Author: Marianna Wahlsten

LUMA Arles, designed by Frank Gehry

GEHRY’s two distinct projects

Two major projects for art institutions designed by Frank Gehry were completed this summer. Both initiated in 2007, but each one as different from the other as could be. The LUMA Foundation building in the South of France in Arles is signature style Gehry, a fractured facade playing with light, while the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a subtle reorganisation of a 1928 neo-classical building. Both though conceived to revive the urban context surrounding them. 

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus

Gehry himself came to Arles for the official opening of the LUMA building. It was commissioned by Maja Hoffmann, the founder of the cultural institution, who collaborated closely on the building’s conception. As Gehry pointed out at the press conference: ”Hoffmann was not just a client, but a fantastic artist on her own.” While looking at the project as their joint project, you can see her strong influence in the architectural concept. Gehry’s highly expressive architectural language has been criticised and his flamboyant Tower as if in conflict with the historic city : too expressive, too high, why a tower, too lavish, not ecological. So when Gehry and Hoffmann entered the press conference in June, you could sense that they were prepared to defend their ambitious project.


Perhaps what was most pressing for both Hoffmann and Gehry was trying to defend the architectural concept amidst claims that it was too wasteful. Indeed the façade constructed with 10,752 steel modules in total, is an elaborate construction, which does not evoke an ecological approach. To counteract this, Hoffmann has invested in transforming the former industrial yard, which had been a dead zone, into a lush state-of-the-art landscaped garden extending below Gehry’s tower. Designed by Belgian Landscape architect Bas Smets, the area is an experiment in creating a microclimate in this arid landscape, complete with a pond. Water has been diverted from the nearby canal. Smets described the challenges of growing something on plain concrete. Also it’s a historic site with archeological ruins below, so forbidden to dig too deep below. 

Now Gehry’s Tower is the centre of the LUMA Foundations operations in Arles, where Hoffmann’s exceptional collection of contemporary art is stored and exhibited, alongside events, performances and research labs, dedicated to environmental design. Inside the circular glass Drum, the formal play with the fractured façade and its material logic reveals itself. Irregular units for different types of activities rise above within the Tower, souring 54 metres through the glass atrium. The metal cubes have been placed in various angles for reflecting the Provence light, creating a warm glow as Gehry had intended. In line with his inspiration of the ‘Van Gogh brush strokes’, it’s intense and expressive. It’s dreamlike – not a traditional building in any sense – it can’t be ignored and its image will not fade away easily.

As the architect who’s name is synonymous with the ’Bilbao effect’, Gehry’s architecture is famous for breaking traditional ideals about buildings. In Arles the  LUMA foundation Tower no doubt exemplifies this rebellious approach, which simultaneously aims for dynamic urban renewal through architecture. At The Philadelphia Museum of Art the starting point is very different, although the goal for urban renewal is the same. Instead of deconstructing architecture that honours a glorious past, Gehry’s team reimagined how the neo-classical structure could perform in the future. The ambition to reorganise the landmark building was driven by both cultural and socio-economic goals. ”An investment in Philadelphia, not only for one of the city’s most significant cultural assets, but also for the future of the city. It is vital for our economic recovery”, Leslie Anne Miller, Chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees states in the press release. Architecture is both part of the city’s cultural offerings and a symbol for a better future.

The Philadelphia Museum, entrance with Kasota limestone steps and new ramp, photo ©Danica O. Kus,  of Art, coffered ceiling with LED lighting and new floor in Kasota limestone, photo ©Danica O. Kus
New ramp integrated into the entrance terrace, built with Kasota stone in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, photo ©Danica O. Kus

At the Philadelphia Museum, the reorganisation of spaces has brought totally new circulation routes through the building. Parts previously used as offices have been converted into gallery spaces, and a new vertical promenade has been created, spanning the whole building on the ground floor, topped with a vaulted ceiling. In comparison to Gehry’s best known cultural buildings, such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, this museum has its roots firmly in history, now modernised for better energy use and improved visitor experience. Gehry’s team has adopted a different kind of play with materials, it’s more subtle, creating harmony with the idealised past.

