REM KOOLHAAS: A Brilliant Mind

In an exclusive interview with STARK, noted architect, author and founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture Rem Koolhaas shares his thoughts on urban design, building with humanity in mind and his latest book, “Project: Japan”.

Interview: Aimstar
Image: Patrick Ibanez

Reflecting on his reason for crafting his now famous statue, “The Thinker”, beloved artist Auguste Rodin once wrote,”Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator…” This was Rodin’s theory, the notion that a true thinker is actually a poet, a weaver of ideas—a creator and even greater than this, a visionary who brings those thoughts in his mind to life.

Like Rodin’s sculpture, which now sits in the Musée Rodin in Paris, proposes, celebrated Dutch designer and architect Rem Koolhaas is both thinker and creator. Whether it be his collaborations with Prada, his vision for the Casa da Música in Portugal, the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal in Belgium, the Torre Bicentenario in Mexico, the Porshe Towers in Dubai, the street toilet in the Netherlands which he created using images by Erwin Olaf, or his more recent work currently under construction in China including CCTV (China Central Television) and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange—Koolhaas is a master of all things he constructs. His list of accomplishments are never-ending. He’s received countless numbers of awards (He’s got a Pritzker, the equivalent of a Nobel prize in Architecture and a Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects) and prestigious posts (He’s a professor at Harvard University, where he leads a research program that is investigating “changing urban conditions around the world” called “Project on the City”), earned for his work through OMA*AMO, his leading, multi-city, international firm devoted to practicing architecture, urbanism and cultural analysis. A design giant, Koolhaas has even penned a number of praise-worthy books including Delirious and S,M,L,XL , and most recently, he released Project Japan: Metabolism Talks, a book that delves into the “first non-western avant-garde” group of architects called the Metabolists, who, based in Japan, anticipated the dire need to expand architectural models to accommodate growing societies of the future. But Rem neither wants celebrity nor the trappings that come with it… Poetically speaking, he just wants to be successful at cultivating memorable structures that put humanity’s needs first.

Why now? What was the impetus for Project Japan now?

First of all, I wanted to do something totally not related to myself. Second one was that I was looking at the last kind of moment when architecture was different—let’s say when the communication and the flow between architects was different, when it was more a collegial kind of situation. And the third thing is that I have been anticipating for a long time that the creative initiative in architecture would switch to Asia or to the East, so this is the first example of an avant-garde, which is not European or Western.

That’s interesting to me because it seems to be a movement right now, I think, that’s touching on Asia. A kind of look back to traditional art and design. There is actually an exhibit in Paris at the moment about that specifically. So how much of this project is about embracing the traditional? Is it about that at all?

I want to put it that way, but what disinterests me there is that it doesn’t add anything to say that I’m a Dutch architect. It doesn’t add anything to say that Jonathan is a French architect. But it acts a lot to say that any Japanese architect is a Japanese architect, so obviously they have a kind of different relationship with their own nationality and that means inevitably with their traditions. And I think that this whole movement must be soaked, on the one hand, in tradition and at the same know how to be very modern. That is definitely part of my research, to see how those can be combined.

There was something that I read where you said you were focusing on the last moment architecture was a public versus a private affair. Which is better in your opinion?

I think public is better because, you know, if you work for the public sector, then you can obviously— you’re working directly or indirectly for the good of mankind and of course, it’s not always the case and there’s a lot of compromising. But in principle, you work for the good side. If you work for the private sector, you are in the service of the ambitions of others and therefore it’s a much more insecure situation and you cannot claim the same kind of certainty in a situation.

Is globalization helping or hurting this?

Globalization, in particular, the development of the economy—the market economy— has been totally eroding the public sector. And I think in principle, it’s a very bad thing. Or to put it differently, I was looking at the last moment that there was a real integration, a real collaboration through the public sector and the creative sector, which is for me the conclusion of the book. We cannot be creative out of no where, you now. There needs to be support, but the state also needs creativity. So it’s really about that combination and I think that combination, that connection, is welcomed in America, in Europe and broken in most places than not.

