Rem Kool­haas is gen­er­ally thought of as in­tim­i­dat­ingly in­tel­lec­tual, but is there another side to him? The ar­chi­tect lets his guard down in con­ver­sa­tion with col­league David Gian­ot­ten and De­sign Trust co-founder Marisa Yiu

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents - Words OLIVER GILES

Ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas lets his guard down in con­ver­sa­tion with col­league David Gian­ot­ten and De­sign Trust co-founder Marisa Yiu

Ar­ti­cles about Rem Kool­haas tend to have a cer­tain rhythm. They gen­er­ally be­gin with a de­scrip­tion of the man him­self. Six foot five inches tall (or 195.5cm), rake thin, nor­mally dressed head to toe in Prada and of­ten un­smil­ing, the 73-year-old Dutch­man looms phys­i­cally large in pro­files. Then there are the de­tails of his awe-in­spir­ing ca­reer: how he es­tab­lished his de­sign stu­dio, the Of­fice for Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ar­chi­tec­ture (OMA), in 1975, founded his own think tank in the 1990s and has since gone on to de­sign some of the most dar­ing build­ings of the past few decades, among them the CCTV Head­quar­ters in Bei­jing, the Seat­tle Cen­tral Li­brary in the US and Fon­dazione Prada in Mi­lan, all while writ­ing a se­ries of in­dus­try-shak­ing books that pro­pose rad­i­cal new ways of think­ing about ar­chi­tec­ture. His pow­er­ful pres­ence and string of achieve­ments leave the im­pres­sion that Kool­haas is as much a philoso­pher as an ar­chi­tect, some­one who is pre­oc­cu­pied with the big ideas—and doesn’t have time for any­thing else.

But speak­ing on a late sum­mer day from his of­fice in Am­s­ter­dam, Kool­haas wants to add some­thing new to that con­ver­sa­tion. “I think it’s im­por­tant to cel­e­brate that we at OMA are not al­ways se­ri­ous,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of our work is di­rectly re­lated to plea­sure.”

To un­der­line this point, this month OMA is un­veil­ing one of its most play­ful projects yet. The stu­dio has taken on the role of cre­ative di­rec­tor for the Am­bas­sadors Ball in Hong Kong, an an­nual gala din­ner to ben­e­fit the De­sign Trust, a grant-fund­ing plat­form that sup­ports creatives work­ing in the Pearl River Delta. The project is be­ing led by OMA di­rec­tor David Gian­ot­ten, who has themed the event around a “hy­per­en­vi­ron­ment,” a word that hints at a hy­per-con­nected, hy­per­dense city packed with the lat­est tech­nol­ogy. Gian­ot­ten de­vel­oped this theme while con­tribut­ing to re­search cur­rently be­ing un­der­taken by OMA’S think tank, AMO, into how the rapid de­vel­op­ment of cities is af­fect­ing the coun­try­side around the globe.

In the lead-up to the gala, which takes place on Oc­to­ber 27, Kool­haas and Gian­ot­ten spoke to Marisa Yiu, co-founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the De­sign Trust, about their plans for the ball, the im­por­tance of fun and how Hong Kong is a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion.

Marisa Yiu: I’m burst­ing with hap­pi­ness that OMA is work­ing on this year’s Am­bas­sadors Ball. Can we start by dis­cussing the theme you’ve cho­sen for the ball. Why have you de­cided to theme the gala around a “hy­per­en­vi­ron­ment?”

Rem Kool­haas: Ar­chi­tec­ture is a very an­cient pro­fes­sion and there­fore as an ar­chi­tect you’re not nec­es­sar­ily al­ways en­gag­ing with the most re­cent tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ments and tech­ni­cal po­ten­tials, but this kind of event en­ables us to ex­plore an en­tirely dif­fer­ent group of tech­nolo­gies—like 3D-print­ing food.

Marisa: I would love you to de­sign a be­spoke 3D-printed cho­co­late for our gala.

Rem: We will try. It will prob­a­bly look rec­tan­gu­lar and be di­vided into smaller rec­tan­gu­lar sec­tions. [laughs]

David Gian­ot­ten: What we’ve tried to do is come up with a theme that is con­nected to re­search that the of­fice is do­ing into the coun­try­side but also re­lated to Hong Kong, where there is this ex­treme con­di­tion of a very dense city that is within five min­utes’ walk of un­touched na­ture.

Marisa: I un­der­stand that the coun­try­side is one of the main in­ter­ests of OMA at the mo­ment and that you will be un­veil­ing your re­search into the coun­try­side at a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion at the Guggen­heim in New York next year. Can you tell me how OMA’S in­ter­est in the coun­try­side de­vel­oped?

Rem: I think it ac­tu­ally started from two sources. Firstly, I hap­pen to be very of­ten in the Swiss coun­try­side and the lit­tle vil­lage that I visit was dom­i­nated by agri­cul­ture. Then, sud­denly, after 10 years of go­ing there, the cows were gone, the smell was gone and every­thing was gone. With­out re­ally pay­ing at­ten­tion to it, there had been a re­ally dras­tic change.

