PRO­FILE

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, Pritzker prize-win­ning ar­chi­tect and au­thor Rem Koolhaas tells Anand Raj OK about his most au­da­cious build­ing, why dy­namism is im­por­tant in struc­tures, and how jour­nal­ism is closely re­lated to his core pro­fes­sion

Friday - - Contents -

Star ar­chi­tect Rem Koolhaas tells us about his new build­ing in Dubai and why dy­namism is key to struc­tures.

Rem Koolhaas is clearly a very busy man. Although his team con­firmed my re­quest for an in­ter­view, it has been resched­uled three times this morn­ing – from 12 noon to 11am then 10.30am. De­ter­mined to meet the highly re­spected ar­chi­tect – or ‘star­chi­tect’ – and au­thor at any cost, I leave of­fice at 9.30am when I get yet an­other mes­sage from his as­sis­tant. ‘Can you be here at 10am?’ she asks.

‘Here’ is Con­crete, the first com­pleted project by Rem’s com­pany, OMA – Of­fice for Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ar­chi­tec­ture – in the UAE. Lo­cated in Alserkal Av­enue, the art and cul­ture district in Dubai’s Al Quoz, the mixed-use space for art ex­hi­bi­tions and the like opened last month and is al­ready be­com­ing a mag­net for events.

A Metro ride – to avoid some of the traf­fic – a taxi ride and a brisk walk later, at five min­utes to 10, I am in front of the brand new, 600sqm hangar-like, shiny – thanks to the translu­cent poly­car­bon­ate cladding – Con­crete.

Cre­ated to host large-scale art ex­hi­bi­tions, con­fer­ences and cor­po­rate and pri­vate events, Con­crete might ini­tially ap­pear mod­est by Rem’s stan­dards. But en­ter it, and you no­tice hints of mas­ter touches sub­tly sprin­kled all through – dou­ble-height ceil­ings, mov­able walls, slen­der light­ing and sky­lights. And in per­haps a nod to the name, the rear and side walls are sprayed with dark con­crete stud­ded with frag­ments of mir­ror.

On the day I am to meet Rem, an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled Syria: Into the Light por­tray­ing Syr­ian art from 1924 to 2016, is on, and a steady stream of art en­thu­si­asts are en­ter­ing Con­crete.

Since I have a few min­utes to spare, I walk around, at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand some pieces of mod­ern art be­fore an OMA staffer chap­er­ones me to a small but brightly lit of­fice tucked away on the first floor to meet with the man who Time mag­a­zine called one of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world.

Tall, lean, even ath­letic-look­ing, Rem has a pur­pose­ful air around him as he is­sues di­rec­tions to his staff re­gard­ing his flight plans for the next day, be­fore of­fer­ing me a firm hand­shake.

Af­ter a quick com­ment about the lo­cal me­dia’s cov­er­age of the re­cently con­cluded Dutch elec­tions – ‘Gulf News had a lovely in-depth piece’ – he dives straight into the topic so close to his heart and OMA’s first project that ma­te­ri­alised in the UAE.

‘Con­crete is a build­ing you could never do in New York,’ says the mas­ter ar­chi­tect, who is also a pro­fes­sor in Prac­tice of Ar­chi­tec­ture and Ur­ban De­sign at Har­vard Univer­sity. ‘Dubai is a new and grow­ing city and one that has a very youth­ful pro­file. That means there is an

ap­petite for ex­per­i­ment, and you see that in this build­ing.’

None­the­less, Con­crete ap­pears to be nei­ther as rad­i­cal nor un­usual as sev­eral of his other much-dis­cussed and writ­ten­about works, such as the Casa da Música con­cert hall in Porto, Por­tu­gal, which the New York Times said was ‘one of the most im­por­tant con­cert halls built in the last 100 years’. Or the award-win­ning Em­bassy of the Nether­lands build­ing in Ber­lin that ar­chi­tec­ture crit­ics said was struc­turally ‘obe­di­ent and... dis­obe­di­ent’. Or the Seat­tle Cen­tral Li­brary, which was called ‘a mas­ter­piece of pub­lic space de­sign’, although a few crit­ics also de­scribed it as ‘cheesily de­tailed’. Some of Rem’s works have also been deemed as ‘threat­en­ing set ideals of ar­chi­tec­ture’ and ‘au­da­cious’. Does he agree with these de­scrip­tions?

‘Au­da­cious? I think we are not look­ing for au­da­cious­ness for its own sake,’ says the 72-year-old the­o­rist, lean­ing for­ward and rest­ing his long arms on the ta­ble. ‘But my most au­da­cious build­ing could be the CCTV build­ing in Bei­jing.’

