Rem Kool­haas Mo­der­ni­ty un­der the Mi­cro­scope

Art Press - - L’INTERVIEW - AL

Rem Kool­haas is a unique fi­gure in the world of ar­chi­tec­ture. In his wri­tings and pro­jects he has chan­ged the terms of the de­bate by ful­ly en­ga­ging with the com­plexi­ty and contra­dic­tions of contem­po­ra­ry ur­ban so­cie­ties. Fun­da­men­tals, the four­teenth in­ter­na­tio­nal ar­chi­tec­ture bien­nial in Ve­nice, which he is di­rec­ting, probes mo­der­ni­ty and its crises, its re­la­tions to po­li­tics, culture and his­to­ry.


Foun­der of OMA (Of­fice for Me­tro­po­li­tan Ar­chi­tec­ture) in Rot­ter­dam in 1975,(1) Rem Kool­haas is the win­ner of the 2000 Pritz­ker Prize and the Gol­den Lion in Ve­nice for li­fe­time achie­ve­ment, as well as the Jencks Award in 2012. In 1998 he crea­ted the AMO agen­cy to spe­cia­lize in theo­re­ti­cal re­search in­to ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban de­ve­lop­ment, with ac­ti­vi­ties in me­dia, pu­bli­shing and cu­ra­ting. OMA is ve­ry present in France, with pro­jects such as the mul­ti­me­dia li­bra­ry in Caen, the ex­hi­bi­tions center in Tou­louse and the École Cen­trale in Sa­clay. In his texts Kool­haas breaks with the ro­man­tic, mo­der­nist mes­sia­nism epi­to­mi­zed by Le Cor­bu­sier. Among his in­fluences were Ro­bert Ven­tu­ri and De­nise Scott Brown in their work on Las Ve­gas in the 1960s,(2) and cri­ti­cal vi­sions of the ur­ban fu­ture concei­ved by the an­ti-uto­pian ar­chi­tects of the 1960s and 70s in Ita­ly and Aus­tria. From De­li­rious New York (3) to S,M,L,XL,( 4) Kool­haas has writ­ten the ideo­lo­gi­cal and cultu­ral his­to­ry of the twen­tieth cen­tu­ry, seen as os­cil­la­ting bet­ween the ex­cesses and de­fi­cien­cy of po­wer with which ar­chi­tects and po­li­ti­cians have control­led the ma­king of our ci­ties. Pro­bing the me­cha­nism of crises, Kool­haas is iro­nic but ne­ver de­fea­tist. OMA es­chews mo­ve­ments and de­fi­ned styles, even at the risk of di­sap­poin­ting or sho­cking. The th­ree gi­gan­tic to­wers of the recent De Rot­ter­dam buil­ding (2013, 1500 feet high, with 1,700,000 sf of of­fice space, hou­sing and lei­sure areas), lo­ca­ted near the Eras­mus Bridge over the Ri­ver Meuse, illus­tra­ting Kool­haas’s theo­ry of “Bi­gness,” which is a so­me­times mi­sun­ders­tood at­tempt to get ar­chi­tects to re­think their way of concei­ving pro­jects. Each OMA buil­ding re­sults from an ana­ly­sis of the com­plexi­ty of its (ur­ban, his­to­ri­cal, so­cial and cultu­ral) context and is de­si­gned to help bind, un­ders­tand and trans­form its site. This in­ter­est in com­plexi­ty and dia­lec­tics may ex­plain Kool­haas’s choices for the 14th Ve­nice Biennale this year. Ab­sor­bing Mo­der­ni­ty 1914-2014 ex­plores the ef­fect of a my­thi­cal mo­der­ni­ty that has pro­du­ced a stan­dar­di­zed aes­the­tic, while Ele­ments of Ar­chi­tec­ture fo­cuses on the ele­ments com­po­sing the struc­tu­ral, sym­bo­lic and construc­tive vo­ca­bu­la­ry of the dis­ci­pline. Fi­nal­ly, Mon­di­ta­lia takes Ita­ly as the mo­del of a coun­try torn bet­ween po­li­ti­cal tur­bu­lence and cultu­ral rich­ness, a mir­ror of Europe.

(1) With the ar­chi­tect Elia Zen­ghe­lis and the ar­tist Zoe Zen­ghe­lis and Ma­de­lon Vrie­sen­dorp. (2) Cf. L’En­sei­gne­ment de Las Ve­gas ou le sym­bo­lisme ou­blié de la forme ar­chi­tec­tu­rale, with Ste­ven Ize­nour, Pierre Mar­da­ga, Brus­sels, 1978. (3) A Re­troac­tive Ma­ni­fes­to for Man­hat­tan, New York: Mo­na­cel­li Press, 1978. (4) New York: Mo­na­cel­li Press, 1995.


