March 11th, 2008


Pyramid pow-wow

Last night's gala event for the Great Pyramid -- a huge "loft dying" necropolis planned for the lush countryside near Dessau -- was pretty interesting. The film presentations and talks actually made me think the pyramid (which could, if it's a success, become the world's largest building, housing the mortal remains of up to five million people) would be a good place for me to be buried, when my time comes.

Ever since I first heard of this pyramid project, I've had my doubts about whether it could possibly be true. Would the world's biggest pyramid -- and possibly its biggest human structure -- rise in the German countryside? Would you really be able to rent a necro-unit in it for all eternity for a total payment of €1000? Was Rem Koolhaas really selecting the architects who'd build the visitor centre around the structure? Were my favourite Japanese architects, Atelier Bow Wow, one of the four contending teams, and was I really going to sing my song "What Will Death Be Like?" at the ceremony which presented their plans?

My doubts were based on the fact that the people surrounding the project are a highly playful group of conceptual jokers, neo-visionaries, intellectual provocateurs and ironic pranksters with ties to REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND. Basically, writer Ingo Niermann (who writes "popliteratur" in collaboration with Christian Kracht) founded this satirical design thinktank with Rafael Horzon with the idea of thinking about Germany (and the world) in a kind of "Year Zero" way, inspired by the visionary systematizing of the French Revolution, the Bauhaus with its Modernist existenzminimum, even North Korea. Basically, visionary systematic thinking has been taboo in postwar Germany because of the reductive essentialising which links everything of this kind to Nazi dystopias.

And yet Germany is now at the heart of a Europe which needs radical imaginative visions. Basically, connecting everything of this sort to Hitler is a kind of Godwin's Law of the mind, a sort of lazy reflexive caution which would end every speculative conversation and prevent anything interesting ever happening again (Hitler's final revenge: 1000 years of boredom and timidity?) To break out of this postwar paralysis, Ingo Niermann wrote a book called "Umbauland" (Reconstruction Land, Suhrkamp) which laid out ten provocative visions for Germany. He said Germany should have its own nuclear bomb. He advocated (as REDESIGNDEUTSCHLAND also do) the radical simplification of the grammar of the German language (REDEDEUTSCH) so that it can spread easily through the world and stop the totalitarian dominance of English (because, let's face it, we Anglos are the closest thing to totalitarians today). He also welcomes German population decline on energy-saving grounds. And now, as a member of the Friends of the Pyramid, he's advocating another radical vision -- a redesign of the way we deal with death.

Rem Koolhaas really was there last night, attracted by his admiration of Niermann's book. Koolhaas likes bold ideas about the future. His presentation at the HAU1 theatre guided us through conceptual presentations for the pyramid visitor centre by Atelier Bow-Wow (Tokyo), Nikolaus Hirsch, Markus Miessen & Wolfgang Lorch (Frankfurt / M & London), MADA s.p.a.m. (Shanghai & Los Angeles), and Ai Weiwei / FAKE Design (Beijing). Or, as Koolhaas (taller in real life than you'd imagine, and wearing a tough guy leather coat) put it, poetry, pragmatism, mysticism and communism.

The images on this page are all from Atelier Bow Wow's presentation, themed around the natural forms of leaves and tree branches. At the end of the session Koolhaas announced -- slightly disappointingly -- that the jury (which included Miuccia Prada) had decided to use ideas from all four practices. They were all "the winner", or would be if and when the project (which he said might be real or might be ironic provocation -- "delirious Germany", if you like) was green-lighted. The other presentations -- by structural engineers, marketing people, the head of the Bauhaus -- made it clear that the scheme could be a commercial reality, and that it's gone far enough for local residents to have mounted a protest group, seen holding up banners saying "We don't want 5 million dead in our back yard!"

At the end of it all I sang my song What Will Death Be Like?, not so much a manifesto about a future we all face as a statement about the unspeakability of death. But if we can't say what death might be like, at least we can say where we might spend it. And picture people coming to visit us there, milling around a soothing visitor centre based on the shapes of leaves.