The following article was originally published on Medium.
On a perfect autumn morning Rem Koolhaas parks his black 1998 BMW along an Amsterdam canal. It’s not really a sports car, but rather the racing model that a child would draw. Moments later, he is placed behind an impressive desk. This is to be a normal working day. Not in his Rotterdam offices though. Today he deals with his appointments in an Amsterdam hotel. Does that sometimes, more efficient. But this morning, a journalist has been in front of him for more than half an hour. And the guy is saying what?
‘Just about everyone responds the same when I mention your name: He’s a very unpleasant man, right?’
Halfway this remark Koolhaas leans back and moves away from the desktop.
He rocks back and forth.
And he nods.
Stuttering he says something like: ‘Yeah, that happens, yes. With people, yes.’
He seems embarrassed, even a little ashamed.
Outside assistants, clients, projects, calls about million dollar projects on different continents are waiting, but here, his head is so nude… those little ears that stick out to the sides… Can you describe a man of six feet tall as resembling a little injured bird?
Not much more comes out of him. The conversation is over.
I ask his associate Stephan Petermann about it.
‘Rem has a strong character,’ he says, ‘I will not deny that.’
And when does he get angry?
‘Only with work-related things. When people are not well prepared.’
Are there people who do not prepare well when they work with Rem Koolhaas?!
‘He needs the right information at the right moment. If someone says that something has not worked out yet, then that person has not been exerting enough pressure.’
Petermann also told me that he sometimes helps ‘when Rem and a team do not understand each other well enough.’
It sounds like a euphemism.
He is a friendly, bright guy from Limburg, the very Southern part of The Netherlands, this associate Stephan Petermann, who is responsible at AMO, the research arm of Koolhaas’ OMA office.
Another autumn morning we have coffee with Koolhaas in a brasserie in Amsterdam. Petermann and I take a croissant, Koolhaas only a cappuccino. He keeps his hands in the pockets of a three-quarter-length coat. He has already swum. Looks clean.
Can I not write about him with a bit of humour, he asks.
And he says: ‘I hate being an architect. I actually hate architects.’
‘Architect,’ Koolhaas calls it, but it’s even worse: he is a starchitect. He is a member of the elite corps of starchitects that plants its iconic buildings as proud peacock feathers in cities worldwide.
Rem Koolhaas is known for the CCTV building in Beijing, the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Dutch embassy in Berlin, you name it: the Shenzen Stock Exchange, Seattle Public Library etcetera etcetera, and, recently, De Rotterdam, the biggest building in the Netherlands (oh, he loathes that qualification biggest.) And it is almost laughable how often he is described as a mystery, as the ‘hard-working monk’, always busy, always amongst the rich and important, the hottest brands, elusive, unreachable, visionary, unearthly, usually high above the earth in a plane, or in that cool retro BMW, always working, consistently at the highest level.
But now he is sitting opposite me.
I do not really know why, but I ask him if everything he says is always precise and to the point.
‘No,’ he replies with a mischievous smile to Petermann, ‘when we are in a car together we ramble on endlessly.’
A conversation with him, Rem, goes like this: you ask a question and the answer can go two ways. The first is quite adequate, very to the point, but makes you feel a little insecure, the notion starts to rise that you could have come up with that answer yourself, or you could have found it out yourself, if you hadn’t been lazy and had not, like you are doing now, occupied the precious time Koolhaas could have spent thinking important thoughts!
Or, it gets exciting, when he does not give you a straight answer, but instead starts to associate. Example:
What is the impact of the crisis?
‘Because there are no great stories left, you can not focus on the big stories of others. So self prioritised desires come up, instead of realising the ambitions of others. We could have been enormously wealthy if we had only built Louis Vuitton-boutiques. Twenty-five years of market economy has made us work more on private projects than on government projects. The times in which architects were carrying out the good intentions of governments are long gone. There are no more ideals within governments; increased deregulation has strengthened the market economy to a fatal degree. The Universe is empty now or filled with companies. Progress is fragmented, completely scattered.’
Sometimes he goes in opposite directions, in one sentence he can state that the crisis is an inspiring time and than observe sombrely: ‘When you see how we are trying to get back, you’ll notice that there really is no change. I keep hearing people say that we’ll be okay once we pick up where we left of.’
Words he often uses are: assumptions, intuitions, implications, articulate, concentration, situations. He succeeds in making you feel silly in no time, constantly interrupting his narrative with more questions that test your knowledge: ‘Do you know him?’, ‘Have you read that?’, ‘You know how it started?’ Or: ‘Do you speak Italian?’.
The contrast that morning in the brasserie is great: the sleek, clean Koolhaas, tense as a tightly pulled pork bladder, with beside him the chubby Stephan Petermann, listening and carefree crumbling his croissant on his sweater.
It will stand out more often: Koolhaas surrounding himself with friendly and modest people. A few weeks later, when he is honoured by the Dutch governement, many of his friend are present at the ceremony in the Rijksmuseum: people above fifty, stylishly dressed, solid colours, no flashy jewellery, only an abstract brooch here, subtly framed glasses there. How affectionately they smile when a somewhat awkward and anxious Koolhaas takes the stage. They look at each other with an expression of ‘oh, Rem’. Heads tilt to the side during his humble speech.