AL You wan­ted re­search to be at the heart of this Biennale. It’s a ve­ry big is­sue: it’s an ove­ru­sed word and the word has be­come to­tal­ly bo­ring. I think it’s al­most dis­cre­di­ting be­cause eve­ry­thing is cal­led re­search to­day. What I am doing is more connec­ted to tea­ching at Har­vard. In the contem­po­ra­ry si­tua­tion of tea­ching, you’re tea­ching people from a to­tal­ly dif­ferent back­ground than your­self,

so that of­fers in­ter­es­ting pers­pec­tives be­cause it is not about tea­ching, and you can be­ne­fit from their back­ground and their know­ledge to al­so learn. So for me the de­fi­ni­tion of re­search has to do with lear­ning about things that I don’t know. I would like to keep it that way so I can be sur­pri­sed by what I dis­co­ver. Re­search im­plies you’re al­rea­dy know­led­geable and you’re trying to dee­pen that know­ledge. In my case it’s dif­ferent. It’s dif­fi­cult to keep ini­tia­tives fresh and to keep ini­tia­tives to your­self. I have ne­ver clai­med that what I do is the on­ly way, or even the right way. Uto­pia is to have no in­fluence.

AL The titles of the ex­hi­bi­tions in the na­tio­nal pa­vi­lions at the Biennale re­flect the dif­fi­cul­ty we have in de­fi­ning mo­der­ni­ty: “Mo­der­ni­ty pro­mise or threat,” for France, ‘Mo­der­ni­ty as tra­di­tion,” for Bra­zil, “Am­ne­sia” for Egypt, “Ideal/real” for Ar­gen­ti­na… I real­ly can­not de­fine mo­der­ni­ty right now be­cause the ideo­lo­gi­cal sup­port is gone. That was one of the rea­sons to ask eve­ry coun­try to de­fine it for them­selves. For example, “Adap­ta­tions to the Arc­tic”, the Ca­na­dian Pa­vi­lion is ques­tio­ning the role of ar­chi­tec­ture in re­la­tion to the cli­ma­tic and cultu­ral spe­ci­fi­ci­ties of the north of the coun­try.

CM You want to re­flect on mo­der­ni­ty while co­ming back to ques­tions of iden­ti­ty. If you were French, that kind of ap­proach would be high­ly contro­ver­sial. I am al­ways sur­pri­sed by such po­le­mics in France. I think Ita­ly is an ideal context for ad­dres­sing ques­tions that concern the whole of Europe. We are all confron­ted with the same com­plexi­ty. But it is ve­ry dif­fi­cult to iden­ti­fy the true pro­blem, so we are afraid, and speak in eu­phe­misms which makes things even more com­plex. I don’t ba­si­cal­ly ad­dress the iden­ti­ty is­sue, I just talk about mo­der­ni­za­tion. And of course in a way it’s an im­por­tant part of it. But I’m al­so ve­ry cu­rious about the reac­tions in France to my pro­po­sal.

AL What about the dis­course of so­meone like Mike Da­vis, who links mo­der­ni­za­tion with ul­tra-ca­pi­ta­lism, gi­ving a ve­ry dark pic­ture of ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban de­ve­lop­ment in his book about Du­bai, Evil Pa­ra­dises, Dream­world of Neo­li­be­ra­lism?( 1) His dis­course illus­trates a kind of Ame­ri­can kitsch, but for me it’s a dis­si­mu­la­ted form of co­lo­nia­lism. I am thin­king of his way of tal­king about other cul­tures, as vic­tims of ca­pi­ta­lism. He might well be right about ar­chi­tects, but most of his ana­ly­sis is ques­tio­nable. What it real­ly re­veals is his in­abi­li­ty to ima­gine, where contexts are dif­fi­cult, in the Ne­ther­lands, in Ita­ly, in France, or in Du­bai, that there may be a cer­tain in­te­gri­ty or qua­li­ty of thought.

CM Be­fore you star­ted buil­ding, you were the au­thor of a ve­ry suc­cess­ful book. Were you al­rea­dy thin­king of be­co­ming an ar­chi­tect, or was it an ac­ci­dent? It wasn’t an ac­ci­dent. I was a jour­na­list and a screen­wri­ter, and I de­ci­ded to stu­dy ar­chi­tec­ture when I was twen­ty- five, in­fluen­ced by Rus­sian Cons­truc­ti­vism. I tra­ve­led to Mos­cow and I rea­li­zed that the kind of ar­chi­tect I wan­ted to be­come didn’t exist, or no lon­ger exis­ted. There was no un­ders­tan­ding of the kind of ar­chi­tec­ture I wan­ted to do. By wri­ting De­li­rious New York I es­ta­bli­shed a space that I could then oc­cu­py.

