Tag Archives: Rem Koolhaas

The rules for changing rules

Paul Romer presents his solution to the problem of underdevelopment in this TED video.

Stanford economist Paul Romer believes in the power of ideas. He first studied how to speed up the discovery and implementation of new technologies. But to address the big problems we’ll face this century — insecurity, harm to the environment, global poverty —  new technologies will not be enough. We must also speed up the discovery and implementation of new rules, of new ideas about how people interact.

Throughout human history, big improvements in systems of rules took place when new governments entered the scene. In today’s world, this process has been largely shut down. To bring it back to life, Romer proposes that we create new cities where people can go to escape from bad rules and opt in to new and better ones. With better rules, people can be safe, self-interest can protect the environment, and investment can bring families all the resources that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Romer profile

Another, much longer presentation was made at the Long Now foundation.

As he sees it the problem of urban and economic development is not the bad rules. Most people and leaders understand that they are bad rules. The problem is that the system of government, the application of the rules, traps us in them. And so for example, if the prime minister of some derelict African state attempts to fix rules on the electrical industry, he will have to fight opposition from the many different people whose interests are affected by this change. Unless he is an all-powerful man, he is set to fail. This is a well-known problem, and the British have even turned the practice of bureaucrats manipulating politicians into doing the opposite of what they wanted to do into high comedy.

Romer says that the solution to the problem of bad rules is not to go into government but to create new governments, implying that processes of government have their own life and result in good or bad rules. While some leaders and communities may not be able to beat the system of government, they can create new ones at the margins. Romer proposes to develop, in effect, city-states all over the world where there currently is nothing, and populate them with settlers looking to build a new life.

People criticize me for proposing changes that they believe to be impossible and unrealistic. This may be true if we consider preserving the planning system to be the most important objective. And perhaps some of these people simply consider anything but the established system to be inconceivable. Even in this otherwise positive article about slums, you find a quote such as this one:

There are reasonable objections to titling. Is it fair for those who seized government land—or, worse, someone else’s private property—to be rewarded with a property title? Nor is ownership easy to disentangle. “How do you allocate titles within the dense fabric of Rocinha or Kibera?” Neuwirth writes. “Who should get title to each parcel? The family that built the house? The woman who bought it from them? The tenants who rent there? The man who owns his two-story home but sold his roof rights to a friend, who built two stories and sold his roof rights to someone to build an additional two stories?”

After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. I observed the same narrow-sightedness when researching my thesis on La Défense. The one defining characteristic of the project was that it was exempt from the national planning system and its rules, creating a completely open-ended area. No one working on the project could tell me that this was the reason for its success, neither did the records they kept acknowledge it. The only man who had understood this and written about it was Rem Koolhaas.

Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) Romer’s charter cities offer a way out of this system, but Romer’s proposal to try out new forms of government at the scale of the city does not recognize the fractality of urban scale. It is possible to build not simply a new city out in the open wild, but a city within an existing city, at the edge or some such, thus creating a fractal of nested cities all working on a different planning system, and in this way not just serving as a comparative experiment but also benefiting from each others’ existence into one global system. I wrote before about such a patchwork of planning systems solving problems at conflicting scales.

The most characteristic feature of an emergent urbanism is that it tries to solve problems at the smallest possible scale first (in opposition to sprawl which solves problems at the regional scale). This means that an emergent city can be created at the margin of an existing sprawling metropolis, or in any pocket available within it.

The challenge then is truly to figure out the rules for changing the rules. If a spontaneous community of people can be sufficiently organized to claim an available place and declare that it is run on a different system, then by democratic principle will it be accepted, or opposed? If the political leaders of a dying city are going to abandon a part of their territory, can they concede it to a new organization, with a form of ownership that defies conventional practice? In any case, the initiative for such a measure will have to come from outside the system.

