REM KOOLHAAS‘ Casa da Musica stands on the Rotunda da Boavista like a futuristic crustacean that has thrown the waves of the Atlantic up over the Avenida da Boavista onto land.
You can’t understand Porto, they say, unless you’ve been to Seattle. So we decided to fly to the Pacific. It was raining when we arrived, and it was dark and the fog laid over Puget Sound and Elliot Bay, and over the hangars where Boeing builds its planes. The car radio was playing “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” by Kurt Cobain, who’d spent his youth here in the area, in a backwater town called Aberdeen, between Tacoma and Ocean City. Later came some very angry songs from newer grunge bands. Heavy steel in the air, heavy metal on the radio and a lot of water on the windshield: Seattle, just like you’d picture it. The flags on Lake Washington Boulevard hung drenched on their masts; there was a Volvo parked at a gas station with the bumper sticker “Washington: The Evergreen State,” and it is indeed evergreen here – because it rains all the time.
You have to know all that in order to comprehend the library. The library shines like a split gem between 4th and 5th Avenues. During the day, the grey skies are reflected in the glass surfaces, making it look like a dark monolithic sculpture with a bright stocking pulled down over it. When it’s dark, the library is illuminated from within, becomes transparent, reveals its construction and beams there like a flickering center of energy in this quiet part of the city where one skyscraper is lined up against the next. The streets plunge, as they do in San Francisco, steeply down to the harbor, and Elliot Bay; there haven’t been many cafés or much life in these streets – until Rem Koolhaas planted a new form of public space in the city.
The new $165 million building pulls back from the alignment of the streets and, like Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, makes room for a small public piazza – but here, in Seattle, this piazza is overgrown. Petra Blaisse has created a wild garden that is surreally reminiscent of the days when the first settlers arrived at an Elliot Bay surrounded by thick forests. The real public space is in the building itself. Koolhaas’ building – and that’s the first surprise here – blurs the borders between its interiors and the outside world. The moment you step into the building from 5th Avenue, you arrive in a public space with a coffee shop and the atmosphere of a train station; you look out onto the street as cars pass by, only – and this is a blessing in rain-drenched Seattle – the façade reaches out over the plaza like a giant transparent umbrella. The main hall is a mix of departure area, abstract garden and oversized living room: a loggia that takes in the city in ways that blend boundaries between the private and the public. Contributing to the playful confusion of inside and outside is the light blue turquoise lacquered, glassed steel network of the façade that folds outward from within, here a wall, there a floor, there the ceiling.
Behind the auditorium, you step onto a brightly gleaming lemon-yellow escalator that induces some serious blinking as it leads you to the so-called “Mixing Chamber.” Here, you wander over the brushed metal floor through the library’s information center and, since no library in the hometown of Microsoft and Amazon would be thinkable without Internet access, it’s on this level that a terminal offers just that for free, an Internet café with 132 work stations. Beyond this electronic window onto the world stretches a view of Elliot Bay from which the little ships make their ways to Victoria and Vancouver. Below the Mixing Chamber is, for Koolhaas, a surprisingly biomorphic red-lacquered labyrinth of conference rooms and, beneath that, a “Children’s Center” with 80,000 children’s books. Another squeaky yellow escalator leads like a lemonade waterfall to the heart of the library, to a spiral winding along gently rising rows of bookshelves, along 750,000 publications, all the way up to the glass roof under which 400 chairs are situated for reading and peering out over the city and the bay; the spiral is conceived to be expandable to 1.4m titles.
The heart of this building is a spiral – and in order to comprehend its meaning for contemporary architecture, you have to look back to the moment the inventors of form turned away from the strict doctrines of the Renaissance to the spiral forms of nature.
In the 1660s, the Italian Jesuit priest Filippo Buonnanni published his tract, Ricreazione dell’occhio e della mente nell’osservazione delle Chioccole, arguing that the seashell calls for a paradigm of new thinking. Simultaneously an object of haptic experience and an example of a mathematically precise design and constructive nature, the seashell’s spiral fascinated not only philosophers but also a generation of architects who were tired of the acid classicism of Renaissance building doctrine (Francesco Borromini had a collection of sea shells and was obsessed by their double character). Whoever cut open the seashell found the implacable mathematics of construction; beyond this, however, there is a wavy, uniquely colored, playful surface with surprising random patterns that obey no recognizable logic.
