Sacrifice or Betrayal? Scientific Explanations for Stotting in Thomson’s Gazelles

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” ― Charles Darwin


It was understood for some time that stotting—a stiff hopping movement made by a Thomson’s Gazelle just before it flees its predator, a move that exposes it to the predator, slows it down and delays its escape—was a sacrificial act committed in the face of death. Stotting was viewed as a warning to the herd, issued at the individual’s expense to increase the herd’s overall chance of survival: “undoubtedly a warning signal, it spread wave-like in advance of the pack [of hunting wolves]. Apparently in response to the Stotting, practically every gazelle in sight fled the immediate vicinity” (Estes 63). It would appear from this account that the stotting gazelle is endangering its own life to preserve the lives of others of its species. Not so, says Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. He quotes A. Zahavi’s study to explain that stotting is, in fact, an act of betrayal towards the herd: “far from being a signal to the other gazelles, [stotting] is really aimed at the predators…. Translated roughly into English it means: ‘Look how high I can jump, I am obviously such a fit and healthy gazelle, you can’t catch me, you would be much wiser to try and catch my neighbor who is not jumping so high!’” (Dawkins 171).

This paper reviews competing philosophies in the literature concerning stotting—taking into account both theoretical hypotheses and claims backed by evidence from field study—and concludes that stotting is neither an act of altruism nor a selfish act; in fact, with the exception of a mother defending its fawn, stotting can be seen as a more or less indifferent act towards members of the same species. Interestingly, our various attempts to locate a moral basis (when in fact there is none) for this vexing and ambiguous phenomenon reveals something of our own mind, and that has the potential to inform our approach to cultural practice such as art and architecture.

Description of Stotting

Walther portrays the background of quiet serenity in the African plains. Packs of lions and other predators cause little disturbance in the herds of the gazelles. An attack is like a swift storm: “‘The flash goes down’ - one is killed, the others had an escape, peace returns and life goes on” (185).

A tommy, as the Thomson’s Gazelle is known in East Africa, avoids the predator’s approach simply by looking around. While grazing, an individual tommy may keep its head down for up to a quarter of an hour; this is not dangerous in a large herd because there is a good chance that another member of the herd has its head up during that time (Walther 185).

Once a Tommy spots a predator it “erects its neck, puts its ears forward, lowers its croup, and tenses its muscles” (Walther 186). Other movements of alarm include a soft snort of warning, and sometimes compact herds diligently follow the predator at a distance to prevent a surprise attack. Stotting occurs when the attack is initiated from beyond a minimum distance:
With front and hind legs stiffly stretched downward the gazelle bounces up springing from the pastern joints (a). The right and left front leg are close together, and so are the hind legs. In a very long stotting jump the hind legs can paddle a little bit in the air, but usually they are kept more or less in the same position as the front legs (b). During the jump all four legs are brought forward slightly so that in landing front and hind legs touch the ground at about the same time (c). Then, often the animal jumps again in the same manner, and so a chain of stotting actions results. (Walther 194)

In 1967, Estes and Goddard present the first analysis on stotting in Thomson’s Gazelles as part of their paper on the hunting behavior of the wild African dog. Noting that stotting slows down the gazelle, making it more vulnerable, they conclude that it is “hard to see any advantage to the individual in Stotting when chased, since individuals that made no display at all might be thought to have a better chance of surviving and reproducing” (Estes 64). In 1970, Walther gives a detailed description of stotting in the Thomson’s Gazelle (or Tommy) based on a study conducted in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. He explains that stotting is a means to confuse the attacking animal: “each dog pursued first one, then another tommy, got neither and became exhausted. Finally, all the gazelles had disappeared and the dogs stood alone in the field with their tongues hanging out” (Walther 196).

In 1970, Smythe makes the argument that stotting is a way to engage the predator into a chase before the predator gets too close: “potential prey animals may actually gain an advantage from advertising their whereabouts to potential predators as conspicuously as possible, with the object of inducing the predators to attack” (Smythe 491). In the same year Robert Ardrey argues for a classic case of suicidal sacrifice on the part of the individual: “a local population, in its capacity to surmount the hazards of its habitat for hundreds or thousands of generations, achieves a kind of immortality denied the individual” (197). All of these papers depict the act of stotting as one in which the individual is endangering its life, most likely as part of a collaborative strategy to preserve the community.


