- Translucent oppositions. OMA’s proposal for the 1980 Venice Architecture BiennaleLéa-Catherine Szacka in conversation with Rem Koolhaas and Stefano de Martino
Exhibitions and performative spaces have long been at the centre of OMA’s – and now mostly AMO’s – work. Two key exhibitions of the late 20th century roughly bookend the time span covered by OASE 94 – which title is inspired by OMA’s The First Decade 1989 show at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. On the one hand, OMA’s participation in the Strada Novissima at the First International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, for which a facade had been elaborated between 1979 and 1980; and on the other hand, the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition that opened in June 1988 at the MoMA in New York. Yet the Strada Novissima facade has been omitted from all OMA’s chronologies. What sense can we make of that project and what did it represent? Which were the commonalities between OMA’s agonistic participation and other projects featuring Koolhaas’ paradoxical use of history?
Léa-Catherine Szacka [LCS]: In 1980, OMA was invited to be one of the 20 exhibitors in the Strada Novissima at the Venice Biennale, entitled The Presence of the Past. Last year, in the catalogue of the 14th Biennale, you referred to that exhibition, saying that it felt like the end of architecture ‘as we know it’, and pointing out to the beginning of the Reagan era in 1981 and to the advent of neoliberalism. The Strada Novissima was a marketplace, the perfect performative space of consumption. How did you perceive this pivotal ‘postmodern’ moment?
Rem Koolhaas [RK]: I think the year 1980 marked the introduction of postmodernism at an enormous scale in Europe. I have always thought that postmodernism was the style par excellence of market economy. There was a strange discrepancy: probably the thinkers involved in the exhibition had the impression that they were working on a highly intellectual enterprise, with a lot of historical sophistication and dimension. But actually, I, at the time, perceived the exhibition as the first manifestation of the free market. The Strada Novissima showed what architecture, ruled by the market economy, would imply.
fig.1. Strada Novissima, Venice Architecture Bienniale 1980 (© Paolo Portoghesi).
LCS: It was not the inception of postmodernism, it was merely its diffusion to a larger public.
RK: It was the Europeanization of postmodernism. I lived in New York in the 1970s, so I was there when American postmodernism was born and when the arguments for it were being developed. I had an intimate overview of all the authors and how they interacted. I was alert to what postmodernism implied and I was horrified when I realized that it had reached Europe. That is probably why I tried to show a strong opposition to it. Taking part in the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale was the occasion to make my opposition manifest.
LCS: As stated in the catalogue you were asked to design a facade: ‘your dwelling or a personal museum, a space for the exhibition and “sale” of your own ideas’. In other words: a billboard or a self-portrait. You went for a very simple design: a semi-translucent canvas, exposing the Arsenale. Lifted in the bottom left corner, the fabric was pierced by a red pole holding a neon sign saying OMA (or AMO). Your facade was not a copy of a facade from another project. It was a project in itself. How did it come about?
RK: Stefano made the drawings. We always had difficulties designing facades so this project was confronting us with our incompetence in a way. We had to do a kind of anti-facade or a non-facade.
Stefano de Martino [SdM]: The piece of canvas was a temporary screen – the only concession to an exterior presence was the OMA neon sign. We did not play the formalist game, proving that architecture can be very little, that you can concentrate on content.
fig.2. Strada Novissima, OMA/Rem Koolhaas, drawing by Stefano de Martino (© OMA).
LCS: Rem, in 2011 you said, in an interview with Charles Jencks in Architectural Design: ‘we were uncomfortable with the notion of the street’.
RK: I hated the idea of having to do a facade, even more a facade to represent oneself. So there were essentially a number of things that we wanted to avoid.
SdM: Yes, and the Biennale confirmed that we were on the right track. To know that we were in a minority was exhilarating. We upset a lot of people. Everyone else fell into a camp: the morphologists who couldn’t help considering cities as pieces of cheese that you cut up in blocks, and those who could only think of the ‘wow factor’ of their inventions… We were trying to see what was essential, before you need bricks. When you have a system of relations, then you have architecture.
LCS: Your facade, like all the others, was built by the set designers of Cinecittà. In what way did this imposed collaboration between architecture and cinema change the outcome? Could we speak of a fictional element in the facade?
RK: Our facade was fundamentally different. It was not even made by the Cinecittà technicians. But I think that the role of Cinecittà in the exhibition was tremendously interesting in the sense that it represented an early announcement of how unsubstantial architecture had become. Delirious New York was also about that: showing that architecture was no longer a substance but an illusion.
