Friday, March 25, 2011

74. Work for Rem Part II: Behrens vs Koolhaas

Do you believe Le Corbusier is a genius and a God among architects? Do you believe that he is a prophet sent from the architectural heavens to show generations to come a new way, and that there will be no other like him as there was no other like him before? Do you just know in your heart that Mies van der Rohe knows more about steel and the art of putting a fine building together than any architect alive today can ever dream of? Then I suggest you stop reading now, close this browser, hit the back button or better yet exit here, because reading any further will only upset you.

Are you still here? Well I will assume that you are either an architectural atheist or a glutton for punishment.

The inevitable problem with the Corb-faring architects is that the minute you start discussing or comparing Corb, Mies, Wright, Kahn or who ever the deity of worship is, with any living star-architect you commit blasphemy.

Do you have a friend like that?
...sure you do.

Next time you see them, try this experiment:
Just walk up to them and start comparing Mies to say Jean Nouvel. Then just watch the veins in their neck swell to ripe pulsating tubes under their skins, you will notice their faces start to get red, their nostrils will flair and their eyes start to twitch.

“No way!... no way!
...there is no way you could compare Jean Nouvel to Mies van der Rohe!
How dare you!”

they will likely sputter out, followed by a laundry list of reasons why Jean could never measure up to Mies.

“Mies was a true genius!!!”

Its as though you have asked something ridiculous as “who would win a fist fight between Jesus Christ and Rev. Jesse Jackson?”

Well I am gong to do just that today right here on this blog. I am going to compare Peter Behrens to Rem Koolhaas and the former employees of Behrens (Le Corbuser, Mies Van der rohe, Adolf Meyers, Walter Gropeus etc) to the former employees of to Rem  (Zaha, Bjarke Ingels, Winey Maas, etc ). May God help me.

Okay, the first and most obvious point of similarity between Koolhaas and Behrens is in their tremendous influence on architecture.  They both related to the profession in such a way that quite a few people who have worked under them have managed to successfully replicate their influence or surpass them.  Behrens for example had Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe , and Le Corbusier among others working for him before they went on to open their own firms and go on to have a profound impact on architecture that can be felt up to this day. You only have to look on this poster I posted in part one of this series to see how influential Koolhaas is today. The list of influential architects that have worked at his office includes, Zaha Hadid, MVRDV(Winey Maas & Jacob van Rijs), Bjarke Ingels, REX (Joshua Prince-Remos & Erez Ella) among many, many others. I would argue that he has even surpassed Behrens in this area in some respects. While the individual firms that came out of OMA may not be as influential as the ones that came out of Behren’s office, the quantity is staggering. One could argue that the difference can be summed up in the expression “quantity vs quality”, but keep in mind, the story of Koolhaas’ generation’s influence is still unfolding. A fair comparison can only be made maybe 100 years from now.

Who knows, perhaps several decades from now we may have Bjarke Ingels manifestos and monographs becoming akin to biblical scriptures, required reading for architecture schools around the world, and architects and students alike making annual pilgrimages to his poorly aged buildings saying “wow! I can’t believe I am actually here! I have goosebumps on the back of my neck” .

Okay, snap out of it!

The second point of similarity is in the kind of architects both Koolhaas and Behrens were: the way they approached architecture and the scope of projects that they took on. Both of them were working inside and outside the traditional boundaries of architecture, specifically with branding. For Behrens, we can this in his work for the AEG electric company. Not only did he design the company’s buildings he also designed and developed their entire corporate identity and branding strategy: the hexagonal logo, its catalogs, its office stationery, product design, publicity strategy, etc.  In fact he was credited with the creation of the concept of corporate identity branding itself and directly influenced corporate identity giants such as Braun, McDonald's and even Ikea today.

Koolhaass has done similar. He is well known for his building projects, but he is also branching out into territories outside of architecture and into corporate identity and branding as well. He has structured this parallel venture by developing the think tank firm AMO. AMO has been described as a venture exclusively dedicated to the investigation and performance in the relm of media. Its primary function is to deal with issues that goes beyond architecture’s definition of making buildings.  One of their most well known commission for instance is the design of a new European Union flag in the style of a bar-code incorporating the colors of the member nations.

We can attribute some the similarities between the two to their similar educational backgrounds. Both were trained in media & communication related studies before going into architecture. Behrens, studied at several art academies in Germany and thereafter worked as a graphic artist in Munich. It was not until after nearly a decade of working as a graphic and industrial designer before he was commissioned to design his first building.

Koolhaas studied at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy in Amsterdam, and then took up journalism as a career before ever attending any architecture school.

The significance of a communications and media background becomes visible when contrasted against the dysfunctionlaity of conventional architectural education.
Architecture schools (both historically and presently) are concerned with studying the starchitects of the past and trying to emulate them, while communication and media studies are concerned with studying and understanding the state of the present and its media and figuring out how to communicate with it.

When architecture schools are producing architects with an extra-reverent view of the past and myopic outlook on the present, it isn't so difficult to see how Behrens and Koolhaas with their communications backgrounds would have a distinct advantage over architects educated in this manner.

While most starchitects have a Sarah Palin-like relationship with the media (ie. the media is the enemy, a necessary evil that distorts your message with snippets and is suspect at best), Koolhaas and his starlets (especially Bjarke Ingels) have a more Obama-like relationship with it (ie. they embrace it and use it as a tool to advance their influence).

So, there I said it. I compared mortals to Gods. You can post all death threats in the comments section below or forward them to me via email in the form-mailer on the upper right hand corner of this page.

But seriously. What does this say? Where does this bring us?

For one thing, it says that if influence is something you value as an architect, then having an up to date understanding of media and communication is key. It also speaks about what is lacking in architectural education.

My advice? Don’t wait for architecture school to teach you how to achieve the enormous goals that they place in front of us. Equipping ourselves with the tools to do so has to be our responsibility. Though by no means am I suggesting that  an understanding of media and communications are magic pills to stardom, it is certainly a key part of the puzzle. 

Conrad Newel.
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


Anthony said...

Amazing post, as usual!

Anonymous said...

I just found out your blog and it is amazing. The new perspective on architecture is short-circuiting my brain cells. Thank you for liberating me :)

Christian said...

Very interesting post, indeed.

Even though you can count me in with those who think the current clique of starchitects are for the most part meager caricatures of the Gods of Modernism, I definitely hear what you say.

It's just that one sometimes becomes so sick with some of their ego-driven pathetic shticks which so often have little to do with genuine architectural quality that you're tempted to put those old masters on maybe too high a pedestal.

Since you never had the chance to meet them, you like to think of them as all classy and selfless.

That being said, I do believe that many of our current stars actually really don't have the substance to last.

Especially Hadid and most of the "Decontructivists" will probably fall by the wayside as fashionable and intellectually inflated entertainers rather than true visionaries of their discipline.

With people like Ban, Ando, Lacaton/Vassal, maybe Ingels, that might be a different story, since their work seems to be more rooted in genuine striving for actual cultural and social advancement.

Sorry for the rant, but I it's quite an emotional topic.
Keep up the good work, btw.

Anonymous said...

Comparatively, reasons why many artists only become famous posthumously is because of their lack of communication skills and dissemination channels. To become contemporary relevant today requires a media-centric approach that perhaps is detrimental to the profession.

Architects seems to be so engulfed with the latest and greatest, but fail to realize the architectural products are most useful if it can withstand the test of time and serve its occupants' needs.

The industry is actually quite sad as it becomes more like episodes of "Dancing with the Stars" then real societal development.