History seemed to repeat itself when Le Corbusier, among others, reintroduced the seashell’s spiral as a central symbol of spacial thinking to 20th-century architectural theory. It is at least bizarre that Ayn Rand’s famous novel, The Fountainhead, was filmed with Gary Cooper in the same year that Le Corbusier was working on Modulor and his theory of the spiral. In that film, the notorious cowboy actor plays a heroic architect who was utterly consistent within a certain logic’s framework. It was the cowboy who, conquering the horizontal in the move through the west, became the emblematic hero of the 19th century. When horizontal, westward expansion was complete with the urbanization of Los Angeles, the hero of the 20th century had to go another direction. What the cowboy was to the 19th century, the architect, who erected higher and higher skyscrapers, became for the 20th century. When architects became the cowboys of the vertical, the pathos of a linear expansion into unknown regions turned from the horizontal to the heights. These heights, however, consisted solely of elements stacked atop one another, of stories or floors organized in a strictly horizontal way. Up there, there was no public space – and the few spiral towers, like the famous one by Tatlin, did not alter the linear pathos of the vertical. Le Corbusier contrasted the linear with a spiral-based model that made new spatial organizations possible – in the horizontal as well as the vertical. The motif of a ramp – not yet a spiral, though – that connects floors appears even in early Le Corbusier buildings. The interior of the building is traversed by a kind of street. Later, Le Corbusier designed two spiral museums, the Mundaneum and the Musée à Croissance illimité – a horizontal and a vertical spiral. The famous Madonna, who, mounted on a rotating platform, can look inside or outside Le Corbusier’s chapel of Ronchamp, spatially connects the relationship between inside and outside. Even the Unité, seemingly a more classical stacked architecture, attests, with its sports facilities on the roof, to the attempt to attach public space to the vertical. The idea of randomly wrinkling and manipulating space – the formal experiment that later had its heyday in architectural theory under the name “folding” – also had its origins in Le Corbusier’s obsession with spiraling space.
With Koolhaas’ newer buildings, the linear and strictly vertical code of Modernism would be displaced in even further-reaching ways. Instead of floors, there are levels; ramps and labyrinthine spiral paths lead up to the heights, perforate the old grid of the modern skyscraper and create surprising niches and plateaus. In the case of the new Casa da Música in Porto, the architect himself discovered surprising angles in his draft he hadn’t reckoned with; his own creation appeared to its creator as borne of a strange nature. As if he were on a mountain hike, he found unexpected angles, grottos, and corners in the belly of his building. The provocation of coincidence is, within the framework of a conscious attempt at total control over the space one produces, not without consequences for architectonic thought.
Is there a throwback in the work of Rem Koolhaas to the Baroque – not in the sense of a formal allusion, but rather, in the sense of a contemporary interpretation of an experimental spirit that lies in the swirling forms of Baroque? Is there, with Koolhaas, an evolution from a linear to a spiral thought in the process of the initial draft and in architecture – or are his spiral paths something else entirely, transmitters of a new form of organization of the public and the private, interior and exterior space?
Koolhaas has completed buildings in three cities in the last two years that carry the motif of the spiral, first seen in his design for the library in Jussieu, to the extreme. These buildings are in Seattle, Porto, and Berlin – not the great, self-absorbed metropolises of the Western world, but instead, points of upheaval. The buildings are always next to or near water; they are always surrounded by difficult conditions; and they always produce, as city-machines, a new form of social energy.
One of these buildings is the Casa da Música in Porto. It stands on the Rotunda da Boavista like a futuristic crustacean that has thrown the waves of the Atlantic up over the Avenida da Boavista onto land. The ocean isn’t far from here, and you can see that in the city. Porto looks rusted, salted and crumbling in its beauty. Like colorful flotsam after a storm, the houses dangle from the hills, houses that anchor themselves strangely and, with their wild tiled skirts, look as if their lining were turned inside out. Even before Koolhaas, you just had to love all that is skewed and overheated and crowded in Porto, where there are such oddly beautiful Baroque structures as the Torre dos Clerigos; the Italians brought Baroque to Spain, where it was puffed up and heated before it made its way further to the west, to the Portuguese Atlantic coast where it would look even blacker and more hardheaded and wetter than in Spain.
