© 2013 Miro Roman

Koolhaas – The Generic city

from: The Generic City: SMLXL by REm Koolhaas

l. Introduction 1.1 Is the contemporary city like the contemporary airport- “all the same”? Is it possible to theorize this convergence? And if so, to what ul~imate configuration is it aspiring? Convergence is possible only at the price of shedding identity. That is usually seen as a loss. But at the scale at which it”occurs, it must mean something. What are the disadvantages of identity, and conversely, what are the advantages of blankness? What if this seemingly accidental-and usually regretted-homogenization were an intentional process, a conscious movement away from difference toward similarity? What if we are witnessing a global liberation movement: “down with character!” What is left after identity is stripped? The Generic? 1.2 To the extent that identity is derived from physical substance, from the historical, from context, from the real, we somehow cannot imagine that anything contemporary-made by us-contributes to it. But the fact that human growth is exponential implies that the past will at some point become too “small” to be inhabited and shared by those alive. We ourselves exhaust it. To the extent that history finds its deposit in architecture, present human quantities will inevitably burst and deplete previous substance. Identity conceived as this form of sharing the past is a losing proposition: not only is there- in a stable model of continuous population expansion- proportionally less and less to share, but history also has an invidious half-lifeas it is more abused, it becomes less significant-to the point where its diminishing handouts become insulting. This thinning is exacerbated by the constantly increasing mass of tourists, an avalanche that, in a perpetual quest for “character;’ grinds successful identities down to meaningless ~st. 1.3 Identity is like a mousetrap in which more and more mice have to share the original bait, and which, on closer inspection, may have beenempty for centuries. The stronger identity, the more it imprisons, the more it resists expansion, interpretation, renewal, contradiction. Identity becomes like a lighthouse- fixed, overdetermined: it can change its position or the pattern it emits only at the cost of destabilizing navigation. (Paris can only become more Parisian- it is already on its way to becoming hyper-Paris, a polished caricature. There are exceptions: London-its only identity a lack of clear identity- is perpetually becoming even less London, more open, less static.) 1.4 Identity centralizes; it insists on an essence, a point. Its tragedy is given in simple geometric terms. As the sphere of influence expands, the area characterized by the center becomes larger and larger, hopelessly diluting both the strength and the authority of th~ core; inevitably the distance between center and circumference increases to the breaking point. In this perspective, the recent, belated discovery of the periphery as a zone of potential value-a kind of pre-historical condition that might finally be worthy of architectural attention- is only a disguised insistence on the priority of and dependency on the center: without center, no periphery; the interest ofthe first presumably compensates for the emptiness of the latter. Conceptually orphaned, the condition of the periphery is made worse by the fact that its mother is still alive, stealing the show, emphasizing its offspring’s inadequacies. The last vibes emanating from the exhausted center preclude the reading of the periphery as a critical mass. Not only is the center by definition too small to perform its assigned obligations, it is also no longer the real center but an overblown mirage on its way to implosion; yet its illusory presence denies the rest of the city its legitimacy. (Manhattan denigrates as “bridge-and-tunnel people” those who need infrastructural support to enter the city, and makes them pay for it.) The persistence of the present concentric obsession makes us all bridge-and-tunnel people, second-class citizens in our own civilization, disenfranchised by the dumb coincidence of our collective exile from the center. 1.5 In our concentric programming (author spent part of his youth in Amsterdam, city of ultimate centrality) the insistence on the center as the core of value and meaning, font of all significance, is doubly destructive- not only is the everincreasing volume of dependencies an ultimately intolerable strain, it also means that the center has to be constantly maintained, i.e., modernized. As “the most important place,” it paradoxically has to be, at the same time, the most old and the most new, the most fixed and the most dynamic; it undergoes the most intense and constant adaptation, which is then compromised and complicated by the fact that it has to be an unacknowledged transformation, invisible to the naked eye. (The city of Zurich has found the most radical, expensive solution in reverting to a kind of reverse archaeology: layer after layer of new modernities- shopping centers, parking, banks, vaults, laboratories- are constructed underneath the center. The center no longer expands outward or skyward, but inward toward the center of the earth itself.) From the grafting of more or less discreet traffic arteries, bypasses, underground tunnels, the construction of ever more tangentiales, to the routine transformation of housing into offices, warehouses into lofts, abandoned churches into nightclubs, from the serial bankruptcies and subsequent reopenings of specific units in more and more expensive shopping precincts to the relentless conversion of utilitarian space into “public” space, pedestrianization, the creation of new parks, planting, bridging, exposing, the systematic restoring of historic mediocrity, all authenticity is relentlessly evacuated. 