Renovation of Philadelphia Museum of Art Photo, staircase clad in Kasota limestone, photo © Danica O. Kus
Spiralling staircase clad in Kasota limestone, walls and fllor also clad with the same stone, photo ©Danica O. Kus

As an emerging architect Gehry was influenced by the 1960s LA arts scene and the use of raw, industrial materials, which led to formal explorations with steel. Enabled by digital technology, these bold forms, first imagined as physical models and drawings, became actual buildings, famous for their folds and organic forms. As Gehry has explained, digital technology is a form of craft. The building process between various teams and experts, for example linking directly the stone quarry in charge of providing the material to the digital model, becomes a seamless construction process.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, renovation by Frank Gehry, photo © Danica O. Kus
A grand promenade , spanning the whole length of the building was opened during the renovation, photo © Danica O. Kus

In the Philadelphia museum renovation, the golden-hued Kasota limestone was brought from the same place in Southern Minnesota where the material for the original building had been quarried from. This stone is used throughout the building, creating aesthetic coherence between the past and the present. In the LUMA building, this visual continuity was created with the computer, through an imprint of a local stone, then applied to concrete blocks to evoke the materiality of the near-by historic buildings.  




Grand Parc housing estate renovation, Bordeaux, bu Lacaton & Vassal

Modern architecture reinvented – Lacaton & Vassal

Awarded the Pritzker Prize 2021 French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal revive modernist principles with a unique approach –

The choice of Lacaton & Vassal as winners of the Pritzker Prize 2021 is a sign of changing values in architecture and city planning. The French duo has become famous for their unique approach in which nothing gets demolished. Their renovation project of the Grand Parc housing estate in Bordeaux exemplifies this method on a grand scale, in which 530 apartments were extended with big glassed-in balconies and new facades. It gained lots of interest and the architects received the EU Mies Award in 2019 for that project.

Grand Parc housing estate renovation by Lacaton & Vassal, Bordeaux, photo ©Philippe Ruault
Grand Parc housing estate renovation by Lacaton & Vassal, Bordeaux, photo ©Philippe Ruault

Lacaton & Vassal’s work is underpinned by the values of the modern movement: open-plan, lack of ornament, industrial materials and lots of daylight. With the Grand Parc renovation, they literally subvert Charles Jencks’ provocative slogan of the death of modern architecture (dated July 15, 1972, with the demolition of the Pruit-Igoe housing scheme in the US): instead of blowing up a housing block, they carefully reorganise it. After two other projects in France, where social housing has been reimagined with inventive ideas, Lacaton & Vassal show that it’s possible to find creative and sustainable solutions. Their approach has inspired architects everywhere to implement similar restorative strategies. Hopefully city planners and contractors will also realise that its possible to create something better with simple improvements.

Since their very first project, the Latapie House in France completed in 1993, Lacaton & Vassal have been experimenting with ideas and materials adopted from industrial construction. That private residence was built with a small budget, but succeeded in providing more space and daylight for less money by using cheaper materials and inventive solutions. The house is like a greenhouse transformed for dwelling, deconstructing conceptions about how houses can and should be conceived. The polycarbonate panels are inexpensive while conjuring alternative models for spatial flexibility. This aesthetic strategy, where low-cost materials can be used in poetic ways, is something the architects saw in Africa. Vassal worked in urban planning in Niger, where Lacaton went to see him before setting up their own practice in 1987 in Paris. 