In its exalted strangeness, Koolhaas’ Casa da Música fits well in this environment. You enter the building as if it were a spaceship, via a neon-bright, gleaming stairway rising from the belly of the object and leading to a deep slice in the façade. A last glance at the shyly proud residential houses with their red caps; and then you enter a mix of concrete cathedral, giant futuristic snail shell, and ship’s hull, over the stairs that fill the upper floors to the great music hall.
Here, the concrete tank opens onto the city; the hermetic monolith reveals itself on the inside to be a porous labyrinth of vantage points and views – the light and the city ripple through the openings of the building into its very heart; and then, when darkness falls, the glass concert hall beams back out into the city. The building is an urban lung. By day it breathes in the city, and by night, it breathes it back out again. Inside the Casa da Música, it looks as if the building had sucked in the city like a vacuum cleaner. You wander up the stairs, down the stairs, as if the apparatus had swallowed up the labyrinthine constructions hanging on the steep hills of Miragaia on the old harbor; you wander through surprisingly Baroque rooms in which the traditional tiles lend a nostalgic warmth to the futuristic structure. Behind the glass passageway of the concert hall, where the city seems to be rushing into hall itself, a narrow escalator gully spills a visitor through a room covered in Portuguese tiles of hallucinatory colors out onto the upper roof.
If one is to believe the architect, the Casa da Música is actually a house on a large scale. A neurotic millionaire, says Koolhaas, contracted him to create a strange building before the turn of the millennium. The man was afraid of the year 2000; he didn’t believe in family life, and so, ordered up from the architect from Rotterdam a massive concrete boulder with living holes for every family member that were to be connected only via a tunnel. Nothing was to become of the project, but when Porto was named a European cultural capital in 2001 and Koolhaas was to deliver a model for the concert hall within just a few weeks, the concrete cave landed on his desk and, without hesitating, he enlarged it. The tunnel evolved into the concert hall and the building that was to be erected against the world turned into an invitation to the city.
In light of the spatial magic Koolhaas conjures in the belly of his suspenseful structure, the music hall itself surprises in its conventionality. It is a sober container for the sound, not an experimental Gesamtkunstwerk of a sound space such as Le Corbusier wanted to introduce with his Philips Pavilion or in La Tourette, where even the window frames were proportioned according to the harmonies of a Bach fugue. Nonetheless, it does offer one innovation in the culture of building for music. Because the concert hall was meant to beam out into the city, glass façades on both sides were called for. But since flat surfaces are not advantageous for sound, Koolhaas developed, with his engineers Cecil Balmond and Renz van Luxemburg, a massive, rippling glass that separates the hall and the city. This glass façade bends according to the outline of a sinus curve. As such, the glass is, on the one hand, so stable that it bears weight without the support of steel or concrete, while on the other hand, the glass curve reflects the sound better than any other pane. The sinus curved glass façade, then, is a form constructed for both at the same time, space and sound. It brings together the two arts the visitor physically cannot ignore here, music and architecture, into a single form. What’s more, the curved glass, like so much in this building, has a Baroque effect. It distorts what the eye sees. If you move past the curved pane, the world outside collapses as if seen through a kaleidoscope.
It is a new Baroque full of trompe l’oeil effects that’s being explored here. The curtain that breaks up the daylight falling in from outside looks like a metal net, but is instead made of black material outfitted with fishing nets. The gold applications on the simple wooden paneling in the hall create strange light effects; as if the sound waves were causing the architecture to vibrate, there’s a nervous flickering in the room, entirely as if you were underwater while the sunlight plays down through the rippling surface. Whether it’s the flickering patterns or the sinus curved glass façade, the building follows the principle of vibration and seems under the concrete skin folded over its organs to be constantly pulsating.
