In this interview, originally published in The Architectural Review, Andrew Mackenzie sits down with OMA founder Rem Koolhaas to discuss the Venice Biennale, the extinction of national identities, his fascination with Asia, the link between De Rotterdam and Delirious New York, and the future of the profession.
Your proposition for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale asks whether national identity has been, as you say, ‘sacrificed to modernity’. Some might view this as a project of reclamation, not unlike Frampton’s regionalism. How would you differentiate your proposition from Frampton’s?
Well, Kenneth Frampton is a smart guy, but the problem is that he looked at regionalism as an antidote to cosmopolitan development. In so doing he perverted the cause of regionalism, because suddenly regionalism was mobilised as a private cause that it couldn’t sustain. However, the question of national identity is an open one. For instance, at first sight the Netherlands is a very internationalist country, but looking closely you can see an enormous return of, not vernacular, but quasi-vernacular architecture and quasi-old fortresses that are newly built with a national flavour. Look at Zaandam, and that huge assemblage of so-called vernacular buildings.
I understand this moment very well, because the vast majority of so-called modern architecture now is really a kind of gimmicky Modernism, and this creates space for traditionalism to be gimmicky too. It’s like a set of communicating vases, where movement in one translates directly to movement in the other. I see this less from an architectural perspective than from a social or anthropological one. Recent years have seen an extraordinary growth in what I would call quasi-vernacular, particularly across Europe.
(Check out Koolhaas and Frampton in conversation at The Berlage in 1998)
If Zaandam represents a kind of quasi-vernacular, what qualities, quasi or otherwise, would you ascribe to you as a Dutch architect?
It’s at the same time a simple and a complex question. In its most blatant sense I have a huge sympathy for orthogonal organisations, and this, at some level, is very visible in the work. But at the same time there is a counter force, as a result of my early years in Indonesia. My parents took me to Jakarta when I was eight. I was transplanted from a ruin to an extremely chaotic tropical city that was in a state of euphoria because of its recent independence. There I went to an Indonesian school, spoke Indonesian and behaved more or less like an Asian child.
When I returned to a totally reordered Netherlands at the age of 12, I never felt comfortable in that state of completion. From there many of my interests are clear. I was exposed to Dutchness as a young child, then its counterpart. So, I would say that I am slightly less dogmatic than the Dutch. You might say that I am as attracted to Mondrian as to batik and, in this, I would say that the work is an oscillation between the two.
Yes, in particular China and Japan are very important countries for me. Japan, for being the first non-Western country where there was an architectural avant-garde. My interest in Metabolism is an interest in how globalisation rearranged architectural areas of initiative, in the sense that you can no longer claim that the Western city is the model that fits all. I was interested in how this end of the Western hegemony was already announced in Japan in the ’60s.
Your work in China has been somewhat controversial, due mainly to assumptions that are made in the West about what might be called the client’s values. How do you respond to criticism regarding your engagement with communist China?
Of course we do not participate in any project where we fundamentally reject the values of the client. We interpret the client’s values, not always in a literal way.
In the case of China, I had visited it for the first time in 1995, years before the CCTV competition in 2002. Working with Harvard students, I had developed more or less an understanding of what was going on and where the country was moving. This led me to the political conviction that all of us have a huge stake in how things develop in China. It is incredibly stupid for Europe to point fingers and insist on Europe as the only model of democratic behaviour.
After the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there were a lot of expectations that the world would turn into a seamless tapestry of market economy and liberalism, which to me was clearly not going to happen. On the contrary, what became obvious was that the market economy would be joined by a very diverse patchwork of different systems and different degrees of democracy. So essentially I said yes, not so much to CCTV, but to participation in the development of China.
I was confident that the Chinese media would, in parallel, change a lot as well. Now CCTV has an English channel, which in itself means that it has to be more global and engage meaningfully in a global English-speaking world. Interestingly, the fire that happened in the adjacent TVCC building contributed to the modernisation of the media, because for the first time they apologised to the Chinese public and they had no choice but to convey their own disaster as a news story.
