[This piece was written on the occasion of the Illinois Institute of Technology Student Center competition in 1999, which Rem Koolhaas won over Peter Eisenman.]
“Could it be that this seemingly familiar architecture is still in many ways unknown, and that the monolithic Miesian edifice refracts the light of interpretation, multiplying its potential implications for contemporary architectural practices?” Detlef Mertins (1)
OK. So Koolhaas won. Big surprise; after the MoMA fiasco (2) my mom could have called it. The world makes sense again.
The MoMA result was more or less universally greeted as a surprise. The work that is supposed to matter today, the work that is showcased in high-profile competitions like this, is critical work. This is so obvious, so taken for granted, that only when something like MoMA happens — or the opposite: when such work is refracted through a highly regarded but straight context like Mies — do we notice its importance in setting the contemporary agenda.
Stripped of its obfuscating allure, critical architecture is really architecture that sees its role as raising the awareness of a problem, (3) including the problematic idea of “problems.” (4) The questions that architecture raises are an index to the values and character of a culture and time, including the characteristic categorization of phenomena into unitary cultures or periods. Today’s “critical” architecture reflects the contemporary passion for theorizing and gamesmanship, for example. Its presumptive metaview is as much a symptom of that which it views as it is a statement of privilege.
There are two basic approaches to articulating the problem that critique notices: through illustration or by offering a solution. Since architecture is already credited in general with a problem-solving role (program is traditionally understood in this way, for example), the status of the solution as critical hinges on the additional test of its self-consciousness as “critical.” (5) The illustration, on the other hand, cannot help its self-consciousness, since its value is not as self-evident or directly established (as, say, through service, like the solution), but instead derives from the added-value side of the architectural equation. While necessary, this self-consciousness is not sufficient for critique; the argument must be read to be effective, and it must stand out to be noticed: it must be different somehow. The quality of this difference becomes a statement of the critique’s ambition and the measure of its success. Since the context is what is available for contrast, it becomes identified directly or indirectly with the problem; either as a foil for the proposed solution or as an otherwise unsuspected pattern to be registered through illustration.
The public nature of architecture compels the “solution,” critical and otherwise, to be exemplary, to be a model for emulation. In contrast, illustrative work feels a more complex responsibility to offer itself not as a model but as a warning. The commendability of exemplary work leads eventually to its becoming common, at which point it is no longer critical, and no amount of self-consciousness can overcome its invisibility. (6) illustrative work’s route to invisibility is more direct, an effect of failure rather than success. Illustration has no existence outside of critique, which explains the extreme measures it must take to distinguish itself from the context with which it otherwise risks being confused. Ironically, while illustrative work shows no aspirations toward the exemplary, these extreme measures attract the mediation that ensures dissemination and reproduction. Today, maybe for this reason, critical work is almost exclusively illustrative rather than ameliorative.
Another reason could be that the certitude and universality assumed of the exemplary, that grant it value, no longer seem as believable as they did when the IIT campus and buildings were `designed. In fact, the energy that drives contemporary critical discourse is given off by the in-falling matter from this loss — the “facts” of Mies’s day, the confidence and care those inspired, the optimism that expected answers, and the pragmatic accommodation of their absence. As we are continuously reminded, we inhabit this problem: an age that venerates the image and is suspicious of answers. Mies approached his problem from both directions, giving “form to the age” and providing solutions to the problems that form illustrated. Mies’s trust in a “good” over the “interesting” was evidence of his belief that answers are possible through architecture, that “the realm of significance” could yet be transmuted into material fact. (7) This duality, and the attendant confidence that it was enough, made Mies’s work exemplary. His consciousness that this might be the most that was possible made the same work precociously critical.
Mies’s architecture was acutely mindful of the complexity of the modern condition, which for him represented the extent of the possible and the reservoir of significance that he felt architecture was charged with expressing. (8) What appears to our world-weary postmodern sensibility to have been a halcyon age of pure material optimism seems actually, in its unfolding, to have been as confusingly reified as the most sensational descriptions of the current hyperreality. The critics of the time described it as “abstract,” a “world without center,” and “an artificial world that has lost its coordination and has splintered into many parts.” (9) It seemed to them that progress had advanced beyond the reach of the traditional “mechanisms” of “control.” They saw a technological reality that society had not consciously brought to pass — and with which is had shown little ability to cope. Balanced against the apprehension of the critics, though, was the architect’s excitement that if technique were given some cultural guidance it could redeem its early promise. For Mies’s generation, the onslaught of technology was still seen as a source of solutions — as well as being the larger problem. Mies bowed before the authority of this vast, sweeping “problem” in order to find in its potential solutions an intrinsic value.
