Television. The Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal, works for me too. As do many others. Then again, I'm also a big fan of Frank Gehry (who is oddly unmentioned in Kunstler's drive-by). And I am just plain fond of skyscrapers, a sentiment I don't think Kunstler shares. I'll bet he's none too big a fan of the Shanghai skyline, either.

My guess is that Kunstler has little time for "cool." Hey, that's cool, I can dig it. What I find odd is seeing a culture war break out in the middle of an energy crisis.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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