In the 70s, we see a shift in this thinking. In 1976, Richard Dawkins quotes Ardrey’s statement to state that—based on A. Zahavi’s study—he believes that the opposite is true. According to Dawkins, an act of altruism is “one that looks, superficially, as if it must tend to make the altruist more likely (however slightly) to die, and the recipient more likely to survive. It turns out on closer inspection that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise” (Dawkins 4). Dawkins argues that stotting is a display of strength to the predator: because many mammals choose the old and the unhealthy to pursue, “an individual who jumps high is advertizing, in an exaggerated way, the fact that he is neither old nor unhealthy” (Dawkins 171).

In 1979, Pitcher puts forth the hypothesis that stotting may be a strategy to pause and gain a better view in the case of an ambush. By allowing the gazelle to locate other members of the hunting pack, in this case lions or cheetahs, stotting could be a practical method of planning an escape route (Pitcher 454). In 1980, Coblentz argues against Smythe’s theory of stotting as a strategy to induce an attack, providing reasons why this is not beneficial to the individual. Concern during this decade seems to have shifted from the survival of the species to the perseverance of the individual.


Biological literature in the 80’s no longer argues whether stotting is altruistic or selfish toward members of the same species; it argues instead that stotting is disinterested as far as fellow members of the herd are concerned. In 1986, Caro summarizes eleven hypotheses regarding stotting put forth thus far, and claims to disprove all but two. Additionally, on two accounts, Caro renders the problem of stotting less interesting than it used to be: (1) stotting, he claims, “was found to have a negligible time cost in slow flights and it was normally shown in safe situations when prey were unlikely to be captured;” and (2) “there was no evidence to show that, once a chase occurred, stotting gazelles were caught more or less often than gazelles that did not stott” (Caro 663). Caro dismisses hypotheses concerning “prey signalling its health; startling or confusing the predator; group cohesion; anti-ambush behaviour; play in young animals; warning of conspecifics; and pursuit invitation or deterrence” and supports two hypotheses: stotting informs the predator that it has been detected and it informs the mother that the fawn needs help (663).

Interestingly, Fitzgibbon and Fanshawe’s study of 1988 revives and proves the validity of a few of these “disproved” hypotheses, proving the benefits of stotting during a chase both to the individual gazelle and to the species: most notably, “during hunts, gazelles that wild dogs selected stotted at lower rates than those they did not select. In addition, those which were chased, but which outran the predators, were more likely to stot, and stotted for longer durations, than those which were chased and killed” (Fitzgibbon 69). They conclude that “stotting could be an honest signal of a gazelle's ability to outrun predators, which coursers take into account when selecting prey” (69). By distinguishing responses to different kinds of predators, they were able to produce more coherent and convincing results: “results suggested that gazelles were far more likely to stot in response to coursing predators, such as wild dogs, than they were to stalking predators, such as cheetahs” (69). This makes sense because wild dogs rush towards gazelles from a distance and there is adequate time to stot. Cheetahs often sneak up on gazelles and initiate the attack from a much closer distance, leaving little opportunity to stot.

Fitzgibbon et al. proved that stotting is inter- and not intra-species communication, and it is an honest (perhaps involuntary) signal to the predator that the predator takes into account before selecting its target.


Over the years, in the various analyses attempting to unravel this simple yet enigmatic movement made by a grazing animal just before its final chase to death, a movement that defies the logic of self-defense and swift escape, a movement that could hint at a basic desire to collaborate or betray, we see reflected our own hopes and fears as we wonder what stotting could mean for human interactions when faced with adversity.
In the introduction to his book, Dawkins issues a dire warning to the reader: “be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature” (Dawkins 3). It is not difficult to see how his reading of stotting as an individual’s act of betrayal might have been driven by a desire to produce this coherent narrative: that we are born selfish but through learning we can collaborate.

Writing six years earlier, Robert Ardrey is making a case for an innate desire to collaborate by way of social contracts. His book is called The Social Contract: A Personal Inquiry into the Evolutionary Sources of Order and Disorder and in it he cites the case of the tommy to argue that “any genetic change, whether or not of benefit to the short-lived members, if of benefit to the survival of the group should spread inevitably to become a part of the whole gene pool” (Ardrey 197).

We do find a human application of stotting in Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works. Pinker uses Dawkin’s reading of stotting—a handicap that is developed precisely to advertize the strength of the animal to its predator—to “prove” his point about conspicuous consumption:
Conspicuous consumption is counterintuitive because squandering wealth can only reduce it, bringing the squanderer down to the level of his or her rivals. But it works when other people’s esteem is useful enough to pay for and when not all the wealth or earning power is sacrificed…. Only the healthiest animals could afford to [stot, a move that] consumes nutrients, hinders movement, and attracts predators. (Pinker 500)

In our complicated contemporary culture, Pinker argues, these shows of handicap or vulnerability by the very strong or wealthy include hipness, or the adoption by the upper classes of styles of the lower classes, in order to “differentiate themselves from the middle classes” (Pinker 502).  He argues that this “thirst for status in the form of hipness drives the worlds of art, architecture, and the politics of the cultural elite” (Pinker 502).

