(99) Koolhaas gets a bum rap

  Okay, he is in the helicopter, or atop the old WTC as de Certeau might have him, BUT “Junkspace” is often a ground level (lived) view of airports, convention centers, lifestyle malls, buffet tables and other skinned worlds of sheetrock and air conditioning. And in describing these places (or not places)  he (more than anyone I’ve read so far this term) describes “us” – we first worlders and the consequences of the lives lived.  It is a psyhcological portrait told with an aesthetic flair, but rather than the pedagogically dubious  (and psychologically problematic) strategy of trying to activate long distance empathy (and guilt), Koolhaas conveys what the modern lifestyles means to its users.  One of the unfortunate implications of critiques that pit 1st world luxury versus 3rd world (developing nation/emerging market) misery is that THIS life is actually luxurious. Thus the question becomes  “Who would give up clean water? Cable TV? Why would we?”   This often devolves into some hand wringing and a generalized “life is unfair” moment.  It also makes the exploitation seem a manifestation of self-interest, that is, that the wasteful life is actually the better life and what we need to do is “make a bigger tent.”  This often devolves into “how can we give these people their own laptops and cars.”  Koolhaas makes a more troubling point; it is not just that the slum is a waste of human life, so too are the convention centers. It would be one thing if all this exploitation constructed monumental value a la Faust on a good day, but for all the suffering engendered throughout the system all we get is shrimp cocktail that tastes like cardboard and alienated consumption (food porn, vacation porn, Jesus porn, etc). One of the more arresting moments in an earlier posting I made of the videos our students in Hanoi made of those who scavenge trash is the old woman laughing and talking about how tight knit their community is, a moment that always makes me feel like I am the one inhabiting Junk Space scavenging for reality under the Long Bien bridge (where the $40K loan I took out for this two year education equals the annual AVERAGE VN income for 80 years.  Many of these folk live on a dollar a day which equals 110 years of income.  I am NOT depreciating this education, but striving for my own long distance contextualization – a crude aesthetic for sure)

And btw I think aesthetics has a bad rap too. I think it harkens back to the understandable but faulty separation of truth and beauty (Baudelaire).  And yes aesthetics can also be critiqued as a function of narrow cultural constructs that confuse pleasure with compliance, but if the embodiment of a style as a convincing fusion of form and content is not merely a local victory but a general capacity for beauty and a kind of truth within ALL people, then I think Koolhaas succeeds in “Junkspace.”



  jessica wrote @

All very well said. Koolhaas is brilliant and infuriating. His critiques of these systems hit right at the center, as Junkspace does, while all the while he plays along.

  cindypound wrote @

I’ve often in my travel observed communities with very little on the way of material wealth, constructed spaces, mediated culture, etc. who seem happy and content in a very simple and basic way that our culture seems to have made extremely difficult. we’re so unsure of our own happiness (are we having it or not?) that we need the new york times to codify its parameters and visualize its distribution nationally:


On a separate note, I’m very interested in your comment about Baudelaire. Are you suggesting that he – like Decartes before him with the whole mind/body thing – first introduced the aesthetic idea of the separation between truth and beauty from which our current notions of slum porn, ruin porn have originated?

  cindypound wrote @

I mean Descartes…


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