Related posts

The Urban Country: Holland

Rem Koolhaas once described the urban as pervasive. It took a tour of Holland for me to grasp quite what he meant. While Paris is mocked as a museum-city due to its protected urban tissue, in Holland it is the farmland that is protected, the rural tissue that cannot be modernized. This makes the experience of moving in the country, which is about the same size as the Dallas-Fort-Worth metropolis and has more people, utterly surreal.

Holland today is called the Randstad, or the Edge City, since its four biggest cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht, were joined together by highways, leaving the heart of the country as the farmland the Dutch had created it to be. (God may have made the Earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands, so the saying goes.) With less than an hour travel time from any city to another making connections perfectly simple, the urbanization of the cities into one large metropolis was inevitable, just as the urbanization of the land between them was inevitable.

While, traveling from one city to the next, one may see a landscape of grazing fields for dairy cows, this landscape is always seen from a road that is packed with other travelers. Wherever you go, the ubiquitous presence of other people can be felt, either by running into them on their bicycles or just as the background noise of a not-far-enough highway. The grazing land and windmills may be beautiful to look at, they are only a decor, and the presence of other people, as well as the occasional 6-story office building squeezed in between two herds of cows, serve to remind you at every step how unnatural this arrangement is.

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Typical Dutch landscape, but imagine the noise of an urban highway in the background for the real picture

Urbanity is, ultimately, nothing more than people circulating. We sense that a place is urban where there are crowds (or in the controversial words of Rem Koolhaas, congestion). And good urbanism, in that sense, is taking full advantage of the crowd, with the small things like street-side cafes for people watching, the less small things like tramways, and the dramatically monumental things like balconies over a railway station concourse. Bad urbanism, on the other hand, is hiding the crowd away, or pretending that it isn’t there. This is what the land use policy of the Netherlands does.

Why do the Dutch need this farmland anymore? According to Dutch government statistics, land becomes at least twice as valuable once the land is rezoned as “urban”. That implies that making cheese is not nearly as important to people as human residence, industry and business. The government maintains that the zoning is necessary to protect the country against the market failure of not providing a beautiful landscape.

The landscape of Holland is the most artificial of any place in the world. Everything in the country was made by human hand. It all came out looking quite natural. Christopher Alexander even used the historic center of Amsterdam as an example of a city grown naturally in A New Theory of Urban Design. It is genuinely beautiful. Have the Dutch lost confidence in their own hands? What is going on?

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

Man-made nature in Amsterdam

If you follow architecture at all, you will be aware that Holland is considered as something like the Shangri-La of Modernism, a country where the modern paradigm has been fully embraced and where architectural experimentation is the rule. The result of this experimentation has been hard modernist mega-estates like Biljmermeer (it’s bigger than Sarcelles! exclaimed our companion) in the outskirts of Amsterdam, a city that despite having been reinvested with new modernist buildings, still is a ghost town compared to the bustle of Amsterdam, to the fashionably impractical like the diamondoid houses of Rotterdam, and terminating in the plain grotesque like the foodstrip that greets you on the highway into Amsterdam. What emanates from this experimentation is that the lessons acquired from one experiment are never used in the next, defeating the whole purpose of an experiment. We can only conclude that what is taking place cannot be defined as experimentation. The precise term for modernism is folly.

An "experiment"

An "experiment"

The foodstrip - yummy!

The foodstrip - yummy!

Against an onslaught of follies mutilating their landscape, what could the Dutch do but turn hyper-conservative in horror? They must realize though that the lines drawn on zoning maps can only be a temporary measure, a rear-guard action while waiting for the day we are no longer confused about what we are. I can imagine a Randstad with a center of parks, houses and estates that would be just as beautiful and natural as the current landscape and also serve as relevant solutions to the current problems of Dutch life. We don’t need to zone out the present. We don’t have to be afraid of ourselves anymore. We just need to know how to make things like nature does. Then the landscape that we have always made will once again be natural.

While Paris may be a monument to an urban past, the late 19th century, that no longer exists, the Randstad is a monument to a rural past that has long vanished. It is a museum-country that functions as a modern city. A tour of Holland is the essential companion to Rem Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL, which is the essential narrative of late 20th century architecture and urbanism. If you ever wondered what could have produced such a strange mind, Holland could.

