Rem Koolhaas: Junkspace 03.06.14

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(image: Rex Features/Amos Chapple)

In 2001, 2014 Venice Biennale curator Rem Koolhaas put a name to the soulless, mallified space that was spreading virus-like across the planet. His rambling, witty essay still serves as a powerful lament for modern architecture.

Junkspace is 12 years old. Junkspace is more important than ever. Junkspace is the most important piece of writing on architecture of the 21st century ... Pack up, go home, the competition is over, and architecture is also over, for that matter ... Junkspace is ... Junkspace is ... Junkspace is ...

Junkspace is, that's for sure. It's undeniable. In 2001, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture published the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, a slab of graphics and stats describing malls and the mallification of cities and space in general. OMA founder Rem Koolhaas, the seer of Rotterdam, made just one contribution to the Harvard Guide: an essay called Junkspace. In about 7,500 words Koolhaas describes the new kind of space that is advancing over the face of the planet, uniting the shopping mall, the airport, the convention centre, the hotel, the art gallery ­­– uniting everything, in fact, into a seamless, provisional, superficially appetising morass without past or future. This junk space, rather than modern architecture, is the true product of modernisation.

"The virus ascribed to junkspace is in fact the virus of shopping itself; which, like Disneyfication, gradually spreads like a toxic moss across the known universe," wrote Fredric Jameson two years after Koolhaas's essay. "In the end, there will be little else for us to do but shop." But the essay Junkspace is architectural through and through: it appraises the form of this all-conquering space with the eye of a professional.

"Junkspace seems an aberration, but it is the essence, the main thing ... the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock (all three missing from the history books)," Koolhaas writes. "Continuity is the essence of Junkspace; it exploits any invention that enables expansion, deploys the infrastructure of seamlessness: escalator, air-conditioning, sprinkler, fire shutter, hot-air curtain ... It is always interior, so extensive that you rarely perceive limits; it promotes disorientation by any means (mirror, polish, echo) ... "

Those ellipses are Koolhaas's. Something that is immediately striking about Junkspace, alongside its rhythmic repetitions, is its reluctance to close a sentence; and its enthusiasm for semicolons ... One thought drifts into another ... Nothing so utilitarian as a paragraph break intrudes ... To be frank, it rambles. The stream of Koolhaas's prose is akin to a visionary dream, a structureless sequence of crystalline insight and enfolding opiate fog. It resembles the formless space it describes.

Nevertheless, Junkspace is consistently epigrammatic – quote after quote jumps out, not least in the scores of declarative, defining sentences beginning "Junkspace is ..." It is distinctly literary, and there are moments of outright genius: Junkspace is "overripe and undernourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth in a stranglehold of seduction ... Junkspace is like being condemned to a perpetual Jacuzzi with millions of your best friends ... A fuzzy empire of blur." It's also very witty: the exposed structures of high-tech architecture are compared to the springs protruding from a knackered mattress.

But what is Junkspace? What is it meant to do? It's not a manifesto as it does not set out a programme or make a call to action. Hal Foster, introducing a beautiful reissue of the essay calls it a "jeremiad ... a lamentation that veers into denunciation and back again almost sentence to sentence". And Koolhaas's text is littered with baleful statements such as "There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways ..." and "Inevitably, the death of God (and the author) has spawned orphaned space; Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian ..."

Koolhaas describes; he diagnoses. Junkspace isn't a warning, because you can hardly warn against something that has already happened. Junkspace is a sardonic elegy for architecture and a reprimand to architects that they only have themselves to blame. "Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications." They thought they could control Junkspace, and it ended up consuming them ...

Rem Koolhaas is the 2014 curator of the Venice Biennale. This article was originally published in October 2013



Will Wiles

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Junkspace is like being condemned to a perpetual Jacuzzi with millions of your best friends ... A fuzzy empire of blur

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