Rem Koolhaas, the co-founder of OMA and the first Program Director of Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, talks to design theorist and current Strelka Program Director Benjamin Bratton, and AMO associate Janna Bystrykh about the countryside, data centers, and the electromagnetic spectrum of the city.
The public talk took place in Moscow in July 2017 during the showcase of the final projects of The New Normal researchers. Led by Benjamin Bratton, The New Normal is a speculative urbanism think-tank that looks into the impact of emerging technologies on interdisciplinary design practices. The program is a three-year initiative concluding in 2019.
Strelka Mag publishes the abridged transcript of the conversation.
The urban vs the countryside
Benjamin Bratton: Let me start by asking if it’s a distinction that you make between the urban and the countryside, or whether or not one of the things that is up for grabs is where that line of division actually falls now? The reason I ask is not only in terms of is there a shift in the fabric between these, but also one of the things we see, arguably, is in the political sphere, that the distinctions between voting blocs, political blocs that are in metropolitan centers and those that we would call the countryside, in the US, in France, in the Philippines, in Russia—that this distinction has become critically important. So in the dynamic between what is urban and what is countryside, is this an important part of how you see this operating? What do we make of that?
Rem Koolhaas: I think that’s a very good question and I think that in the end it might be that we simply conclude that we talk about kind of a single phenomenon and that maybe it makes more sense to talk in terms of ancient parts of civilization, which would be cities, and new parts of civilization which would be the territories that serve or support them.
But on the other hand I am reluctant to say that now or to agree to that now because I still think even for us in the beginning it was an open question and I have to say that the more we actually look at the countryside and go there and expose ourselves to it, the more I at least see that it’s still a relevant term and still a relevant opposition—or relevant complementarity or whatever.
BB: Much of what you show, another way of looking at this, is that what we thought of the countryside is now very much urban, it’s part of an urban system in ways that it wasn’t before. It’s not the site of nature, it’s in fact where the most advanced technical systems, the interfaces of the most complex forms of cultural globalization are taking place.
RK: But what would you gain by calling it urban? I don’t think you would gain anything and I think what is for me the beauty about continuing to talk about the countryside is that it’s one name that doesn’t imply density and therefore maybe it is more an opposition between dense and un-dense or occupied by humans or occupied by machines that would still leave the relevance of the two words intact.
Janna Bystrykh: Maybe to add a bit, the statistic of the 50/50 with which we’ve become so familiar since 2008 also has a history and I think that’s also what we’ve been looking at, not in a way to redefine it but more just to familiarize ourselves with what exactly we’re looking at.
As it happens, the UN in the 1950s requested all countries to start monitoring by their own definition what is urban versus rural, so for instance China counts [something as] a city at the moment it has 100,000 inhabitants. Denmark on the other hand—20,000. So there’s an incredibly large spectrum.
And in the last 60 years they’ve been trying to revise it and there's a lot of criticism coming from geographers and thinkers about it, but the UN is always falling back—“We don’t want to dictate what defines urban and what defines rural, we want the local knowledge and the local understanding of the context to define what is urban and rural.”
So I think there’s also a lot of flexibility in the system itself and it’s a moment to actually reflect on that and not per se maybe look for new definitions.
BB: I’m taken by your last remark of “This is where the humans live and where the machines live.” Traditionally we said the city was the site of where the machines live, and the countryside was where nature was—it was a big garden. And what you show is that this is inverting, the cities are where the humans are and the countryside is where the machines live.
RK: It seems.
BB: You use the term post-human. Is this part of that way of thinking?
RK: Basically [I’m] deliberately coming here before my opinions have been definitively crystalized. Here we have a deadline, the deadline is 2019 and yes it’s kind of really very exciting to use the word ‘post-human.’ I think it’s also interesting to consider whether you can turn some of the push for a kind of universal humanism in architecture back, but how it eventually plays out in two years I don’t know. But I have a feeling that yes it will be a part of it.
BB: It will come back in this way, with a big capital ‘H.’
RK: It’s worth questioning the sensitivity that architecture has adopted in the last 20 years.
Frontal cortex of the city
BB: One thing I think we have to raise are data centers, which very much are a countryside phenomenon, because of the area, because of the water. They are like nuclear power plants—they have to be near large water sources.
We’re beginning to figure out the impact they’ve had on urban economies remotely, as these big remote control switches. And one of the ways in which they have—is they enable the kinds of large-scale platforms, whether that’s Google or Uber, Airbnb, to take the most obvious examples. In a way they are the kind of frontal cortex of the city. You talk about the architectural marvels and design questions of the box as it sits out there. How would you characterize that dynamic between the data center out there and the cities that it’s running as a design problem?
RK: Why do you ask about it as a design problem?
BB: I’m asking if you see this relationship as a design problem, and if so, how so?
RK: I think my perception is that through some kind of in general uncritical enthusiasm for a particular direction of technology to develop, an incredibly smart and systematic rhetoric of embracing every new technological step, we are finding ourselves in a situation of extreme vulnerability and questionable dependency.
BB: I totally agree and this is why I want to ask this question in this way, because I think it hasn’t been dealt with. How do we think about this relationship in a way that isn’t stupid?
RK: We have to begin to think about it and also develop, without being able to reverse it, a critical and intelligent attitude. And I think that also the kind of issue that simply one virus can completely immobilize the planet needs to be addressed on the scale of data centers and [we need to] find new ways of making them immune to those kinds of conditions. So I think it’s a combination of architecture, technical, and political thinking that is necessary.
