Delirious Cities and Their Cinema: On Koolhaas and Film Studies
The Structures of Globalization
During our current age of globalization the idea of the city is undergoing a profound transformation, with the introduction of multiple and imbricated categories to define increasingly complex urban forms and experiences. Within this emerging geopolitical system, the “world,” “global,” or “mega-” city occupies the apex of an implicit hierarchy of size and preeminence, and a map of intricately interlaced urban centers, a polycentric network of cities, coexists with the map of nations.1 According to the more extreme urbanisms currently under consideration and construction, “in the geography of advanced forms of capitalism, metropolis equals world.”2
Because of the intensifying competition among these cities and their smaller counterparts for the attention of capital, residents, and tourists alike, the star architect has become one of the key contributors to the reinvention of urban environments.3Over the past decade architects have assumed the mantle once worn by major figures in the film world.4 Private executives and public officials hope to associate their own institutions with the aura of the Frank Gehry or Sir Norman Foster brand, a risky but often rewarding proposition. World-class architecture generates its own publicity, and city leaders clamor to join the exclusive ranks of urban centers graced by a major project overseen by Santiago Calatrava or Steven Holl or Rem Koolhaas. The often vituperative responses from citizens and critics are balanced by the buzz that accompanies the construction of a monument to cosmopolitanism. The international image of a city was once defined in large part by cinema, by the accumulation of memorable scenes and iconic shots filmed on location or in a pristine studio simulacrum and then distributed to theaters around the world. Architecture has usurped much of that power in this new era. Iconic structures by eminent architects feature in advertising campaigns and guidebooks seeking to encapsulate the city in an image. If cinema once supplied the most widely disseminated public face of a city of lights and movement, it has largely surrendered that role to the even more public facades of the latest architectural marvel ready to be photographed by any passerby and posted instantaneously on the Web for the world to see. The era of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo or Federico Fellini’s Rome slowly recedes and yields to the moment of Gehry’s Bilbao or the new Beijing currently under construction and designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron or by Koolhaas.
Although the current global economic collapse has halted or curtailed many large-scale real estate ventures, the sponsors of the most recent wave of spectacular architecture, especially the economic and cultural capitals of emerging markets in Asia, are poised to emerge from the crisis before their counterparts in Europe and North America, to cultivate the next boom or bubble, and to continue their building frenzy of the past two decades. In the increasingly baroque gradations of urban form, architecture has become and will likely remain the most conspicuous emblem of cultural and economic distinction.
At the same time that architects have risen to the stratosphere of international stardom, the relationship among cinema, architecture, and the city has become one of the most prominent topics in film and media studies, and a renewed fascination with the city film has surfaced on the international festival circuit, especially in the work of directors from East Asia. More than at any point since its heyday in the 1920s or at the beginning of the French New Wave, the city film has become a crucial genre for contemporary artists working with and through the reality of massive urbanization. At a moment of transition for moving images, as celluloid passes into obsolescence and digital media evolve from their “revolutionary” stage to a position of dominance and quotidian normality, cinema has entered a period of renewed vitality that belies its unfamiliar and uncomfortable status as an old medium.
Contemporary urban space now fascinates and energizes filmmakers, even as cinema occupies fewer of the incessantly proliferating screens in hands and on desktops, when flash media and Internet video have supplanted old-fashioned celluloid as a platform for image consumption, and text messaging and Web surfing refashion still images and everyday communication as dynamic exercises (a constant cycle of click and transmit, send and receive) facilitated by cutting-edge technology. As film fades to black and screen cultures become almost exclusively digital, this quintessential modern medium remains an indispensable conceptual tool for understanding an era of hypermodernization, especially as experienced in the emerging megacities of East Asia. Just as Lev Manovich and others have noted the importance of a cinematic metaphor and template for so many successors to film, including most digital media as currently conceived, so too for architecture and urban theory that otherwise advertise their affinity for emerging new media rather than the revolutionary art forms of the long-gone twentieth century.5
As architects and patrons attempt to publicize the avant-garde qualities of their atelier or city, one of the most effective strategies is a conspicuous embrace of digital technology and the creative economy centered on image production and circulation. Architecture and images retain the intimate relationship established in the age of cinematic cities, but the utopian visions of a networked society, the infinite flexibility of digital media, and immediate access to information have replaced the cluster of ideals inherited from the century of cinema. As they harness the excitement associated with new media and construct its structural equivalents, architects and theorists also trace a genealogy that allows us to see new media — and the still vaguely defined phenomenon that develops alongside it, the twenty-first-century city — through the lens of cinema. The intricately knotted relationship between cinema and new media also helps us understand the stakes involved in today’s most intellectually ambitious architecture and urban planning. This is nowhere more evident than in the design and theoretical work of Koolhaas.
