Rem Koolhaas | icon 013 | June 2004

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photo: David Levene

words Marcus Fairs

The office of Rem Koolhaas is on the seventh floor of an unremarkable office block in Rotterdam – a city “without any demands, without any scene, without any culture, without any temptations,” he says. “we live in an almost perfect stillness and work with incredible urgency.”

Through the plate glass, and under a dark rainstorm, the city appears to sprawl as far as the distant skyscrapers of The Hague. “It’s a weird city because the uglier the weather, the more beautiful the city,” he says softly. “And the uglier the buildings, the more coherent the city.”

Along one wall of the office are steel shelves that hold, as well as hundreds of books and other objects, a jar of Vicks VapoRub, a box of Prada boots, a toy Star Wars light sabre and a small wooden sign that says: “Lack of charisma can be fatal”. The RIBA Royal Gold Medal, awarded to Koolhaas earlier this year, dangles casually from the top shelf, along with the Pritzker Prize (2000) and the Praemium Imperiale (2003).

Noticing they have caught our eye, Koolhaas walks over and nonchalantly fingers the golden haul while chewing the remains of his lunch: toast with peanut butter. It was brought to him about 20 minutes earlier on a foil-sealed plate and must be very cold and soggy by now. “I don’t know what this one is,” he says, touching a smaller silver disc that hangs in the cluster, and which turns out to be an honourary fellowship of the American Institute of Architects.

The glass partition on the other side of the office looks over a studio littered with dozens of architectural models that resemble volcanoes. These are for a competition to design a theatre in the centre of an incognito Belgian town.

This is the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the architectural equivalent of MIT – a hot-house research laboratory, the alumni of which include Foreign Office Architects, Zaha Hadid and a significant percentage of the Dutch avant-garde. The data- and programme-driven architecture practised by these former students, and which is very much in the ascendancy, was perfected and codified here under Koolhaas’ critical gaze.

Each year, 1400 young hopefuls submit their CVs to Koolhaas’ exacting perusal; very few are chosen. “Our office acts like a kind of educational establishment and we are very careful who we educate,” says Koolhaas.

Today, however, there are few people in the studio. Many of the 85 staff are a mile away at the Rotterdam Kunsthal, setting up Content, a major travelling exhibition of Koolhaas’ current work. It is due to open two days after our visit.

“The exhibition opens Friday so there’s a huge amount of things to do,” Koolhaas says calmly, his gaunt face masking a mind that is in perpetual overdrive. Earlier, while waiting, we watched him prowl ceaselessly from phone call to meeting to impromptu project inspection to TV interview: a Dutch news crew is shadowing him and they could barely keep up.

“Actually this is a normal thing,” he says, referring to his schedule, as he closes the office door and promises us as much time as we need.

You could spend a month with Koolhaas and still map only a fraction of his brain activity. Through a stream of cult publications, including Delirious New York (1978), S,M,L,XL (1996) and the Harvard Guide to Shopping (2002), Koolhaas has established himself as architecture’s most prolific, influential and extreme oracle. Other architects base their careers on a handful of ideas; he has spawned thousands.

At 59, he shows no sign of slowing down. “There is no plateau of resting or stabilising,” he says. “Once you are interested in how things evolve, you have a kind of never-ending perspective, because it means you are interested in articulating the evolution, and therefore the potential change, the potential redefinition.”

He displays a deadpan ambivalence to his reputation and a practised lack of egotism: “Influence is a very unpleasant subject and I deal with it in a maybe irresponsible way, which is to really ignore it. It would be a nightmare if we started to really think about it; it would tie our hands, it would tie everyone else’s hands.”

The Content exhibition, and a new book of the same name, are Koolhaas’ manifesto for the new millennium. Both catalogue the recent work of his architectural practice OMA and its relatively new sister company AMO – a consultancy that engages in both speculative research and commercial work for clients as diverse as Prada, Condé Nast magazines and the European Union.

Content signifies an important new phase in Koolhaas’ career. For the first time, the rhetoric is matched by a significant body of real – as opposed to theoretical or unrealised – projects.

The last few months have seen the completion of his Campus Centre at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. The office is currently sustained by three significant public projects: this summer his Seattle Public Library and Casa da Musica in Porto will open, while the vast headquarters for Chinese state broadcaster CCTV in Beijing is at the detailed design stage.

“Basically in the last five years we have worked really hard on the realisation [of projects] and that is obviously a big relief,” he says. He admits he has mellowed since the radical theorising of S,M,L,XL. “The work in S,M,L,XL was almost suicidal. It required so much effort that our office almost went bankrupt.”

Koolhaas now sees the episode as cathartic. “One of the insidious things about an architect’s career is you work and you work and there are no markings; it’s all extrapolation. But I found at that point I’d had enough of that particular period. I took so much time off. We were bought by another firm; since then we’ve bought ourselves back so we are completely independent again. It was a way of reinventing the office.”

Success does not equate to sellout, however: “It’s not so much that we’re more commercial now, because projects are increasingly driven by our own agenda rather than the agenda of [our clients]. So in itself it is not a very commercial approach. But I think one of the important evolutions is that we no longer feel compulsively the need to argue, or to justify things on a kind of rational level. We are much more willing to admit that certain things are completely instinctive and others are really intellectual.”

