Affirmative Action


After ads from Prada and Gucci, Content opens with a message from the government of the Netherlands welcoming the new member states to the European Union: “Say Yes to everything!” If free-floating Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture have any operating principle at all, it is this policy of dogged exploration and affirmation. Content is an ecstatic, rampaging account of OMA’s recent “architectural adventures,” which include the Prada store in Soho and the canceled hotel on Astor Place.

Like the fragile, tumultuous “¥E$ world” of the free market in which Content so ambivalently and desperately participates, this bookazine is an unstable, throwaway product. The design is deliberately tabloid-trashy, even reckless. “Architecture is too slow,” Koolhaas writes in a typically lucid and prickly essay (nearly every other Content writer imitates his style). With the creation of the think tank AMO, Koolhaas wants to make architecture “a way of thinking about anything”—the iconography of the European Union, interior design with Martha Stewart, the rebranding of Wired magazine, American imperialism, reality TV. This extension of architecture’s reach into sociology and geopolitics demands an accessible and exhilarating format, and it’s Content‘s most generous gesture. Occasionally the embrace is overwhelming. Content‘s mania for full dis- closure (the humility beneath the bravado) means that sometimes all the thinking is done for you, and the speedy approach persistently turns slapdash: Many of the graphics don’t do justice to fascinating demographic data.

The book’s trajectory sweeps from West to East. America’s “preoccupations” since 9-11 have led to political and creative stagnation—the “self-pity of the powerful.” More exciting is the emergence of the “Sino-European bloc.” So instead of seriously competing for the World Trade Center, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture concentrated on the Chinese Central Television headquarters in Beijing. The building, to be completed in 2008, is bigger and more ambitious than anything OMA could do in the West: A loop instead of a skyscraper, it implies flow and interconnectedness rather than hierarchy. The project also pushes OMA into the ethically uncomfortable territory where it is always happiest: a commission from a state-run media organ in a country that has severely curtailed free speech and plenty of labor camps. In a memo, Koolhaas says: “While China might choose to exert some control over content for its internal political stability, it can be the first nation to create truly open standards for its technological infrastructure spreading connectivity and opportunity.” The hope is an honest, risky, and heroic one: OMA could accelerate China’s media modernization, and maybe political freedoms will follow. Say yes to everything!