The way Rem Koolhaas leads not only the eye but also the entire city to tumble vertically is seen again in Berlin – even though the new Dutch embassy contains only about ten floors – if what goes on in the interior could be described as separate stories. As you approach the free-standing, enchanting cube, it seems to turn and pulsate as if someone were attempting to unscrew it; glass-encased ramps press through the metal façade as if there were some organ inside the silver box threatening to explode.
The real sensation of the embassy is its interior. Here, there is no stairway and there are no longer any floors. A silvery gleaming corridor, covered entirely with aluminum, winds through the building, at times in stairs, at times as a ramp, like a worm gone wild through no fewer than twenty levels, opening onto small seating areas, piercing out through the façade – here, you walk on green glass and can look far down to the street below – and drills its angular way through the building up towards the top. Meeting rooms and offices branch off from all this meandering. In its work landscape, Koolhaas’ embassy celebrates the liberation of the office building; what you wander through over more than two hundred meters is more of an abstract mountain village than any normal office.
The anarchic interior must have driven the structural engineers nuts. The rooms don’t follow the structure of the construction; instead, the structure must make its way around the labyrinth of rooms – that, too, is new. Wherever there was remaining space, supporting shafts and walls have been erected. So there is this wild system of supports somewhat reminiscent of a concrete ship. Technically, the building is two buildings bound together by bridges – one, an angular metal wall one can dwell in, just as wide as a room, where the guest apartments are located – and, a few meters away, a cube of glass and metal. This is how Koolhaas, with his guerilla-like tactics, pays his respects to Berlin’s strict regulation on the edges of city blocks – and still manages to create an urban space unlike any seen in Berlin before. Between the parts of the building, the embassy opens its façade and sends out a monumental ramp, leading the street to the level of the first floor. Just as Mies van der Rohe had the Seagram Building dance out of line, making room for the most charming public space in midtown Manhattan, Koolhaas has created a unique little square with a view of the Spree that is far more beautiful than all the Toscana-wannabe, pseudo piazzas of the New Berlin Mitte.
That the embassy is also an ambassador to the city is ultimately seen where the ramp moves toward an opening in the façade through which you can see the ball atop the television tower on Alexanderplatz like a snapshot of Warsaw Pact-era Modernism. The partially translucent metal wind-screens bordering the premises are so ingenious, gleam so opulently in the sunlight and allow the lights of the city to fall with such virtuosity on the little square in front of the glass cube that the neo-Berlin boxes with their rattling sandstone mantles look like withered houseplants next to it. The resplendence of Berlin’s older buildings cannot be won with plaster and pseudo-rustic ornament – as to what new opulence can look like, Koolhaas reveals it with his coldly shimmering metal walls and the warm rooms stacked like logs in the interior of the embassy.
Social life in this miniature city takes place on the roof. There’s a fitness studio here and a canteen for the employees; in the summer, the roof opens up and there you are, under the open sky. There is a hint here of the “culture of congestion” and the utopia of the vertical city, themes Koolhaas has addressed in his work from Delirious New York – the surrealistically wild architectural sociology that made him famous as a poet and theorist of the city in 1978 – through to his latest projects in Asia.
But above all else, Koolhaas has created an entirely new urban space above and below his spiral of books in Seattle. While the relentless rain pounds against the panes, it becomes a new sort of hybrid of the private and the public, namely, a giant collective living room. The visitors sit from street level, more or less, all the way up the spiral – or screwed into the city with the spiral, reading newspapers and magazines and books in the couches for hours. Of all of Koolhaas’ work so far, the library is the building most decisively devoted to thought. It is the antithesis of the Space Needle and the classic skyscraper, particularly one within view between 5th Avenue and Seneca Street. The architect of this building, completed in 1960, is Minoru Yamasaki, who was born in Seattle in 1912 and achieved a sad sort of fame not once but twice – the first time when Pruitt-Igoe, his housing project erected in St. Louis in 1955, was demolished for its social insufficiency in 1972 (a date celebrated by postmodern theorists as the end of anti-humanist, technocratic Modernism), and the second time when his most famous work, the World Trade Center in New York, collapsed on September 11th because the overly simple structure of the towers could not withstand the impact of the planes. Ever since, it has been reiterated again and again that a more complex, less rational structure would not have broken down. In this light, September 11th can also be seen as a turning point in the construction of skyscrapers, that is, the end of the purely vertically erected hyper-rationalism of the Vertical Cowboys. Koolhaas’ buildings are realized antitheses to this classic model of buildings erected along the paths of elevators. The library follows the logic of the spiral. It twists and turns like an abstract spinal cord, bends outward where a classical skyscraper shoots simply upward. And it was meant not at all disrespectfully when a visitor in the building remarked that the steel network reminded him of a crumpled Eiffel Tower.
