Postcard from Nowhere (Counterswimming)

By Teresa Stoppani

blue background with blue and orange shapes on
Madelon Vriesendorp (1945), Medusa Raft, Trial proof, 1978. Screenprint. DMC 3000.11.

Sixteen swim in synchrony. Bright red trunks, blue swim caps, in a perfectly choreographed 4 x 4 grid of bodies in motion. They swim in the shallow pale blue pool that contains them, as it floats in the ocean. They are about to collide with a dock that is too narrow to receive the pool and will be crushed by the impact. As in a medieval painting, here the story unfolds in front of our eyes. Times clash and overlap in a static dyschronia that suspends and dilates the accident. In the centre of the image we already see the damage that the collision is about to cause. Broken is the docking pier, its platform shattered; a raft is blown apart into fragments, its square sail still full of wind but fully detached, the rig in pieces. To the right is a square, of a blue lighter than the ocean but darker than the floating pool: the salvage from the raft, making water and about to sink, perhaps floating for a bit longer.

Wrong, all wrong. This is not the right story. Perhaps there isn’t a right story here. There is no one-way narrative here, and interpretations are fallacious. The image is both centripetal and centrifugal. Ambiguously frozen in the deep blue is an instant (‘the’ crucial instant) suspended in between what happened, what might have happened, and the many possibles that are about to happen. The only ‘proper’ way to continue the story is through making it – by designing and drawing architecture.

We know the story. What we are looking at here is the aftermath of the collision of two floating elements of OMA’s large-scale project, New Welfare Island (1975–76), a speculative metaphorical reinvention of the southern tip of Roosevelt Island published by Rem Koolhaas in the appendix of Delirious New York. This image represents the denouement of the Story of the Pool (1977), narrated in the closing words of the book, as illustrated by Madelon Vriesendorp. From here the floating pool, an element of the New Welfare Island project, takes off on a long journey that will take OMA (back) to Europe and onwards to the world. The blue rectangle of this image is a launch pad.

What is the story then, and why does this image need to be read from right to left, with a predicated optimism that remains in fact ambiguous? Let’s start from the centre, to explore the aftermath of the collision. What is simultaneously pushed away from and by the collision are the remains of two floating projects by OMA that architecturally enact Rem Koolhaas’s theory of Manhattanism – the constructivist floating pool of the Story of the Pool and the Raft of the Medusa anchored in front of the Welfare Palace Hotel in the New Welfare Island project.

This is not the ocean (yet). The deep blue background of the story (and of this image) is an experimental site in the East River, in its narrow stretch squeezed between East Midtown Manhattan and the miniature Manhattan replica that is Roosevelt Island, not far from the UN peninsula (itself a floating architectural experiment). This destructive encounter in New York’s East River is, also, a new beginning, an allegorical promise of new possibilities.

On the right of the collision’s debris is what remains of ‘a gigantic three-dimensional Raft of the Medusa executed in plastic’, which included ‘a small area equipped for dancing’ [1] and was anchored in front of the Welfare Palace Hotel. Reversing in synchronous counterswimming from the site of the accident (but, was it an accident?) is what remains of the floating pool of The Story of the Pool, reduced in its programme and capacity but still functioning.

In the story, the pool is a prototype designed and built in the 1920s by Moscow architecture students. A long rectangular metal tub, flanked by locker rooms and finished at either end by a glass lobby ‘for physical exercise, artificial sunbathing and socializing’, [2] the pool is propelled in reverse by synchronised group swimming. In the 1930s the architects use the pool to escape the Stalinist regime, heading ‘away from Moscow by swimming … in the direction of the golden onions of the Kremlin’. [3] It takes them forty years to reach a Manhattan that they find both familiar and anticlimactic, in an encounter of misunderstandings and disappointments. So they decide to take off again, swimming toward Manhattan(ism) to leave it. But:

‘in front of Welfare Palace Hotel, the raft of the Constructivists collides with the raft of the Medusa: optimism vs. pessimism. The steel of the pool slices through the plastic of the sculpture like a knife through butter.’ [4]

The west-swimming, east-bound former-Soviet architects’ journey back east does not last long. Or rather, it continues. Vriesendorp’s drawing shows the after-epilogue, a new beginning. After the collision and reversing away from it – leaving behind the fears, the egotism and the survival cannibalism of the Medusa raft, and with it the ballast of the spaces of a structured social life, liberated from both individualistic competition and regimented recreation – the constructivist architects reverse in a direction that will take them out, out of New York Bay and eventually back in the Atlantic and to Europe.

This drawing marks the move of OMA’s research and project focus back to Europe. It condenses in one still frame the complexity of a mediation that is not without conflict: the massive revisionism of European modernist space incorporates, but also reinvents and transforms, the density, the congestion and the competitiveness of Manhattanism. The apparent calm of Vriesendorp’s perfect blue marks the key moment of oxygen intake in which the Fantastic Four of Metropolitan Architecture are still no-where. The collision with the raft of despair, chaos and cannibalism rids their vessel of regimented social spaces and compulsory transparency. As they flee Manhattanite identity-obliterating corporatism, they shed the remnants of socialist constructivism. Degendered and multiplied (by four) it is in this blue suspension that they can reinvent themselves and their architecture – anew.

How timely.

Post Scriptum. ‘He has been here and fired a gun.’ [5]

What is that mysterious white dot, there, in the perfect spot? As it marks the moment of the crash, it pins down the image. Here everything is still, if only for an instant. Because of here, everything is about to begin. Without here, everything could go anywhere, or would stay still, nowhere.

What here is, does not really matter. Here is not a thing. What it does, matters. So much that it generates yet another story. Niall (Hobhouse) tells me that Luce (van Rooy) told him that Rem (Koolhaas) had refused to have the Medusa Raft screenprint included in her OMA exhibition in Amsterdam because he would have wanted the small white circle printed in a bright colour. Rem did not get his red buoy, and the screenprint did not get its spot in the exhibition. [6]

The gun had fired a blank, but that didn’t matter. The floating pool by then was already safely approaching Hellevoetsluis. [7]

Notes

  1. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994, p. 305.
  2. Koolhaas, 307.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Koolhaas, 310.
  5. John Constable on J M W Turner. See ‘He has been here and fired a gun’, Turner, Constable and the Royal Academy, exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 12 January–31 Mar 2019.
  6. See: www.drawingmatter.org/madelon-vriesendorp-and-rem-koolhaas-at-van-rooy-gallery-1980/
  7. J M W Turner, Helvoetsluys (‘Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, going to sea’), 1832. Tokyo Fuji Art Museum.