It matters little then whether the tommy’s goal is to distinguish itself from other gazelles that are less well off in terms of health, in order to avoid being eaten. It matters that its behavior signals a handicap to us, and on it we can project the struggles of our own existence. In the end, as Fitzgibbon et al. have argued, stotting is neither a sacrificial move nor one inspired by intra-species intrigue. It is likely to be a disinterested, involuntary sign of fear, a clear communication to the predator that it has been detected and that it shouldn’t expect too easy a chase.

 “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” ― Charles Darwin



Caro, T.M. “The functions of stotting: a review of the hypotheses.” Animal Behaviour 34.3 (June 1986): 649–662.
Caro, T.M. “The functions of stotting in Thomson's gazelles: some tests of the predictions.” Animal Behaviour 34.3 (June 1986): 663–684.
Coblentz, Bruce E. “On the Improbability of Pursuit Invitation Signals in Mammals.” The American Naturalist 115.3 (March 1980): 438-442.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Estes, Richard D. and John Goddard. “Prey Selection and Hunting Behavior of the African Wild Dog.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 31.1 (January 1967): 52-70.
FitzGibbon, C. D. and J. H. Fanshawe. “Stotting in Thomson's gazelles: An Honest Signal of Condition.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 23.2 (1988): 69-74.
Pinker, Steven. How the mind works. New York: Norton, 1997.
Pitcher, Tony. “He Who Hesitates, Lives. Is Stotting Antiambush Behavior?” The American Naturalist 113.3 (March 1979): 453-456.
Smythe, N. “On the Existence of ‘Pursuit Invitation’ Signals in Mammals.” The American Naturalist 104.939 (September - October 1970): 491-494.
Stankowich, Theodore and Richard G. Coss. “Effects of risk assessment, predator behavior, and habitat on escape behavior in Columbian black-tailed deer.” Behavioral Ecology 18.2: 358-367.
Walther, Fritz R. “Flight Behaviour and Avoidance of Predators in Thomson's Gazelle (Gazella Thomsoni Guenther 1884).” Behaviour 34.3 (1969): 184-221.


Fall 2012

School life has begun once again, and we're at full speed at Gund Hall. In the 3rd year of my graduate program (this year), we take options studios that travel to the project site. My studio is scheduled to travel to China next week.


The best entryway ever!

This will be my fifth and last year serving as a residential adviser, or, in Harvard lingo, Proctor. At the end of last term, my very fabulous entryway of Harvard freshmen made a video of appreciation for me. Each participant included a short message, recounting memories from their first year and, by the time I was done watching it, I was in tears.

Perhaps because I'm older now or maybe because the group was so special, I've never felt more like a parent... even though I specifically say at the beginning of each year that I am not your parent. I am so grateful to have advised the best entryway ever, an entryway so talented, hardworking, and full of energy. (Of course, when I meet with advisees from previous years and they ask me which year was the best, the only right answer is that it was theirs!)

After living in Greenough Hall for two years, I'm now moving to almost next door to Pennypacker. I will miss Greenough very much because it is the setting of so many great memories for me, but I'm looking forward to spending a year with my own kitchen and bathroom and (as always) the best entryway ever!

My summer internship at SANAA

During the summer of 2012, I traveled to Tokyo to intern at an architecture firm called Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa / S A N A A. I cannot detail specifics about the office because of privacy and non-disclosure concerns, but I have recorded some of my experiences in my blog, makeitkawai.


This semester was my favorite at the GSD, primarily because I was able to take Anne McGhee's drawing class. She is critical but encouraging, demanding but empathetic, specific but open to breaking some rules. Her class has been absolutely phenomenal. Literally, there were times in the class when I finished a drawing (following her instructions) and thought: there's no way I just did this drawing!  (Later at the review, Richard, one of our models, asked me if I wanted to be an artist instead of an architect, and I told him yes that's what I've always wanted to do, secretly).

I am providing signed, high-resolution, unframed, A2-sized prints for $10+shipping. Email me if you'd like one or more.


Obscenities with Metaphysical Backlighting: How Rem Koolhaas’s Architecture Addresses the Postmodern Subject

During the summer of 2011, I worked as a Trainee Architect at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The leading partner of OMA is Rem Koolhaas, one of the most influential architects of our time. In Rotterdam, I worked with the largest team in the office on Bryghusprojektet, a multi-use building in Copenhagen. The team was led by partner Ellen van Loon. I supervised the making of an updated model, worked with senior architects on renderings for façade options, and contributed to the drawing set for the 50% Design Development deadline.