In modern architecture, there are two fundamental innovations in terms of the experience of space: the elevator and the spiral. The elevator is, in a sense, the equivalent of an airplane. You step in, and without seeing anything of your travels, you are catapulted from one spot to another within the shortest possible time. Space becomes abstract. And the journey to the heights is a private one. There are no parks and shopping lanes on the 30th floor. Against all that, Koolhaas sets the collective experience of the rising slope. In his skyscraper, one wanders along a spiral that is as open and public as the piazza down on the ground. You wander along as if you’re climbing a mountain of books. Views of the city, the bay, Mount Ranier and the other skyscrapers, reflecting the patterns of the outer skin of the building in their own façades, are always presenting themselves anew. In place of the tiny cell of the elevator propelling the visitor from horizontal public space into the privacy of the vertical, the street and all of public space is spun up to the heights. The binary code of floors, stacked in an orderly fashion, one on top of the other, and connected by elevators, is broken here, opening up a new perception of space. The gray concrete stele of the elevator stands merely as a monument in the main hall to the linear vertical thinking of the 20th century. The library is not only an elaborate intellectual exercise of a building (that’s confirmed by the recent rumblings of Mount St. Helens). Seattle is situated in a highly active earthquake zone, making the multiple folds of the self-stabilizing net-like construction developed by Ove Arup for the library of genuine use.
Koolhaas’ library is a symbolic building for a new urban public space in the 21st century – just as the Space Needle, shooting up to the sky a good two miles away, is a symbol for the faith in progress, yearning up towards outer space, of the 20th century. And, on the one hand, it’s worth noting that this building has been erected in, of all countries, the one that’s become a synonym for the loss of classic public space.
Koolhaas builds an architecture of agitation; he overheats and freezes and drives the radical extremes toward each other. The raw up against the fine; the cheap up against glittering gold; the loosely improvised up against the solidity of concrete, and – this strategy is made particularly clear in Porto – the archaic of bright concrete up against the futuristic, sharp metal; minor up against major. The eye rubs up against the raw plywood paneling of the hall, wonders about the sound container that sets new tones against the dull festiveness of older concert halls. This is, of course, a material strategy rooted in the Baroque.
Instead of working with marble and inlays, Barromini, even in his day, liked to use more modest materials such as brick, plaster, or stucco, which only attained their value when human labor was invested in them. Of Barromini’s inventions, the most revolutionary is the creation of a new spatial experience and the dissolution of the wall as a limiting zone. Borromini managed to arrange individual sections of a space in such a way that the individual elements pierce through to one another. In this way, Borromini’s spaces are elastic and distensible and somewhat flexible; the structure reaches out beyond itself as if it were breathing – an effect that Koolhaas also arouses with his urban lung. Borromini’s release of the wall from its role as a mere surface, the curved wall in which concave and convex movements exchange places, enrich one another, finds its modern counterpart in the glass façade, the staging of its light – as a rule, Borromini had light fall into his buildings from above, through windows placed up near the ceiling, where direct sunlight can be avoided, allowing for a soft, diffuse light, reflected among the mostly white walls and lending an unusual plasticity to the objects inside. There is a structural relationship with the entrance hall in the Casa da Música. Koolhaas does not imitate the Baroque formally; but he does take advantage of its life-giving energies in order to create a contemporary architecture that, in turn, creates, beyond the classical boundaries between interior space and the external world, street and high-rise, private and public, a new form of urban space.
By NIKLAS MAAK