Latapie House by Lacaton & Vassal, built using greenhouse technologies photo © Philippe Ruault
Latapie House, built using greenhouse technologies, photo © Philippe Ruault
Latapie House by Lacaton & Vassal, with transparent polycarbonate panels, photo ©Philippe Ruault
Latapie House in Floirac, France, with transparent polycarbonate panels, photo ©Philippe Ruault

Their work with cultural institutions follows the same ethos. Completed in 2002, the restoration of  Palais Tokyo in Paris stripped the gallery spaces inside the 1930s Palais Chaillot building of all surplus layers accumulated over the years into its bare structural bones. Rough concrete surfaces and vast open galleries provide a backdrop for contemporary arts, similar to those spaces where artists work, although on a much grander scale. The architecture school in Nantes was also imagined as an experimental building, where students would be able to work in massive unheated studios and create real scale models. In that project Lacaton & Vassal provided twice as much space for the initial budget, which first worried the school. However, it has become a new paradigm for educational spaces, in which students are active participants in its operations and social activities.

The industrial feel that underpins the architecture of Lacaton & Vassal derives from both the materials and the minimalistic structural systems. They aim for simplicity, which was one of the principles of modernist architecture: simple forms to balance complexity in contemporary life, as Vassal summarizes in the Pritzker Prize press release. In a recent d’a interview Vassal explains that they have always been fascinated by the rigorous structural systems and the minimal amount of materials that define Mies van der Rohe’ architecture. Indeed you can see this ideological link, although for a very different outcome – how Miesien office blocks can inspire social housing and how the free-flowing space of a marble pavilion can also be adopted in a low-cost approach. What is so inspirational about their work, is the reinvention and refinement of previous strategies.  

Palais de Tokyo, art gallery transformed by Lacaton & Vassal, photo @Philippe Ruault
Palais de Tokyo, art galleries stripped of decorative layers by Lacaton & Vassal, photo @Philippe Ruault
École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes, completed in 2009, photo ©Philippe Ruault
École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Nantes, completed in 2009, photo ©Philippe Ruault


Cap Ferret Home on the Atlantic coast, photo ©Lacaton&Vassal
Cap Ferret Home on the Atlantic coast, photo ©Lacaton&Vassal
Apartment at Grand Parc housing estate with added winter gardens, designed by Lacaton & Vassal, photo ©Philippe Roualt
Apartment at Grand Parc housing estate with added winter gardens, designed by Lacaton & Vassal, photo ©Philippe Roualt
Humboldt Forum ©Stephan Falk

Humboldt Forum – historic palace reimagined as museum

This vast museum complex in the centre of Berlin has opened officially, although only virtually for the public so far. It is one the biggest cultural buildings in Europe, comparable in scale to the Louvre in Paris. With reconstructed baroque-style façades the design concept creates continuity with a glorified past of the modern era. The new museum is named after the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, who brought forward a scientific and educational model influenced by the arts and philosophy of the beginning of 19th century. 

Humboldt Forum, ©SHF/Franco Stella
Section drawing with reconstructed Palace Dome, image: ©SHF/Franco Stella


The original palace on the Museum Island site had been badly damaged during World War II bombing and then demolished in 1950. It was replaced by the Palace of the Republic, built in 1976 (containing shops, restaurants and even a disco), but closed in 1990 due to problems with asbestos. Following a parliament vote in 2002, it was decided that the 1970s building would be demolished and the former palace would be rebuilt as a museum.

Humboldt Forum, Berlin, photo: ©David von Becker
The Schlüter courtyard surrounded by three reconstructed baroque-style façades and the modern designed by Franco Stella, photo: ©David von Becker

Italian architect Franco Stella won the architectural competition in 2008. Following the brief, three sides of the building have been constructed replicating the baroque period façades as designed by architect Andreas Schlüter (1659-1714). In Stella’s architectural concept a modern minimalist façade extends on the east side and a passageway in a north-south direction forms a covered route cutting through the middle of the building. The building combines historical forms with contemporary construction, a stylistic approach that can be linked back to the Tendenza group formed in the late 1960s in Italy, which opposed the abstraction of 20th-century modernist architecture.