CM You crea­ted your own in­tel­lec­tual space. In an interview with art press in 1990 you said that you and your team were able to ima­gine new so­lu­tions be­cause you were sud­den­ly in a state of in­no­cence. So, maybe I am much more consistent than people ima­gine. Just af­ter the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had the im­pres­sion that Europe was at a new be­gin­ning, with a whole new set of ne­ces­si­ties. At the time

we were wor­king on the com­pe­ti­tions for the Grande Bi­blio­thèque in Paris, the ZKM in Karls­ruhe and the sea terminal in Zee­brugge: so, a li­bra­ry, a museum, and in­fra­struc­ture. While per­haps we hadn’t re­co­ve­red our in­no­cence, we could at least aban­don cy­ni­cism.

AL Your re­search of­ten in­vokes the an­tiu­to­pian ar­chi­tects of the 1960s and 70s. The ra­di­cal Ita­lian group Su­pers­tu­dio (2) will fea­ture in a show at the Biennale (“The Se­cret Life of the Con­ti­nuous Mo­nu­ment,” Mon­di­ta­lia). Are they still im­por­tant to you? More for their images than for their texts. They are part of a ma­ri­nade, with a lot of other com­po­nents, but they were im­por­tant in my de­ve­lop­ment.

CM What about Hu­bert Da­misch? In 1972 I spent a year at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty. By coin­ci­dence, Hu­bert Da­misch and Mi­chel Fou­cault were tea­ching there that year. I was al­rea­dy com­ple­te­ly en­ga­ged with their ideas. I had read all Ro­land Barthes. I think it be­gan with Sten­dhal and La Prin­cesse de Clèves.

CM Have you read Mi­chel Houel­le­becq’s la­test no­vel, The Map and the Ter­ri­to­ry, which talks about the trans­for­ma­tion of ci­ty cen­ters and the coun­try­side in­to mu­seums? It’s great that you should men­tion that. I feel a real af­fi­ni­ty with him. The next thing I am going to write is on the coun­try­side, af­ter th­ree years of stu­dy. I met Mi­chel Houel­le­becq to do the de­si­gn for one of his films, al­though in the end it didn’t work out. Still, we have wor­ked to­ge­ther, and se­ve­ral people have men­tio­ned si­mi­la­ri­ties in our wri­ting.

AL Is your wri­ting connec­ted to your work as an ar­chi­tect? Yes, but I consi­der that what I write and my prac­tice as an ar­chi­tect are two com­ple­te­ly dif­ferent things. It’s the same with the wor­kings of the agen­cies OMA and AMO. For me, wri­ting is a way of get­ting away from eve­ry­day life and being so­li­ta­ry. It’s ve­ry im­por­tant to be so­li­ta­ry so­me­times. My wri­ting is less and less like “pro­fes­sio­nal” li­te­ra­ture and in­crea­sin­gly free.

CM A good part of De­li­rious New York is about Sal­va­dor Da­li. He is ve­ry po­pu­lar with the pu­blic, but not with art pro­fes­sio­nals. My in­ter­est be­gan when I read The Se­cret Life of Sal­va­dor Da­li. I dis­co­ve­red his theo­ry of cri­ti­cal pa­ra­noia and since then I have been ama­zed by his in­tel­li­gence, even though eve­ryone de­tests him.

CM People al­so de­test him for po­li­ti­cal rea­sons. But his po­li­tics are ex­tre­me­ly ori­gi­nal. If you look at the com­mer­cia­lism there is to­day, you have to ad­mit he’s a pre­de­ces­sor and more in­tel­li­gent about it than anyone else.


AL OMA’s cur­rent pro­jects in­clude the Ga­le­ries La­fayette contem­po­ra­ry art foun­da­tion in the Ma­rais, Paris, to open in 2016? I think the pa­ra­dox is that all my best pro­jects have been concoc­ted for France, they are an ex­pres­sion of my af­fi­ni­ty with French culture. You could say in 1990 the ex­pec­ta­tion in France was for so­me­thing gran­diose. But since then, the si­tua­tion has chan­ged ra­di­cal­ly. There is a lot less po­li­ti­cal will, a lot less care and mo­ney, and a lot less am­bi­tion. On the other hand there is a con­ti­nuous in­crease of the res­pect that has to be shown to the past, in the form of pre­ser­va­tion. In this si­tua­tion, I found it real­ly in­cre­di­bly in­ter­es­ting

to do so­me­thing small, quite mo­dest in the heart of a high­ly pro­tec­ted area. This is what makes the pro­ject am­bi­tious, even if it will on­ly re­sult in a small square space.

