The Generic City

Koolhaas_dubai_model

Nicolai Ouroussoff reports on one of the most unlikely architectural commissions in recent memory. Rem Koolhaas has been hired to design a generic city in Dubai, a dreamless city within a dream city. Thus far Dubai has commissioned showy displays of starchitect whimsy, so, at first glance, it’s surprising to see the city embrace the deliberately bland rationalism of Koolhaas’s generic city. On second thought, though, it seems perfect for Dubai.

If the paradigmatic object of the nineteenth-century city was the railroad station, the twenty-first century generic city, Koolhaas argues in S, M, L, XL, is modeled after the airport. Koolhaas asks, “Is the contemporary city like an airport–‘all the same’?” Like airports, which are all modern in exactly the same way, the generic city has no identity–no past, no future, no identity, no distinction. The identities of most cities may be located in their centers, but paradoxically, instead of being a fixed essence, the center of the city is the often subject of fretful debate about preserving and developing a city’s identity. Meanwhile, outer neighborhoods muddle along, existing as nothing but themselves, but also nothing particularly essential. The generic city, by contrast, is nothingness writ large. The generic city has the desultory blandness of outer boroughs. The generic city, Koolhaas declares, is “a city without qualities,” a condition that even vividly individualistic cities tend towards. Paris, for instance, has turned itself into a self-parody in an effort to remain Parisian, while London changes constantly, only to become more and more like any other city.  Eventually, Paris will turn into Las Vegas, and London will become Atlanta.

Atlanta itself will be packed up into skyscrapers, those stand alone objects that kill off street life–the very essence of urban life. “Urbanism doesn’t exist,” Koolhaas declares. “It is only an ideology in Marx’s sense of the word.” The paradigmatic urbanite will no longer be a latte-sipping hipster but the weary sales rep who never completely unpacks his suitcase. The generic city will be “unshapable.” It will resist urban planning, beautification projects, and empowerment zones. No one will make a PBS special about its history. It will resist all nostalgia. It will be ruthlessly practical and eternally up-to-date. Generic cities “will work–that is all.”

This sort of pragmatic absolutism extends to the generic city’s government as well. Koolhaas notes with forlorn vagueness that generic cities are apolitical, even a bit authoritarian. The rule of law and the rationality of the democratic process are replaced by pure exchange. Everyone and everything will be a commodity and suffer under the vagaries of the marketplace. In short, the generic city is the physical embodiment of the principle of exchange value in the global economy.

Rem_eye_dubai
Which makes it perfect for Dubai. Its wealth comes from oil, a commodity that is at once from the earth and placeless. Its authorities are anonymous, benevolent princelings trying to build a modern, world-class Arab city. It’s telling, however, that this forward-looking city is separated off from any cultural or social reality of an actual Arab state by feudal moat. The city Koolhaas has designed for them resembles less a miniature Manhattan–the Coney Island of Koolhaas’s Delirious New York–than an old Pentium Pro chip. There’s only one vestige of old humanism, and that’s the macabre eye on a corner of the island. The dour functionalism of the generic city has a collateral effect of tearing the old human subject apart, atomizing it into sensory apparatuses entirely dependent on the circuitry of the generic city to function. Among the historical detritus swept away by Koolhaas’s generic city is urban experience itself. The Dubai minicity couldn’t be further away from Baudelaire’s ragpicker Paris.

Ouroussoff sees Koolhaas’s Dubai project as a provocative, if flawed experiment in a new kid of urban space. This may be so only if the debate about urban space has reached a dead end. Generic cities already exist. Every Midwestern and Sunbelt city has at least one satellite city that’s a sprawling nowhere. Schaumburg, Illinois is one local example. The city is so disconnected from nature and history that asphalt is practically an indigenous life form.  Koolhaas is one of our foremost thinkers, so any proposition he has about the future of the city should be taken seriously, but surely there must be something between New Urbanism and no urbanism at all.

For more on the Waterfront City project and the generic city, see my essay in Static, which is an expanded version of this entry.

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7 Comments

  1. How big is the thing going to be in reality, when built? This is the question. Size matters to humans, it seems. It fashions their responses, just as it shapes their thoughts. The sense of proportion is what is diminished or demeaned when huge big constructs emerge as the end result of benign miniature modellings, depending on … what? It is Ok to visit a monument to pay tribute to the thing that is represented by it, but it doesn’t seem so OK to end up living in one.

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  2. The Dubai project is about 6.5 square miles, or the size of a city neighborhood. In that sense, the generic city has the rough outlines of the kind of neighborhood Koolhaas claims is nostalgic and out of date.
    After writing this post, about twelve other ideas came to mind, which is often the case. Even in Schaumburg, IL, the closest place to a generic city I know, has elements of the urban. Because of all the Indian software engineers who work for the banks and insurance companies there, Schaumburg actually has some excellent Indian restaurants–as good as any you’ll find in Chicago or New York. The urban is something that simply happens. Architects have been trying to control the urban for 150 years, and they still can’t do it.

