Re-contextualizing Bigness

What is the role of Koolhaas's concept in the current narrative canon?

Claudia Tomateo (MAUD '17)


Image by Claudia Tomateo

Bigness does not have history

Bigness does not have theory

Bigness operates without context

Bigness competes with context

Bigness aims to eliminate context

In “Bigness, or the problem of the large”[1] Koolhaas (1995) foresees what would be an important discussion of contemporary architecture. Whether it is a feature evident to the observer or not, somehow it managed to hide from practitioners and historians in order to theorize and understand its origin and possibilities. Was Bigness a natural outcome for architecture? In the absence of a clear social mission for contemporary designers, does Bigness represent an experiment to see how far we can get?

Here I aim to analyze what triggered Koolhaas to have such a radical view and also point out its weaknesses and inconsistencies. Understanding that the current narrative canon is oscillating between liquid and iconic architecture, what is the role of bigness and where is it positioned under this spectrum?[2]

Bigness does not have history

“Beyond a certain scale, architecture acquires the properties of Bigness. The best reason to broach Bigness is the one given by climbers of Mount Everest; “because it is there”. Bigness is the ultimate architecture.”

In the first explanation of Bigness, a simple analogy is made to understand the feeling of something that is big, yet passes unnoticed. Mount Everest is used as a natural example for Bigness which is later introduced as the “ultimate architecture”. It is in a sense funny that after all the pre-Columbian history of incredibly large-scale interventions on the landscape, bigness is presented as something “ultimate” for the discipline.

The effort to bring the discipline to the limits of one of its most important elements (scale) is valuable. However, this definition fails to recognize its historic references, even if they were not intended for the same purpose.[3]

Bigness does not have theory

“Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a singular architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. The impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts which is different from fragmentation: the parts committed to the whole…. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot. The art of architecture is useless in Bigness.”

This is critical for the theory of buildings and cities, because there is a definition of the form of bigness as something diffuse but that is composed by parts.[4] Koolhaas makes a distinction between what he calls “Frankenstein buildings” and Bigness. Bigness is an aggregation of architectural gestures that are independent, but at the same time part of the whole (i.e. Hagia Sofia). Frankenstein buildings are neither one nor the other, and therefore only half successful (i.e. Steven Holl MIT dorms).

Bigness operates without context

Bigness is not about program, it is about complexity. In “S,M,L,XL” the authors argue for the birth of Bigness as a consequence of current technologies that allow the buildings to be thicker and taller, resulting in artificial interiors, electricity, air conditioning, elevators, among others. Under these circumstances, the interior and exterior become detached.

It could be possible that to a certain extent the building does not need a specific context to function, because Bigness is a concept that can be deployed all over the world, even outside cities. The façade does not have to reveal what is happening inside in order to have a conversation with the city, and I find it simplistic to argue that buildings and cities must have direct physical connections. Yes, the building is enclosed, but that doesn’t mean that an attitude towards the exterior is absent.

Bigness competes with context

There is no global intention for architecture, and that is why we have returned to Bigness; it is the exit door to escape artistic movements and modernism. Koolhaas makes a clear distinction between modernism and modernization. He refers to modernism as the formal language, the style, while modernization is the pioneer attitude. We need modernization, not modernism.

Consequently, I will argue that for Koolhaas, the idea of Bigness competing with the context is less a race for the prize, but instead is an agent of change, an “urban condenser”.[5] Bigness regulates the intensities of programmatic coexistence, an unexpected programmatic alchemy.

Bigness aims to eliminate context

I will use this last statement as a way to understand Bigness in context; historically, theoretically and physically. Many reflections have been made on Bigness as an artifact. But I find it crucial to identify its vision for the city and its influence in the world to reflect about its canon under the contemporary spectrum.

“In such a model of urban solid and metropolitan void, the desire for stability and the need of instability are no longer incompatible. They can be pursued as two separate enterprises with invisible connections. Through the parallel actions of reconstruction and destruction, such a city becomes an archipelago of architectural islands floating in a post-architectural landscape of erasure where once was a city is now a highly charged nothingness” (Koolhaas 1995, 201)

In this statement, context is reduced to “nothingness”, a figurative argument for the devouring of urban tissue. We can see this sort of dystopian attitude throughout Koolhaas’ life. One of his most famous manifestos “The Green Archipelago” argues for the recovery of strategic urban fragments while Berlin is consumed by a big forest as the ocean of this archipelago of iconic buildings. It was a resilient strategy both in planning and socially. A strategy to recover and to erase the trace of the bombing after World War II.

I appreciate Bigness as a space for the minds to float above reality and to free themselves to imagination. And that is precisely where I think Bigness belongs in the contemporary canon of narratives. Today’s architecture is partially about materials, iconicity, liquidity… But it is mainly about the story that the building wants to tell. No problem to be solved, no revolutionary vision of life (in comparison with World War II). That is why architects should narrate their own stories; the issues are plural and we do not share any overarching narrative. There is a need to create our own alternative universes and test our ideas there.

During modernism, the future was the goal. Today we accept the future as it is, it escapes us. The intentions of Bigness as buildings to resurrect the city and as laboratories for new theories and new architectural thinking is valuable. Yes, Bigness can build up a city, yet many other elements can do so as well.

Context is inevitable, by denying it we accept its existence.


  1. Alejandro Zaera Polo “Finding Freedoms: Conversations with Rem Koolhaas,” in El Croquis, n. 53, (1992)

  2. Alejandro Zaera Polo “The Day After: A Conversation With Rem Koolhaas,” El Croquis, n 79, (1996)

  3. Rem Koolhaas, “Bigness, or the Problem of the Large”, OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Burce Man, S ,M ,L , XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)

  4. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978; New York: Monacelly press, 1994)

  5. Rem Koolhaas, “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” in S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)

  6. Rem Koolhaas “Imagining Nothingness”, in S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995)