Humboldt Forum atrium, photo ©Alexander Schippel
Entrance hall with open porticoes and a steel-framed glass roof, photo ©Alexander Schippel

In the 1970s Stella collaborated with Aldo Rossi and an influential group of architects at the Venice University, where Stella also held an academic position. Their interest towards a historical analysis of the city can be understood underpinning Franco’s winning concept for the Humboldt Forum. The reconstruction and references to history could be interpreted as a celebration of modernity and enlightenment, an epistemological break from medieval times. The architects of Tendenza blurred the hierarchies of architectural references and recognised the importance of history, which coincided with the development of postmodernism.

Humboldt Forum, ©SHF/Golden Section Graphics
A total area of 92,356 m2 over three floors, the basement and rooftop restaurant. The new passageway in the middle of the vast building is open day and night, image ©SHF/Golden Section Graphics

Stella describes the ’via colonnata’, the passageway extending across the building, as a modern reference to the long corridor at the Uffizi Gallery by Vasari. This formal strategy, which creates a public pathway through the museum, exemplifies an ideological model, where grand cultural buildings could be more closely intergrated to the urban fabric. On the Museum Island there were already five magnificent museums. The Neues Museum had also been destroyed during the war, and opened in 2009 after award-winning restoration work by David Chipperfield. A new metro station is planned to open on the island end of this year. The area is an exceptional concentration of cultural offerings.

Humboldt Forum, photo ©Christoph Musiol
Minimalist façade along the river Spree and a long ramp leading down to the waterfront. Berlin Cathedral on the right, photo ©Christoph Musiol

The Humboldt Forum will be home to the Ethnological Museum, the Museum of Asian Art, as well as temporary exhibitions and the Humboldt Lab exhibition and event spaces. Both the architectural concept, where the recreation of an old palace building can be seen as a form of nostalgic idealisation of the past, and the contents of the museum, have been strongly debated. Artefacts coming from Berlin’s Ethnological Museum are part of a controversial collection, which can be traced back to the Brandenburg-Prussian Cabinet of Curiosities. Treasures brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas belong to a contested European colonial past. Restitution to their country of origin is widely discussed. The role of the museum in this difficult issue has been brought up.

The range of historic architecture on the Museum Island is impressive. With Chipperfield’s design for the James Simon Gallery, the modern façade of Humboldt Forum appears as a pair in dialogue alongside the river Spree.


Humboldt Forum 




Room of Silence, BER airport, gmp architects

A Space for Silence, in line with the geometrical terminal design

The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) designed by gmp architects is finally open. Inspired by Mies van der Rohe and preussian neo-classicism, the building conjures an idea of polished, pragmatic efficiency. For a moment of contemplation or prayer, the meditation space provides a quiet refuge in transit.   

Entrance hall with eight check-in islands, BER terminal, designed by gmp
Entrance hall with eight check-in islands, photo ©Danica O. Kus

Gmp is one of the leading architectural firms for urban infrastructure with offices in Germany and Asia. They have successfully completed stadiums in China, several other airport terminals, and elaborate projects, such as the Berlin main railway station, where trains cross on two separate levels. When problems emerged at the Berlin Brandenburg terminal just before opening in 2011, the airport company took charge of the completion, which famously lasted almost a decade to finish. It’s an unusual story that award-winning architects with extensive experience lost control of completing such a major building project.  

Main entrance, BER terminal, designed by gmp
A long colonnade in front of the main entrance to Berlin Brandenburg terminal, photo ©Danica O. Kus

Tegel Airport (TXL) was their first big commission in the late 1960s, based on Meinhard von Gerkan’s (founding partner) idea developed as student. Von Gerkan, who has also written widely on their projects, believes in geometrical models that should guide spatial design. The TXL plan was based on a flexible concept that was initially envisioned as two identical hexagonal buildings next to each other. The new BER terminal design is also based on a geometrical model, which draws from a clearer rationalist principle. Its expansion has been imagined as continuity through rectangular forms.  