God is a detail
Mies patiently plumbed the flood of technological modernity for essential truths, testing its susceptibility to order. From this source he took the facts that were reframed as fundamental, originary, central. He determined that whatever solution might resist this surge of artificiality and abstraction could be found in the undeniable concreteness of the work he placed in its path; whatever relief granted from the chaotic turbulence could result from the rigor and care of that work’s placement, and the eddy of stillness it sheltered.
Mies’s carefully restricted universe is constructed from solutions that were themselves built up from these “facts.” Only by accepting the facts as they are precipitated from the torrents of reification, though, could they be taken as facts, their dependability assured, and the architect able to “recognize the spiritual and material forces of [the] period, investigate them and draw, without prejudice, the consequences.” (9) Mies distrusted his own will, sensing that whatever hope there might be for achieving truth depended on a “complete renunciation of one’s own aims in the work, of whimsies, or vanity.” He followed a design process geared to the reception of a solution “handed down,” as an emanation of an “immanent logic” to which the architect adds “almost nothing.” For the work to be invested of the quiet authority of Crown Hall and the historic campus center, it must be more — or less — than the product of any individual’s personality, belief or will. It has to be equipped to believe in itself.
As the context for the IIT competition — and corollary representation of the “problem” to the competitors — Mies shows how “exemplary” goes beyond simple commendability to suggest a teleology of which it stands as the culmination. The site invites the competitors to measure up. As the final word, the answer, the exemplary case retrospectively defines the problem and discourages further refinement. This threshold of refinement is where the master pauses — and where the followers take off. Mies was not interested in being imitated but in setting a standard that challenged those who followed to recognize the difference. Most did not, so Mies became exemplary of modernism as a problem.
With the mediated veneration of novelty (10) and the general disinterest today in the exemplary, the relation between repetition and reproduction has necessarily reversed. The signature architect ™ is crowned through reproduction and imitation and is faulted when seen to be repeating himself. In today’s market we trust newness or originality, rather than goodness, and it is newness and originality that sells. The universalizing logic of the exemplary is turned on its head when only uniqueness is generally accepted.
This is not just an expression of distrust of the “good” but also a result of the sheer extent of the possible today. Possibility is greatly expanded over what could be conceived during Mies’s day. Digital technology has blurred the difference between the real and the virtual so that we have become habituated to the sort of difference that used to count for newness. Mies spurned the interest in interestingness that hazes this distinction today and kept his focus on the possible, seeing its reasonableness as ultimately more significant. His patient, reasonable process resulted in a record of real innovation unequaled during his own time and unheard of today.
Each of the competitors in the IIT competition represents a strand of modernism benefiting from Mies’s exemplarity although, depending on their acceptance of this genealogy, desperately personalized or denied outright. Like Molly Iven’s joke about George Bush being born on third but thinking he hit a triple, the competitors present their modernist credentials as innovations. Each is a foreigner in the American wilderness, (11) each displays an ironic distancing from the object that approximates Mies’s own objectivity. Some have probably found themselves defending a scheme to a skeptical client by mentioning that less is more. But none had ever faced the fact, the real thing.
Two careful bricks…
Of the five competitors, Koolhaas is the clearest recipient of Mies’s generosity, and also the most imitated conduit for that legacy, as proved directly by the work of two of the others and indirectly by a third. Given the sensitivity of the campus, the presence of these four in the competition is understandable. (12) The final competitor, on the other hand, seems to have landed on the site from another planet. At the same time, Eisenman is not really the stranger here that he may seem or claim to be. Though perhaps owning the least formal debt to Mies, Eisenman is the most methodologically similar, and for that reason his presence is probably more significant. He subscribes to Mies’s advice to “follow the law to gain the freedom,” (13) but invents his own laws and hopes for a different freedom — freedom from this legacy. Eisenman and Koolhaas are the class of the competition, and they are the only competitors for whom an interesting patricide is both expected and plausible. Both make their attempts in a characteristic way. In both cases it is a contest between an existing material fact (critique-as-solution) and the new image on the block (critique-as-illustration).