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  3. Let me get this straight: one of the world’s most renown architects is proposing to pave over more of the gulf with a send-up on the vapid incongruity of Perimeter Center, Atlanta or Irving, Texas? Putting aside the argument that soulless warrens of office parks need no assistance in spreading worldwide, and the fact that Dubai without OMA seems to be doing an enviable job of bringing just that sort of carbon copy sprawl to fruition, I feel disappointed that this is the work of what we consider one of our greatest architectural geniuses.
    Koolhaas’s searing observations of contemporary urban phenomena rightly deserve acclaim, and I really admire a lot of his designs, but I myself am totally missing what is the point of this particular plan, beyond the irony of it, and how, aside from sticking a spray-painted mothball in one corner of this model, this project distinguishes itself from Business Bay or other planned sectors of Dubai, and exactly what an inhabitant of this new city is supposed to find worthwhile in his experience of it. I am reminded of Safdie’s play, Private Jokes in Public Places.

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  4. I totally agree with you. Everything about the project is perplexing, so much so that I wonder if the finished product won’t be a generic city at all. Koolhaas can’t be serious about building one–not with the biggest commission he’s ever likely to get. This is the guy who once designed a Prada store, after all. My impression is that the generic city is something that develops all by itself, not something that’s deliberately designed. The concept of the generic city undermines the very idea of architecture as a professional practice. Why hire a name architect to design an anonymous thing?

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  5. Just what the design is specifying is a question I am not sure I understand either. Are these little matchstick blocks in the model just place-holders, a la Ground Zero proposals, or just what is being articulated? From the small image I can just make out, in the center left quadrant, a sort of 4-legged CCTV, and on the far left a slightly elongated United Nations. Otherwise I read only a sort of double-wide La Defense (Champs and all). Are these willful references or is this Koolhaas plays Monopoly?
    To move beyond the era of starchitectural white elephants is commendable, count me on board. But the focal buildings here could seem to be the worst sort of hybrid of generic and acontextual. Perplexing indeed.
    The only reference in the OMA oeuvre which these images bring to my mind is The City of the Captive Globe from Delirious NY. To realize or recall that scheme in built form is the sort of wild dream for which the phenomena of Dubai and its neighbors might provide a contemporary visionary with an unparalleled opportunity. A Canary Wharf of interconnected CCTVs is more what I am getting at. A shame that Rem didn’t put forth that level of provocation, at least as an initial proposal…
    I feel sort of like a 15-year old whose beloved indie cerebral rock band just put out a album of elevator music and advertising jingles with a mediocre radio single.

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  6. i feel R.K. was probably simply taking the Royal, not to mention the more-catholic-than-the-Pope middle-eastern urbanite’s, taste into consideration. I also suspect R.K. of taking the opportunity here not so much to indulge a nostalgic dream of his, as to test its viability.
    Dubai is well and truly geared to becoming a 21st – or even 2nd – century world centre. As such, it needs urgently to be created in its own image. The image that the Emirates population can visualize is conceivably a grandchild of today’s world, a hybrid breed that combines Western looks (and efficiency) with the Eastern (delusion of) grandeur. No room (or time) here for the organic growth of anything parochial.
    I suppose this must explain the fact that in the small scale model we can see both the usual skyline of any mega city of the western world; this, to make the “neighbourhood” seem familiar and inviting, while the futuristic element, namely the ‘eyeball’, is perhaps put there to help capture the hearts of the less provincial. Very grand indeed!
    Personally, I favour the idea of small ‘villages’ linking up by necessity, retaining, in the process, some of their identities while giving a non-total identity to the resulting urban cluster. R.K.’s design seems to be in agreement with this notion, insofar as its size (for info on which I thank R.Prouty) is concerned.
    However, I am totally against the idea of skyscrapers. They do not fit the idea of a neighbourhood. They in fact mock it. Skyscrapers can make a pretty skyline to look at at night, with the sky bit removed. They’re designed and built to minimize cost. This must be the reason why – and I’m only guessing here – the tastes of the users who are not necessarily in the profession, are never consulted before these things come into existence.
    Sorry about the long-winded comment!

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  7. I should mention, first of all, that someone from OMA visited on 3/8, so maybe the general sense of confusion and disappointment voiced here will have some effect.
    It’s as if Koolhaas is more comfortable starting with an individual building and then relating it to its broader context than he is starting with the context and working to individual buildings. After reading the comments here I’m starting to wonder if Koolhaas is building a Koolhaas City, a city consisting entirely of own best designs. Add up all his challenges to traditional urbanism and skyscraper design and you get the Generic City. I don’t see the orange tube of the Illinois Institute of Technology student center, at least not yet.

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