AL Does this pro­ject illus­trate your vi­sion of art to­day and the spaces de­di­ca­ted to it? I think the grea­test threat to art is the art world. In an interview I did for Art­fo­rum I tal­ked about sc sale, about the “Tur­bine Hall ef­fect” on ar­tists.(3) I think this phe­no­me­non is ex­tre­me­ly alar­ming, could be a trap, which condi­tions the pro­duc­tion and pro­mo­tion of cer­tain artistic forms and the spaces that house them.

AL Let’s talk about the concept of Bi­gness, a kind of ar­chi­tec­tu­ral gi­gan­tism at work in the contem­po­ra­ry ci­ty. This way of re­thin­king ar­chi­tec­ture’s func­tions in terms of the buil­ding’s in­ter­ac­tion with its ur­ban set­ting has of­ten been mi­sun­ders­tood.(4) The point was more about the im­pos­si­bi­li­ty of trea­ting eve­ry context in the same way, ra­ther than in­sis­ting on so­me­thing os­ten­si­bly ba­sed on contrast or on chaos. With this idea of “Bi­gness” I was trying to critique a ve­ry li­mi­ted in­ter­pre­ta­tion of context in Europe. If you look at most of my work in Europe, it’s lu­di­crous­ly contex­tual, even in the most tra­di­tio­nal sense of the word. The dif­fi­cul­ty is that eve­ry si­tua­tion needs a dif­ferent work. For ins­tance, in the case of CCTV [Chi­na Cen­tral Te­le­vi­sion] in Bei­jing: first of all, eve­ryone thought it was a buil­ding that was re­pla­cing the hu­tong in a nice part of Bei­jing. But it’s not the case; ori­gi­nal­ly, there was a fac­to­ry there. It was an in­dus­trial land­scape. It was more like Saint-De­nis then a kind of de­li­cate Chi­nese sym­bol. What is tra­gic is that all cri­ti­cism is now ba­sed on pho­tos. If you were there you’d see it’s a ve­ry small buil­ding com­pa­red to eve­ry­thing that’s around it. The pro­ject tries des­pe­ra­te­ly to create a kind of res­pon­sible ur­ban context. This ques­tion of res­pon­si­bi­li­ty is cru­cial, but of course it can’t take the same form in eve­ry pro­ject.

AL You seem to have a ra­ther low opi­nion of ar­chi­tec­tu­ral pho­to­gra­phy and the images of pro­jects shown in the me­dia. Yes­ter­day I was at the Dutch Em­bas­sy in Berlin (2003),which I ha­ven’t vi­si­ted for two years, and I was to­tal­ly sur­pri­sed by the buil­ding, even though I made it and was in­vol­ved in eve­ry single as­pect of it. It sim­ply shows what a strange world we live in, when the crea­tors don’t re­co­gnize their own crea­tions, be­cause they’re ta­ken away from us. I can’t af­ford to have a po­si­tion against it be­cause that would mean to op­pose so­me­thing which is in­evi­table. Still, most of the pho­to­graphs of our work are ve­ry bad. If I was a cri­tic I would be much har­sher than you.

AL The Tai­pei Per­for­ming Arts Centre opens in 2015. There you have tried to reinvent the spaces of an art center. I have al­ways be­lie­ved (and that’s what I wrote in De­li­rious New York) in an ar­chi­tec­ture that en­ables more pos­si­bi­li­ties than the strict pro­gram or the strict brief. That is what we are doing in Tai­pei. Ins­tead of a cultu­ral center with th­ree se­pa­rate thea­ters, we made a thea­ter where all th­ree thea­ters can be com­bi­ned, and when they’re com­bi­ned, they in­tro­duce a thea­tri­cal space on an in­dus­trial scale. At some point I was real­ly sur­pri­sed to dis­co­ver that the best art events, the best thea­ter and culture events ty­pi­cal­ly take place in spaces that are not de­si­gned for them. That is cer­tain­ly be­cause these are usual­ly spaces which have ve­ry spe­ci­fic li­mi­ta­tions, that have been de­si­gned by tra­di­tion or with the li­mi­ted way in which they are al­lo­wed to func­tion. If you want to know how I de­fine my am­bi­tion, it is to un­do those li­mi­ta­tions. By crea­ting spaces that are free for ma­ny dif­ferent in­ter­pre­ta­tions and yet pre­cise en­ough to sup­port what they need to do.

