Posthumanism in Architecture

A conversation between Rem Koolhaas and Benjamin Bratton

On July 3 and 4, Strelka Institute faculty members and 2017 alumni of The New Normal education program presented their research results and discussed the future of cities where AI, VR/AR and cryptocurrencies will be an everyday routine. Rem Koolhaas, founder of AMO/OMA, Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate and Strelka Director of Education in 2010-2012, attended the first day of the conference, and after his talk he exchanged views on the paradoxes brought out by today’s future with Benjamin Bratton, current Strelka Education Programme Director, sociologist, media and design theorist, digital expert and author of The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty.


Rem, let me begin with the following question: if you make a distinction between the urban and the countryside, or whether or not one of the things that is to be decided is where that line of division falls now. And the reason I ask this is not only in terms of whether there is a shift in the fabric between them, but also that one of the things that we see in the political sphere is that the distinction between voting blocks that are in metropolitan centers and those that are in what we might call the countryside in the U.S., in France, in the Philippines, in Russia, is growing yet larger, and that this gap has become critically important.

Koolhaas: I think it is a very good question because in the end we might simply conclude that we are talking about a single phenomenon and that it makes more sense to talk about the ancient parts of civilization, which would be cities, and the new parts of civilization, which would be the territories that serve them or support them. On the other hand, I'm rather reluctant to agree to that, because the more that we actually look at this division, the more I see that these are still relevant terms and this is still a relevant opposition.

Bratton: From much of what you mentioned in your talk here, another way of looking at it is that what that we thought of the countryside is now very much urban. It is part of an urban system in ways it had not been before. It's not the site of nature, it is in fact where the most advanced technical systems, where the interfaces of the most complex forms of cultural globalization, are taking place, and that the urban has absorbed the non-urban.

Koolhaas: I don’t think you would gain anything by calling it urban, and I think that what is, for me, the beauty about continuing to talk about the countryside, is that it is a term that does not imply density, and that therefore, maybe it is more an opposition between dense and un-dense, or occupied by humans and occupied by machines.


Bratton: I’m also taking your last remark: places where the humans live and the machines live. Traditionally, we can say that the old model was to look at the city as the site of where the machines live, and the countryside was where nature was. It was the big garden. And what you show is that this, in fact, is inverting, and the cities are where the humans are, and the countryside is where the machines live.

Koolhaas: So it seems.

Bratton: So it would seem. So you use the term post-human, and it describes the density of machines but not necessarily that of hominids that live there, and this is important.

Koolhaas: Maybe it will never happen, but here we have a deadline. The deadline is 2019. Yes, it is really exciting to use the word post-human. I think it is also interesting to consider whether you can find a way to push for universal humanism in architecture again.

Bratton: It will come back in this way, with a big capital H, Humanism from the times of the Vetruvian man.

Koolhaas: And with regards to this, it is worth questioning what sensitivity architecture has adopted in the last 20 years.


Bratton: Another thing we have to mention is the data centers. We are still beginning to figure out what impact they have had on urban economies, functioning like big remote switches. To take the most obvious example, they have enabled large-scale platforms, whether Google, Uber, or Airbnb. It is also crucial that they enabled the less visible logistical and infrastructural services that make cities run; in a way, they are just like the frontal cortex of the city. How would you characterize that dynamic between the data center out there and the cities that it is running?

Koolhaas: I believe that through enthusiasm for a particular area of technology to develop, and thanks to the incredibly smart and systematic rhetoric of embracing every new technological step, we are finding ourselves in a situation of extreme vulnerability and questionable dependency. We have to develop a critical and intelligent attitude towards technology. I think we also need to address the issue that a single virus can fully immobilize a planet; it should be possible to address this at the scale of data centers and find new ways of making them immune to these conditions. I think that it is a combination of architectural, technical, and political thinking that is necessary. I have a question to you, because you said very confidently [in your talk at Strelka] that you did not want to push genies back into the bottle.

Bratton: No genies, no bottles, yes.

Koolhaas: I instinctively agree, but is that really the whole story, or do we think some things have to go back to the bottle?

