In Melbourne to launch the MPavilion 2017, his first Australian project, the revered Dutch architect is in the mood for anything but small talk.
If you’ve done your research on Rem Koolhaas, the 72-yearold Dutch architect, author, theorist and Pritzker Architecture Prize winner whose descriptors include rock star, prophet, indefatigable monk and the man most young designers want to be when they grow up, then you know not to drop such accolades in dialogue. Koolhaas loathes the fatuous superlative, finds all discussion of celebrity distasteful, slams any scrutiny of ‘the private’, and has on occasion declared his hatred for both architecture and architects. Small talk is off the table, so don’t ask the imperious founder of what is arguably the world’s most influential practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), how he likes to relax, because it will render him rigid. Koolhaas prefers to let his written work and the world’s skylines speak of his worth, and they do. Beijing’s gravitydefying CCTV Headquarters (2012), aka ‘ big pants’, is a Möbius-like loop of science fiction that makes the traditional form of the ‘phallus’ skyscraper flaccid. The Seattle Central Library (2004) is a crystalline stack of slabs that redefines a depository for books as a democratic hub harbouring all potent forms of media. Milan’s Fondazione Prada (2015) flips the traditional taxonomies of art ››
‹‹ in a sprawling gilt-tipped campus offering a smorgasbord of spatial experiences. The subtexts are scintillating in a randomness of architecture that accepts chaos as an essential condition of modernity. Whatever the basis for the brevity of his conversation, inquirers into his oeuvre know they’ll be spared the usual baloney about buildings. Koolhaas, who has come to Melbourne to launch his first Australian project, the fourth iteration of MPavilion — a demountable public venue co-designed with OMA partner David Gianotten for the Naomi Milgrom Foundation — doesn’t indulge the pseudointelligence of ‘archi-speak’. He argues and assembles in the language of reportage — bare facts stripped of bias with a narrative building and twisting to a climax. “Yes, that is what I would want,” says the one-time journalist and screenwriter. “The investigating, the storytelling, the sequencing. I am doing those things all the time, but not necessarily within the traditions of architecture, but more within the traditions of writing and filmmaking.” Koolhaas’ montage interrogation of architecture is well documented in Delirious New York (1978) and S,M,L,XL (1995), two books that radically changed the tone and turn of architectural discourse in the late 20th century. But it was his creative direction of the 2014 Venice Biennale, under the conceptual umbrella Fundamentals, that most potently scripted, in cinema-style sequence and abrupt transition,his beef about the increasing “spectacularisation” of contemporary architecture. By excluding all trace of it, Koolhaas cleared the stage for a forensic dissection of architecture into its historical Elements — a revelatory exhibition cataloguing the evolution of built form and flushing out the persistent ordinariness of humanity (as simply and subversively told across a chronology of toilets — from ancient Rome to futurist Tokyo, we’re still crapping in commodes). “In [ Elements] I tried to identify where the next architecture is located,” Koolhaas says, bemoaning the focus on cities. “If you look at the countryside, there is a really radical transformation going on. Agriculture is now deeply affected by the knowledge that cities generate; our current research there will culminate in a major exhibition in 2019.” While Koolhaas is often called out for crafting ‘spectaculars’ in the cities he claims are “overestimated for their importance”, the high-flying Dutchman blames the global exaggeration of standards and scale on market forces. “Architecture simply mirrors the wider world,” he says. “It hasn’t been particularly giving, welcoming and certainly not democratic, but I would not blame that on architecture, I would blame that on the state of society.” Observing that Melbourne is a “near perfect society… lacking only perhaps in intensity”, Koolhaas has accordingly crafted the fourth MPavilion as an archetype of democracy — an amphitheatre with static and dynamic elements designed to draw the community in. “For me it is a quasi-political form that establishes, in itself, a community and being together,” he says, amused to hear that the sporting-mad city might read a gladiatorial agenda into its artful space for the generation of ideas. “I see it more as an ideal way of witnessing and being part of performances, because somehow as a form it is more suggestive of activity than sitting on a flat parterre.” Koolhaas hopes that the project will be programmed “to broach recent urgent issues” while promoting interaction and communication, which ideally will be more drawn out than the architect’s punishing schedule now allows. “So, thank you,” he says, self-releasing from conversation.