A thousand years from now, when archeologists dig up the remains of Asia’s megacities, who will they identify as the foremost architect of our time?
Hint: he’s not from around these parts.
But going by the number of prestige buildings he has put his name to, the answer would have to be Rem Koolhaas.
Koolhaas-designed monuments in Asia include the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, the Interlace condominiums in Singapore, the Coach store in Tokyo, and so on.
The Dutchman does have Asian bonafides, however. As a young child of eight, he lived in Indonesia in the 1950s, attending local school, until his parents moved back to Europe four years later. As an adult he returned to the region, shocked by the transformation he encountered, especially in Singapore.
But more important than the buildings themselves—only time will tell how impactful they are—is Koolhaas’ vision of the Asian city. In an essay written over twenty years ago, Koolhaas dubs the Asian city the “Generic City.”
Koolhaas writes not so much of what Asian cities should be as much as of what they are. Why, for example, does Rotterdam get to be quaint and Seoul have to forgo a soul? Koolhaas provides us with an answer.
The Generic City is a city free of context, history and identity. It is a blank slate, allowing its inhabitants to make of themselves what they will.
The Generic City “is ‘superficial’ like a Hollywood lot. It can produce a new identity every Monday morning.” Yet, the artificiality is not sterile. It is a style: the Generic style.
Identity, according to Koolhaas, is a trap: it insists on an essence and correspondingly a centre and periphery. (For e.g., Paris is the centre of “Frenchness” and those in the banlieue do not measure up.) The Generic City, however, is big enough for everybody.
History has no place in the Generic City, except as a neatly packaged experience for tourists. A great example is Singapore’s Chinatown, Malay Quarter or Little India. The residents of the Generic City look ahead, not behind them.
The Generic City is modular: it can just as easily be taken apart as put together, on land owned by a cabal of government cronies. For the Generic City typically exists in an authoritarian universe, even if it has an air of permissiveness.
Unsurprisingly, Koolhaas identifies the airport as the most singular, characteristic element of the Generic City. Witness the billions of dollars spent by governments in a constant game of airport oneupmanship. Can there be any place that signifies nowhere more than an airport?
For what it’s worth, the office that Koolhaas’ firm, OMA, works out of is aggressively generic too. According to Koolhaas, “it has zero character. It can be wonderful when a building has character, but it can also be an obstacle. It can limit you.”
The Generic City represents the ultimate triumph of modernism and science. European Enlightenment values originated within a culture that never entirely severed its relationship with its past. Europeans are fiercely proud of their histories and cultural identities. And while there has been a gradual move towards a universalism, the resistance is still considerable.
Its has been a different story for Asian modernizers, however. To be accepted into the fold of modern nations, they had to severe ties to traditional cultures. To be “ethnic” was to be marginalized. As outsiders, they were held to a higher standard. Hence, Japan’s movement to leave Asia culturally, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Lord Macaulay’s diktats on an English-medium education for India’s ruling class.
Today, unencumbered by the past, Asian cities, Koolhaas argues, have surpassed their Western counterparts. While once designed to please Western eyes, Asian cities are now setting their own agendas. (These include instituting such practices as “artificiality, non-democracy, mass housing, statism, cultural and racial manipulation.”) Accordingly, the monopoly of Western ideas on what constitutes a city must be set aside.