If you’re a true asshole, your friends wouldn’t be looking at you like that, right?
An American student has four words for me:
‘Fifth floor. Now. Rem.’
He grabs his Moleskine and chases after two fellow students.
Petermann and I hastily follow and storm through stairwells and elevators.
Rem is approaching.
We are in a concrete colossus in Rotterdam, home to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). It’s equipped efficiently. Loads of empty spaces, where teams can set up in a second when new assignments come in. Barren floors stripped of everything but the windowsills. Sometimes a few islands of desks in oceans of space. Other floors are filled to the brim with producers, designers, models and computers.
Between 250 and 270 people work at OMA, dispersed over Rotterdam, New York, Peking, Hong Kong and Doha (Qatar). His son Thomas passes by now and again, making a documentary about his dad. And daughter Charlie, sociologist and photographer, he has taken a lot of her London friends and acquaintances on board.
The Harvard students were hanging around all morning on this vast, empty floor, a kind of concrete tundra. Well and fashionably dressed, the modern human being. Between them lie printed PDF’s with texts and pictures. Their project should result in a big book about the fifteen most important elements in architecture: the wall, the door, the roof, the toilet, etc. Koolhaas wil curate the Venice Architecture Biennale in june 2014, entitled Fundamentals, and across the globe people are eagerly looking forward to it.
Now He is coming. What to do? Confusion arises. Should they wait? Or continue? It’s decided that Rem prefers to walk in when they are busy. But then, already, a man crosses the concrete plains. It’s the lone ranger, no: it’s Rem. All by himself, no assistants in tow. Sleek clothes, soft sweater, trousers, ankle boots. He walks like an actor approaching a filmset.
Continue, he gestures, and everybody knows that Rem Koolhaas just left an important meeting while even more important calls vibrate in his pocket. He crosses his arms tightly against his body, bows his head. I see multiple gazes turning away. Everybody is busy not looking at him, at Rem. The possibility of failure suddenly takes hold. A student explains her research in the typical American of girls her age.
‘This is, like, sort of, the why of the toilet.’
Her fellow students are dead serious
She turns to Rem: ‘We’ve discussed the use of excrements in the book…’
He interrupts her: ‘You’re taking a lot of time explaining what this isn’t’
Now she stammers. She points to the PDF.
‘I’m not totally sure why this is here, but obviously, it…., it’s because….., it is architecture’
The silences are the worst. You sense Rem is unsatisfied, but he hasn’t expressed it yet. He browses through folders with PDF’s, but also listens.
Then he starts:
‘I get no notion about how people shit in regions like China and Africa’
And: ‘Can you show me a piece of text that you actually wrote yourself?’
Also about the work of others: ‘This is so unclear. Someone somewhere has to take responsibility.’
Red blotches appear in necks
An obliging boy with a trimmed beard shows something
Reaction: ‘Is this a sketch or your best try?’
Both answers seem wrong
‘I find this extremely horrible. And it makes absolutely no sense.’
And: ‘What I expect of you is not this manner of answering politely’
Suddenly: ‘Can you stop taking notes now. It’s making me so nervous!’
In fright I snap up my notebook, but perhaps he was only addressing the students.
Then he explains how everything should be much more daring: no simple history lessons, nó! What you make, he lectures, should be a time bomb, tick tock, tick tock. And then all you can do is hope it will not blow up in your face.
If he truly is the bogeyman, than I should note that his critiques were just: the texts were superficial and simplistic.
And then he does something sweet. He steps toward the girl that took most of the hits and stresses: ‘You understand this is totally not personal, right?’
She appears not to be bothered at all.
Another confusing thing, I didn’t tell that Petermann was carrying his adorable toddler during this severe session.
Rem takes off. Petermann and I scurry behind him and soon we are in an elevator together, three men and a small child.
‘Look’, says Rem, ‘he sees himself in the mirror. He enjoys watching’
When we leave the elevator people immediately crowd around Rem, assistants, secretaries, all kinds. It’s like one of these American series about law or politics where all conversations take place walking along dynamic workspaces. Rem's pupils are dilated, and he seems to have grown even taller, he looks like he can handle all of the hundreds of different things people will throw at him, no matter how important. Suddenly his piercing look finds me, in his eyes an expectation that emanates: now, you will ask me something truly important like all the best journalists do.
'I don’t know what we should be doing now, what do you want?’
Oh no, what am I saying, did I say uh? I just want to be near him. He turns towards Petermann.
‘Stephan, how do you want this to continue?’
Petermann says we will see.
Cue missed. Moment gone.
Rem turns and disappears between new people and glass walled meeting rooms
How can you stay focused so long?, I sigh when I am in the car again with Petermann, toddler in the backseat. A focus like that is sometimes associated with compulsive behaviour, even autism.
Peterman loosely replies.
‘Well there is the swimming of course’, he says, ‘every day. And Rem likes to be in exactly the same hotel, preferably with the same driver taking him to and from the airport.’
But that would mean that all men are compulsive idiots — a thought that could ring true nevertheless.
Petermann says there’s something weird. Whenever they’re at a party or a social gathering of some sort and they meet new people, often those people will confide their whole life stories to Rem. Or at least all kinds of personal, intense stuff, like their father recently dying or something. Is it the fame? What is it about Rem that makes people do this?
Petermann has not found the answer yet.