AL The pro­ject to re­de­ve­lop the Fon­da­co dei Te­des­chi in Ve­nice as a de­part­ment store was al­so contro­ver­sial… It’s a fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry buil­ding, re­built in the six­teenth, which was com­ple­te­ly re­done by the fas­cists in the 1930s as a post of­fice. None of the cri­tics men­tio­ned this. I don’t mean that a buil­ding that has chan­ged is a-his­to­ri­cal, be­cause his­to­ry is about change of course; but the in­abi­li­ty to re­co­gnize this simple fact was real­ly sho­cking for me. In the end, I think we dis­co­ve­red a sec­tion two me­ters deep and ten me­ters long that was still au­then­tic. That means we had to be­come real ex­perts in this kind of construc­tion. I’m not saying that you should des­troy it. I mean it’s a ve­ry scru­pu­lous in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that buil­ding. We’ve wor­ked for Ri­nas­cente, the de­part­ment store that had a ve­ry big im­pact on Ita­lian de­si­gn, so it was for us a real­ly in­ter­es­ting cus­to­mer.

(1) The New Press, 2008. Da­vis ana­lyses the spec­ta­cu­lar de­ve­lop­ment of Du­bai, ca­pi­tal and sym­bol of the pros­pe­ri­ty of the Uni­ted Arab Emirates, and the tra­gic ex­ploi­ta­tion of im­mi­grant po­pu­la­tions that it hides. (2) Foun­ded in Flo­rence in the mid-1960s, Su­pers­tu­dio pre­sen­ted an iro­nic and pes­si­mis­tic vi­sion of ar­chi­tec­ture in consu­mer so­cie­ty with its Con­ti­nuous Mo­nu­ment pro­ject (1971). (3) The huge ex­hi­bi­tion hall in Tate Mo­dern, Lon­don, an old po­wer sta­tion conver­ted by J. Her­zog and P. de Meu­ron in 2000. (4) “Bi­gness is a theo­re­ti­cal do­main at this fin de siècle: in a land­scape of di­sar­ray, di­sas­sem­bly, dis­so­cia­tion, dis­cla­ma­tion, the at­trac­tion of Bi­gness is its po­ten­tial to re­cons­truct the Whole, re­sur­rect the Real, reinvent the col­lec­tive, re­claim maxi­mum pos­si­bi­li­ty. On­ly through Bi­gness can ar­chi­tec­ture dis­so­ciate it­self from the ex­haus­ted artistic/ideo­lo­gi­cal mo­ve­ments of mo­der­nism and for­ma­lism to re­gain its ins­tru­men­ta­li­ty as a ve­hicle of mo­der­ni­za­tion.”

Fun­da­men­tals– 14e Biennale in­ter­na­tio­nale d’ar­chi­tec­ture de Ve­nise/ 7 juin - 23 no­vembre Pré­sident : Pao­lo Ba­rat­ta,­bien­ Giar­di­ni, pavillons na­tio­naux, Ab­sor­bing Mo­der­ni­ty 1914-2014, 65 pays par­ti­ci­pants Pa­villon cen­tral in­ter­na­tio­nal, Ele­ments of Ar­chi­tec­ture Cor­de­rie de l’Ar­se­nal, Mon­di­ta­lia 41 ex­po­si­tions et ren­contres / Ar­chi­tec­ture, danse, théâtre, mu­sique et ci­né­ma

Cette page, de haut en bas/ this page, from top: OMA. Tai­pei Per­for­ming Arts Centre (2008-2015) Vue in­té­rieure (© OMA). In­te­rior view Page de droite/ page right: OMA/Rem Kool­haas avec Ole Schee­ren et Da­vid Gia­not­ten. Siège de la CCTV (Té­lé­vi­sion cen­trale chi­noise), Pé­kin. 2002-12 (Ph. Jim Gour­ley © OMA par Jim Gour­ley). CCTV HQ

Ci-des­sus/ above: OMA. Am­bas­sade des Pays-Bas, Berlin. 1997-2003. (Ph. et © Phil Meech) Page de droite/ page right: Am­bas­sade des Pays-Bas, Berlin. Sché­ma de l’im­plan­ta­tion du bâ­ti­ment. (Court. OMA). The Dutch em­bas­sy, Berlin (above) and (right) Kool­haas’s dra­wing of the concept

Rem Kool­haas. (Ph. Fred Ernst. Court. OMA)

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