While most other architects reaffirm existing institutions and social conditions by giving their clients the most beautiful forms they can imagine, Koolhaas's work is intellectual as well as aesthetic. The goal for every project is to critically examine the role of the institution it serves and the society in which it is to exist. To that end, an integral part of the office is its research wing called AMO, where architects work to employ architectural models of research and representation in the study of disciplines other than architecture and to analyze culture in general. "OMA is as much about ideas," says Koolhaas, "as it is about buildings."

Figure 1a
Consider, for example, the PRADA men’s fashion show of 2011 (Figure 1): six hundred audience members sat on individual blue foam blocks arranged in a grid throughout the warehouse. Fashion models flowed through the highly-organized audience, following choreographed routes. The field was lit with stadium lights. Designed by AMO, the set was both an affirmation and a critique of contemporary society. Instead of the conventional catwalk, where the audience is allowed to assume the character of a passive mass, here the audience is

transformed from indeterminate crowd to regimented, possibly anxious, isolated individuals. Each guest becomes a challenge for the new fashion; each confrontation becomes highly personal….[1]

Inherent in the design were references to the New York City grid of 1811 and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin of 1925 (Fig. 2), both of which are discussed in detail in Koolhaas’s book, Delirious New York (1978, Fig. 3). Both plans are strictly regimented urban schemes from an era of mass-production and objective idealism. Koolhaas violates the pristine geometry of the cubes by seating individuals on them. The design is a trenchant critique of both fashion’s and architecture’s distance from society. While this critique borders on ridicule, it is at the same time serious and meticulous: having the models walk through and around the audience atomizes the audience, making audience members conscious of their individuality. It recognizes the audience’s increased critical engagement with the work and gives voice to each audience member’s unique response to it. Koolhaas overturns the conventional hierarchy of the catwalk by transforming it spatially and, in doing so, redefines the very “architecture” of how the fashion industry operates. He introduces individual subjectivity to the minimalist formal language of Modernism, posing a difficult challenge that nevertheless furthers the Modern project instead of annihilating it.

Figure 1b
In 1923, Le Corbusier predicted that mass-produced architecture would stave off revolution: “The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs…. It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of to-day; architecture or revolution.”[2] He was articulating the Modern-era idea that, armed with new materials and modes of production resulting from the Industrial Revolution, architecture could serve the needs of a large number of people at low cost. In order to achieve this lofty social goal, Modernist architecture needed to address a universal, Modern subject. Each design was intended not just as a fulfillment of the client’s request, but also as a contribution to society as a whole, either in the way it served as a prototype or in the way it literally mediated life within the city. This totalizing understanding of the subject in the Modern period is manifested in Le Corbusier’s Modulor (Fig. 4), a representative figure whose proportions drove the dimensions of the spaces Corbusier designed. The Modulor itself was fashioned after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man who symbolized the Renaissance’s conception of the human being as subject, conceived as a universal ideal.

Figure 2
Koolhaas’s notion of postmodern subjectivity as individual subjectivity is different and unprecedented. It recognizes that totalizing conceptions of Architecture’s constituents (such as the Modulor) are no longer applicable in a diverse world that has seen, among other events, decolonization, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the feminist discourse. All of these events have given us a more nuanced understanding of the individuals that architecture addresses today. Recognizing individual subjectivity then is not merely to recognize the human as the inhabitant of architecture, but also to acknowledge the human as a unique individual with a specific place in society and a specific point of view. Individual subjectivity recognizes that an individual’s reception of a work of architecture may be different based on their race, religion, social class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.  

Figure 3
Koolhaas’s work has furthered architecture by adapting to this new heterogeneous society without rejecting the Modernist discourse which preceded him. Unlike several other postmodern architects, Koolhaas’s project can be understood as a synthetic reaction to Modernism.

Figure 4
Peter Sloterdijk’s book, the Critique of Cynical Reason (1987), provides insight on the social context within which Koolhaas is operating. Sloterdijk describes postmodern society as different from the Modern which was influenced by the Enlightenment; his “posture is anti-Kantian [and anti-Enlightenment] in that it rejects all master narratives” and allows for the existence of unresolved contradictions.[3] As far as the political consciousness of postmodern society is concerned, Sloterdijk “sees cynicism as the dominant operating mode in contemporary culture, both on the personal and institutional levels,” a cynicism resulting from the “failures and broken promises of ideology critique of Western Marxism.” [4] Sloterdijk explains that, thanks to the Marxist critique of society, and movements such as May ’68, we are now aware of the ideologies that govern our life, and the injustices that we may be contributing to simply by the way we live our day-to-day lives. However, we have become disillusioned and cynical. We are able to find ways to justify our comfortable place in existing structures of power without challenging them.

