BY Peter Halley in Frieze | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Artificial Pleasures

Rem Koolhaas' Eurolille

BY Peter Halley in Frieze | 01 SEP 96

In his book Delirious New York (1978), Rem Koolhaas sets out to describe the conditions that made New York the most architecturally dynamic city of the 20th century. New York's developers and architects, he claims, had evolved a form based on delirious, exaggerated, artificial pleasures - a modernism of pleasure - in contrast to the dour, Calvinistic 'modernism of health' that dominated in Europe. Koolhaas traces how Manhattan's 19th century gridded plan led to a situation of 'rigid chaos', a city of identical and interchangeable blocks, in which space becomes extruded upward; a 'culture of congestion', no longer subject to the hierarchies of traditional humanist culture.

But in particular Koolhaas is fascinated with New York's master builders, such nearly forgotten figures as Harvey Wiley Corbett, Raymond Hood and Hugh Ferris. He attributes to them a quasi-occult practice, 'Manhattanism', an architecture based on 'the continual simulation of pragmatism' that made possible 'the continuous re-enactment of the same subconscious themes', resulting in the 'delirium' of the culture of congestion. Most of all, Koolhaas is captivated by the figure of Wallace K. Harrison. Harrison was involved in almost all of New York's mid-century mega-projects. He was part of the team that worked on Rockefeller Center; he designed the Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 World's Fair, and was chief architect for Lincoln Center. Most importantly for Koolhaas, he was the head of the architectural team that built the United Nations building.

Koolhaas defines Harrison as an architectural 'enabler'. During his long career, Harrison adapted his innate penchant for curving forms and his talent for urbane detailing to a wide variety of modern movement styles. He prided himself on being an architect who was able to put aside his own ego 'to get the job done'. At the United Nations and Lincoln Center he headed teams of world-famous architectural egotists, including Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, Eero Saarinen, and Gordon Bunshaft. It was Harrison's role to blend these individual talents and temperaments to create a successful project. For Koolhaas, Harrison is clearly an exemplar to be contrasted to the rigid megalomania of Europe's leading urban theorist, Le Corbusier, whose vision for his Radiant City Koolhaas compares to a paranoid delusion.

It is an uncanny twist of fate that the young architect who wrote Delirious New York should have been chosen in 1989 by a commission of French bankers and governmental officials to create the master plan for Eurolille, the largest building project in Europe for a generation. It was as if Koolhaas, by an act of singular desire, had hallucinated into reality this mega-project that reflected so many of his obsessions. Eurolille is Koolhaas' answer to Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and the UN. Like Rockefeller Center, Eurolille was born of an irrational hubris on the part of a consortium of business people and government officials as a virtual city of office buildings, stores, hotels, and a convention centre at the nexus of northern Europe's new, high-speed train network. Like Harrison, Koolhaas was called upon to lead a team of architects that included Jean Nouvel and Christian de Pontzamparc.

Koolhaas himself designed the convention centre, called Congrexpo, which consists of a large exhibition hall, three theatres, and various meeting rooms. Contrary to much of the press it has received, the building is neither particularly deconstructivist nor cybernetic. Rather it has an urbanity and richness of effect comparable to Harrison's best work. In many ways, the building appears to be an extended homage to the UN General Assembly building and to Harrison.

Both buildings are covered by huge, concave, gently sagging roofs, forming a shape that Koolhaas calls the 'weak curve'. In the 70s, Koolhaas had made a protracted study of Harrison's weak curves, which apparently recur in the UN building 50 times, and this same form is repeated elsewhere in Congrexpo with an obsessiveness no less intense than Harrison's. Where the General Assembly building is more or less rectilinear in plan with a circular dome in the centre, Koolhaas' design is an almost cartoonish oval shape placed on a rectilinear, fake stone pediment, resembling an egg imbedded in a kind of imaginary block.

Inside, the urbane detailing seems everywhere to echo Harrison. The visitor's passage through the building has a certain stately quality; one can more easily imagine it populated by dashiki-ed and turbaned UN delegates than European trade-show conventioneers. The building's ramps, staircases and columns have the same presence and sculptural pungency as those at the UN. The long corridor walls in both buildings are painted in strong sensuous colours. Like Harrison, Koolhaas perforates many of his ceiling surfaces with irregular star-like patterns of tiny circles (particularly close is Harrison's performing Arts Center in the Albany Mall). In general, Koolhaas seems to take from Harrison a penchant for using modernist structural honesty to achieve effects that are sensuous, surprising, and ceremonial, no longer serving to instruct but rather to seduce. It is an architecture based on curvilinear biomorphism and even surrealism, loaded with psychological, sometimes Freudian themes and images - like the egg embedded in the block.

In his recent writing, Koolhaas is obsessed with the idea of 'bigness', and particularly the way in which the sheer size and formlessness of contemporary third world megacities has made previous definitions of urbanism appear useless. Koolhaas seems to find in the megacity a kind of indefinable delirium that has superseded the psychologically-charged thrill of New York. Eurolille echoes the architect's belief that public architecture is an act of madness, with the architect a collaborator who gives visual form to the delusional plans of the seemingly powerful.

For Koolhaas, bigness creates programs of such intensive physical and social complexity that any intentionality on the part of planners is destroyed. In its place is released a 'promiscuous proliferation of events in a single container', in turn providing unexpected surrealist juxtapositions. Koolhaas' urbanism is one of dark Freudian surprises, of Nietzschean power relations, and of truly artificial pleasures.