Bratton: I allow for new bottles. Not the old bottles. New, better bottles. We should not let the genies roam free and assume that their path is predetermined and we just need to get out of their way. We should address them in a way through which we can make sense of them, use them and work with them in ways that would be viable and beneficial for us. Then, yes, we can send them back into bottles.

One of the things we have looked at a lot with the Strelka students this year is the role of the spectrum of the city. Most of the phones that we use, these black glass slabs that have retrained the posture of billions of people as they move through the cities, are all dependent on an invisible electromagnetic spectrum that has its own borders, that has its own policies, that has its own police imagination, as well, but is not physical in the same way. It is not one of the things that you included, for example, in the elements of architecture, as a tangible thing. And, I think, quite rightly, because it has not been dealt with in architecture in this way. But I would posit that it has become an element of architecture as fundamental as any of the forms that we would use. And another thing that we need to develop is bringing the architectural imagination to the contouring of this spectrum.

Koolhaas: We are now publishing the definitive book on elements of architecture, and it is a lot more about that world. Of course, it can never be an element in the same way, because it's the element to end all elements in a sort of way. So you cannot consider it in isolation. I think it is an element that has infiltrated every element and is surreptitiously changing every element and they are now probably guided by this central thing. It is the ultimate element.

Bratton: So I suppose another angle into this, as I see it, is a shift in where we might locate programming in architecture. It is one thing to think about a distribution of program in plan and say, “this is the zone where the people do this, and this is the zone where people do that.” And there might be moments of encounter and disjunction, and they move between these, and you can actually build a sectional model of a micro-society and then build it and it will work. But when everyone in that space is co-occupying that space differently, according to the way the slab is narrating the space, the slippage in programming becomes quite severe. So we come to think of programming in terms of staging experiences related to phones and other ubiquitous everyday technologies.


Bratton: Another question, considering the importance of the programmatic imaginary to your work for so long, is what will become of it? The same could be said of zoning. How will you work in the future?

Koolhaas: If you look more closely, you will notice that we never use the word ‘program’ anymore. We are in a holding pattern in terms of being able to define how it morphed or into what it morphed.

Bratton: I know you've had, we've both had, some conversations with some of the same people at Google. One of the things that is part of the shift towards the primacy spectrum in this way and the impact it had on designers, is that the way in which architecture thinks about the occupant has changed. This pushes a narrative of the habits of the user, the discourse of user-centered design construction. At the same time, I know you've talked about a lot of the surveillance and privacy conundrums of this quantification of experience. What is at stake for the ambitions for design, when those who would occupy these spaces are reduced to this status?

Koolhaas: I have always felt vulnerable in terms of clearly not being a digital expert; the word digital has always made me cringe. And cringe not because of any hostility but because it was a domain that was stronger than me and that I could not get hold of. But in fact I have been working since the mid-70s with a Dutch film maker, Rene Daalder who is quite well known in architectural circles, and we had actually considered that the world was going to be of the digital domain. I can also look at, let's say, our own work of the last 40 years as a constant balancing act or constant investigation of what the impact of the digital age would be, how could we survive it, engage it, work with it, work against it. And I think that the one possible definition that is turning out to be quite robust is the one which we used for the first time in 1981 in the context of the very big library in Paris, where we said that basically architecture will always be necessary to accommodate our persistent desire for collectivity.


Bratton: My next question is: when last we spoke about this topic, we said that you showed in these projects that in many cases the architect’s name is not there, as they were done by industrial architecture firms that are not part of academic discourse, that are not known. No coffee tables books about the work of Bechtel or Halliburton. And yet the case can be made that not only many of the most technologically interesting but also intellectually interesting questions that architecture is working out stem from this work. Do you foresee, or would you hope for, a shift in the relationship between high design and industrial types of practices, is there a way in which the practice may evolve to accommodate this, and if so, what does that pathway look like?

Koolhaas: We are beginning to collaborate, so, therefore, yes, I absolutely think that it's a collaboration in which I can expect enormous things. Partly to learn and partly also to completely reconstruct our vocabulary and our ambitions. Maybe our architecture can be infused with the same ability to say nothing.

Bratton: To say nothing? That is great. I am all for that.

Koolhaas: That's also a result that I'm looking forward to.