Hal Foster is an American art critic and historian. He taught at Cornell University from 1991 to 1997 and has been on the faculty at Princeton University since 1997, as a Professor of Art and Archaeology. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foster was a founding editor of Zone Magazine and Books, and he writes regularly for October(which he coedits), Artforum, and The London Review of Books. He is the recipient of the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism in College Art Association (2012) and the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing (2010), and he has been the Siemens Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Paul Mellon Senior Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

In Junkspace, architect Rem Koolhaas itemised in delirious detail how our cities are being overwhelmed. In Junkspace with Running Room his celebrated jeremiad is updated and twinned with Running Room, a fresh response from Foster.

1. Why did you choose to respond to Junkspace by Rem Koolhaas?

Koolhaas is a brilliant polemicist. Beginning with Delirious New York (1978), a “retrospective manifesto” for the city that appeared at a time when New York was bankrupt, Koolhaas writes in order to provoke. And Junkspace is the most provocative of his texts, a bitter declaration of defeat, in the name of architecture, in the face of a hostile world given over to ceaseless consumption, a world that, for Koolhaas, has now consumed architecture as well, gobbled it up and spat it out. Given that provocation, I couldn’t not respond.

2. Why have you titled your response Running Room?

I borrowed the term from the great Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who, over a century ago, argued that the total design of Jugendstil (aka Art Nouveau) was too total, too claustrophobic, and that our lives always require a little breathing space, a little Spielraum (literally “play room” or “room for play”), free of constant programming. In many ways we are in another period of total design, but ours is not simply a matter of art and architecture. Everything, from jeans to genes, seems designed; all activity, from cradle to grave, appears programmed. We need “running room” now more than ever.

3. To what extent do you agree with Koolhass’ argument?

His analysis of a world of junkspace is hilarious, horrifying, and on target — just look around. But it is also devastating, a mimesis of a trashed world that confirms this condition rather than contests it. It’s a dialectics of doom, and as such is not dialectical enough, precisely because it doesn’t see any break in junkspace or any outside to its rule. Koolhaas forecloses the possibility of running room. Even in the deepest reification there is a glimmer of utopia; Koolhaas is too convinced by his own gifts as a rhetorician to see beyond the world as it is.

4. How could architectural autonomy flourish in the present economic and political climate?

There’s no such thing as total autonomy — not in art or architecture, not in our individual lives or our social institutions. But a semi-autonomy can sometimes be wrested from an otherwise heteronomous world. Take the lockdown during the first wave of Covid in spring 2020. Yes, we were mostly confined to our domestic bubbles and our zoom boxes. But even within that confinement a semi-autonomy could be created, with old forms of interrelationship recovered and new ones produced. And in the uprisings of summer 2020 semi-autonomous spaces of political protest — that’s a kind of architecture too — were created in ways that no one could have expected.

5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?

My most recent book concerned “brutal aesthetics,” or how artists and writers responded to the aftermath of World War II — to mass death, the Holocaust, the Bomb — with a “positive barbarism” of their own. My new project concerns “banal aesthetics,” or how artists and writers have intermittently turned to the everyday either as a resource of resistance or as an intimation of community.

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