And as David was sug­gest­ing ear­lier, the schizophre­nia of Hong Kong—of be­ing at the cen­tre of a me­trop­o­lis but be­ing close to re­ally rugged coun­try­side—was also an alert to us of the im­por­tance of the coun­try­side. When we worked on the mas­ter­plan of the West Kowloon Cul­tural Dis­trict, David lived in Hong Kong and I was there a lot. We ex­plored the coun­try­side to­gether and re­alised how in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing it could

be. So, yes, the coun­try­side is a long­stand­ing in­ter­est, but it’s now be­ing chan­nelled and con­cluded in the form of an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Oc­to­ber next year.

Marisa: This re­ally rig­or­ous and in­tense re­search is such a key as­pect of OMA to me—and you’re con­stantly em­bark­ing on new re­search with your think tank, AMO. AMO re­ally res­onates with what we do at the De­sign Trust, as we’re al­ways in­vest­ing in re­search and ed­u­ca­tion. Why did you de­cide to launch AMO in the 1990s?

Rem: In 1995 it was very clear that the world was chang­ing very rad­i­cally, that there was the enor­mous in­flu­ence of the mar­ket econ­omy and that po­lit­i­cally the sit­u­a­tion was far from stable. So we re­alised that in or­der to do ar­chi­tec­ture that was ap­pro­pri­ate in many dif­fer­ent coun­tries and many dif­fer­ent cul­tures, it was im­por­tant to de­velop our own form of in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing.

David: We do a lot of work with AMO for clients, but we also in­vest part of our re­turns from OMA into our own think­ing and de­vel­op­ment. Re­search is ex­tremely im­por­tant—it’s the ba­sis of ar­chi­tec­ture. You can’t just do ar­chi­tec­ture with­out look­ing ahead.

Marisa: Another link be­tween OMA and the De­sign Trust is our re­la­tion­ship with Prada. You have worked with Prada for many years and we are thrilled to have Prada as the lead spon­sor of this year’s Am­bas­sadors Ball. Ear­lier this year you un­veiled Fon­dazione Prada in

Mi­lan. Can you tell us a lit­tle bit about how you com­bined re­stored build­ings and new build­ings to cre­ate that cul­tural foun­da­tion?

Rem: I think the use of re­ha­bil­i­tated or pre­served in­dus­trial build­ings for art has be­come a cliché and there was no ap­petite on our part or on the part of Prada to add another cliché to the world. They were in­ter­ested in a kind of hy­brid where we could cre­ate an al­most un­no­tice­able tran­si­tion be­tween old and new ar­chi­tec­ture con­tin­u­ously, so one con­tin­ues to in­spire and ex­pand the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the other. That was an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment for them. In a cer­tain way fash­ion is very sim­i­lar be­cause fash­ion also works with very strong tra­di­tions that need to be chal­lenged to pro­duce some­thing new.

Marisa: You have had an OMA of­fice in Hong Kong since 2009, which was opened by David. How have things changed in the city since then?

Rem: I think Hong Kong is a very promis­ing ter­ri­tory for dis­play­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing real cre­ativ­ity, but it is also a ter­ri­tory where per­haps the pres­sure of money is not par­tic­u­larly stim­u­lat­ing for cre­ativ­ity. So I think that this dia­lec­tic be­tween cre­ativ­ity and fi­nance re­mains the defin­ing point of Hong Kong.

David: From my side, what I think is re­ally in­ter­est­ing is the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum in Hong Kong. There is this unclar­ity about the fu­ture and what it will bring and at the same time there is this very strong his­tory and base for the city and its suc­cess. That ten­sion cre­ates a breed­ing ground for de­vel­op­ment and that de­vel­op­ment can go in ev­ery di­rec­tion, from ex­tremely com­mer­cial to re­ally low grass-roots cul­ture. In Hong Kong, you can work on an ex­tremely com­mer­cial project and at the same time be part of grass-roots cul­ture. There is no other place in the world where that is pos­si­ble and peo­ple don’t re­alise it.

Marisa: I re­ally like that sense of op­ti­mism. We are thrilled you’re both com­ing back to Hong Kong for the Am­bas­sadors Ball.

Rem: It’s like spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion, this whole event. I think it’s im­por­tant to cel­e­brate that we’re not al­ways se­ri­ous. A lot of our work is di­rectly re­lated to plea­sure and to try­ing to bring plea­sure to other peo­ple but also for our­selves. That tends to be for­got­ten and this is re­ally an occasion to cel­e­brate it.

The Am­bas­sadors Ball takes place at the Kerry Ho­tel on Oc­to­ber 27. To dis­cover more about the event or learn more about the De­sign Trust, visit DESIGNTRUST.HK


FRIENDS AND COL­LAB­O­RA­TORS David Gian­ot­ten (above left) and Rem Kool­haas have worked with Marisa Yiu on mul­ti­ple projects since 2009

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