Architcture, Scale, Destruction, Creation and the Threat of the Blank Slate.

by guy keulemans on November 18, 2008

Some thoughts after reading Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL

In the margins of Rem Koolhaas’s book S,M,L,XL, is a kind of dictionary, a collection of quotes from, I assume, various sources headlined under a single word in bold capitals. For example:

SCALE: …. working with scale puts you in a an almost god-like position…. you can hold a piece of turf in your hand, or a house, and you can plant it somewhere, or you can crush it, smash it. ” p. 1114

Working with scale models can be seen as a metaphor for our constructive and destructive nature. Elsewhere in S,M,L,XL, Koolhaas discusses the daughter of a client who has commissioned a house from him. The house takes so long to build that the daughter grows up and Koolhaas wonders, “…how would she inhabit the house that she had destroyed – accidently – as a model, when she was seven.” (p. 135)

This duality of creation and destruction is evidenced in the urban planning of Singapore, a UN approved plan to construct “New Towns” around the island, connected by a central ring road. The dictatorial government took on the challenge to bring Singapore into the 20th century with enthusiasm and boldly made a tabula rasa, a blank slate, on which to build, destroying jungle and shanty towns alike in order to produce hundreds of identical housing blocks.

Pragmatism was the rule and while much can be said about the lack of humanity expressed by the design aesthetics, the building program is successful and people became better off terms of general well-being. I lived in Singapore fr 6 years as a teenager, and remember well the take off and landings from Changi Airport; the island, tiny from the sky, laid out like a circuit board, the repetition of housing blocks like rows of soldered microchips.

Better techniques for urban planning can be seen in the context of Japan and the Metabolist movement . Koolhaas discusses Fumihiko Maki system of breaking down the tapestry of the city into 3 areas; compositional form, megastructure, and group form. Compositional form is the domain everyday architecture and while it can be beautiful and inspiring, it can also be ugly and banal. Either way, it is subjugated to megastructure in Maki’s context – being the large frame and the domain of urban planning. Grid systems, roads and highways, and other large structures. But there is also group form, which is a macro form arising from the interaction of compositional form and megastructure over larger areas and expressed through the application of linkages; built in linkages to connect and harmonise discrete architecture, and larger open linkages to to connect expanding urban areas together. (p 1045 and p. 1049)

The difficulties with the Singaporean plan of the New Towns, is that the compositional forms, the (non)individual apartment blocks, are designed by the pen of those who also designed the highways and other megastructures. Lacking variation they are unable to link in any meaningful way to produce a dynamic or flexible group form. This is probably a consequence of three factors; autocratic planning, fast delivery, and the erasure of history that accompanies the creation of the tabula rasa in the programs beginning.

In fact, the program and Singapore itself becomes defined by its origins and the abilities of the her government to create this blank state and rebuild again at will. It is expressed again and again overs the decades; it is manifested legally by a law enabling the government to appropriate property without consent of the owner, and in practice is a method to give momentum to financial and economic factors. Is it also reaction against the the fear of an endlessly encroaching jungle? Koolhaas argues it is. But in fact, the onslaught of development is itself akin to the relentless fecundity of the jungle. Despite meager protests to the destruction of wilderness and traditional villages it continues, and creates an insecure feeling of permanence:

“The curse of the tabula rasa is that, once it is applied, it proves not only the previous occupancies expendable, but also each future occupancy provisional too, ultimately temporary. This makes the claim to finality – the illusion on which even the most mediocre architecture is based – impossible. It makes Architecture impossible.” p. 1075

The threat of the blank slate is placed all our products, architecture and all creation nowadays and promotes the construction of temporary design. This is the legacy of modern
ism and of complete and total design. It is the context from which cradle to cradle is derived, and the playing field for the design of the vast majority of consumer products. After the 20th century and the creation of the bulldozer, and its equivalent for product design, the landfill, it is taken for granted that function inevitably decays and can only be restored through re-designing and re-making from from scratch again.

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