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“Orgies of Speech”: OMA’s Political Projects and the Evolution of the Post-Political, by Graham Owen

Douglas Spencer, in his skilful and timely analysis (2016) of the architecture of neoliberalism, traces a shift in political attitude from Koolhaas’ Delirious New York and his later essay on Bigness to that embodied in the “hyperbuildings” for Universal Studios and CCTV. From the retroactive manifesto for Manhattanism in the 1920s, seen through the lens of Surrealism and Dali’s Paranoid-Critical Method, Spencer identifies a shift, though not acknowledged as such, to the affirmative managerialism of the post-political.

Spencer sees Koolhaas’ shift as paralleling attitudes evident in the work of his protégés Zaha Hadid (and her professional partner/in-house theorist Patrik Schumacher), Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, erstwhile partners in Foreign Office Architects. The disavowal of critical theory in favour of complexity, emergence, and the “projective”, occurring around the late 1990s and early 2000s, constitutes the intellectual framework for this “new pragmatism”: “Theory was interesting … but now we have work”, as Spencer quotes Michael Speaks, self-appointed spokesperson for what he termed the “design intelligence” of the managerial orientation of ambitious practices.

But the evolution of the post-political (as construed by Zizek, Swyngedouw et al.) may be evident in the earlier, theoretical projects of OMA in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even as stylistic Post-Modernism was itself being condemned (by Koolhaas, among others) for its own questionable political affiliations. The Hague Parliament competition entry of 1978, for example, is notable for its cynicism regarding the very representative democracy it set out to house and represent, and for the implicit politics of its Modernist touchstones. The Hague City Hall competition project, of 1986, invokes in compacted form Koolhaas’ discovery of a bureaucratic sublime in the X, Y and Z Buildings of the Rockefeller Center, and prefigures the typology of the hyperbuilding. Koolhaas’ student work, the “Berlin Wall as Architecture” and “Exodus”, may be understood as particularly expressive of his ambivalence towards the political mantle of his generation, that of May ’68, later addressed more directly in his writings on urbanism. This paper sets out to chart, both within the terms of the time and retrospectively, the intellectual frameworks within which OMA’s self-situation within the post-political was carried out.

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