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Crossing the Maas into Holland

Follies in Rotterdam

Follies in Rotterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Living naturally in Amsterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

Nature in Rotterdam

P.S. What was originally meant to be a weekend trip to Amsterdam with three fellow students of the Institut d’Urbanisme over the long July 14 weekend turned into, due to last minute planning, a full tour of Holland, with stops in Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and lightning visits to towns like Bunnik, Gouda, The Hague and Shoeveningen, the Biljmermeer suburb of Amsterdam and Gorinchem. That is to say, we did a full tour of the Randstad. Since it was on the way, we also stopped in Ghent and Antwerp, which felt somewhat more normal than Holland. The reason for this, I concluded recently, was that there were far fewer people on the roads.

P.P.S. Do not remain illegally parked in Amsterdam’s historic center, particularly not if your driver is an irritable parisian. Parking enforcement is very serious business there, with visibly positive consequences on the quality of the city.

Fake Complexity – CCTV Headquarters

Engineering firm ARUP provided the complexity for this project.

From time to time I happen upon an attempt to “do” complexity that completely misses the point. In this first installment of many “Fake Complexity” topics, the culprit is Rem Koolhaas and his CCTV Headquarters for Beijing.

The choice of Rem Koolhaas is not random. Koolhaas is the only starchitect who understands anything about complexity, making this building that much more tragic. And the sad part is that the CCTV does have some complexity in it – the structural frame of the building is so complex that it had to be generated by computer software, explaining the weird, random shape of the mesh holding it up. The error is that this emergent structure is put to work holding up a horribly corrupt design, and the random pattern of the structure exists to match the similarly random physical stresses the design imposes. The global shape of the building itself is just an aesthetic decision by the architects, it is not the result of a complex process. Complexity only factors in after the architects have done their work. Form here does not follow process.

The fact that the building’s form is not emergent is also the reason why the people of Beijing do not take it seriously as a building. It has already been nicknamed “Big Shorts” by locals, because that’s the form the architects decided for it.

And a comment in passing about the architectural criticism linked above.

You might think that, like a good deal of Koolhaas’s work, the building is as much showmanship as architecture, but it evinces a quiet, monumental grandeur. Some of that is due to the color of the glass, which is a soft gray, almost perfectly echoing the overcast Beijing sky.

What the hell are these people on? Is overcast the new grandeur?

Bonus Fake Complexity Update – Tour Signal by Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel was recently announced as the winner of the contest for a second iconic tower in Paris La Défense, which has absolutely nothing to do with him being awarded the Pritzker Prize a few weeks ago. Here is Jean Nouvel’s idea of complexity: a wallpaper of the Mandelbrot Set on the gargantuan atriums of his building. This is an even faker kind of complexity than Koolhaas used, as in that case there was a legitimate emergent process used in the structure of the building. What Jean Nouvel is doing is taking a 2D printout of a complexity-generating computer program and slapping it on the walls of his building. This being kitsch projected to every corner of Paris, it becomes a crime. Thankfully, given the current conditions of global real estate markets, it will meet the same fate as Jean Nouvel’s doomed 90’s project for La Défense, the Tour Sans Fins, and this is why it doesn’t deserve its own Fake Complexity update.

They can’t work as a team

From John Massengale comes word that Rem Koolhaas continues to make desperate cries to rescue architecture, while missing what’s right in front of his nose.

“The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value,” – Rem Koolhaas

Koolhaas has been desperately trying to save architecture since before S, M, L, XL. He is unfortunately condemned to remain a “voluntary prisoner.” As I pointed out in the previous post on geometry, it is the modern paradigm itself that is defective. Only when architects accept that they build space, not objects, that this space is part of a larger network of spaces and that what they do is ultimately determined by this network of space, not their own creative genius (while still allowing for difference and uniqueness) will architecture once again be mutually reinforcing.