JB: Something that came up in conversations while doing interviews with people who are related to data centers, I think in relationship to security—what struck me was that also the culture of security is an evolving thing, and one of the comments—and we still have to check and double check whether this applies to other areas—but this particular expert was speaking to a trend that initially a lot of the data centers were built by former military staff, thereby the culture of surveillance was extremely severe.
And this is sort of early 90s/early 2000s and after that there was some lax and people started to come down again and then it’s spiking up again. So it’s also interesting to see that it's not a progressive trend all the time in one direction but it's also a cultural exchange of people who are involved, what kind of industries are attached, and so on.
RK: I have a question for you, Benjamin. You said confidently you didn’t want to try to push genies back into the bottle. Instinctively I agree but do you think that is the whole story, or do you think some things have to go back in the bottle?
BB: I allow for new bottles, not the old bottles. Better bottles. Better systems for the genies to arrange themselves. Not to let them free and assume that somehow they’re predetermined and we just need to get out of their way. It’s the idea that in order to address them in a way that we can make sense of them and use them and work with them, in ways that it would be viable and beneficial, it’s that they need to be articulated within the framework—that’s what I mean by ‘bottle.’
The element to end all elements
BB: One of the things we’ve looked at a lot in the program is the role of the electromagnetic spectrum of the city. Most of the phones that we use, these black glass slabs that have retrained the posture of billions of people as they move through cities—they are all dependent on an invisible electromagnetic spectrum that has its own borders, policies, police, police imagination, but isn’t physical in the same way. It isn’t one of the things you included in the Elements of Architecture [at Venice Biennale 2014] as a tangible thing and I think probably quite rightly because it hasn’t been dealt within architecture in this way. But I would posit that it’s become an element of architecture as fundamental as any of the forms we would use with this as well, and another thing we need to develop is bringing the architectural imagination to its contouring.
RK: We are now publishing the definitive book on elements of architecture and it has a lot more about that.
BB: What does it say?
RK: It can never be an element in the same way because it’s the element to end all elements in a certain way so you cannot consider it in isolation. I think it is an element that has infiltrated every element and is surreptitiously changing every element and now kind of probably guided by this central thing. So it’s the ultimate element.
User narrative in architecture
BB: I know we’ve both had some conversations with some of the same people at Google. One of the things that seized me is that part of the shift towards the primacy of spectrum in this way and the impact on design is that it has changed the way or wants to change the way in which architecture thinks about the occupant. It pushes a narrative of ‘user.’ So all of this is user-centered design construction. You’ve talked about the surveillance and privacy conundrums of these kinds of quantification of experience with platforms. What’s at stake then for the ambition for design when those who would occupy these spaces are reduced to this status?
RK: The interesting thing is I’ve always felt kind of vulnerable in terms of clearly not being a digital expert and the word ‘digital’ has always made me cringe. And cringe not because of any hostility but as a domain that was stronger than me and that I couldn’t get a hold on.
But if I look at my own career and the kind of friendships I’ve had in that career, I’ve actually been working since the mid-70s with a Dutch filmmaker who’s quite well known in architectural circles, Rene Daalder. We actually really considered what the effect on the world was going to be from the digital domain.
I can also look at our own work of the last 40 years as a constant balancing act or investigation about what the impact of the digital would be, how we could survive it, engage it, work with it, work against it, etc. And I think the one definition that is turning out to be quite robust is the one which we used for the first time in 1981 in the context of the Very Big Library in Paris where we said basically architecture will always be necessary to accommodate our persistent desire for collectivity.
Architecture’s ability to say nothing
BB: I think what we see in your work is a trend towards this being pushed in a much more extreme and bifurcated situation where architecture is either accommodating this kind visceral, in-person experience of the crowd, staged events—or it’s set up purely for the smoothness of logistical flows. It’s either an Amazon warehouse or a Tesla showroom and nothing in between seems to be the trend.
When we last spoke about this, we talked about one thing we admit—that a lot of the projects you show, the architecture you show in these projects, you don’t mention in many cases the architects that made them because they were done by industrial architecture firms that are not part of an academic discourse, are not known, don't have coffee table books, etc. And yet the case can be made that not only many of the most technologically interesting but intellectually interesting questions that architects are working out are being done by [these kinds of firms]. Do you foresee or would you hope for a shift in that relationship between high design and industrial types of practices? Is there a way that the practice may evolve to accommodate this, and if so what does that path look like?
RK: We are beginning to collaborate so therefore yes, absolutely. I think that it’s a collaboration in which I expect enormous things—partly to learn and partly also to completely reconstruct our vocabulary and ambitions.
BB: So not only design firms taking on the capabilities of industrial architecture, but industrial architecture can be infused with the same kind of narrative ambition?
RK: Yeah, or architecture can be infused with the same ability to say nothing. That’s also a result we’re kind of looking forward to.
Status of interdisciplinarity
BB: As I mentioned, one of the things that’s been an important part of the meta discussion within this is the structure of practices and the structure of design practices and the ways in which this has worked. Your own work and practice has been extraordinarily interdisciplinary, working with filmmakers, political scientists, economists, etc. A lot of practices now are drawing in computer scientists, interaction designers, and all the rest. I guess the question is really the importance and status of interdisciplinarity—or whether there is an interdisciplinarity—and the design of the practice itself as an argument.
RK: I think it’s a very important word but I’m actually representative of a more spontaneous [approach]—I do not see our own activity as interdisciplinary, I just see it as kind of touching and mobilizing many different forces, simply not as a kind of a priori ambition, but simply because we realize that complexities cannot be understood by only one form of intelligence. And I think I prefer to remain seeing it as a kind of necessity that you can respond to case-by case by accumulating the knowledge around you when it’s necessary.