Rem Koolhaas Modernity under the Microscope
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.
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
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, www.labiennale.org 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)