You mention research, and how it preceded and informed your approach to CCTV. With regards to De Rotterdam, can you describe the connections between it and research, perhaps even back to Delirious New York?
I am hesitant to claim that the connections are direct. I write for myself, whereas the projects are of course a collective endeavour. I also don’t want the work to be an illustration of a theory. However it is true that New York alerted me to some of the potentials of vertical organisation and to some extent this has informed this building. The massing of De Rotterdam would be unthinkable without the buildings of such architects as Wallace Harrison. The Rockefeller Center, to name one example, also shares the sense of uniformity, which is a key element in De Rotterdam.
The site on Wilhelmina Pier is obviously deeply historical.
I am happy you say that because very few people realise that emptiness can be deeply historical. So yes, context is very important in relation to this building. Of course only 60 years ago Rotterdam was effectively a three-kilometre crater of nothingness in the centre of the city. This has created a unique situation, where now the periphery is old and the centre is new.
Contrary to many other cities across Europe that simply had to repair things that still existed, Rotterdam had to start from scratch. This explains why Rotterdam is the city of architects, because there was so much work to be done after the war. It is also the reason why Rotterdam is, for a modest-sized city, a city of large scale.
At first, after the war, Rotterdam was a model, as they built an entirely modern city according to the architecture of the moment, consisting of slabs of fairly regular modern typologies, with a lower weaving of retail on the ground floor. This lasted through the ’50s and ’60s. In the ’70s the first hesitations came. There was an attempt to create so-called humanistic cities, based on irregular patterns, different geometries, smaller scale and more cellular entities. Then there was a kind of modest Postmodernism. So we are now the fourth layer of projection in this history, and with all those layers my greatest sympathy lies with the first iteration. Therefore the building tries to resonate and investigate how it could bring that vision further and how it could become the next iteration of that vision.
De Rotterdam had a long gestation period. Why so protracted?
It started in the late ’90s, working for developers who made continual adjustments to the programme mix of housing, commercial offices, hotel. So we decided that we needed something that could survive all those changes. We developed an idea around a group of independent blocks where each had a shifting relationship to the other. This generated a building with a richness of silhouettes as you move through the city.
The building is essentially four combined towers rising from a podium. It was completed soon after CCTV and just before the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. For a man who has declared his antipathy for the tower, you’re doing a lot of them.
In Content I declared death to the skyscraper, which was obviously a joke. At that time the skyscraper became simply a race for the tallest building, with the same boring mix of Armani hotel, corporate office etc. I basically thought that that kind of approach was really done. In a certain way CCTV is emphatically not about height, but about doing more than trying to consume a site. It’s trying to establish an urban territory. De Rotterdam is also trying to do the same. It is an effort to establish a bridgehead between the main city and an area that was formerly a part of the harbour and from which industry has disappeared. It became a ghost town until the city developed a vision to develop it, first building the Eramus Bridge by UNStudio. There remain a few historic buildings, and over the years a few towers have risen. But there was never enough critical mass or activity.
So I see it less as an isolated city in itself, a vertical city if you will, than as a contribution to a genuinely urban condition on that island.
Returning to Venice, for 2014 you have curated a Biennale that focuses on the ‘the inevitable elements of all architecture’. Can say more about the forensic way you have pulled apart the contents of ‘all architecture’, as you describe it?
I have, in the past, written a lot about the city and the shifting ways that cities are seen. When I started practising architecture, the Western city was considered the measure of all things. I tried to create an openness to the situation in other countries. Now, after all these years, for me it is interesting to look at pure architecture features.
We live in a very flat digital world in which everything is accessible but increasingly there is less and less memory. We are, you might say, condemned to the perpetual present. So I thought it was important to go back, to show the incredible richness that has been associated with what are now seemingly banal elements … doors, windows, stairs, walls. I want to make a statement about how much history our profession still contains, and how many latencies and unconscious expectations there still are. It is, I think, a history that we are barely aware of.
To this end, we have had a team of students working within AMO researching these 12 elements: floor, door, wall, ceiling, toilet, facade, balcony, window, corridor, hearth, roof and stair.
