Rem Koolhaas and OMA: Content

Rem Koolhaas and OMA

Last fall I taught a group of theater directors in an MFA program at UC-San Diego. Their task: to stage The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, created by the Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas. How, I wondered, would this phonebook-sized compendium of retail styles become a theatrical text? The students, in a stroke of inspiration, turned School Guide into a '70s paranoid thriller in the spirit of The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor set in a shopping mall.

What they grabbed hold of, in their struggle to make drama, was that Koolhaas's faux-cheery appropriation of branding language and corporate deep-dish argot (bigness, values, communication, service!) contains at its core an '80s-style postmodern terror. When the high postmodernists began using the commercial language of their period, the results were enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. Whether it was the collagist Barbara Kruger's fractured '50s adverts or the political collective Gran Fury's HIV-laden pop iconography, the subtext was the same. There's cancer in the food-court water fountain!

Koolhaas's OMA collective has created a new scale-tipper: a glossy-magazine-cum-city-planning-white-paper called Content. As usual, in these 544 pages, Koolhaas & Kids demonstrate a sleek control of the language of later-than-you-think capitalism. In their leap from old-school branding to new-school mindshare, and in their conception of the virtual-city mall/workspace/homescape, OMA is epochs ahead of Naomi Klein. Koolhaas doesn't get Prada to pay for his eggheady book/magazine hybrids by not talking the client's language, if you know what I mean.

I suppose Koolhaas uses marketing-school pie charts and zany diagrams to "subvert from the inside," but what one gets a stronger whiff of in Content is sheer shrieking terror. population growth and resource drain, the exponential inflation of "junkspace," the obsolescence of architectural language itself. The Dutch master and his minions jack up so much high anxiety, after 200 pages of this clangor you might feel like you're actually reading the New York Times Magazine.

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