Sunday, April 27, 2014

Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture

In Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture (1972) by Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vreisendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis, the Strip is a prison. Two parallel walls cut through central London and define a linear enclosed zone—isolated, aggressive, and relentless. There are barbed wires, tank traps, checkpoints, and guard towers. Papers are banned; radios are not operational. Despite all the suppressions, fugitives flock into this dystopia voluntarily. They know it is actually the Good Half of the city. It provides a new urban culture, “a strip of intense metropolitan desirability” as Koolhaas and Zenghelis described it. The authors took a “mirror image” of the terrifying architecture of prison walls, using its intense and devastating force “in the service of positive intentions.” Suddenly, all defense mechanisms turn to the outside. They are there to prevent contamination from the Bad Half.
Exhausted Fugitives Led to Reception
The Allotments

This inside-out contradiction alludes to Berlin during the Cold War. In 1971, when most of the AA students made their Summer Study on Palladian villas or Greek mountain villages, Koolhaas chose the Berlin Wall. He was amazed by the fact that it was West Berlin, the “open society,” that was imprisoned, not the East. “I now realize that [the Wall] encircles the city, paradoxically making it ‘free,’” he wrote in Field Trip: (A)A Memoir. People from the East would risk their lives to enter the Western enclave, escaping into a prison the scale of a metropolis. In the divided city of Berlin, freedom was relative.
The Berlin Wall 

Koolhaas admired the Berlin Wall, for it was forbidding and seductive at the same time. He embraced the horrifying beauty and imagined a full spectrum of joyful activities inside the tall walls of the Strip. “The inhabitants of this architecture, those strong enough to love it, would become its Voluntary Prisoners, ecstatic in the freedom of their architectural confines.” Wannabe prisoners receive a “spectacular welcome” upon arrival, and perform minimal training “under the most hedonistic conditions” in the Reception Area. In the Park of the Four Elements, ducts “emit various mixtures of gasses to create aromatic and hallucinogenic experiences.” In the Park of Aggression, visitors can vent their suppressed hatred by “freely abusing each other.” Average life expectancy is low, but nurses are dancing in transparent uniforms in the Institute of Biological Transactions.
The Reception Area
The Park of Aggression
The Institute of Biological Transactions

The most provocative sector is called the Baths—a place that “brings hidden motivations, desires, and impulses to the surface.” In the collage of the public action and display area, Koolhaas used explicit stills from De Blanke Slavin (The White Slave, 1969), a film he co-wrote with Rene Daalder as members of the youthful “1,2,3, enz” Group. The film is about a group of young women who plan to be trained and work as volunteer nurses in overseas aid projects, but end up trapped in a North African brothel, forced to belly dance and sexually please the white slave master. By putting these images of capture and abuse to illustrate the indulgence and fantasies in the Baths, Koolhaas may be hinting a subtle sign of Stockholm syndrome within the enclave of the Strip. Hallucinated or not, the Voluntary Prisoners do enjoy their captive lives. Their behaviors and emotions reflect an almost twisted hedonism, eerie and dreamy, taking pleasure from a highly controlled situation. No wonder their “ode to the architecture that forever encloses them” is Charles Baudelaire’s poem in Les Fleurs du mal.
The Baths
The Baths
The Avowal
The “1,2,3, enz” Group, including Rem Kolhaas (back left) and Rene Daalder (back right)

Enduring hardships in the pursuit of dreams in the confinement of the Good Half. Aren’t we all voluntary prisoners of architecture?

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