The bible-sized book that is being produced for the Biennale appears to be walking a tightrope. It’s technical, but not a manual. It’s historic, but not a history book. It contains theory, but is not a theory book. It’s trying hard not to be located in any genre.
Exactly. And that you can say is a kind of general reflex.
I am very lucky that Harvard is interested in that model. It started in 1995 when I started teaching there. We were about to start work on a project looking at the rehabilitation of a pier in Boston. I looked around at the students and saw a number of people who had already had careers in different areas – one had been involved in urbanism, another in shipping and so on. I began to realise that the traditional role of the teacher, who has knowledge that he conveys to people who don’t have that knowledge, needed to be drastically revised.
As a direct result of globalisation, each student had knowledge that I didn’t. So I reversed the dynamic and said, ‘you are experts and with your expertise I want to look at different subjects’. It is now adjusted slightly as I have the luxury of choosing students. So, in assembling a team it has become like casting a movie.
Besides your oscillation between Mondrian and batik, as it were, I’m interested in another oscillation, between the Casa da Música and Seattle Public Library. Former principal of OMA New York, Joshua Prince-Ramus, has described the concert hall as determinedly irrational and the library as a kind of hyper-rationalised organisation. Is this an accurate description?
It’s always slightly disconcerting to hear my former collaborators describe the projects. I have to say that one thing that is rarely discussed is how big the influence of forces other than the architect is on the architectural project. The economy is an obvious example, but there are other examples, such as how a project is commissioned. When a project starts as a design competition, you have to overwhelm the client from the first moment with a fully fledged project. On the other hand, when a project is a direct commission, you are typically involved in a much more collaborative effort to work with the client or trustees – and in that case, the idea of overwhelming with a single idea almost never works. So that is a difference that is totally independent of the architect and can have a huge effect on the outcome.
In Seattle, we had been directly commissioned and our process had to appear, at least, to be very linear and very rational. At the same time we were working on the competition for the Casa da Música. I had done a project for a house for a family, where the client said ‘we don’t really like each other, so we each need our own part of the house and then a place where we can get together if we want to’. It was a challenging proposition, which we thought was negative at first, but was actually quite inspiring. But every time I presented the house, the client kept pulling back and resisting the design. At the same time we were doing this competition in Porto and I was getting increasingly desperate to get an idea. Then I realised that, if we multiplied the scale of this house we were working on by five or six, the space that we had designed for the family to get together would work perfectly as a concert hall. We simply took the idea and enlarged it. It was a purely intuitive leap, which we subsequently won the competition with.
All of which is to say that the comparison of these two projects is less a question of being torn between two languages but rather a consequence of working within two completely different situations within which projects are generated.
Few architects are willing to acknowledge the conditions that impact on architectural outcomes, which often lie outside the architect’s control. Why is that?
The profession has an investment in the idea that the architect has superhuman powers. It is totally counterproductive, because it cuts off any real communication between the architect and the public. When we put ourselves on a pedestal it makes any engagement with other aspects of the profession almost impossible. Since I am interested in communication and I write, I like to understand what the real issues are, and what the changing conditions are.
For architecture the conditions have changed more in the last 30 years than they changed in the previous two centuries, yet we still act as if it’s the same profession. There have been radical changes to so many things, such as computing power, engineering and the relationship between architect and client, yet we persist as if we are still old pipe-smoking gentlemen.
In the ’60s and ’70s the public sector was very strong, but in recent decades that has given way to various forms of market economy. This has enormously changed the conditions in which architecture can be produced. In the first instance, the architect was expected to do things for the public benefit. Now we are expected to broadcast the interests of individuals or corporations. So, although we still maintain the core values and ambitions of what architecture can do, this change has radically transformed the architect’s work.
Is that shift from public to private interests connected to the circumstances that led to the connection between practice and brand?
The profession has become entangled with that kind of thinking, but there is branding and branding. The Anglo-Saxon version of branding means you try to reduce something to its essence and then ram that essence down everyone’s throat. And at a certain time, that essence becomes a prison and you cannot change anything. But maybe there are also more subtle forms of branding that are based on contradiction or unpredictability. Our office has an affinity with that approach.