De­signed by his com­pany OMA as a rein­ven­tion of the sky­scraper as a loop, the 473,000sqm struc­ture houses TV stu­dios, of­fices, broad­cast­ing and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties. Es­sen­tially a loop of six hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal sec­tions, it ap­pears as an ir­reg­u­lar grid with an open cen­tre. The idea for the de­sign, ac­cord­ing to OMA, was to com­bine the en­tire process of TV-mak­ing, which was ear­lier scat­tered across var­i­ous lo­ca­tions in the city, into a loop of in­ter­con­nected ac­tiv­i­ties.

Rem ex­plains fur­ther. ‘It was not au­da­cious­ness for its own sake. See, big­ger build­ings have dif­fer­ent am­bi­tions than smaller build­ings. What we do if we are do­ing big build­ings is [make it look] dif­fer­ent from any an­gle, so that it con­trib­utes a cer­tain sense of dy­namism to the city, rather than adding some­thing that is the same.’

The win­ner of the Pritzker prize – con­sid­ered the No­bel for ar­chi­tec­ture – and au­thor of half a dozen books in­clud­ing Deliri­ous New York and S,M,L,XL, Rem pauses for a mo­ment be­fore adding: ‘Dy­namism is im­por­tant. Here at Con­crete we are try­ing to of­fer some­thing that is dif­fer­ent on the in­side. But the am­bi­tion in all build­ings is to cre­ate a dy­namic in­jec­tion in a par­tic­u­lar con­text.’ Dy­namism and un­ortho­dox per­spec­tives are def­i­nitely a hall­mark of the ar­chi­tec­tural firm OMA, which he co-founded with Made­lon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghe­lis in 1975. (The OMA has an of­fice in Dubai to de­sign and over­see projects in the Mid­dle East and Africa re­gion. This is apart from the of­fices in New York, Hong Kong, Bei­jing and Doha. Headed by part­ner Iyad Al­saka, OMA Dubai will pro­vide a con­nec­tion point for fu­ture work in Africa and In­dia.) Ready to take on just about any project that al­lows him to push the bound­aries of de­sign, Rem, who has done mas­ter plans for sub­ur­ban Paris, parts of Hong Kong and even a mu­seum city in Shar­jah, among others, re­fuses to al­low him­self to be pi­geon­holed or pre­dictable.

For in­stance, when a Parisian client wanted a house with two sep­a­rate apart­ments – one for the par­ents and one for the daugh­ter – which of­fered panoramic views of Paris and the Eif­fel Tower, Rem cre­ated the house as a glass

‘DY­NAMISM is im­por­tant. Here in CON­CRETE we are try­ing to of­fer some­thing that is dif­fer­ent on the IN­SIDE. But the am­bi­tion in all build­ings is to cre­ate a dy­namic in­jec­tion in a par­tic­u­lar con­text’

pav­il­ion con­tain­ing liv­ing and din­ing ar­eas with two hov­er­ing, per­pen­dic­u­lar apart­ments on either ends. He also had a swim­ming pool placed on the roof.

In Qatar, as part of Ed­u­ca­tion City, OMA de­signed a mod­ern di­a­mond-shaped li­brary in which the floor ap­pears to tilt gen­tly up­wards from each side of the en­try ports. A fu­tur­is­tic li­brary ded­i­cated to chil­dren and teenagers is the high­light of this struc­ture.

Hav­ing de­signed build­ings and cre­ated mas­ter plans for cities al­most all over the globe – from China and Ja­pan to Hong Kong, the US and Europe – does he ap­proach ar­chi­tec­ture dif­fer­ently in dif­fer­ent parts of the world?

‘Oh yes, ar­chi­tec­ture is dif­fer­ent in every one of these places. The client re­la­tion­ship is dif­fer­ent, the gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions may be dif­fer­ent, the le­gal sys­tem is dif­fer­ent, pro­ce­dures for find­ing con­trac­tors are dif­fer­ent... There are huge dif­fer­ences. But rather than try­ing to pro­duce the same kind of re­sults ev­ery­where, we try to en­gage those dif­fer­ences and try to see what they mean and how we can par­tic­i­pate with en­ergy, in­tegrity and pre­ci­sion in each dif­fer­ent con­text,’ says Rem, who de­signed a res­i­dence in Bordeaux in 1998 that was de­clared a pro­tected mon­u­ment as soon it was fin­ished. As de­signer of the highly ac­claimed Guggenheim Her­mitage Mu­seum in Las Ve­gas, he adds that when it comes to plan­ning a city, pa­ram­e­ters can be dif­fer­ent.

‘I think the most cru­cial part when plan­ning a city is to con­sider how old the city is and how es­tab­lished it is. Next, you need to study its de­mo­graphic pro­file.’ Us­ing Dubai as an ex­am­ple, he says that while pro­duc­ing ar­chi­tec­ture here, de­sign­ers need keep in mind that they are con­tribut­ing to a city in the mak­ing ‘so in a way every build­ing has an ef­fect on the to­tal­ity.

‘This is very dif­fer­ent from in­ter­ven­ing in a very lim­ited way in an ex­ist­ing older place where the whole idea of new­ness is not even wel­comed.’

