Rem Koolhaas and Irma Boom at Columbia GSAPP


It gives me great pleasure tonight to introduce two people very close to my heart. Irma Boom is perhaps the most architectural of book designers; Rem Koolhaas, the most typographic of architects. As they’re both Dutch, residents of the same city, and more–or–less the same generation, it’s no great surprise that they would end up as close friends and collaborators. What is surprising is that they actually first met here in New York in my loft in Soho almost exactly 19 years ago.

My partners, Georgie Stout and Susan Sellers and I had started the design studio 2x4 in the early nineties. We met Rem in late 1994 when designing Any Magazine #9 titled: The Bigness of Rem Koolhaas, and had gone on to work with him — and a 20–something architect from Columbia named Dan Wood — on the competition for the Tate Modern and the early stages of the Universal project in LA. At the same time, we were ardent fans of Irma’s and followed her work from her early days at the Dutch postal service. Her volumes documenting Dutch stamp design are still among my most precious possessions. That admiration led me to invite her to join the design faculty at Yale insuring frequent visits to both in New Haven and New York.

In the fall of 1995, Rem created a sensation with the release of the 1,344–page SMXL. Six months later Irma completed her ThinkBook, a five–year project for a Dutch trading company, that came in almost 800 pages longer and 2–full pounds heavier. Having two friends who produced almost 15 pounds of book between them in the same year demanded a big book summit. It happened at 428 Broome Street in the Spring of 1996. They arrived hauling their treasures — Irma’s wrapped in Chinese silk,* Rem’s in his classic yellow plastic bag from the Schipol Airport duty free shop — and lined them up on the dining table. The eternal contest — whose was biggest — evolved immediately into a shared passion for books and type and printing and launched a career–long collaboration.

* Apparently I drastically misremembered this detail. Irma notes: “No silk at all! Just a very simple black board box. I brought both the English and Chinese version of the book, so maybe you got mixed up with this?”

Over the ensuing years both Irma and Rem have challenged and redefined the ways in which designers seize authorship through their respective media, at two radically different scales. Irma works in a studio in Amsterdam with only one or two assistants, in close communication with authors, curators and artists, personally crafting every page, pouring over layouts and type and paper and dummies and printing processes. Rem has a global practice that incorporates hundreds of people in multiple offices worldwide. That Irma’s books bear her distinctive fingerprints is perhaps inevitable, her hands are all over her work. But despite the jump in scale, Rem’s imprint is just as formally and theoretically explicit. He serves the classic author–function through which myriad work is coalesced under his name by the pervasive irrigation of his practice with ideas.

We are here tonight to consider their latest collaborative effort: another big book, or books, I should say, as Elements ended up as a 2,336 page boxed set rather than single volume. The work organizes the content of the exhibition in the central pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. As I am sure you all know by now, the Elements exhibition was an exhaustive, and at times exhausting, archive of building components — clustered in 15 subchapters — traced from prehistory to the present. The encyclopedic aspiration of the project suggests that the print manifestation, the physical encyclopedia, is not ancillary documentation, but an integral part of the whole project.

Its tempting to frame Elements as The Golden Bough of architecture with Rem playing the role of Sir James George Frazer soberly eviscerating our sacred myths, but these fifteen volumes are less modern mythology than an elaborate tool catalogue, an impression supported by the seemingly generic layout replete with chapter tabs, super–functional typography, easy–to–read infrastructure, and maximum density of information on every page. This hyper–aggregation, coupled with more–or–less dispassionate display, forces the question: How is this avalanche of stuff, of things, drawn from innumerable sources, by a phalanx of supporting characters, shaped? Who is speaking here? You might as well ask who is author of the Sweets Catalogue? (But in case there is any doubt, the names Koolhaas and Boom appear at least 30 times to remind us.) Maybe this is authorship reimagined as information–wrangling. Maybe compilation is, in fact, all we have left.

But for me this focus on reassembly is the driving point of the entire project. Elements shifts the frame from invention to something akin to Bruno Latour’s redefinition of design: “it is never a process that begins from scratch: to design is always to redesign. There is always something that exists first as a given, as an issue, as a problem. Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user’s friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on, depending on the various constraints to which the project has to answer. In other words, there is always something remedial in design.”

By reallocating architecture to the clever rearrangement of more or less irreducible, yet restlessly evolving, elements, Elements depicts the architect as typographer. Typography is, after all, the art of rearranging. We don’t invent the alphabet, we simply cobble it together in surprising ways to meet the demands put on us. Letters too can evolve over time, or be redesigned — or restyled — but typography is, at its core, the organization of prefabricated elements for effect. Elements forces us to consider the product of design, either book or building, less as object and more, to use Latour’s phrase, “complex assemblies of contradictory issues.”

It’s telling then that one of the Elements most discreet, yet most significant, details is a typographic one. All the texts start and end with ellipses. By abolishing the two bookends of text type — the initial upper–case letter at the start of the sentence, and the period at the end — Rem and Irma dislodge the text from the responsibility of starting or finishing. Ellipsis is derived from the Greek meaning: Falling short, and in the middle of the sentence the ellipsis indicates an omission. But by starting and ending with this, the most ambiguous form of punctuation, the authors suggest the text is the omission itself, excised from a longer one that stretches in one direction to the unknowable past and in the other to the unforeseeable future. The ellipses suggest too an indexical presence, not just the author of the words, i.e. the writer, but the editorial hand of the typographer, that is, the one who performed the excision.

This seemingly simple act of modesty makes the profound admission that all of our words, all our heroic pronouncements, all these piles and piles of pages, ultimately fall short. With this subtle typographic destabilization, our authors fearlessly annihilate both the origin myth of the capital and the telos of the full–stop, and reposition themselves in the endless semiosis of redesign. The project is both un-finished and never-started. And it places us, the reader, right where we always are: stuck in the middle, in the eternal present, with only these swirling, and ultimately insufficient, words to guide us…

© Michael Rock