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Arts, City

Urgency! Starchitects Hit Montreal

Posted by Laura / June 9, 2007


If you didn't just hear strains of "Everybody Hurts," you may be seeing in your minds eye the extraordinary buildings of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Think the majestic CCTV building in Beijing, or the angular Seattle Public Library, or perhaps some crazy buildings in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.

His name isn't as cool, but you may know New York architect Peter Eisenman from his highly politicized Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

On Friday, they hit the stage together at the CCA to discuss topics in architecture that they considered Urgent. I arrived early to get a good seat and sat patiently as every architect in Montreal showed up, embraces and double-kisses all around. Finally, the director of the CCA introduced the tall, severe looking guy in the front row as Rem himself. The audience held its breath as the black-clad starchitect took the podium without a smile and clicked to a picture of the Parthenon.

Today, Rem declared, "architects are not taken seriously, but we have unlimited amounts of attention." He went on to show what the media has done to architecture with a graphic of a skyline made up of all the wild, iconic buildings recently built worldwide, including some of his own. It was futuristic, impressive, and utterly inhuman. Have architects lost their ability to engage in intellectual discourse with their buildings, he asked, or are we reduced to constantly making sales pitches?

Eisenman played the cheery American counterpart to Rem's stern Dutch intellectual. His jacket was unsewn at the seams and, when he took it off, he amply filled out his white button-down. He started by saying that he agreed with 97% of what Rem had said, read some passages from a novel, and made a crack about the untalentedness of Frank Gehry, whom he and Rem labeled a "B-movie architect." He lamented that we were hearing the "death rattle" of modernism; but that, having neglected to find something better, we had entered its rococo age. A sense of urgency to change the status quo, he said, has no possibility of resolution until we find out what's beyond modernism.

The discussion between them after the presentations turned heated at times. Rem did not sugar-coat his feelings that Eisenman was speaking from a small-minded, Western perspective, while he, who builds in Asia and the Middle East, knows much better. At one point, Eisenman declared that he will never visit China, ever. At another point, Rem said that he was 100% sure that terrorism will never have any impact on any building outside North America, ever.

Egocentrism can be fascinating, and produce great buildings, but it does not apparently make starchitects willing to answer questions from the audience. Almost every question was shot down or ignored by Rem and Eisenman, including a quite important and reasonable one about sustainability in architecture. I left with the feeling that, although the lecture had been thought-provoking and revealing, I had been used. These guys didn't want to engage with me, or the audience, and they definitely didn't say anything about Montreal's architecture or urbanism. Their only urgency is in the quest to praise themselves, and to build their practice up even higher, into the clouds.



J Mac / June 10, 2007 at 10:09 am
I saw a poster for this event yesterday, i.e., a day after it happened, and I felt no small regret at having missed it. I still feel that way, even with your insightful account taken into consideration, if only because I enjoy observing the inflated egos of critical thinkers almost as much as I enjoy thinking about cities and sustainability.
Fiona Akins / June 10, 2007 at 07:18 pm
Excellent review. I went too, and was shaking my head, despite an excitement to be there, from the moment I entered the big white tent. Superficially, it's fun to make fun of architects: the predictable glasses, the brave haircuts, the embodied elitism. But I can forgive all of this – it is of course inconsequential – if they produce good buildings. At depth, however, I am filled with rage at the disinterest of many architects to consider the world in which their projects sit. I was dismayed that Koolhaas's valuable, thoughtful insight into the current state and trajectory of architecture is in practice manifest in the insulting, inconsiderate, domineering, and insolent work planned for somewhere in the desert in Dubai. The hypothetical skyline described in the review (above) was later shown with the addition of Rem’s gargantuan nod to Star Wars – a massive, blank object of a building with a spherical indent and extrusion. The project, he intimated, could be seen as a blank-page response to the hectic, hysterical skyline that we have currently developed. And indeed, the project appears like a blank, white page. Is THIS the aim of architecture, Koolhaas? You have created a personal, abstract response to a hypothetical landscape. How does this add value to the lives lived in the context of the building – its users, its neighbours, the people that walk past it everyday on the way to work? Be clear that I am not suggesting specific measures that a building should take to address the context in which it is built. I am saying that such measures must be CONSIDERED, must be taken into account, must be acknowledged. Despite wanting to love Koolhaas for his intellectual, inspirational, and humanist contribution to the architectural discussion, I am infuriated by his disregard for the community that will use and be influenced by the building he is willing into existence. Mr. Koolhaas, with respect sir, we’ve got some talking to do.

PS – To add insult to injury, and smother any chance of my seeking an architectural idol, I loved the work of Eisenman despite finding him to be dogmatic and close-minded.
Laura / June 11, 2007 at 02:11 pm
Thanks for your comments, J. and Fiona! Fiona, did you notice how Phyllis Lambert said at one point that she was "appalled" by the very top-down, insolent qualities you talk about in Rem's work? Yet at the end, she left behind any disagreement and fawned over him, saying that he does beautiful work. No courage.
Zeke / June 11, 2007 at 02:50 pm

I had fun, didn't expect much, thought that Eisenman won on points - although my sweetie insisted Koolhaas had scored a knockout - and both of us thought that Phyllis got in the way.

Looking forward to the next one.
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