The Seattle, Porto and Beijing projects are in one sense indulgent essays on three different approaches to architecture: “Seattle is an extreme of rationalism, Porto is an extreme of irrationalism, and CCTV is somewhere in-between: rational offices but with aesthetics. We wanted to make an unbelievably beautiful building.”

Koolhaas worked as a journalist before becoming an architect, and his methodology appears similar to that of a newspaper polemicist, adopting provocative positions and expressing them in built form where he can. An aborted project can instead find expression as a chapter in a book, usually accompanied by a candid explanation of the reasons for failure.

He acknowledges the influence of his earlier career. “It influences everything in the sense that the driving force of journalism is curiosity, and a journalist has to capture in a relatively short time the intricacies of something he doesn’t really know a lot about. In some ways architecture is really similar. You have to conceptualise what the essence of something is in a relatively short time.”

His writing, and his non-architectural work with AMO, allows him an immediacy of expression denied by the slow-burn of construction. Indeed, he notes that architecture can no longer keep up with the world. “The areas of consensus shift unbelievably fast; the bubbles of certainty are constantly exploding. Any architectural project we do takes at least four or five years, so increasingly there is a discrepancy between the acceleration of culture and the continuing slowness of architecture.”

He cites the experience of designing a new HQ for MCA/Universal in Los Angeles: between brief and eventual abandonment, the client’s corporate structure had mutated so many times that OMA’s proposals were perpetually outdated. “That made the office aware that we should reconfigure our entire operation; continue to work as OMA but … apply architectural thinking to issues, potentially without any reason or any obligation to build.”

Unlike most architects, who yearn to impose their own brand of order on an uncooperative world, Koolhaas prefers to observe, quantify and celebrate the chaos. He does not moralise or offer generic solutions: he is the anti-Corb. At a recent discussion at the RIBA, one hapless journalist asked: “How would you sort out London?”

“The ‘how would you sort out’ question is profoundly anathema to me,” he replied. “We have a kind of a fundamental modesty that extends to us not really knowing how to sort out anything before we actually are engaged in it. I have no opinion on it.”

Implicit in his current thinking is the observation that, with the triumph of capitalism, architects increasingly serve a moneyed elite rather than society as a whole. Yet most of the profession continues with the nostalgic pretence that it can make a difference. “Because of the idolatry of the market economy in the past 20 years there is something fundamental happening to the status of the architect,” he says. “Thirty years ago we could pretend to serve the common interest. I think that if you look at what we are doing, very few of us can claim that anymore. We are serving at best an enlightened private entity.

“But architects have never been the main authors of cities. And to the extent that they are, they have only been able to do that in the case of extreme authoritarian systems. And that is a fantastic paradox or tragedy of the architect, that our better impulses are connected to the utopian, but the utopian only works when connected to power. But I think that in any case and with the size of cities now, no one is in charge.”

Koolhaas’ most memorable projects of the last decade were private commissions: a country house (the Maison à Bordeaux) and a clothes shop (Prada Epicenter in New York). Yet, ironically, the three major current projects are all public buildings won in competition. “There’s an interesting discrepancy there,” he concedes, “because although I am really interested in documenting, theorising and researching the impact of all that private work and the private domain, actually what I am building now are more iterations of public things.”

This is where theory crashes headfirst into commercial practice. Koolhaas attempts to frame the new body of work as a coherent whole: “We have tried to do a number of projects that address certain issues we are interested in. They are all urban buildings; they are all public buildings; they are in very different contexts – from the most harsh to the most intricate. So it’s actually almost a collection; a series of interdependent entities.”

Yet he acknowledges the paradox and utters a vehement “No!” when asked if the current projects are the fruits of strategy. “Not many architects have the luxury to reject significant things.”

Yet by repudiating idealism, Koolhaas affords himself the journalist’s luxuries of contradiction, revision and post-rationalisation. Content – “a book disguised as a magazine” – updates, supersedes and in many cases undermines the preceding volumes. S,M,L,XL (£49) was verbose and encyclopaedic; Content (£6.99) is Heat with brains. In substance as well as form, it acknowledges that this is an era in which intelligent ideas need to be distilled into soundbites if they are to register.

“I think the shape of Content is really partly to try to outwit the weight of S,M,L,XL,” Koolhaas says. “If you have this reputation you can sit back and endure it, or you can try to do things with it. We have tried to really find what you could do with a book. Does a book always have to be expensive? Does it always have an aura of inaccessibility? Or can we mutate these things?”

Content goes where other architects fear to tread. The repercussions of September 11, the Iraq War, the resulting political divisions in Europe and the rise of China are among the geopolitical phenomena on Koolhaas’ radar screen right now.

There are playful potshots at his peers as well: having celebrated skyscrapers in Delirious New York, he is now bored with them and has mounted a campaign to “kill the skyscraper”. “Usually people in my position are polite about what other architects do,” he says, “but in this case I find it interesting to really go on the warpath against offices like SOM, KPF or anyone else who is doing huge, thoughtless towers and see what happens.”