A similar state of disillusionment can be felt in architecture. Examples of this include the loss of faith in public housing resulting from the infamous demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972, and the heavy critique of mass-produced housing in Europe, whose negative social implications culminated in the French riots of 2005. Architects have come to believe that the various ways in which Modern architecture has tried to help society have proved unsuccessful.

Figure 5
Cynicism, according to Sloterdijk, is profoundly felt in “a generation that had its formative political experiences in the 1960s [i.e. Koolhaas’s generation] and that has since then seen its hopes…fade away.”[5] Sloterdijk’s solution is to revive the

the tradition of kynicism, embodied in Diogenes…the plebian outsider inside the walls of the [ancient Greek] city who challenged state and community through loud satirical laughter and who leveled an animalist philosophy of survival and happy refusal.[6]

Diogenes (Fig. 5), even with no political power, was able to undermine entrenched structures of society by using laughter to highlight their flaws. His critique was disinterested because he did little to suggest improvements. Perhaps that is what made it all the more invulnerable and effective. Viewed from this lens, we are able to understand the PRADA catwalk design as a form of satirical critique leveled by Koolhaas, the former journalist and film-maker who entered the field of architecture and deployed a challenge both to it and to society from within.

To stop at this assessment of Koolhaas’s work, however, would be to not fully recognize the project’s critical value, which is more subtle than Diogenes’s satirical laughter. Unlike Diogenes, Koolhaas presents us with a well thought-out alternative to the original PRADA catwalk, intelligently deploying traditional architectural techniques in an unconventional way to create a spatially provocative design. This work makes no claims that it will serve to benefit anyone other than the participants of the show itself. Yet the specificity of the solution, and the way it foregrounds its individual participants, allows the work to avoid the naïveté of the housing projects.

In his foreword to Sloterdijk’s book, Huyssen explains that Sloterdijk’s analysis is distinctly postmodern because it “lacks the metaphysical backlighting that still hovers on the horizon of Adorno’s critique of the metaphysics of reason.”[7] Sloterdijk neither claims to achieve a universal synthesis nor does he harbor illusions of affecting positive change on a large scale to benefit humanity in one swift gesture. However, his analysis is still hopeful because it attempts to “salvage the discourse of emancipation, shorn of its Universalist claims and brought down to a localizable human dimension.”[8] In this sense, it presents a positive course of action to benefit individuals and institutions by critically addressing their specific concerns.

Figure 6a
Figure 6b
An example of this kind of critical intervention is Koolhaas’s proposal for the Très Grande Bibliothèque in Paris (1989, Fig. 6). The library design was supposed to combine in one building various smaller libraries, including catalogs of moving images, recent acquisitions, reference materials, and documentation of ongoing scientific research in various media. Koolhaas’s solution “imagined [the library] as a solid block of information, a dense repository for the past, from which voids are carved to create public spaces – absence floating in memory.”[9] The regular floor plates of a conventional tall building are carved away by figural voids to create the amorphous space reminiscent of a memory, allowing movement in all directions. While the architecture makes references to several concepts of Modernism, chief among them Le Corbusier’s idea of the Free Plan, it is inherently irrational in the way it composes geometric forms in a sculptural arrangement to replicate the irrational human experience of a memory. This allows architecture to indulge in a sense of play:

The ambition of this project is to rid architecture of responsibilities it can no longer sustain and to explore this new freedom aggressively. It suggests that, liberated from its former obligations, architecture’s last function will be the creation of the symbolic spaces that accommodate the persistent desire for collectivity.[10]

Just as Sloterdijk’s analysis of postmodern society “carnivalizes the frozen landscape of negative dialectics,” Koolhaas’s Bibliothèque project is a refreshing addition to a discipline struggling to maintain legitimacy it can no longer guarantee.[11] However, it goes further than Sloterdijk in that it does not shy away from employing traditional architectural techniques in new ways in order to provide a viable solution for the project. These techniques are borrowed from the very Modern movement they are used to critique.