1.6 The Generic City is the city liberated from the captivity of center, from the straitjacket of identity. The Generic City breaks with this destructive cycle of dependency: it is nothing but a reflection of present need and present ability. It is the city without history. It is big enough for everybody. It is easy. It does not need maintenance. If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is equally exciting- or unexciting- everywhere. It is “superficial” -like a Hollywood studio lot, it can produce a new identity every Monday morning. 2. Statistics 2.1 The Generic City has grown dramatically over the past few decades. Not only has its size increased, its numbers have too. In the early seventies it was inhabited by an average of 2.5 million official (and ±500,000 unofficial) residents; now it hovers around the 15 million mark. 2.2 Did the Generic City start in America? Is it so profoundly unoriginal that it can only be imported? In any case, the Generic City now also exists in Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa. The definitive move away from the countryside, from agriculture, to the city is not a move to the city as we knew it: it is a move to the Generic City, the city so pervasive that it has come to the country. 2.3 Some continents, like Asia, aspire to the Generic City; others are ashamed by it. Because it tends toward the tropical converging around the equator-a large proportion of Generic Cities is Asian-seemingly a contradiction in terms: the over-familiar inhabited by the inscrutable. One day it will be absolutely exotic again, this discarded product of Western civilization, through the resemanticization that its very dissemination brings in its wake … 2.4 Sometimes an old, singular city, like Barcelona, by oversimplifying its identity, turns Generic. It becomes transparent, like a logo. The reverse never happens … at least not yet. 3. General 3.1 The Generic City is what is left after large sections of urban life crossed over to cyberspace. It is a place of weak and distended sensations, few and far between emotions, discreet and mysterious like a large space lit by a bed lamp. Compared to the classical city, the Generic City is sedated, usually perceived from a sedentary position. Instead of concentration- simultaneous presence-in the Generic City individual “moments” are
spaced far apart to create a trance of almost unnoticeable aesthetic experiences: the color variations in the fluorescent lighting of an office building just before sunset, the subtleties of the slightly different whites of an illuminated sign at night. Like Japanese food, the sensations can be reconstituted and intensified in the mind, or not-they may simply be ignored. (There’s a choice.) This pervasive lack of urgency and insistence acts like a potent drug; it induces a hallucination of the normal. 3.2 In a drastic reversal of what is supposedly the major characteristic of the city- “business”-the dominant sensation of the Generic City is an eerie calm: the calmer it is, the more it approximates the pure state. The Generic City addresses the “evils” that were ascribed to the traditional city before our love for it became unconditional. The serenity of the Generic City is achieved by the evacuation of the public realm, as in an emergency fire drill. The urban plane now only accommodates necessary movement, fundamentally the car; highways are a superior version of boulevards and plazas, taking more and more space; their design, seemingly aiming for automotive efficiency, is in fact surprisingly sensual, a utilitarian pretense entering the domain of smooth space. What is new about this locomotive public realm is that it cannot be measured in dimensions. The same (let’s say ten-mile) stretch yields a vast number of utterly different experiences: it can last five minutes or forty; it can be shared with almost nobody, or with the entire population; it can yield the absolute pleasure of pure, unadulterated speed- at which point the sensation of the Generic City may even become intense or at least acquire density- or utterly claustrophobic moments of stoppage- at which point the thinness of the Generic City is at its most noticeable. 3.3 The Generic City is fractal, an endless repetition of the same simple structural module; it is possible to reconstruct it from its smallest entity, a desktop computer, maybe even a diskette. 3.4 Golf courses are all that is left of otherness. 3.5 The Generic City has easy phone numbers, not the resistant ten-figure frontal-lobe crunchers of the traditional city but smoother versions, their middle numbers identical, for instance. 3.6 Its main attraction
is its anomie.

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