The student center is the Ur-example of building type defined programmatically, the sort of loose grab-bag of spaces that Koolhaas has made his signature. These are spaces that otherwise don’t go together, teasing images of interaction and chance relationships from even the original wave of designs from the 1970’s, campus-as-architectural-zoo era. The student center is not a duck, but a duck-billed platypus. This poses an unusual problem for Koolhaas. Since his usual critical approach involves the creation of duck-billed platypi — the architecture-as-urbanism polemic — its existence as the program already takes much of the bite out of the implied critique. In fact, Koolhaas’s scheme, complete with the obligatory 45 degree angles from the ‘70s, is almost too perfect an image from that period and the indoor shopping mall that descended from it. The knowing difference that pushes the erstwhile naïve to a fashionable extreme — and distinguishes Koolhaas’s work from its historical model — is mostly evident here in the contrast between all this platypus splooge and the simple Miesian one story box that contains it. And the wrapper around the el, which is the sort of obvious idea that becomes seen as genius if it actually gets built.
Mies’s original Commons, a building that predates the duck-billed platypus, indulged the urbanistic program smearing within simpler spaces that embody his “preference for order.” As with many of his projects, the Commons can be understood as Mies’s definitive solution for this program/type. Mies linked flexibility to generality. The newer, improved version proposed by Koolhaas, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach required by illustration’s need to stand out. In this canard-billed platypus, the anatomical specificity of the program pieces is identified, cataloged, and then scrambled; the result is an anti-universalizing, Vegematic particularity of rearranged Mie’s Pieces,™ describing idiopathic patterns of irredenta. The literal subsumption of the Commons in this process is significantly more violent than mere demolition would be. This is the only Miesian “fact” Koohaas engages directly; by the time he is done with it there is little factual about it. he turns it into a true myth, perfect down the recreation of (part of) Mies’s original plan. The vitrine of Miesiana that uncoils from it, like the entrails of a spectacular roadkill, keys our appreciation: not only does Koolhaas want to kill his daddy, he wants to do it publicly, as a warning. To neutralize his memory and the critique that the Commons might otherwise return, Koolhaas makes Mies “an example.” (14)
Koolhaas describes his proposal as a condensed version of the larger IIT campus, a reaction to the campus’s emptiness in its presently under-enrolled state. He imagines the scheme as what might have existed in the seconds before the big bang scattered Mies across the (still) vacant blocks. This proto-campus is presented as a literal treasure — well, toy — chest, filled with a hasty jumble Mies-takes, the original figures of repose remade into more exciting “action figures” and the material “facts” pumped up into more stimulating simulacra. The “real history of how these blocks became vacant is somewhat nasty; Koolhaas provides an ideal origin story for the campus — an unusually clear instance of the laundering his historic sources typically endure. This aspect of his work is generally not noticeable behind the seductiveness of the final forms, but here the contrast it offers to the originals is poignant, particularly when that original effort is seen in relation to the harsh reality of the urban renewal making way for it. the real critique of the empty campus is offered by other images of otherness — photos of the teeming neighborhoods it replaced, not by an illustration of the multiplicity™. This is perhaps the harshest indictment of this scheme: we can still see through the seductive pattern-making to the real thing, and we prefer the order it originally salvaged from a messy reality — messier than Koolhaas would want to illustrate.
The contrast of the campus to its original context makes the case for IIT as the clearest example of Mies practicing as a critical architect. As he saw it, solving the problem posed by that context was to offer, as a counter example a vision of the way he felt the city should be. We may object to that vision today, and certainly to the methods used to realize it, but we cannot claim to have come up with something better. When Mies is refracted back to us through the winning scheme in this competition, we regain a sense of the stakes for which he played and a possible explanation for the continuing power of his solution. His exemplary achievement seems all the more remarkable.
I’d rather good be interesting
Eisenman’s work is not exemplary. He has no clones. No one has the guts to imitate it. his work stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, for it toughness, rigor, and seriousness. It dares anyone to follow — especially as he cuts off the limb behind him. Would Eisenman rebuke Mies? Would Mies marginalize Eisenman? Mies clears a space without margins to assert the tragic possibility of fulfillment. Eisenman depicts margins as indicative of a more fundamental condition in order to illustrate the impossibility of such fulfillment.