Figure 7
Figure 8
Jeffrey Kipnis traces the formal attributes of the library project to their roots in the Modern projects of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. One obvious similarity between their work and that of Koolhaas is the “calculated disregard of setting”, which he argues is a “part of a larger architectural proposition”[12]  This proposition, according to Kipnis, is a desire to make architecture independent of the land it sits on and, by doing so, afford it a critical place separate from its surroundings. He begins with an analysis of Le Corbusier’s famous Free Plan and Mies van der Rohe’s “Stage Plan”, the latter a term Kipnis coins. While both are able to move walls freely because their floor plates are supported by piloti, or regularly arranged columns, the distance each is raised from the ground is different. Corbusier lifts his house a whole storey because for him the idea is a political device to completely detach the box from the ground, undermining Architecture’s long standing alliance with monarchs, feudal lords, and other institutions of power (Fig. 7); in Mies’s architecture, the “comparatively small distance the platform is lifted off the ground transforms it into a theatrical stage,” allowing the inhabitant to become more aware of their own subjective place within the architecture through performance (Fig. 8).[13] It is interesting, however, that we never hear much from these architects about the clients they are designing for. This is because their work is addressed to a collective more than it is to the specific client. Kipnis shows how Koolhaas employs the Free Plan and Stage Plan techniques in a contemporary, postmodern context of the Très Grande Bibliothèque in order to be able to address individual subjectivity instead of viewing all of society as a homogenous subject:

No practice has made more cunning use of the differences between Corb’s free-plan and Mies’s stage-plan than OMA, which has synthesized the two into an architecture that, in its critique of the two, posits a fundamental shift in the liberal project from the Modernist pursuit of democracy as a collective ideal (in the future) to a contemporary desire to instantiate individual freedom (in the present)... Koolhaas’s “architecture infuses the political dimension of Le Corbusier’s free-plan with the performance qualities of the Mies’s stage plan.[14]

Kipnis calls the resulting scheme the “free section” because not only does it allow free horizontal movement within a building, but it also makes possible the vertical and diagonal movement within the now amorphous space of the library. Like Modernism, it employs new industrial techniques such as the use of a truss to achieve this solution, but unlike Modernism, it no longer claims to be a metaphysical, all-encompassing solution: “Free section is at best indifferent to the sublime, to awe-inspiring vistas and panoptic perspectives; if it has an optical character at all, it would be that of inexorable voyeurism.”[15]

In addition to Kipnis’s discussion of the free section, one could begin to see other ways in which the Très Grande Bibliothèque references Modernism. For example, the voids running through the building can be viewed as a development of the ramp in Le Corbusier’ Villa Savoye, which Corbusier called the promenade architecturale. Or, the structural expression of the trusses on the façade is reminiscent of Mies’s use of the I-shaped column on the façade of the Seagram Building.

Figure 9a
Figure 9b
Because Koolhaas has claimed architecture’s “freedom” from “responsibilities it can no longer sustain” he is able to be more responsive, if not responsible, to the specific needs of the individuals and institutions he designs for. So, whereas Le Corbusier’s imagined inhabitant for the Villa Savoye was the Modulor, Koolhaas’s work in the Villa dall’Ava (1991, Fig. 9) is for the family with a grown-up daughter who wanted both independence and a feeling of connectedness, and a view toward Paris: he uses a raised swimming pool as a meeting point between the two distinct parts of the house. Or, his work on the Maison à Bordeaux (2001, Fig. 10) is for the man on a wheel chair who could not have lived as fulfilling a life anywhere other than that house: its central design feature is a large elevator room with a work desk and library. The room moves up or down to seamlessly integrate with the three floors of the house, creating, according to Koolhaas, “three houses on top of each other”.[16] In fact, Koolhaas is breaking apart and reimagining the typology for every single project he approaches. In every project, he is not just designing the spaces in which an individual or institution is housed, but is rethinking the way in which these institutions or individuals operate. In this sense his oeuvre is not rife with obscenities with a Modernist metaphysical backlighting, but the opposite: the inner mechanics of the previously metaphysical are laid bare, its obscenities earnestly exposed to the critical eye of the contemporary subject.

Figure 10a
Figure 10b
Figure 10c
So-called “postmodernism” of architects such as Michael Graves and Robert Venturi was short-lived because it responded to the tropes of what came before it only with mockery and negative critique. Koolhaas reorients the viewer towards a reasoning that “authentically” registers and responds to the conditions of contemporary life on its own terms. The conservative orientation of “postmodern style” relied too heavily on making a break with “modern style.” Koolhaas establishes continuity between the modern critical discourse and his own work, as far as the techniques of architecture are concerned.

Because of this alliance with Modernism, however, and because many of his clients include corporate firms that thrive on income inequality (such as PRADA) and governments with records of human rights violations (for example, China), Koolhaas may be subjected to the same critique that postmodern architects leveled against a soulless late Modernism that had been co-opted by American capitalism. Perhaps his critique is not a critique at all, but complicity with existing structures of power.