Does he have a tem­plate or a plan for an ideal city?

‘I don’t think an ideal city would be in­ter­est­ing,’ says the Golden Lion win­ner at the Venice Bi­en­nale of Ar­chi­tec­ture. ‘I’m a spe­cial­ist of unideal cities be­cause only an unideal city has the kind of re­al­ity, au­then­tic­ity, unique­ness and in­tegrity that I re­spond to.’

A de­signer who be­lieves that rather

then ar­chi­tec­ture chang­ing the world, the world should change ar­chi­tec­ture, Rem started off as a scriptwriter for films – he co-wrote The White Slave, a dark Dutch film – be­fore be­com­ing a jour­nal­ist, then mov­ing on to study ar­chi­tec­ture in the UK and the US.

Quick to ex­plain that his time in me­dia came in handy when he be­gan pur­su­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, he says, ‘They [jour­nal­ism and films] helped me to ar­tic­u­late my ideas sim­ply be­cause I think if you are able to write down some­thing clearly then that is a big as­set in ar­chi­tec­ture.

‘What I think movies are is ac­tu­ally a se­ries of episodes that need to be put in a par­tic­u­lar se­quence so that a good story emerges. Ar­chi­tec­ture, too, is very sim­i­lar; you cre­ate mean­ing­ful episodes and put them in a se­quence and then they come to­gether as a com­pleted project.’

Build­ing on the same theme, he be­lieves ar­chi­tec­ture is a con­tin­u­a­tion of jour­nal­ism ‘in the sense that noth­ing al­lows you to en­ter a cul­tural sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than ar­chi­tec­ture.

‘It means you are talk­ing to the lead­er­ship but you are also talk­ing to work­ers and talk­ing to all the dif­fer­ent lay­ers in be­tween. You are con­tribut­ing your DNA to the DNA that ex­ists; it’s a tool that en­ables you to in­ti­mately know about dif­fer­ent cul­tures.’ So, with Dubai be­ing such a melt­ing point of cul­tures, how does he fore­see the emi­rate 50 years from now?

‘Very dif­fi­cult for me to say,’ says Rem. ‘I don’t know to what ex­tent the in­ter­net dig­i­tal con­di­tion will re­ally change life. That is a big ques­tion. ‘In­ter­net will prob­a­bly not change cities com­pletely, but the out­come of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cur­rent re­al­ity and dig­i­tal is re­ally ope­nended. So I don’t ven­ture in prog­no­sis. But I can say this,’ he says. ‘I think it will be very ex­cit­ing.’

And his favourite build­ings in Dubai? Rem mulls the ques­tion for a cou­ple of sec­onds. ‘I love the tallest build­ing. But I also like John Harris’s tower [the Dubai World Trade Cen­tre]. That’s my kind of reper­toire.’

Known for of­ten look­ing at es­tab­lished con­ven­tions from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, Rem once said that his life story is one ‘of run­ning against the cur­rent and run­ning with the cur­rent’.

So, at this age, is he tired of run­ning against the cur­rent or does he still find it ful­fill­ing? Rem leans back and laughs. ‘I ad­mit that some­times we oc­ca­sion­ally chal­lenge a lot of re­ceived wis­dom, but it’s not that we run al­ways against the cur­rent.

‘Any­one who is work­ing in ar­chi­tec­ture will know that it re­quires con­sen­sus from a large group and im­por­tant group be­cause the amount of money that we trans­late into ar­chi­tec­ture is al­ways con­sid­er­able. So I would put it that we more of­ten chal­lenge re­ceived wis­dom than run against the cur­rents.’ Then af­ter a pause he says: ‘And no, it’s not tir­ing be­cause it’s ob­vi­ously stim­u­lat­ing.’ What else stim­u­lates and in­spires him? ‘I think the most im­por­tant thing that in­spires me is new­ness… to en­ter con­di­tions you don’t know and in a rel­a­tively short pe­riod try to un­der­stand and de­ci­pher them. That’s stim­u­lat­ing and in­spir­ing.’

‘I think the most im­por­tant thing that in­spires me is NEW­NESS… to en­ter con­di­tions you don’t know and in a rel­a­tively short pe­riod try to un­der­stand and de­ci­pher them. That’s stim­u­lat­ing and in­spir­ing’

34

Con­crete, the first com­pleted project by OMA which is a pop­u­lar venue for ex­hi­bi­tions Con­crete, the first com­pleted project of OMA in the UAE, is be­com­ing a pop­u­lar venue for ex­hi­bi­tions

Rem and his firm, OMA, are re­spon­si­ble for ground­break­ing global projects, in­clud­ing Bei­jing’s CCTV Head­quar­ters

Rem in Alserkal last month, with OMA part­ner Iyad Al Saka (the lead ar­chi­tect on the project), the av­enue’s founder Ab­dul Monem Bin Eisa Al Serkal, and di­rec­tor Vilma Jurkute

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