The recent awarding of the prestigious $100,000 Pritzker prize to Dutch-born architect Rem Koolhaas illustrates the self-perpetuating nature of architectural modernism. As people everywhere rebel against the icy glass and steel curtain walls, the street-destroying asymmetries, and the incongruous shapes of modernist buildings, the Pritzker goes, as usual, to an architect for whom these things define the fixed points of his style. The jury citation enthuses that Koolhaas's "ideas about buildings and urban planning made him one of the most discussed contemporary architects in the world even before any of his design projects came to fruition. . . . His body of work is as much about ideas as it is buildings."
These remarks, intended as praise, are in reality the most damning criticism. Koolhaas, like Le Corbusier before him, has perceived that the judgment of the architectural establishment falls on words, not deeds, and that the words must provide an exhilarating vision of a futuristic architecture that cares nothing for the conventions that have proved themselves in human experience.
Koolhaas's projects are what you might expect: private houses for the ultra-rich, providing panoramic views over landscapes that they spoil, and public commissions awarded by juries intimidated by modernist orthodoxy. The public buildings, with no windows that open, depend upon central heating in winter and air conditioning in summer. They bear little relation to their surroundings and invariably clash with neighboring regularities. They are expensive ecological catastrophes, dropped into the city from the cyberspace where Koolhaas lives and dreams. The jury: "[H]e is an architect obviously comfortable with the future and in close communication with its fast pace and changing configurations." But we can neither observe nor know the future; it has no pace and no configuration. To be in "close communication" with it means no more than doodling fantasies on a computer screen. In his response to the jury, Koolhaas says as much: "After four thousand years of failure," he tells us, "Photoshop and the computer create utopias instantly."
Fantasizing is fine, of course, provided that you don't then impose your fantasies on the rest of us. The business of architecture is not to create utopias for cyber-people, but real buildings for real human beings. And you can do that only if you respect the forms, materials, and proportions that make cities livable. Commonsense observations, these, that may appeal to City Journal readers; but they have no purchase with architectural juries, who are composed by, of, and for the modernists. After all, where would the modernists be without the juries to praise them? And where would the juries be without the modernists who give snob value to their praise? The Pritzker's funders would have done humanity a greater service if they had made a precondition of the award that its recipients build no actual buildings.