Koolhaas’ Generic City

I finished Rem Koolhaas’ essay The Generic City in the book Arkitekturteorier (in Swedish) and it is excellent. I wish I knew of an English book where only this essay is included, because Koolhaas’ S,M,L,XL might be a hefty buy: $225 on Amazon and the book weighs six pounds. But if you got the money and a strong bookshelf …

The essay is packed with ideas. I can’t really tell if the generic city exists today or if it is Koolhaas’ vision of the future. But that doesn’t matter, it is very interesting anyway.

The Generic City is a fractal, Koolhaas writes, repeating its shape from laptops up to skyscrapers. Buildings are torn down as they cease to fulfil its purpose. There’s no architecture in the traditional sense: everybody can be an architect. The city has no history, save for one or a few districts where all history has been concentrated. Therefore, in the Generic City everybody is a tourist. Hotels have everything you need – there’s no reason to leave. The Generic City is not planned, it just happens (emergence). And so on. He just goes on and on like this and nearly every sentence provokes thoughts.

I googled and found a Wired interview where he says that Singapore is a Generic City: “Singapore has succeeded, over the last 40 years, in removing any trace of authenticity. It is a culture of the contemporary. And many Asian cities are like this now, seeming to exist of nothing but copies – in many instances bad copies – of Western architecture.” He also says that in China, cities seem to emerge out of nowhere in about eight years. He’s been in a big project in the Pearl River Delta, where he’s found that the average time to design a building is ten days, for three people with three Macs.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between what he says and software engineering. The generic system would be a system where everything is ad hoc. You don’t plan, you just help things emerge, guiding them. When something resists the change you’re about to make, you throw it away. And perhaps this style of development could work if the programmers had a set of fundamental values guiding them?

As I read Koolhaas’ essay I came to think of Brian Foote and Joseph Yoder’s Big Ball of Mud, which examines the “ad hoc” development process and tries to find out what could be made to make it work. Big Ball of Mud is the software equivalent of the Generic City, and it’s actually very close to Extreme Programming (XP). The Generic City is an agile city.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 16, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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