Junk City

Architecture dis­ap­peared in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury”, writes Rem Koolhaas in the open­ing para­graph of Junkspace (2001)1. It was re­placed, he con­tin­ues, by Junkspace — a kind of built en­vi­ron­ment that is­n’t re­ally de­signed but kind of just hap­pens when you throw to­gether a load of dry­wall, pre­fab con­crete slabs, ven­ture cap­i­tal, air-con­di­tion­ing, el­e­va­tors, and vinyl stick­ers and hot-glue every­thing into the shape of an of­fice com­plex. Koolhaas sees in this not an ab­ber­a­tion, but the dom­i­nant form of con­tem­po­rary build­ing, the essence, the main thing”.

Construction on Garden House, the RCAs tem­po­rary White City cam­pus, be­gan in 20012 — the same year Koolhaas’ text was first pub­lished in the Harvard Guide to Shopping. Based on the time­li­ness of its pub­li­ca­tion, and the fact that it man­ages to put into words all the dread this build­ing in­duces in me, I pro­pose Junkspace as the un­of­fi­cial com­pan­ion es­say to RCA White City; RCA White City as the com­pan­ion build­ing to Junkspace.

Endless Space

Photograph of office-like interior of RCA White City
Continuity is the essence of Junkspace


In a text pub­lished a few decades ear­lier3, Koolhaas de­scribes how elec­tric­ity, el­e­va­tors, and air con­di­tion­ing moved from the magic shows, rides, il­lu­sions, and scams of Coney Island (where they orginated) into Manhatten in the 1870s, where they al­lowed the end­less, up­ward ex­pan­sion of the sky­scraper. Junkspace, writes Koolhaas, re­lies on the same set of tech­nolo­gies, but ex­pan­sion now hap­pens in every di­rec­tion, all at once, for its own sake:

Continuity is the essence of Junkspace, it ex­ploits any in­ven­tion that en­ables ex­pan­sion, de­ploys the in­fra­struc­ture of seam­less­ness: es­ca­la­tor, air-con­di­tion­ing, sprin­kler, fire shut­ter, hot-air cur­tain … It is al­ways in­te­rior, so ex­ten­sive that you rarely per­ceive lim­its; it pro­motes dis­ori­en­ta­tion by any means […]

Consider Garden House: Three vir­tu­ally end­less cor­ri­dors stacked on top of each other, plus a lobby. There is no dis­cernible rea­son that the build­ing should end where it does — maybe it’s just where the money ran out. The rows of desks may as well con­tinue in all three di­rec­tions for­ever, sup­plied with fil­tered air, light and elec­tric­ity through ser­vice lines run­ning be­hind plas­tic tiles above and be­low.

But Garden House is also part of a much larger junk­space, ever metas­ta­siz­ing: The back door opens into a paved gar­den, which leads into a sec­ond, larger stack of cor­ri­dors, which leads into a minia­ture strip-mall of fake re­gional restau­rants, fol­lowed by a kind of pa­rade ground pa­trolled by men in pur­ple cor­po­rate uni­formsp4. The Junk-Mothership (Westfield) looms just a few min­utes down the road.

Conditional Space

Transparency only re­veals every­thing in which you can­not par­take


Because it costs money, is no longer free, [air]conditioned space in­evitably be­comes con­di­tional space; sooner or later all con­di­tional space turns into Junkspace.

RCA/CSM/CCA/LCC/LHR/LGW5 are con­di­tional spaces: Pay for your im­mi­gra­tion pa­per­work, ESL cer­tifi­cates, tu­ition and li­brary fees, and you’re al­lowed past card read­ers and se­cu­rity guards into the build­ing. Stop pay­ing any of those, and your pass­port, ac­cess pass, and li­brary card will be turned off re­motely in a mat­ter of hours.

When space be­comes con­di­tional, keep­ing out any­one who does­n’t ful­fil the con­di­tions be­comes the pri­mary ob­jec­tive. The ever-pre­sent cardreader (accepting visa, mas­ter­card, amex, stu­dent id, vis­i­tor pass, and li­brary card) may be the most ob­vi­ous built man­i­fes­ta­tion of this. But there are count­less other pieces of junk serv­ing the same pur­pose: se­cu­rity desks, lob­bies, slid­ing doors of var­i­ous de­scrip­tions, cam­eras, frosted glass, num­ber­ing sys­tems, re­ports, the stu­dent helper form (all vis­its must be trans­ac­tional), sign-in sheets, vis­i­tor’s passes.