Viewing deck, BER terminal, designed by gmp
A promenade on the old-fashioned viewing deck on airside, which can be accessed also when not travelling, photo ©Danica O. Kus

Due to delays the new airport concept has been seen by some critics as outdated. Of course contantly evolving information technology and unpredictable global events change the requirements for terminal buildings. The current crisis in aviation will take 3-4 years to recover, Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, CEO of BER airport company, predicts. Hence the current size of the terminal seems perfect for the coming years. In comparison to TXL, the BER terminal is spacious with a clarity in the programme, in which the Miesien horizontal uniformity can be recognised as a guiding principle. But the unbelievably short distances, that were part of the TXL magic, are impossible today due to safety restrictions. 

Besides Mies van der Rohe and Bauhaus there are formal references to the grand neo-classical buildings of Berlin and Potsdam, the architects explained. The long horizontal colonnades have been appropriated as slender columns, supporting the vast roof structure, that seems to be floating above the terminal. As a high-tech interpretation of the preussian architectural heritage, the terminal façade creates formal continuity with Berlin’s historic identity. The train connection between city centre and airport, accessed vertically below terminal 1 departure hall, has been designed to ease travel to and from airport. As the central station was also conceived by gmp, there is a formal logic binding these two major elements in the city’s infrastructure together.



Room of Silence, BER terminal, gmp architects, photo ©Danica O. Kus
Prayer room lit by fluorescent light from above, photo © Danica O. Kus

Terminal architecture has become elaborate and complex, especially in Asia, where glasshouses containing gardens are incorporated into airports to soothe anxious travellers and offer environments for relaxation. At BER the terminal architecture feels pragmatic, a sophisticated and upgraded version of the generic airport environment. One of the highlights, a refuge for stressed-out travellers in need of isolation, is the Room of Silence. Unlike some airport chapels, it has been conceived as a unique part within the terminal complex, providing an abstract visual realm and a sense of stillness.

Room of Silence, BER terminal, photo © Danica O. Kus
Interconnecting rooms lined with bespoke Kolumba bricks, photo © Danica O. Kus

The chapel can be found on the second floor above the departure hall, behind Starbucks, and hence accessible prior to border and safety checks. In contrast to the wide-open spaces and glossy surfaces of the terminal, the chapel feels archaic and cave-like. Based on a geometric formal idea, the five interconnecting rooms have been created with a minimalist aesthetic to enhance the meditative character of the space. The aim is to serve people from all cultural and religious backgrounds as a space of reflection and prayer.

Room of Silence, BER airport terminal, photo © Danica O. Kus
Led strips between the gaps create a glowing light on textured walls and reflections on copper surfaces, photo © Danica O.Kus

The particular haptic quality can be experienced immediately inside the entrance hall, which opens to two small courtyard rooms on both sides. Silence and tranquillity will be sensed by the body at the threshold. The walls are covered with handcrafted bricks – a materiality in total contrast to the sleek and shiny terminal spaces. Those bespoke Kolumba bricks form a layered texture to the walls, which also enhances acoustic qualities. Wall texture is emphasised by LED strips placed low at the edge of the floor, also covered with brick. 

Room of Silence, BER airport terminal, photo © Danica O. Kus
Two prayer rooms with minimal religious symbols, photo © Danica O. Kus

There are two prayer rooms, one with a cross and the other with a compass in bronze embedded to the floor to show the special direction for prayer. With stepped vaulted ceilings, these rooms include open horizontal joints, where light also falls from above, creating the impression of a floating ’light vault’ made of bricks. Following the geometric proportional system of the terminal, these rooms nevertheless feel separated from the mundane hassle of the world in transit surrounding them. A Zumthor-like transcendental quality reigns in these spaces. 

The Factory exterior view - designed by OMA, with Ellen van Loon at OMA as child architect, image: ©OMA,Nov 2019

The real vs. the virtual: performance and lived space

The classical concept of the grand concert venue is being reconfigured as a more flexible and open model. During the pandemic crisis, alternative formats and virtual concerts have changed the way cultural events have been experienced.  