Eisenman’s work, as processual, transformative, needs a host, a grain of sand to proceed, to transform. Part of the fun in a competition like this is imagining what Eisenman is going to do with it. pure, illustrative critique cannot operate ex nihilo. But Mies resists transformation. The product of a strict teleology of essence, his work allows no other destinations, no further development, except by repetition. All other directions are already steps backward, failures. For Eisenman the design challenge is to squeeze some juice from the unyielding silent stone.
Like Koolhaas’s simulations, of Mies’s facts, Eisenman’s rule-generation methodology is a computer age paraphrase of Mies’s own deliberate mix of deductive and empirical design. Like Mies’s, Eisenmans’s work involves a denial of authorship, a cranking of the handle. Both Eisenman and Mies eschew the signature. Both are consumed in the task, both revel in the argument; Mies has his conversation exclusively with the problem, while Eisenman also checks for the audience’s reaction.
To make sure the audience is following, Eisenman supplies a text. Sometimes these texts make a difference to the reading of the project, sometimes they are better taken on their own, as empirical appraisals of what’s in the air, leaving the project to fend for itself as “pure design.” In this project, the partis is so clear that the text serves little purpose except justification. Still, on his way to the punch line he works his way through oppositions like challenged matches in a theory tournament: artisanal vs. technological, idealism vs. materialism, object vs. process, figure vs. frame, figure vs. ground, past vs. present, landscape vs. building, temporal vs. material, interiority vs. exteriority. At one point, well before the end of the tournament, he takes the time to question such “categorical dialectics.”
Eisenman notes Mies’s idealist and materialist tendencies in order to set him up as an exemplar of Hegelian synthesis, allowing Eisenman to point out the “impossibility of redeeming or even representing” this possibility today. This spells out the terms of Mies’s decrepitude. Not unexpectedly, the proposed design” begins from an idea of a processual condition — a between or interstitial object that is neither ideal nor material but rather is difference itself.” From here to a discussion of figure and frame, and thence to architecture, and Mies, as a traditional frame for experience. Here Eisenman is presented with a tactical difficulty since he does not have enough program to literally overwhelm, or even outflank Mies, which is the point of any Eisenman project. He must relinquish what Jacques Derrida has shown to be the superior position. In architectural terms, though, there is another level at which the concept of frame can be thought, another position opposed to figure: the ground, or the foundation of the frame, the frame of the frame. This becomes the site of his intervention and vehicle for his critique. By “figuring the ground” he can “reframe” Mies. If he can pull this off convincingly, he wins.
As with Koolhaas, Eisenman’s proposal is a mix of respect and subversion — in Eisenman’s case, literal. The respect is itself a mixture of wariness and defiance. Eisenman notes that Mies cannot be challenged directly, but must be “reframed” and “rethought.” Humility and pretense are more carefully balanced in the text than in the scheme; he writes about “reactivating” the past, but only for its potential for “disturbing” the present; he states the goal of “reuniting the two zones of the campus,” but it is underwritten by the desire to “absorb Mies…assimilating the static idealism of his grid.” His text makes explicitly the uneasy feeling in the design that Mies needs to be treated with care — not because he should be honored, but because he might bite.
Eisenman’s decision to go underground is not just a nod to propriety, though this would make his defeat more tragic since it would be the first time in his competition career that he had copped so overtly to this sort of pressure. Nor is it simply subversive, though the delight it gives from this perspective is obvious. Instead, it should be seen as a strategic withdrawal, a well-reasoned admission that the sort of object he could bring himself to create would never pass the spatula test in this context. The vicinity of the site is so determined b the obdurate repose of the the Mies buildings that any alien presence — which must describe anything Eisenman might propose — would risk appearing silly. As Eisenman would have foreseen, the other competitiors proved this point for him. Except for Koolhaas, who, also foreseeably, just hid in a box. (16) For an Eisenman building to be able to stick in this Teflon environment it would have to dig itself in deeply and hold on with all its might. However, trying to do a number on the underground-equals-respect approach, Eisenman committed the fatal error of running a double reverse against an opponent too patient to react to the first hand-off. Designed to cover the whole field — to be seen as a gesture of respect as well as a raspberry, a wink at those who could be expected to recognize the cliché of the first gesture and a backhand to those who would expect only the raspberry, and, finally, a bone for those who (thought they) knew that he would be thinking about all this — it backfired: when all was sorted out, the building was still underground. Eisenman forgot he was backed up against the mirror of an “ideal plane” when he crossed his fingers behind his back. Ironically it was the students who noticed — a bunch of kids who could have been expected to enlist in a program of subversion, but instead simply preferred to stay above the fray, or at least the ground. Koolhaas was smart enough to give the kids just the toys they wanted.
