This drawing, part of a series of eighteen drawings, watercolors, and collages, pictures a walled city within the city of London. In this series, tall barriers cut through the urban fabric, an intervention designed to create a new urban culture invigorated by architectural innovation and political subversion. The dense pictographic storyboard, reflecting Koolhaas’s earlier stints as journalist and screenwriter, is intended to be read as a factual and fictional scenario for the contemporary metropolis. The title of the project alludes to West Berlin’s situation during the Cold War as a restricted enclave within East Germany, encircled by a forbidding wall—in effect, a prison on the scale of a metropolis, in which people sought refuge voluntarily. Koolhaas and his collaborators used collage to create vivid scenes of life within the dystopian urban confines. The project was the catalyst for the founding of the collective architectural practice O.M.A. (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in 1975.
Gallery label from 9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design, September 12, 2012–March 25, 2013
Koolhaas completed a series of eighteen drawings, watercolors, and collages in his last year of study at the Architectural Association in London, a virtual incubator for radical architectural theory in the 1970s. Presented at his final thesis review, Exodus was a collaborative effort that was also submitted jointly to an Italian urban design competition and, ultimately, served as a catalyst for the formation of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, in 1975.
The immediate inspiration for this series, to which The Voluntary Prisoners belongs, was the Berlin Wall. Images of the Wall are juxtaposed with those of the American suburbs and of Manhattan; and superimposed over a collage of rock-and-roll, Cold War, and pornographic imagery is text from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. Multiple symbolic references to historical and contemporary architectural movements intensify the portrayal of urban "delirium" and reflect contemporaneous urban theory, pop culture, and post-1968 politics.
In the text accompanying the project, referring to The Voluntary Prisoners, the architects explained: "Suddenly, a strip of intense metropolitan desirability runs through the center of London. . . . From the outside this architecture is a sequence of serene monuments; the life inside produces a continuous state of ornamental frenzy and decorative delirium, an overdose of symbols."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 294