Just before the second lockdown at the end of October I was able to attend a concert at the atmospheric Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, an improvised performance by jazz pianist and composer Florian Weber with the Ensemble Modern. The audience was arranged around the oval stage, which is at the same level with the first row of seats. Despite the distancing measures, the space felt intimate. The Frank Gehry -designed interior has been conceived as a flexible space with different ways to place the public in relation to the musicians.

Pierre Boulez Saal
Pierre Boulez Saal, a flexible and intimate concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry

The great halls, such as Paris Philharmonie by Jean Nouvel, Elbphilharmonie by Herzog de Mouron in Hamburg, and the more intimate ones like Pierre Boulez Saal, are like sacred spaces of the modern secular world, designed for acoustical perfection. It’s not just about the different tones and reverberations of sound in space, but also the phenomenological moment in a specific environment. Musical notes convey the ephemeral experience of being, a spiritual dimension in time, evoking the Baudelairean idea of the modernist aesthetic as a tension between the transitory and the eternal.

Jasper Parrott, who represents some of the world’s leading classical musicians, believes that there will be new types of venues in the future, not only online platforms, but also physical spaces that will provide more flexibility and more variety. As an example Parrott mentions the Factory, a multi-function cultural space in Manchester designed by OMA, still under construction and set to open in 2022. Although delayed by the pandemic, Parrott sees the positive side of the situation, which might ease the launch of this new centre, as they will have a longer period of experimentation and gestation. The building has been designed as an adaptable space, which can be transformed for different types of needs and performances.

The Factory, Manchester
The Factory exterior view – designed by OMA, Ellen van Loon as chief architect, image: ©OMA 2019

Other unexplored potential could be found for concert halls converted from redundant office buildings or even car parks Parrott suggests. The great potential of industrial spaces as concert venues could be witnessed at the Fiskars Summer Festival in Finland this the autumn, where a converted Fiskars factory building hosted performances of classical music with leading conductors, including Dalia Stasevska, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Klaus Mäkelä. Without any acoustical enhancement or sound proofing the concerts played out beautifully in that alternative set up. The acoustic qualities of that space were transformed by the presence of the audience, as cellist Senja Rummukainen pointed out. It was one of the last summer evenings, a special event for an audience that had been deprived by the lived experience  of music.

Fiskars Summer Festival 2020 at the Old Knife Factory
Fiskars Summer Festival at the Old Knife Factory with a programme of talks and concerts to mark the 90th anniversary of Jorma Panula
Fiskars Summer Festival 2020
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting his composition ‘Stockholm Diary’ for string orchestra, Fiskars Summer Festival at the Old Knife Factory

Public can now also enjoy live concerts through myriads of digital channels, provided by the great concert halls and orchestras. The Berlin Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall offers all concerts online through subscription or one-off purchase and Paris Philharmonie is streaming most concerts online for free. A new online platform Virtual Circle, will be launched by Parrott’s management company, for streaming live concerts as well as album launches and workshops. A digital archive of concerts from the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is hosted by the German channel NDR . Reaching the public through digital formats also provides opportunities for musicians to keep on playing and performing, even in the absence of an audience. Although a recent interview I did for Arkkitehti with Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä made it clear, how musicians get energised and inspired by the presence of an audience. A full concert hall makes the best ambiance, also for the performers. The vineyard-shaped concert halls, create the most intimate exchange between the public and the stage area. As Mäkelä explained, even when most of the audience is often behind him, their reactions and the atmosphere is constantly felt by those on the stage.

For Parrott one of the most unforgettable concerts this year was Mäkelä’s debut at Paris Philharmonie in July. It was the first concert after the closure in the beginning of the year and the atmosphere was very special despite the safety measures. The Jean Nouvel -designed concert hall is one of the landmarks on the northern edge of the French capital city, a lavish cultural institution, which has transformed this previously deprived area. The spatial concept allows to adapt the placement of musicians, which Mäkelä is looking forward to experiment with when he starts as new musical director of Orchestra de Paris in 2022.

