Perhaps no architectural manner has become historic more rapidly than the Millennial Dutch. Although its tactics (a pun, a weird world map, a calculated awkwardness, a profoundly purported disinterest in beauty) remain evergreen, to deploy the particular formal habits and rhetorical maneuvers epitomized by OMA and company constitutes, suddenly, a historicist gesture. Some of this may be due to the recent gyre of events (stolen election, terrorist attack, willful war, great recession) that have rendered the seemingly XL of 1995 ever more XS. And anything vaguely prophetic and apocalyptic in sensibility, as that work surely was, comes with a sell-by date.
But a critical reason for this speedy consignment to history can be perceived in OMA’s own current Cronocaos project, currently exhibited by the New Museum in a largely-untouched former kitchen supply store nearby on the Bowery. The nominal topic is historic preservation in landscape, urbanism, and architecture, framed by built and unbuilt OMA projects (including the 1980 Koepel Panopticon renovation in Arnhem, Netherlands; the 2001 Whitney Museum do-over in New York; and the 1995 Kloten Airport rehabilitation in Zurich)—that at least in retrospect had something to do with these issues—as well as by a sequence of striking observations about the effect of temporal and historical factors on our experience and evaluation of the built environment.
The introductory wall text sensibly notes the need for a new theory (perhaps even a retroactive manifesto) for historic preservation in an era of seemingly accelerated cycles of construction and demolition. And it notes that, absent such a theory, preservation, “with its own undeclared ideology, prefers certain authenticities [resulting in] a global consensus that postwar architecture—and the optimism it embodied about architecture’s ability to organize the social world–was an aesthetic and ideological debacle.” This adds to our familiar aesthetic grief for the current casual demolition of the works of Gropius, Saarinen, Stone, Yamasaki, Neutra, Rudolph, Bunshaft, Roche, et al, and a more ambitiously ethical grief for a certain Modern assertion about architecture as a cultural and social project of, say, truth and justice.
Examining the sublimation of that ambition within historic preservation is a good idea. Into what kind of palimpsest should we incorporate the work of post-war post-utopians who dreamed of tabula rasa? It’s a question to which Cronocaos adds some felicitous intelligence. There’s the observation that the use of limited lifespan materials in some mid-century buildings, in anticipation of continual modular renewal, instead catalyzes the very opposite: accelerated decay. There’s the notion that a UNESCO heritage designation, increasingly given to monuments of the very recent past, establishes a “vicious circle in which the bestowal of status triggers a drastic increase in tourism, and development, which then threatens heritage.” And there’s the remark that the “interval between the now and the preserved is shrinking, [and] from this moment we do not only have to look back, but also forward; we will have to decide what to preserve in advance.” Compelling albeit onanistic evidence for this is presented in the mere three years that passed between the construction of OMA’s own Maison à Bordeaux and its designation, following the death of its client, as a monument historique—precluding renovation “at the exact moment it became necessary.”
Such is the curse of genius: to be acknowledged in one’s own time. Thus enters a surprisingly sloppy touch of admiring self-reference. The exhibit itself is installed in its dilapidated storefront with a deliberate arte povera casualness. Captions are ball point pen on masking tape, wall text is Letraset on faded plaster, and illustrations are muddy inkjet on insufficiently unrolled bond. Letraset claims that “the Bowery itself is a laboratory of Cronocaos transitioning from the ragged rule of punk […] to the uniform white cube [that] we have arrested, temporarily, in this space: a fake standoff between authenticity and gentrification.” Well, sure. But when one recalls the resources available to a firm the scale of OMA, the effect is more Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdess on the grounds of Versailles. One of the few advantages of the white cube is that there’s nowhere to hide. Otherwise we have equivocation masquerading as irony: even as the exhibit asserts its own idealism and optimism, the artful shabbiness of its presentation seems to unsay anything that might later turn out to be wrong.
Once, this sort of thing did much to free us from righteously prim invocations of history, memory, and associated architectural truthiness. Part of what made OMA so very thrilling the first time around was its paradoxically simultaneous deployment, in theory, of sweeping assertions and tacit disavowals of any absolute truth. For example, here’s the exhibit’s appreciation of the firm’s 2008 proposed renovation of part of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum complex: “If dilapidation of a structure is an effect of history, its qualities are possibly as meaningful as the museum’s artifacts. Can dilapidation be preserved? Can it illuminate the museum experience?” It’s with that “possibly” that the spell breaks. While certain architectural works-in-progress may benefit from this combination of chest thump and Gallic shrug, the act of illuminating meaning in our inherited material culture is a project that demands different gestures.
We may even oblige ourselves to apply a system of belief and not merely to suspend disbelief in a kind of delirium: “Can,” if it is to be liberty and not mere freedom, requires a “should.” And the tacit disavowal of distinction between the two that made the words and works of OMA so very interesting is, after a turbulent decade, a less useful posture. And this may be why those words and works have not proved as timeless as expected. One worries that the current desire is not so much to find ways in which OMA’s projects renew a discourse of reinvention, restoration, and rehabilitation, but ways in which that discursive context rehabilitates those projects at a time when acute technological, ecological, and economic conditions have pushed them towards obsolescence. Don’t rush the fashion cycle, as Miucca Prada might advise. In twenty years, caro mio, everything old will be new again.