SdM: We were never into facadism. Maybe now that it’s all about facades, you don’t hear this word anymore, but at the time it was an insult. We saw the Strada Novissima as a kind of postmodern Potemkin village. Knowing the people invited, we could very well imagine what would happen. We knew it would be a horrendous pastiche. Our project moved in another direction: it was ephemeral, non-referential, and it produced its own logic, defining a situation instead.
LCS: Behind the facade you presented two projects concerned with preservation: one dealing with a medieval fortress, the extension of the Dutch parliament in The Hague (1978); and the renovation of the panopticon prison in Arnhem (1980). These projects resonated with the gesture of the wall: they were about opening the wall, creating a breach. How and why were these projects shown?
RK: We didn’t have a lot of work, and these were the two things that we were working on. By coincidence they both addressed the conversion of historical compound. The approach did not fit with the exhibition mentality. It was a convenient demonstration of how history could be approached in a different way. It was only when I started working on Cronocaos that I realized how consistently that has been a theme of our work. To some extent, I am a child of that mentality, but it took a different expression.
SdM: Next to the large charcoal, the watercolour drawings and the tiny models in plexi cases was Rem’s text ‘Our New Sobriety’, with the assertion that ‘the plan is of primary importance’. I remember quite some people were puzzled: ‘What is he saying? Ma che…?!’. But that was the real message. Rem wrote the text in ten minutes flat, in London. This manifesto was published in the catalogue for OMA’s first retrospective at the AA, in 1981.
RK: The text, together with our non-facade, was a way of asserting difference.
fig.3. Strada Novissima, OMA/Rem Koolhaas (© Charles Jencks).
LCS: You elaborated the project for the Strada Novissima parallel to the study for Boompjes Rotterdam (1980) and for housing projects in Berlin: Kochstrasse/Friedrichstrasse (1980) and Lützowstrasse (for IBA 1984).
RK: For Boompjes we were invited after the Biennale. It was the moment of separation between Elia Zenghelis and myself. The Dutch parliament project was still a collaboration, while the prison one was already just us. The separation was never about issues, it was just that it became difficult to work on the emergence of an architecture office, as a team. I don’t think that the Biennale influenced these projects, nor the other way around, but it could be that the Biennale made Boompjes possible, that it helped us to get the commission. A lot of things were coming together: in 1978 I published Delirious New York, then we almost won the competition for the Dutch parliament, and then there was the Biennale.
SdM: The Koch/Friedrichstrasse project was an alternative to the idea of the city current at the time – the street, making facades, rebuilding blocks… It took as a model the courtyard house, which has a boundary but no facade, and a void at its core, the inversion of a block. Next to the Berlin Wall, on a site with little substance left, this seems almost contextual…
LCS: What about the relation between the Strada and later OMA-projects?
SdM: The polemic was more relevant than the project itself. With the proposals for the Exposition Universelle in Paris, right after the competition for Parc de la Villette in 1982, we elaborated an immaterial, ephemeral architecture to get away from representation, especially in relation to the national pavilions. Architecture as national representation becomes very exhibitionist: it’s all about facades. In our proposal, the plan organises the activities on the two sites, focusing on the systemic aspects of the program, creating conditions for specific interpretations. It was abstract, but we had no trouble – and a lot of fun – to translate that into scenarios through collages.
LCS: The project for the Strada Novissima is not mentioned in official chronologies: not in S,M,L,XL, neither on the OMA website. Do you consider it as an architectural project or more as a discursive endeavour, a text, transformed into ephemeral architecture?
RK: I think that project was important because it was the first time we were recognized as part of an official group. It is an oversight rather than a deliberate repression. It has to do with the fact that, at the time, the office was a fiction. Stefano de Martino and I were working at my home. It was like a pre-office.
fig.4. Strada Novissima, OMA/Rem Koolhaas (© Charles Jencks).
LCS: If we do read your facade as postmodern, should we consider it as a sign (Venturi), a historic fragment (Rossi), or a communication device (Jencks)?
RK: Of course, we wanted to appeal to the street. We made the neon sign to find a blatant and perhaps American way of appealing – a sort of Venturian sign. The funny thing was that Venturi, at the time, was very much criticized, even in America. In New York the scene was dominated by Peter Eisenman and Robert Stern, and the two of them agreed that Venturi should be ‘out’.
LCS: Out of what?
RK: Out of everything he could be kept out of: out of books, out of architecture, out of history… They were united in hatred and contempt for Venturi. I was close to Eisenman, but I was also close to Venturi. I have always told Eisenman that one of the weaknesses of his intellectual position was his polemical blindness. Nevertheless, part of my reading of the 1980 Biennale was that Stern won.
LCS: The exhibition was hijacked and became perceived as historicist?
RK: Whether it was historicist or not, I don’t really care, but Stern won simply as an influence. And with that it became a commercial proposition, representing the kind of postmodernism that became the style of choice for developers. That was very visible and I think Europeans were so naive that they couldn’t see that.
