Cronocaos at the New Museum

In OMA's exhibition, preservation becomes a platform for a wider debate around the dilemma of the architectural profession.

Earlier this month several downtown New York cultural organizations hosted the Festival of Ideas for the New City (May 4–8, 2011), a collaborative investigation into imagining what lies beyond the present notion of the city. The festival included installations, street events and more than eighty independent projects together with symposiums with various speakers, notably Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Rem Koolhaas of OMA. As part of the festival, Koolhaas transitioned his Cronocaos exhibition first shown at Palazzo delle Esposizioni for the 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice 2010 to the partially renovated, ground-floor space at 231 Bowery, the annexed exhibition space for the New Museum, New York (on display May 7–June 5, 2011). Cronocaos allows OMA to present a theory of preservation which, at first glance, seems oddly paradoxical with a festival promoting innovative discussion on 'New Ideas'.

However, to look at this as an exhibition of OMA's preserved projects is a mistake. The exhibition steps outside of the profession and questions the role of the practitioner in a world that no longer sees the architect as a pivotal force in creating the built environment. It is simply a guise for promoting a deeper questioning into the current architectural profession: has it become so staid, overused and static that it is in fact in need of re-evaluating either through preservation or destruction? Or, is OMA subtly positioning 'preservation' as the pallbearer in a mournful crusade on the declining nature of the discipline and the role of the architect?
Cronocaos is pragmatic in its theoretical approach and in its practical application. The viewer is greeted at the entrance by a homey setting replete with a copy of the over-sized orange cushion found in OMA's heritage-listed Maison à Bordeaux, France (1998). It is suitably juxtaposed against antique-looking furniture items like an old writing desk on loan from the defunct, legendary punk club CBGB. Both objects are equally heralded under the banner of preservation but remain at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their appearance and place in time. The primary exhibited materials act more like placards than installation elements, each one unleashing a tirade of factual, historical 'evidence'. The simplicity of the exhibition is its defining feature; it is stripped of any frippery. Each of the 'placards' hangs from the existing structure of the exhibition space itself. They are each numbered, at the lower right corner, reaffirming OMA's desire to have the viewer systematically moved and re-positioned through the gallery space. The visual maneuverability is also displayed on the floor where the viewer is confronted with textual instruction and pointers as to the next direction to take. Each of the gallery walls, flanking the exhibition, provide investigative spaces for OMA's own work and adjacent, photographs taken at locations that are supposedly preserved dating back to the 1960's. At the furthermost point from the entrance the viewer is provided with a set of seemingly binary images of industrial, contemporary art spaces and still images from a number of Hollywood blockbusters depicting apocalyptic scenes.
The layout of the exhibition promotes the idea that the concept of preservation is layered, both in historical and political terms. It may seem that the concept is under a dialectical investigation, opposing what is to be preserved or conserved. The dialectic runs further when considering that the exhibition postulates that preservation, for OMA, could be in opposition to something new, a concept that filters through to OMA's own work. This is most obvious in the exhibition in its two flanking walls that entrap the installation: one wall is a white, freshly painted wall (preserved); and, the other bears the marks of the space's previous inhabitant (conserved). Curiously, the viewer is instructed to walk in between these two 'states', and, as they navigate through the snaking aisles, they are greeted with six key divisions of information: statistical evidence; historical fact; "Side Effects"; the "Black Hole"; "Planning; and, finally, "Reuse".
At the culmination of the exhibition, the viewer is urged to take away a piece of OMA’s legacy in the form of images and text from their own projects. In doing so, OMA has created their own token gesture in the preservation of memory for the event and also prolongs the impact of their own work as significant projects in global architecture.
Each division has its own apparent agenda, whether it comes in the form of data analysis and factual chronicling in the first two divisions, or with more phlegmatic sourcing of images, quotations and global observations in the latter areas. It is interesting to consider that this layering of information and directive instruction could well be akin to the profession on the whole. The viewer is regulated in much the same way as the architect, approaching the next issue whilst always considering the past or previous confrontation. Furthermore, the action of being escorted through an exhibition, somewhat without control and under the rubric of social parameters that far outweigh the individual, could well be descriptive of the architect in his current predicament. This notion is ratified at any given opportunity throughout Cronocaos. For example, placard number 27 states "since Philip Johnson in 1979, no architect has appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. Stararchitects accepted a Faustian bargain where they became more prominent, but their role less significant."