When I in­vited two friends into the stu­dio re­cently, it took the bet­ter part of an af­ter­noon and cor­rup­tion on mul­ti­ple lev­els to get them past the se­cu­rity desk. Visitors are only tol­er­ated for lim­ited pe­ri­ods, alumni are only wel­come with their credit cards clearly vis­i­ble.

Temporary Space

Junkspace is ad­di­tive, lay­ered and light­weight, quar­tered the way a car­cass is torn apart


Junkspace is tem­po­rary. The eco­nom­ics that com­pel elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers to make sure your phone breaks af­ter a cou­ple of years ap­ply to con­struc­tion, as well. Like phones, these build­ings are de­signed to be con­sumed, ditched, re­placed, and re-con­sumed in short in­ter­vals.

Junkspace is ad­di­tive, lay­ered and light­weight, quar­tered the way a car­cass is torn apart — in­di­vid­ual chunks sev­ered from a uni­ver­sal con­di­tion. There are no walls, only par­ti­tions, shim­mer­ing mem­branes fre­quently cov­ered in mir­ror or gold […] Where once de­tail­ing sug­gested the com­ing to­gether, pos­si­bly for­ever, of dis­parate ma­te­ri­als, it is now a tran­sient cou­pling, wait­ing to be un­done, un­screwed, a tem­po­rary em­brace with a high prob­a­bil­ity of sep­a­ra­tion; no longer the or­ches­trated en­counter of dif­fer­ence, but the abrupt end of a sys­tem, a stale­mate. […] While whole mil­lenia worked in fa­vor of per­ma­nence, ax­i­al­i­ties, re­la­tion­ships and pro­por­tion, the pro­gram of junk­space is es­ca­la­tion. Instead of de­vel­op­ment, it of­fers en­tropy.

Everything about Garden House is pro­vi­sional: None of the in­te­rior walls are load-bear­ing, so they can be moved as mar­ket forces dic­tate. A Making Space can be turned into a Smart Zone overnight by ap­ply­ing a few vinyl stick­ers and re­plac­ing a cou­ple of tech­ni­cians (zero-hour con­tracts make that a sim­ple op­er­a­tion). The heavy, hard-to-move equip­ment like print­ing presses and ma­chine tool­ing is kept at other cam­puses, as if to pre­vent their ma­te­r­ial per­ma­nence rub­bing off onto Garden House6. The whole place feels pre­car­i­ous, as if it may cease to ex­ist at any mo­ment.7]

Consumed Space

Because it is end­less, it al­ways leaks some­where in Junkspace

I’ve lost count of how many times the heat­ing has been bro­ken at Garden House. Electric heaters are scat­tered around the stu­dio, arte­facts of ice ages past. A con­stant state of dis­re­pair is no ac­ci­dent, but a defin­ing fea­ture of Junkspace:

Because it is end­less, it al­ways leaks some­where in Junkspace; in the worst case, mon­u­men­tal ash­trays catch in­ter­mit­tent drops in gray broth […] Because it is so in­tensely con­sumed, Junkspace is fa­nat­i­cally main­tained, the night shift un­do­ing the dam­age of the day shift in an end­less Sisyphean re­play. As you re­cover from Junkspace, Junkspace re­cov­ers from you: be­tween 2 and 5am, yet an­other pop­u­la­tion, this one heart­lessly ca­sual and ap­pre­cia­bly darker, is mop­ping, hoover­ing, sweep­ing, tow­el­ing, re­sup­ply­ing.

This end­less re­cov­ery loop is me­di­ated by a con­stant stream of lan­guage woven through [Junkspace’s] tex­ture of canned eu­pho­ria”. Your email ac­count is prob­a­bly full of it: Apology af­ter apol­ogy (“Sorry for any in­con­ve­nience caused by the bro­ken heat­ing/​clogged toi­let/​Prince of Wales”) from the Buildings and Estates de­part­ment, mixed with the oc­ca­sional threat to bin your be­long­ings if not re­moved by such and such a date.

How to sur­vive Junkspace

Meme in wich a photo of an art installation under a staircase in White City is superimposed over a screenshot of the combat-screen in the Pokemon video game. Caption reads: Wild Installation appeared!
Public space is the space of trans­gres­sion

Once you recog­nise that Garden House and its sur­round­ings are Junkspace, the ques­tion be­comes: What do you do? Koolhaas does­n’t help us here. To him, ar­chi­tec­ture has nowhere left to go ex­cept side­ways like a crab on LSD.