LCS: Portoghesi, when embarking on the daunting task of organizing the Biennale, asked Charles Jencks but also Robert Stern, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Vincent Scully and Kenneth Frampton to be part of the organization committee – Frampton soon quit because he didn’t agree with the curatorial and theoretical positions. Who do you think was responsible for your presence?
RK: I think it was Jencks. I didn’t know Portoghesi. At the Biennale I shook his hand, but barely talked to him. Now, in retrospect, I think he is a very interesting architect. But with Jencks and Frampton, I was in an extremely unstable situation. I was a friend of Jencks since 1968, when I met him at the AA. Of course, I totally disagreed with Jencks’ positions and I still do, but we remained good friends. A little later, in the 1970s, I became friends with Frampton. In the 1970s, I agreed with his position. When I was writing Delirious New York he became more and more negative about my work. He thought it was terrible to write about Dalí. At the beginning of the 1970s Frampton had a good sense of me; at the end of the decade, he had a bad one.
fig.5. Strada Novissima, Venice Architecture Biennale 1980 (© Paolo Portoghesi).
LCS: Another ‘official group’ came eight years later, when you took part in the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at MoMA.
RK: In the Strada Novissima the majority of people was supporting and endorsing the message of the exhibition. They thought they could assert a particular thing. But no one wanted to be a Deconstructivist. In this way, 1980 was the last time a kind of coherence emerged between architects; in 1988, this had become impossible.
LCS: The Strada Novissima was the end of an agreement between architects?
RK: Exactly. If anyone was responsible for the Deconstructivist exhibition, it was Johnson. He really felt the need to reassert his power and to declare an agenda. He was convinced of being the true curator of the 20th century.
LCS: If Johnson’s move was political, so could have been Portoghesi’s. He was very close to Bettino Craxi who was head of the PSI in 1980 and Prime Minister from 1983 to 1987. Did you sense a political agenda in 1980? Was the exhibition linked to the political climate, to the tension of the anni di piombo?
RK: I missed that completely, partly because I had been living in America until 1979. It’s only in the last twenty years that I got a better understanding of Italian politics. Maybe it was asserting the possibility of a more cheerful Italy, but that would not have occurred to me at the time.
LCS: What happened after? It is difficult to assess or measure the ‘impact’ of an exhibition but it’s interesting to question the leap from the street of papier maché to the postmodern architecture of the 1980s. Some see the IBA, the Internationale Bauaustellung in Berlin, as a transposition of the Strada in the city.
RK: There is definitely a connection. It’s difficult: at a certain moment something is in the air…
SdM: The IBA owed a lot to the Strada. In 1979, it had been taken over by Josef Paul Kleihues and Vittorio Lampugnani, who propounded the idea of critical reconstruction to fill up a city that was losing inhabitants in droves. They operated with the idea of completing streets where there were no streets left, something like Woody Allen cloning the Leader from his nose in Sleeper… And of course the cadavre exquis that typified the Strada Novissima showed that you could produce diversity within a strict scheme.
LCS: Was it important to be part of that vibe at the beginning of the eighties?
RK: I love being part of a group, but when the moment is there I find it terribly uncomfortable. I probably experienced a mixture of anxiety and fun.
LCS: You said at one point you were not so different from the others in the Strada Novissima.
RK: No, I wasn’t that much different. That is the whole point of Delirious New York: exaggerate the differences. You have no idea how controversial the idea was at the time to work on New York. Everyone thought it was a serious mistake and an irrelevant subject. And that is why I was always interested in Venturi and Scott Brown. Because I realized that they were extremely smart and creative in the way they looked at things. I wanted to be part of that.
LCS: So, in retrospect, you were postmodern?
RK: I don’t know. I think everyone is. One exhibition I was happy to be part of was Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou in 1985. I really felt at home, much more than at the Biennale, and much more than in the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition. In Les Immatériaux, I showed the Boompjes project – it is, by the way, very similar to the Rotterdam building we recently (and finally) realized. I felt close to that exhibition because it was not connected to an architectural movement: it proposed a kind of thinking through a condition. I have always felt closer to Lyotard and Latour or to other French intellectuals than to any one in America or England. It was exhilarating! It was Pompidou at its best and its most profound. It had nothing to do with matter or substance – it was concerned with thought.
- Szacka, L.-C. (2015). Translucent oppositions. OMA’s proposal for the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale. Léa-Catherine Szacka in conversation with Rem Koolhaas and Stefano de Martino. OMA. The First Decade, OASE, (94), 0–. Retrieved from https://oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/94/TranslucentOppositions
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