Cronocaos strives to suggest that the diminishing role of the architect is continuing at a pace not known before. OMA make an unequivocal link between the diminishing role and the rise of the market economy in the West. The primary example of this is emblazoned on placard number 30: "By disconnecting the (role of the) architect from the public sector, the market economy severed the connection between architecture and idealism and condemned the contemporary architect to a limbo of lesser seriousness..." At every possible juncture there lies a reminder of decisions beyond the grasp of the profession; a swelling sense of anxiety, many unanswered questions and a quashing of architectural ingenuity and possibility. Instead the architect is left to reflect on policy issues pertaining to preservation—whether it be to preserve or to conserve—not in the decision-making process but at its climax, at the apex of critical impasse and professional inertia.
Of course, the preservation of the profession is not the only topic under the exhibits agenda. Most presciently, the contradictions in how the term "preservation" is used—exemplified in the plethora of statistical data and evidence. Notably, placard 6 graphically indicates that 12% of the world's surface is heritage-listed and is, therefore, 'untouchable'. There is, as is the case with a whole host of OMA-curated exhibits and publications, a strong graphical representation of data as well as many an astute observation on the crushingly traditional approaches to the built environment with the subsequent impact on and against preservation. Indeed, an example of this traditional antagonism is palpable in the image showing Harvard University's campus which has the following byline attached: "History as fake? History as farce? Most of Harvard's historical buildings have been gutted and entirely made over, many more than once during their 'lifetimes'..." This kind of bold statement which is obviously close to Koolhaas' own personal take on the buildings that inform his professional life provide the exhibition with a critically shrewd, yet entirely human perspective. However, in contrast to this humanist approach, OMA states that to provide a possible antidote to the present concept of preservation, it should be considered that preservation is only truly possible in its obverse—destruction. OMA suggests that it may well be preferable to decimate city centers after twenty-five year periods so to "liberate itself" with a tabula rasa and thus encouraging a "creative transformation", enabling society to take stock and to really appreciate what seems culturally valuable in the longer term.
At the culmination of the regimented exhibition pathway, the viewer is urged to take away a piece of OMA's legacy in the form of images and text from their own projects, somewhat reminiscent of the exit in a contemporary gallery or museum gift shop. In doing so, OMA has created their own token gesture in the preservation of memory for the event and also prolongs the impact of their own work as significant projects in global architecture. Many visitors will peel off every piece of information almost in procession, while others are more selective in their preservation of the exhibition. This may simply be the preservation of legacy, the solemnity of OMA. It is interesting to consider that this exhibition has in many ways been 'preserved' from its Venice equivalent. It is not a touring exhibition, and is instead an installation that has actually been packaged, parceled and preserved, replicated and re-contextualized in a different setting altogether here on Bowery. The Biennale showcases all things architecture whereas the New Museum is intended as something far outreaching architecture alone. The exhibit was intended for a specific viewer in Venice but currently finds itself displaced into the refurbished, former retail art space. Which, is in fact, an intriguing doubling considering that OMA make comment on the "earnest" artist who resorts to the apocalyptic in order to find custom in the new, industrial art setting. Perhaps the directed nature of the exhibition is an inflection to traditional gallery viewing or is a reinvention of the traditional. The cavernous Tate Modern—which has little in the way of the traditional layout—is far removed from the Uffizi Gallery, Florence or Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice with their strict room-by-room division, a stark contrast to the contemporary "art shell". OMA may well be replaying history or preserving the gallery typology.
"Architects—we who change the world—have been oblivious or hostile to the manifestations of preservation. Since 1981, in Paolo Portoghesi's Presence of the Past, there has been almost no attention paid to preservation in successive architecture Biennales", Koolhaas explains. Preservation may be an archaic term but Cronocaos reinvents the concept into the current architectural climate. Rather than preservation referring to the old, Cronocaos inverts this to mean something new, not only in the sense that it is opposed to conservation, but in the notion that the term is used to understand the contemporary role of the architect. Cronocaos, in its layout and content, is a metaphorical manifestation of the architect—preservation is more than a bygone term, it is an analogy for the wider profession.

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