Like Koolhaas, Eisenman desires to neutralize the history that so pumps up Mies’s presence on the campus. Eisenman proposes draggign Mies into the present, where he must appear doddering, by grabbing his “gridded ideal plane” and giving it a yank. Though quoting Proust, Eisenman describes a Bergsonian image of the presence of the past, in which his goal is “to see Mies again in a new field of differences — to reframe the principles of his architecture in the time of the social and political reality of the city today.” (17) By making the ground a figure, he hopes to “provide a new critical context for resetting the absolute autonomous language of Mies,” without attempting “to historicize Mies, but rather suggesting another time and space for understanding its history.”
In fact, though, Mies is already here, in the present, and not even as the past, in the Bergsonian sense. Just present. Eisenman errs in insisting on Mies’s idealism, such and easy target today. It is because of the stubborn persistence of the “facts,” the material side of Mies, that both Eisenman’s and Koolhaas’s proposals seem to be unreal in contrast. Of course they have not had time to assert their own presence as literally as Mies — they are still sketches — and we can hope that whatever does eventually get built (since there is never any guarantee that it will bear too much of a resemblance to a competition scheme) will be able to last as long and provide as challenging a context for the next victim.
However predictably the judging went, Eisenman’s scheme remains much more compelling than the rest. Alone among the competitors, his proposal give the bracing feeling that architecture puts something at stake. Given Mies’s obvious gravity, Eisenman shows that waves can still be generated. Yet, while deep down he may have intended his scheme to unsettle Mies, the waves he stirs up throughout the campus are fairly easily ridden out by the docked boxes, like ripples left from a grown-up’s cannonball: shocking, but soon dissipated.
More or less
Today we pretend to be addressing Mies, but we are really looking around anxiously to see who’s watching. Mies addressed his task with the confidence that it would find its own audience. For him, each task was an opportunity to inscribe a god, a voice, in the “nothingness.” Mies’s genius was in explicitly discovering that the only possible solutions to the problem were those that were immanent in the terms of the problem itself — and making from them the bare consolation that could take the place of progress.
The work of these contemporary architects, which is seeing as autonomous and self-absorbed (in its own way, of course) as Mies’s, cannot help but be a response to what today might be modestly called the conditions of production, but used to be called the spirit of the age. This competition was won, unsurprisingly and appropriately, by the coolest architect, the designer with his finger most securely on the contemporary pulse. One of the opportunities in a competition like this, with its clearly defined “period” context, is the chance to read in the inevitable contrast a sense of how we are doing. What we have learned from this competition, if we did not already know it, is that the pulse is weak, in the Vattimo sense. We are forced by this competition to ask why, in an era obsessed with novelty, is the coolest architect around a historicist? And to wonder how much this fact is actually what makes his work cool.
Such historicist appropriation obeys the same logic as a respect for the exemplary, but not the same spirit. However exemplary history may seem, it comes to us like nature, bereft of intention. The appropriation of historical effects lacks the value that the exemplary enjoys by virtue of the care and willfulness that go into its determination as exemplary. We count that deficiency as sophistication. Our work is cool, not beautiful. Destined ensnared and determined by an indifferent history, we respond with a defensive hauteur. Lacking either the conviction or naiveté to make history, we mine it. We are bricolleurs. This artful estrangement before history stands between Mies and us. We saw what became of him, what the “three blind mies” did to his exemplary effort, and the Stern judgment that historicism leveled on him. Can he resist rehabilitation as the source of another historicism? We know that we cannot escape the claims of the history in which we are trapped; we know that this fact (and it may be the only one of which we can be certain) is not mere spirit — but mostly we know that it is also no guide. Our sensitivity to this fact places us permanently across a threshold from the modern. This is the real problem for the possibility of the exemplary today. Our greater sophistication breeds complacency. So Koolhaas won. Big surprise — big deal. What are we supposed to do with it?