One way to understand this tenuous place between critique and complicity is to analyze the use of wit in Koolhaas’s work. Jean-Luc Nancy traces a history of wit in his essay titled “Menstruum Universale” (meaning “universal solvent”).[17] He says that wit, a kind of humorous and intelligent word play, has been difficult to define and has therefore been traditionally neglected by both Literature (“it is neither genre nor style, nor even a figure of rhetoric”) and Philosophy (“neither concept, nor judgment, nor argument”), the fields to which it belongs. However, its slippery nature allows it to “play all these roles… [occupying] strategically decisive positions in all seriousness: on rare but noteworthy occasions in history Witz has, in fact, appeared in such crucial positions.”[18] Wit uses language intelligently to produce two (or more) varied meanings or effects in one single move. It can therefore be used to bring together two (or more) contradictory motives so that they seem aligned as one. Wit, Nancy goes on to say, “never corresponds to the necessary organicism of a synthesis or a completed work… it merely causes such a synthesis to fulgurate like chos.”[19] As such, wit could be used to both affirm and undermine a concept at the same time. This, I argue, is what Koolhaas’s architecture does, even when it is funded by PRADA or China.

Figure 11
The most significant example of the use of wit to achieve multiple goals using a coherent formal gesture is the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing (2002-10, Fig. 11).  OMA's largest project, the building is a looped tower, formed by raising two converging towers from a horizontal base, each of which projects a massive upward-slanting cantilever. Arriving perpendicularly to a single point 200 meters above the ground, these cantilevers meet and complete the loop. The program combines the entire process of TV-making – administration, production, broadcasting – into a single loop of interconnected activity. The CCTV project, I posit, achieves several different goals through the use of wit. The literary concept of wit is employed through the formal language of architecture here. It is a language that, owing to its ambiguity within the discipline and unfamiliarity outside it, serves as an excellent medium for Nancy’s conception of wit to operate in.

Architecturally, the CCTV’s “distinctive loop aims to offer an alternative to the exhausted typology of the skyscraper… instead of competing in the hopeless race for ultimate height and style within a traditional two-dimensional tower ‘soaring’ skyward, CCTV proposes a truly three-dimensional experience, culminating in a canopy that symbolically embraces the entire city..”[20] The looped skyscraper, by becoming infinite, achieves ultimate height and glory. The seemingly impossible cantilever makes the building heroic enough to satisfy the symbolic requirement of the building: as the home of the main source of propaganda of a fast-growing communist economy, the looped skyscraper could be seen as a departure radical enough to constitute a new formal typology, symbolizing the supremacy of a new political superpower.  

At the same time, the architecture shines a critical light on the institution of CCTV. Described relatively benignly is another (social) ambition of the project: “the loop facilitates an unprecedented degree of public access to the production of China's media: visitors will be admitted to a dedicated path circulating through the building, connecting all elements of the program and offering spectacular views from the multiple facades towards the CBD, the Forbidden City, and the rest of Beijing.” [21] Just as the Eiffel Tower gave Parisians a whole new perspective on the city and their life within in, the CCTV’s goal is to provide an avenue of critical subjective introspection for the common citizens of Beijing. By raising the institution high above and literally exposing its underbelly, the architecture makes it vulnerable to the judgment of the average citizen. Every single resident of Beijing has an opinion about the building. Because the implicit goal of critique is never stated, its failure is not the failure of architecture; but if this other social goal does transpire, we can thank the architect’s wit.

In fact, Nancy explains that wit is so dangerously effective because it “does not control…[but rather] effects combinations without knowledge…seduces without proving…couples without impregnating; it merits all our fears as much as all our hope; it can literally do anything.”[22] Because the formal language of architecture is so ambiguous and effervescent, it is possible for Koolhaas to serve the requirements of patrons he might disagree with, with earnestness, but on the other hand, to provide the patron with something they never asked for but ought to have. One way in which Koolhaas does this is by starting every project with the creation of collages, not necessarily of what the client has asked for but of individuals engaged in activities in the building that is being envisaged.

Figure 12
We see a refinement of this tenuous balance of complicity versus critique over time. Earlier projects tended to be less subtle in their critique of institutions. The competition entry for an extension for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (1997, Fig. 12) was a bitter critique of the way the museum operated. Among the list of changes proposed were: “eliminate restaurant and sculpture garden”, “eliminate Pelli ‘greenhouse’”, “construct slender office tower on top of 1964 Johnson east wing. MoMA Inc.!”, carry out “experiments in obedience: put plausible volume in designated position...”, etc.[23] The list is a commentary on the way MoMA was perceived to operate within conservative conventions, stifling development of modern art and architecture. The sarcastic proposal is highly reminiscent of the techniques employed by Diogenes in Ancient Greece. Of course, OMA did not win that competition.