Part of the Koolhaas’ enigma is that his deliberate provocations have endeared him, not just to other architects, but to a number of unlikely clients. “What we have been successfully doing in the last five years is invading territories where we had not been invited,” he says.

The most extreme example is his on-going work for the European Union. A few years ago, European Commission president Romano Prodi invited him to take part in a brainstorming session to discuss the implications of Brussels being formally declared the capital of Europe.

They were probably expecting Koolhaas to suggest celebrating the city’s new status with architecture, but instead he pointed out that Brussels had become synonymous with everything that was wrong with Europe. Its bureaucrats had failed to express the Euro vision to its citizens, he suggested, and as a result the continent was weak and divided. Instead of sending him packing, they asked him to propose a solution.

“Like any brainstorm, it wasn’t really very productive, so then we made a proposition on how you could find more eloquent ways of representing Europe,” he says. “Europe was based on a series of visionary steps by politicians, who installed in Brussels a competent bureaucracy. But in the last five or ten years, politicians no longer defend it and of course the bureaucrats don’t have very visionary rhetoric – they’re not supposed to. So nobody speaks for Europe. It’s become an alibi for politicians’ own failures.”

If Koolhaas is ambivalent about many of the things his contemporaries consider important, he is deeply committed to the concept of Europe. “It is definitely a heart-felt, direct and personal engagement,” he says. “What we are trying to do is re-imagine how Europe can be represented, how it can develop an iconography and a language that in a way re-inspires it.”

Early manifestations of the project, due to be unveiled on July 12, included a proposed new European flag that took the form of a barcode-like arrangement of stripes containing the colours of all member nations. The pages of Content gleefully display some early feedback: “Call that a flag? It’s just like a deckchair,” wrote a tabloid columnist. “Totally hideous and a complete fucking joke,” was one emailed response.

But Koolhaas has found a vast new arena in which to be inflammatory. “Escape from the architecture ghetto is one of the major drivers and has been from the very beginning,” he says. “The luxury of our position now is that we can almost assemble any team to address any issue.”

After the interview, we head down to the Kunsthal for a preview of the unfinished exhibition. The TV crew is waiting for him. As we leave, he is prowling the gallery at speed, talking intensely, with a sound man, camera girl and interviewer trailing in his wake.

CCTV, Beijing

This 500,000sqm building will be the headquarters for Chinese state TV and is Koolhaas’ attempt to create “an unbelievably beautiful building”. It also sees him making a bid for global recognition: Koolhaas has yet to produce his definitive building, and this could be it.

Koolhaas was invited to enter both this competition and the one for Ground Zero in New York; his new-found opposition to skyscrapers and a distaste for George W Bush’s America persuaded him to focus on Beijing. “We felt that CCTV was more legitimate territory for experimentation than Ground Zero would be,” he says.

The building takes the self-consciously unskyscraper-like form of a giant loop and is as much an exercise in extreme engineering and icon-mongering as an attempt to house the diverse functions of a major broadcasting outfit that employs 10,000 people. “A new icon is formed … not the predictable two-dimensional tower soaring skyward but a truly three-dimensional experience,” he writes in Content.

Casa da Musica, Porto

Due to open this summer, the Porto project shows Koolhaas’ irrational side. He had earlier designed a house for a private client, which took the form of a shoebox into which irregular voids were excavated to house different family members. It was cancelled, but Koolhaas scaled up the voids, stuck them on the outside of the original shoebox and came up with the form of this concert hall.

“The great problem of the concert hall is that the shoebox is the ideal shape for acoustics but that no architect worth their names wants to build a shoebox,” Koolhaas explains. “But here inadvertently we had stumbled on the ideal solution: not building a shoebox, but by taking a shoebox-like volume outside a larger volume we could create a very exciting concert hall.”

The shoebox form remains at the heart of the hall, providing an auditorium with a huge picture window overlooking the city. The hall’s remaining programmes are housed in voids cut into its concrete bulk.

Seattle Public Library

This project, due to open in May, encapsulates the rational, programme-driven architecture with which Koolhaas is particularly associated. OMA began by examining the requirements of a library (parking, offices, book storage, and so on) and designing an optimum space for each one.

The books, for example, are stored in an expandable “book spiral” – a four-storey spiralling ramp. “Instead of the really sad division in libraries and the stale terminology such as ‘humanities’, which are very uninspiring and sometimes off-putting, we organised the entire book stack in a single spiral which is probably 800m long. So basically you move along the subjects and therefore are exposed to every book if you want to be.”

These “programmatic clusters” were then separated according to whether they were “stable” (those that did not change over time, such as parking) or “unstable” (circulation spaces and reading rooms), and placed alternately one on top of another. “It is a building that is very deliberately built as a sandwich of very rigid spaces and spaces that move with much more facility,” says Koolhaas.

The clusters are aligned to maximise views to other levels and to the city beyond, creating an irregular stack of different-shaped volumes. A glass-and-steel skin was then thrown over the heap, shrink-wrapping the building and generating its peculiar external profile. The skin also stabilises the building structurally, and is earthquake-proof.

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