Originally published in ANY 24 (MONTH/SEASON 1999).
1 Detlef Mertins, “New Mies,” in Mertins, ed., The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 23.
2 To recount: the Museum of Modern Art disaster unfolded in two acts. The institution staged a design competition to choose the architect for a major expansion of its facilities. This was supposed to be the most important commission since the Getty opened to deafening yawns. By deliberately overlooking the top rank of architects, by now venerable and who most justly considered themselves appropriate for the venerable institution MoMA itself has become, the museum declared an interest in renewing itself. This opened the field to a younger and, by implication, more critical group of architects. Incredibly, though, the first cut left out the strongest of these, most notably Koolhaas. By the time the final selection was made it was universally understood that an opportunity of historic proportions had been squandered. The first “M” would be the rule. See also the New York Stories in ANY 22 for a fuller account. 3 The status of any such condition as negative, that is, as a problem, is one of the things that critique would see as a problem.
4 Critical architecture might claim instead that it more simply and generally raises questions. Still, the motivation for asking is always at least the suspicion of a condition that might be bettered, hence, a problem.
5 It might be felt nowadays that the combination of “solution” and “critical” is an oxymoron, since “solution” presupposes a decidability that could be considered deluded, or at least anti-critical.
6 This was of course the fate of the twentieth century’s avant garde.
7 Addressing itself to the problem of the “inner structure” of the modern world as a site for “the slow unfolding of its form.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Neumeyer, in Mertins, 71.
8 In fact, the salient feature of his oeuvre could be seen as the conflation of the two.
9 Fritz Neumeyer, The Artless Word: Mies van der Rohe and the Building Art, trans. Mark Jarzombek (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London; MIT Press, 1991), 262
11 Novelty can be charitably understood as the foremost guarantor of emancipatory, as opposed to repressive, practice.
12 New York must count.
13 And the fact that they are among the most usual suspects for such competitions in general today shows the unspoken influence of Mies en scene.
14 If you forget the el barrier that is really not part of the scheme but just part of the competition strategy, just as the el itself was not really part of Mies’s plans for the new campus.
15 Neumeyer, 195.
16 In illustrating an originary condition of chaos within an immediate context of order, he is able to critique the illusory reality of that order by offering his constructed chaos as an alternative. By contriving this chaos from the very “facts” that asserted modernism’s idea of order, his historicism offers the most biting critique. There are two problems with this reading, though. First, he does not engage the real facts but simulacra of those facts, and second, the real facts are still there, being real and giving the lie to those simulacra. In his other work this chaos—the coherence-challenged multiplicity—is handsome, carefully wrought, but here it is hasty. The argument becomes confused between a resentment of order itself and a critique of Mies’s assumption of a natural preference for it.
17 While it is intended to offer a comparison to the diffuse and empty nature of the campus in its present under-enrolled state, perhaps the circulation hacked through the densely packed specialty spaces should be seen instead as a reference to the slash-and-burn strategy of the original urban renewal program. In this case, the strewn Miesiana could hardly be seen as toys. In this case the hastiness of the usually more considered disorder is really a yearning memory of the messy vitality of the pre-IIT neighborhood. In this case the project would be far more than a fashion statement by the coolest architect practicing. In this case the project would signal an awareness of the part of the world that is usually sacrificed to make way for such architecture... naaah.
18 Characteristically, while Koolhaas interprets the site in terms of its urbanism, Eisenman sees it in terms of lines on the ground. To Koolhaas the campus is empty, to Eisenman it is shot through with an isolating grid. To Koolhaas, the “space between” is an abrogation of urban responsibility, to Eisenman it is the positive force of separation between single, singular buildings. Eisenman shows how this grid sets up Mies’s buildings as perfectly autonomous objects on an ideal infinite plane, how the critical force this idealized layout may have originally brought to bear against the not yet modern city has disappeared, how the passage of time has left the campus stewing in its own critique, and how the buildings’ success as isolated objects has undermined whatever collective message they once had to offer.
[texto. West Jones] [sitio. J,P:A]