KOOLHAAS Rem Bigness or the Problem of Large (1995)

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 ultimate architecture.

It seems incredible that the size of a building alone embodies an ideological programme, independent of the will of its architects.

Of all possible categories, Bigness does not seem to deserve a manifesto; discredited as an intellectual problem, it is apparently on its way to extinction – like the dinosaur – through clumsiness, slowness, inflexibility, difficulty. But in fact, only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilises the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields.

One hundred years ago, a generation of conceptual breakthroughs and supporting technologies unleashed an architectural Big Bang. By randomising circulation, short-circuiting distance, artificialising interiors, reducing mass, stretching dimensions, and accelerating construction, the elevator, electricity, air-conditioning, steel, and finally, the new infrastructures formed a cluster of mutations that induced another species of architecture. The combined effects of these inventions were structures taller and deeper – Bigger – than ever before conceived, with a parallel potential for the reorganisation of the social world – a vastly richer programmation.


Fuelled initially by the thoughtless energy of the purely quantitative, Bigness has been, for nearly a century, a condition almost without thinkers, a revolution without programme.

Delirious New York implied a latent “Theory of Bigness” based on five theorems.

1. Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination or architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.

2. The elevator – with its potential to establish mechanical rather than architectural connections – and its family of related inventions render null and void the classical repertoire of architecture. Issues of composition, scale, proportion, detail are now moot.

The “art” of architecture is useless in Bigness.

3. In Bigness, the distance between core and envelope increases to the point where the façade can no longer reveal what happens inside. The humanist expectation of “honesty” is doomed: interior and exterior architectures become separate projects, one dealing with the instability of programmatic and iconographic needs, the other – agent of disinformation – offering the city the apparent stability of an object.

Where architecture reveals, Bigness perplexes; Bigness transforms the city from a summation of certainties into an accumulation of mysteries. What you see is no longer what you get.

4. Through size alone, such buildings enter an amoral domain, beyond good or bad.

Their impact is independent of their quality.

5. Together, all these breaks – with scale, with architectural composition, with tradition, with transparency, with ethics – imply the final, most radical break: Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue.

It exists; at most, it coexists.

Its subtext is fuck context …


… The absence of a theory of Bigness – what is the maximum architecture can do? – is architecture’s most debilitating weakness. Without a theory of Bigness, architects are in the position of Frankenstein’s creators: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok and are therefore discredited.

Because there is no theory of Bigness, we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know where to put it, we don’t know when to use it, we don’t know how to plan it. Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness.

But in spite of its dumb name, Bigness is a theoretical domain at this fin de siècle: in a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility.

Only through Bigness can architecture dissociate itself from the exhausted artistic/ideological movements of modernism and formalism to regain its instrumentality as vehicle of modernisation.

Bigness recognises that architecture as we know it is in difficulty, but it does not overcompensate through regurgitations of even more architecture. It proposes a new economy in which no longer “all is architecture”, but in which a strategic position is regained through retreat and concentration, yielding the rest of a contested territory to enemy forces.


Bigness destroys, but it is also a new beginning. It can reassemble what it breaks.

A paradox of Bigness is that in spite of the calculation that goes into its planning – in fact, through its very rigidities – it is the one architecture that engineers the unpredictable. Instead of enforcing co-existence, Bigness depends on regimes of freedoms, the assembly of maximum difference.

Only Bigness can sustain a promiscuous proliferation of events in a single container. It develops strategies to organise both their independence and interdependence within a larger entity in symbiosis that exacerbates rather than compromises specificity.

Through contamination rather than purity and quantity rather than quality, only Bigness can support genuinely new relationships between functional entities that expand rather than limit their identities. The artificiality and complexity of Bigness release function from its defensive armour to allow a kind of liquefaction; programmatic elements react with each other to create new events – Bigness returns to a model of programmatic alchemy.

At first sight, the activities amassed in the structure of Bigness demand to interact, but Bigness also keeps them apart. Like plutonium rods that, more or less immersed, dampen or promote nuclear reaction, Bigness regulates the intensities of programmatic co-existence.

Although Bigness is a blueprint for perpetual intensity, it also offers degrees of serenity and even blandness. It is simply impossible to animate its entire mass with intention. Its vastness exhausts architecture’s compulsive need to decide and determine. Zones will be left out, free from architecture.


Bigness is where architecture becomes both most and least architectural: most because of the enormity of the object; least through the loss of autonomy – it becomes instrument of other forces, it depends.

Bigness is impersonal: the architect is no longer condemned to stardom.

Bigness = urbanisation vs. architecture.

Even as Bigness enters the stratosphere of architectural ambition – the pure chill of megalomania – it can be achieved only at the price of giving up control, of transmogrification. It implies a web of umbilical cords to other disciplines whose performance is as critical as the architect’s: like mountain climbers tied together by life-saving ropes, the makers of Bigness are a team (a word not mentioned in the last forty years of architectural polemic).

Beyond signature, Bigness means surrender to technologies; to engineers, contractors, manufacturers; to politics; to others. It promises architecture a kind of post-heroic status – a realignment with neutrality.


If Bigness transforms architecture, its accumulation generates a new kind of city. The exterior of the city is no longer a collective theatre where “it” happens; there’s no collective “it” left. The street has become residue, organisational device, mere segment of the continuous metropolitan plane where the remnants of the past face the equipments of the new in an uneasy stand-off. Bigness can exist anywhere on that plane. Not only is Bigness incapable of establishing relationships with the classical city – at most, it co-exists – but in the quantity and complexity of the facilities it offers, it is itself urban.

Bigness no longer needs the city: it competes with the city; it represents the city; it pre-empts the city; or better still, it is the city. If urbanisation generates potential and architecture exploits it, Bigness enlists the generosity of urbanism against the meanness of architecture.

Bigness = urbanisation vs. architecture.

Bigness, through its very independence of context, is the one architecture that can survive, even exploit, the now-global condition of the tabula rasa: it does not take its inspiration from givens too often squeezed for the last drop of meaning; it gravitates opportunistically to locations of maximum infrastructural promise; it is, finally, its own raison d’être.

In spite of its size, it is modest.

Not all architecture, not all programme, not all events will be swallowed by Bigness. There are too many “needs” too unfocused, too weak, too unrespectable, too defiant, too secret, too subversive, too weak, too “nothing” to be part of the constellations of Bigness. Bigness is the last bastion of architecture – a contraction, a hyper-architecture. The containers of Bigness will be landmarks in a post-architectural landscape – a world scraped of architecture in the way Richter’s paintings are scraped of paint: inflexible, immutable, definitive, forever there, generated through superhuman effort. Bigness surrenders the field to after-architecture.