Later, as more built projects began to emerge, this initial strategy of derisive humor was gradually replaced with the more subtle and perhaps more effective deployment of wit. The reason wit is more successful in achieving a critical goal is because it is better able to permeate institutions and societies and critique them from within:

Witzi, in Old and Middle High German, designates an intellectual faculty, if not the faculty of intelligence—intelligence as sagacity, as the natural power of discernment…later will only mean ‘cunning’, signifies savoir-faire, technical skill, especially in the art of magic and in war. Witzi, then, is the knowledge of skills, of calculation, of strategy.[24]

In keeping with this calculated and “cunning” use of architecture, we also see the project descriptions getting briefer and the architectural forms of the projects themselves becoming more and more unified and seemingly direct. Interestingly, Nancy notes that “brevity is the soul of wit…the quickness of Witz is recognized as essential to its ‘being’ and to pleasure and is inseparable from them.”[25] It is brevity that allows a double meaning to pass without raising an alarm that could endanger the potential funding and completion of a project. And with that same brevity, the built project is able to critique and redefine an institution like the CCTV.

The way in which wit is most distinct from Sloterdijk’s kynicism, however, and which ultimately takes its wielder dangerously close to Modernism, is that it “belong[s partially] to metaphysics…what was Witz originally, then, if not the most intimate mélange and interpenetration of reason and fantasy?”[26] At this point it becomes clear why it made sense for Koolhaas to use the metaphor of a memory to describe the Très Grande Bibliothèque project, even as he constructed tangible tectonic space to give form to the memory; or to articulate the unique individuality of every single audience member at PRADA’s fashion show, even as he used monolithic foam cubes to achieve this goal. He uses wit to achieve architecture’s historic goal of synthesis, now enacted in a radically new and differentiated world. 

While Sloterdijk’s understanding of cynicism is useful, his suggestion to counter cynicism with kynicism falls short of the complexity of our contemporary world. Koolhaas, fully grasping Sloterdijk's complex understanding of contemporary culture, does more than just respond with Diogenes's derisive laughter. There is also seriousness to the work, a seriousness which takes it into a realm away from Diogenes and into the world of metaphysical illusion (and hope). These seemingly contradictory effects are achieved in a singular move with the use of subtle and cunning wit. Koolhaas's approach to architecture then is as complex, shrewd, and deliberately ambiguous as Sloterdijk's analysis of contemporary culture.

[1] Koolhaas, Rem. “PRADA Catwalk Man 2012” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/2011/prada-catwalk-man-ss-2012.
[2] Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture (London: J. Rodker, 1931), 269.
[3] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, x.
[4] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xi.
[5] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xi.
[6] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xvii.
[7] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xvi.
[8] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xvii.
[9] Koolhaas, Rem. “TRÈS GRANDE BIBLIOTHÈQUE” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/1989/tr%C3%A8s-grande-biblioth%C3%A8que.
[10] Koolhaas, Rem. “TRÈS GRANDE BIBLIOTHÈQUE” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/1989/tr%C3%A8s-grande-biblioth%C3%A8que.
[11] Andreas Huyssen, "Foreword: The Return of Diogenes as Postmodern Intellectual" in Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, xviii.
[12] Jeffrey Kipnis, "Moneo’s Anxiety: Rafael Moneo’s Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects"  Harvard Design Magazine,  Fall 2005, 100.
[13] Jeffrey Kipnis, "Moneo’s Anxiety: Rafael Moneo’s Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects"  Harvard Design Magazine,  Fall 2005, 102.
[14] Jeffrey Kipnis, "Moneo’s Anxiety: Rafael Moneo’s Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects"  Harvard Design Magazine,  Fall 2005, 103.
[15] Jeffrey Kipnis, "Moneo’s Anxiety: Rafael Moneo’s Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects"  Harvard Design Magazine,  Fall 2005, 103.
[16] Koolhaas, Rem. “MAISON À BORDEAUX” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/1998/maison-%C3%A0-bordeaux.
[17] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993
[18] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 248
[19] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 263
[20] Koolhaas, Rem. “CCTV – HEADQUARTERS” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/2002/cctv-%E2%80%93-headquarters.
[21] Koolhaas, Rem. “CCTV – HEADQUARTERS” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/2002/cctv-%E2%80%93-headquarters.
[22] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 264
[23] Koolhaas, Rem. “MoMA CHARETTE” in Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from http://www.oma.eu/projects/1997/moma-charette.
[24] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 252
[25] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 263
[26] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Menstruum Universale”, The Birth to Presence, Stanford University Press, 1993, 261