Koolhaas has been one of the most profound influences on film and media scholars writing about urban environments, especially during the past decade, as the overlapping issues of urbanization and globalization have grown more prominent in the discipline. Owing to his distinction (and notoriety) as both an architect and a theorist, Koolhaas has been a ubiquitous presence in popular and academic debates about contemporary architecture, as well as urban planning and design. But in film and media studies the Koolhaas phenomenon is the result of not only his status as a default reference point for scholars but also his unusual fascination with the interaction between architecture and image-based media, his penchant for building images into his designs and the rhetoric of his theoretical interventions. This tendency has contributed to the futuristic quality of many of his earlier projects: for example, the model for his Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe from the late 1980s displayed on an exterior wall a massive projection of one of Richard Prince’s reappropriated photographs of the Marlboro Man, allowing the building’s key structural element to vacillate among a variety of possibilities, from its necessary materiality to the familiar but disposable icons of the contemporary brandscape to high-priced postmodern art.6
As much as any other architectural and urban theorist, Koolhaas thinks about cities — habitually imagined as the embodiment of concrete reality and durability — through the artificial spaces and ephemeral structures usually associated with the moving image. In his cinema books Gilles Deleuze identifies the capacity of film to produce new concepts and instigate new modes of philosophy;7 Koolhaas also uses media as a theoretical tool, thinking about the basic elements of architecture and cities — space and structure — as extensions of the image rather than their conceptual opposite. However, at the same time, Koolhaas overlooks another cinematic tradition, with film envisioned not as an addition to the ever- accelerating flow of commercial images but as an exercise in testimony and durability, as an attempt to capture not the fleeting image of global capitalism but walls and structures grounded in the city and left to weather for a while.
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- Saskia Sassen is probably the most influential theorist of this new world order, particularly the version of this urban network presented in The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo ( Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001). In the East Asian context a number of sociologists and urban theorists have written about the “world city craze” sweeping the region, reflecting an aspiration to centrality among businesspeople and politicians who locate themselves at the margins of the world system and suggesting that the multicentered urban network also maintains an implicit hierarchy. For an account of this aspiration to world city status in China, see Yi-Xing Zhou, “The Prospect of International Cities in China,” in The New Chinese City: Globalization and Market Reform, ed. John R. Logan ( London: Blackwell, 2002), 59–73. See also Zhou Muzhi, Ding: Tuoqi Zhongguo de da chengshi qun (Megalopolis in China) ( Beijing: Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe, 2004).
- Alejandro Zaera Polo, “Notes for a Topographic Survey,” El Croquis 53 (March 1992): 32.
- For a general introduction to the star architect phenomenon and a case study of Sir Norman Foster, see Donald McNeill, “In Search of the Global Architect: The Case of Norman Foster (and Partners),” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 293 ( September 2005): 501–15.
- Anecdotal evidence ripped from the headlines of recent Chinese tabloids suggests that major international architects have attained a superstar status once reserved for practitioners of more popular art forms. The romance between Ole Scheeren — the Koolhaas protégé and partner overseeing the construction of the China Central Television (CCTV) tower in Beijing — and actress Maggie Cheung has been a frequent topic in gossip columns and more mainstream press. See, e.g., Chen Nan, “Ich bin ein Beijinger,” China Daily, April 1, 2008.
- See Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media ( Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 78–79.
- For an introduction to these heavily commercialized contemporary urban environments, or brandscapes, see Anna Klingmann, Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy ( Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007).
- See, e.g., Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 209.