With the extensive list of acclaimed alumni of his firm, OMA, it is not a stretch to call Rem Koolhaas (born 17 November 1944) the godfather of contemporary architecture. Equal parts theorist and designer, over his 40-year career Koolhaas has revolutionized the way architects look at program and interaction of space, and today continues to design buildings that push the capabilities of architecture to new places.
Remment Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. At the age of eight, Koolhaas’ father was given a position running a cultural program in Jakarta, Indonesia and subsequently moved his family to Asia. The family returned to Amsterdam three years later, where Koolhaas would later pursue filmmaking (a phase he believes still impacts his work today), until enrolling at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London in 1968. Following continued studies at Cornell University and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City, Koolhaas returned to London to open his firm, OMA, alongside his wife Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis. He also began teaching at his Alma Mater, during which time he met a young Zaha Hadid. Hadid soon joined OMA, and together the group began working on a series of highly conceptual, predominantly unbuilt projects, highlighted by the Dutch Parliament Building in The Hague.
During this period, Koolhaas penned Delirious New York, an urbanist manifesto that would come to define his future architectural strategy. In the book, Koolhaas celebrates the city’s hyper-dense “culture of congestion” as a cultural incubator, a place where unprescribed interaction could lead to innovation and creativity. It was in this text that Koolhaas first proposed the idea of “cross-programming,” intentionally introducing unexpected program types within buildings of different typologies, such as running tracks within skyscrapers. The idea has since returned in various forms, such as in his unsuccessful proposal to include hospital units for the homeless within his design for the Seattle Central Library. The book is still considered today to be an essential piece of the architectural canon.
Following Hadid’s departure from the firm, OMA received its first major commission, the Netherlands Dance Theater in The Hague. Completed in 1987, the building was a manifestation of many of the ideas from Delirious New York; the design features volumes of varying form and materiality colliding in unique ways to create new types of space and a visually stimulating composition. The success of that building, as well as continued acclaim for their unbuilt competition entries, gave OMA increased international recognition.
The 1990s saw projects of widely varying scale for Koolhaas and OMA, from city master plans, in Euralille, France, to the Rotterdam Kunsthal (1992) to residential projects. The most widely renowned of these residential projects were the Villa Dall’Ava in Paris (1991) and the Maison Bordeaux (1999). In these houses, Koolhaas took cues from Modernist classics, in particular Villa Savoye and the Farnsworth House, blowing their designs into parts and reassembling them to suit the unique needs of the clients. Villa Dall’Ava featured a rooftop pool and a dynamic collage of materials raised 3 stories above the ground by slender, irregularly placed columns and a poured-in-place concrete wall. Private apartment units were connected by a shared glass living space below and the pool above. The design of Maison Bordeaux contained three floors of varying opacity relating to program type, connected by an oversized elevator that doubled as an office for the husband, who was a wheelchair user.
The following decade saw a massive expansion within OMA, with the founding of architectural think-tank and research group AMO in 1999. AMO has since contributed to designs for numerous exhibitions and events, including stores and runway shows for fashion house Prada. Key buildings from OMA in the 2000s include the Casa da Musica in Porto (2005), the Wyly Theater in Dallas (2009), the IIT-McCormick Tribune Center in Chicago (2001), and the Seattle Central Library (2004). In particular, the Seattle Library has had a profound impact on architectural approach and diagramming in architecture—the word-bubble programmatic diagram used to outline spatial relationships has since been utilized by architects worldwide. The library’s pivoting planes highlighting views of the city have also convinced critics that elegant form can be derived from focusing on user experience.
Since then, Koolhaas has had a hand in designing buildings worldwide, including the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, mixed-use building De Rotterdam, Millstein Hall at Cornell University, and the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
In recent years, Rem Koolhaas’ discourse has ranged from breaking down architecture into its fundamental elements in his lauded directorship of the 2014 Venice Biennale, to the feasibility of smart cities, to studies on urbanization in Lagos, Nigeria. He has also often delved into the realm of skepticism, such as his claim that “people can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that's both liberating and alarming.”
These claims have led to Koolhaas’ being called “the most controversial figure in architecture” and “an anti-architect,” but those descriptions fail to capture the career of a man who is always chasing the next step in architecture and how he can think bigger. By helping to spawn the careers of Bjarke Ingels, Ole Scheeren, Farshid Moussavi, Jeanne Gang, Winy Maas, and many many others, Koolhaas has perhaps found another way of thinking bigger: by creating the future.
See all of the work featured on ArchDaily by Rem Koolhaas' firm OMA via the thumbnails below, and further coverage of Koolhaas below those: