Koolhaas and the Autonomy of the Interior

Presented by: Jim Sullivan

In his tome, S,M,L,XL, Rem Koolhaas wrote of what he called Bigness, the condition in which a building becomes so large that it ‘cannot be controlled by a single architectural gesture.’ (1) Among the consequences of Bigness is that it ‘triggers the autonomy of its parts,’ and with that autonomy, the ‘traditional humanist expectation of “honesty” is doomed: interior and exterior architectures become separate projects.’ To deal with Bigness, Koolhaas returned to his earlier work, Delirious New York, to make explicit in this current work what was implicit in the early text. Yet Koolhaas did not elaborate on this return, nor did he explain the implication for interiors of this radical disjunction between inside and out.  Instead, he focused on the repercussions for architecture and urbanism. But what of Delirious New York? To what aspects of the book was he referring? And how does the book contribute to Bigness and interior’s status?

In this paper, I address these questions by examining Delirious New York. In doing so, I identify an underlying theory of interiors in that informs Bigness and other works by Koolhaas. This underling theory argues for a radical restructuring of the relationship between interior and exterior whereby the western architectural tradition of agreement between inside and out is abandoned. Instead, this theory proposes an incongruence between inside and out that prompts the interior to operate as its own enterprise and, further, to seek representation on the outside.

The works that I explore, Koolhaas’s text Delirious New York, and three projects by OMA, Tres Grande Bibliotheque, Seattle Library, and Casa Musica, are episodes in the development of Koolhaas’s theory of interiors and his exploration into its use. Delirious New York offers the basic arguments for the incompatibility of inside and out, the legitimacy of the interior program distinct from the exterior’s program, and the liberative dimensions of this discrepancy, while the three projects experiment with the potential uses and productive consequences of this argument.  

Two sections of Delirious New York are pivotal in this argument: European’s and Skyscrapers. European’s focuses on Salvador Dali’s surrealist activity, the Paranoid Critical Method, which is intended to liberate the unconscious self from the conscious self. (2)  Such a liberation is predicated the incapability of the outer and inner selves.  Each operates through its own tenets. Further, this liberation is predicated on the desire of the inner self to be represented on the outside - a desire that is often evidenced through parapraxes.  Lastly, this liberation is productive in that it offers unexpected associations among and novel perspectives on things that exist in the world.

Skyscrapers, the second pivotal section in Delirious New York, focuses on the New York Skyscraper, which, like the inner and outer selves of the PCM described above, also holds an incapability between its inside and out. (Koolhaas, 1994. 235-280).  For Koolhaas, the skyscraper has the architectural equivalent of a ‘lobotomy’ in which the building’s exterior is detached from its interior.  The exterior’s obligations are to the city while the interior, free from obligation to the exterior, becomes its own legitimate enterprise. Koolhaas refers to this enterprise as a ‘mutant brand of interior design’ that ‘recycles, converts and fabricates memories and supportive iconographies’ in support of a ‘hyper-density of private meanings.’

The three projects that I examine offer examples of how the interiors of the buildings operate under the auspices of their own tenets, separate from their exteriors. Further, each project shows signs of the interior’s desire for expression on their exterior. In doing so, the projects join with Delirious New York to outline a potent theory of an autonomous interior, driven by its own principles and with desires for representation beyond the confines of its exterior.


  • Koolhaas, R. (1995). S,M,L,XL. New York: Monacelli Press
  • Koolhaas, R. (1994). Delirious New York: A retroactive manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli Press