Hal Foster gives us a par­tial re­sponse8, writ­ing in 2013:

In times of tran­si­tion artists have played crit­i­cally with cap­i­tal­ist junk. In his man­i­fold prac­tice Merz, Kurt Schwitters turned bits of rub­bish in post-World War I Germany — frag­ments of ad­ver­tise­ments, cashiered tick­ets, odd items stolen from friends — into the stuff of col­lages and con­struc­tions. […] Other ex­am­ples in this vein in­clude the Bunk” col­lages pro­ducd by Paolozzi out of American glossies in post-World War II England, as well as in­stal­la­tions […] staged by Claes Oldenburg in The Street and The Store in the early 1960s. In the pre­sent, too, artists such as Isa Genzken, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Rachel Harrison ex­cel in this prac­tice of mimetic ex­ac­er­ba­tion. If there is no other side to Junkspace, in­deed no out­side at all, they are still able to find fis­sures within this world, to pres­sure these cracks, and open up a lit­tle run­ning room.

In other words: If you can’t dis­man­tle Junkspace in the im­me­di­ate term, you should sub­vert it. Find an open­ing some­where, and carve out a space that is every­thing Junkspace is not: Dirty, un­con­trolled, trans­gres­sive, eco­nom­i­cally use­less. You build real com­mu­ni­ties within and with­out the ones imag­ined by the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment. Letting your friends in through the back door is an im­por­tant act of ar­chi­tec­tural sub­ver­sion, as is sol­i­dar­ity with the night­shift 9.

But the more hope­ful point is this: Universities have the po­ten­tial to be is­lands of cru­cial pub­lic space, even as con­sumerism turns the sur­round­ing land­scape into junk. Imagine what Garden House could be if tu­ition was free, clean­ers, teach­ers, and tech­ni­cians were on se­cure, long-term con­tracts, im­mi­grants did­n’t have to fear de­por­ta­tion, and uni­ver­si­ties were funded such that they could build ap­pro­pri­ate build­ings with­out squeez­ing stu­dents for petty change at every turn. Perhaps we could dis­pense with the prison-style vis­i­ta­tion sys­tem cur­rently in place, and make the University once again a part of pub­lic space, and open to every­one10. That world needs to be our ul­ti­mate goal 11.

  1. Rem Koolhaas (2001): Junkspace. In The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Taschen. Available at cavvia.net/​junk­space ↩︎

  2. BBC (2004): BBC Media Village White City. Press Release. Available at [bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2004/05_may/11/media_village.pdf](http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2004/05_may/11/media_village.pdf ↩︎

  3. Rem Koolhaas (1978): Delirious New York., Oxford University Press ↩︎

  4. I as­sume those came when BBC Media Village was sold off to pri­vate de­vel­op­ers in 2015. They quickly re­branded it to White City Place, a ti­tle so norm­core it’s frankly im­pres­sive. BBC (2015): Media Centre, London: first in, last out. Available at bbc.co.uk/​blogs/​about­thebbc/​en­tries/​abe09136-ed47-4083-b35d-03473ecf8e8e ↩︎

  5. Royal College of Art, Central Saint Martins, Camberwell College of Arts, London College of Communication, London Heathrow, London Gatwick ↩︎

  6. The next gen­er­a­tion of tem­po­rary is around the cor­ner: Troubadour Theatre is lit­er­ally built from scaf­fold­ing and tarp. ↩︎

  7. The no­tion of mak­ing every­thing tem­po­rary for the worker, flex­i­ble for the boss is part of a big­ger eco­nomic trend. See: David Banks (2019): Against We. Commune Magazine, avail­able at com­munemag.com/​against-we/ ↩︎

  8. Hal Foster (2013): Running Room. In Junkspace with Running Room, Notting Hill Editions. ↩︎

  9. Sally Weale (2019): UCL work­ers to de­cide on strike ac­tion over unjust” out­sourc­ing. The Guardian, avail­able at the­guardian.com/​ed­u­ca­tion/​2019/​oct/​09/​ucl-work­ers-to-de­cide-on-strike-ac­tion-over-un­just-out­sourc­ing ↩︎

  10. I’m lift­ing the prop­er­ties of public space” and the cap­tion to the fi­nal im­age from the ar­chi­tect Wim Cuyvers. His text Public Space (Undated) is avail­able at read­ingde­sign.org/​pub­lic-space ↩︎

  11. Roland Ross con­tributed notes to this piece. It ap­peared first in Content Full Issue 1. ↩︎