Marianna Wahlsten

Was the countryside ever romantic?


A massive research project led by Rem Koolhaas over five years culminated in the exhibition ‘Countryside, The Future’ at the Guggenheim New York. The show will be running until February 2012. After decades being obsessed by urbanism and megastructures, Koolhaas became fascinated by the radical development taking place in rural environments outside cities. The show anticipates a turn of interests, accelerated by the pandemic.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is famous for his impatience and restless intellect, reflected in the wide range of issues covered in the Guggenheim exhibition Countryside, The Future. As a research project it aims to figure out radical changes taking place outside cities, like an anthropological survey on man’s relationship to nature, technology and the new order of the rural environment. Koolhaas believes that new technologies will provide solutions to global warming. The book Countryside, A Report (Taschen 2020) published with the exhibition, consists of essays reflecting on some fascinating topics and ends with Koolhaas’ text, which is actually a list of questions, a stream of consciousness spread over 26 pages. Koolhaas starts by asking:

Where did the cows go?

And when did they leave?

Contemporary haymaking in Qatar, against an impressionist style rural scene painted by Monet.

For an architect, who was inspired by megastructures and obsessed with ’aesthetics of congestion’, this latest turn seems initially as a provocative gesture. However the exhibition explores a transformation of the posthuman condition, a discursive turn in which technological innovations could be harnessed in support of nature and the wider ecosystem. Observations collected by research teams from different corners of the planet, including Harvard GSD, University of Nairobi and Design Academy Eindhoven, bring together moral, ethical and technological questions, which Koolhaas articulates:

Will warming kill democracy?

Can it only be stopped by authority?

Could Democracy kill Warming?

Wind farms, solar farms, storage and distribution centers, factory farms, greenhouses, airports, highways, nuclear test sites, colossal art works, dams, nature reserves – is their advance a good sign?

Why are they impeccably organised while we are struck in a perpetual muddle?

Why does perfection only exist in domains to which we don’t seem to have access?

As urban life has been transformed by the pandemic, the timing of the Guggenheim exhibition seems prophetic. Open for just three weeks before all museums in New York closed, it was the second occasion for Koolhaas to showcase at the Guggenheim. First one was the 1978 show ’The Sparkling Metropolis’ with Madelon Vriesendorp. When pondering the effects of globalisation in a text from 1993 in S,M,L,XL Koolhaas listed the spread of epidemics and recognised a general expansion of possibilities ’for better or for worse’. And the effect on architecture on typical koolhaasian contradictory manner : ”exponentially depletes the architectural imagination” and then ”exponentially enriches the architectural imagination”. 

Rem Koolhaas with Guggenheim curator Troy Conrad Therrien and Samir Bantal from AMO, Image by Kristopher McKay

Koolhaas’ fascination for the rural environment is marked by the coexistence of digital technology, ecosystems, robotics and beautiful landscape, recognised as ’the new Sublime’. The massive cubic forms of data centers against an empty landscape in the Nevada desert exemplifies this form of beauty according to Koolhaas. Through an ideological rambling over a myriad of propositions for the future in the countryside, Koolhaas lyrically/cynically wonders:

Are data centers more impressive than pyramids?

Are more secrets buried in their chambers?

Are we buried alive in them?

Are our lives buried in them?

Could there ever be a new anarchy?

Can there again be art without CV, biography, context?

As in Lascaux?

Can we relearn romanticism?

Is a romantic someone who sees beauty even where it doesn’t exist?

Is the Sublime a way to combine good and bad? 

Is the contemporary countryside on its way to the Sublime?

What is more important for humankind: the Tesla GigaFactory, the Thermae de Vals, CCTV, or a refugee camp?

Countryside , The Future, Guggenheim New York, until 14.2.2021