The Green Vanguard: K is for Koolhaas

OK, alphabetically speaking, we’re fudging this one a bit. “Rem Koolhaas? Green?” we can hear the minions at the U.S. Green Building Council cry. “Who are you kidding?” But we’re evoking Koolhaas here metaphorically. (The Seattle Central Library, by the way, was LEED certified five years ago.) He is the father—maybe the grandfather, since his Delirious New York is more than 30 years old—of a certain type of architecture book: the dense, weighty (literal and otherwise) anthropological doorstop, checking in at a minimum of 500 pages. After the huge success of S,M,L,XL (1,376 pages), this high-gloss, highly serious, research-intensive approach became the default format for countless subsequent monographs. Years later, it continues to exert its hold, as evidenced by an impressive new book from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Ecological Urbanism (Lars Müller Publishers).

The book, edited by Mohsen Mostafavi with Gareth Doherty, has an ambitious scope. Mostafavi, dean of the GSD, asks in an introductory essay what may be the question of our time: with the population of the world urbanizing at a rapid, perhaps unsustainable, pace—and hundreds of millions of desperate people flocking to cities in search of food, water, and work—what now? What’s the architectural response in an age of climate change and dwindling resources? The book answers with a torrent of ideas—some conceptual, some eminently practical—from a seemingly endless parade of designers, thinkers, and theorists: Sanford Kwinter, Preston Scott Cohen, Hood Design, William J. Mitchell, Andrés Duany, Rafael Viñoly, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Martha Schwartz constitute a small fraction of the contributors.

The Koolhaas essay—in the form of an extraordinary lecture he gave at Harvard, called “Advancement Versus Apocalypse”—is a revealing one. Declaring an end to an era that he helped create, Koolhaas called not for more buildings but for political engagement and engineering solutions. “For those who didn’t recognize it, this is a collection of masterpieces by architects in the last ten years,” he said of a PowerPoint slide depicting a hypothetical metropolis that’s all too real. “It’s a skyline of icons showing, mercilessly, that an icon may be individually plausible, but that collectively they form an ultimately counterproductive and self-cancelling kind of landscape. So that is out.”

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