I want to bring up your theory on the “culture of congestion” [that architecture of a city, using New York City as an example, promotes a state of congestion on all possible levels, and exploits this congestion to inspire and support particular forms of social intercourse that together form a unique culture of congestion]. Does the pace of the culture of congestion accelerate now as the rate of new technology accelerates?

Well, I think that part of the new technology is of course enabling people to communicate without being together, so you could say that it’s more about dissemination and distribution, and not necessarily about concentration. What you do see, particularly in China, is an enormous rush at creating cities and I think they’re planning something like 30 cities larger than 10 million people. So I think that the model of congestion is still really the model that things gravitate toward and also currently in sustainability, there’s an apparent connection between the ability to make something sustainable and concentration. So it looks as if it is here to stay, but in the meantime, my own interests are switching away from the city and congestion. I’m now looking at the countryside because I’m simply asking all these people that went to the city, “What did they leave behind?” And now that I’m looking at the countryside, it’s going to be totally fascinating because it’s now the kind of territory where almost all the traditional cities have been drained and it’s replaced by intraslow agriculture, scientific experiments, immigration, a lot of political turmoil and friction.

So would you consider yourself a social reformer now, especially with the paradigm shift?

I’m totally interested in social dimensions. I would consider myself more an amateur anthropologist than a social reformer, but of course, I would like to have a link back if I can.

[Laughs] I like that… What are your thoughts on urban renewal and gentrification? How are they helping to expand the dialogue and culture of architecture worldwide?

Oh wow. I think gentrification is obviously not helping anything and that’s why I’m kind of currently particularly involved in preservation. I want to find a way that if you renew something or if you keep something that you don’t at the same time apply a kind of death sentence in terms of killing what it was. That’s why, for instance, I’m trying to curate an aesthetic expectation where everything is not shiny, polished and that kind of decay can also be an acceptable condition.

Yeah, and it seems you kind of are pushing that idea of celebrity and shiny away…

Yeah, well, I have no relation with it. I find it an incredible constraint and also it can really take you away from any serious effort. So in that sense, we are kind of rooting for a kind of systematic aggressive to resist that kind of situation.

Very smart. I commend you…I actually appreciate that very much.

Thank you.

So what can you tell us about your current projects in Asia, specifically CCTV and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in China? Interestingly, if you haven’t heard, China is helping the world financially and is a massive force right now…

Basically, the main moderation is to try to have an involvement in the outcome of where China is going. And I’m not exaggerating our want, but I think that the evolution of China is something that is important for everybody. I’m deeply convinced of that, and so I think that, just saying they’re wrong or unfree or blah blah blah is not really enough. And once you’re involved, I think it’s more interesting to be involved in key elements than in safe elements. So that’s why we engaged this work for the CCTV and actually now that it’s kind of finished, I find it kind of interesting because one thing that it does is to introduce in their country, which is kind of domestically dedicated to stability, an element that is completely unstable. Whenever you look at it from a different side it is never the same: Sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s small; sometimes it’s aggressive, sometimes it’s vulnerable. And so, that in itself is a statement that works and comes close and also in the organization of the building itself, we have all kinds of—I don’t want to call it devices, but all kinds of elements, which allow the public to enter the system we created there. So what the ultimate impact of it will be we cannot really tell, but even at this moment I am still confident about it.

What exactly is an adaptable plugin megastructure?

Well, I now have to kind of speak for the Metabolists. Don’t forget that in Asia that things that are provisional are more normal than with us. You know, everything has to last longer. So for them, they made an inherent separation between the things that have an ability or have a need to last and the things that need to simply be put in and taken out according to the rhythm of biology or for instance, you could, if you have a family, plug in a few more units; or according to a lifestyle, you could plug in a kind of Japanese cell for a tea ceremony, or a study cell or a bath cell. So it’s kind of really, if we convert something [in architecture], it’s an incredibly onerous rhythm, you have to really change everything. So the notion there was that you could be very precise about what you change and what you keep.

But how sustainable are these structures?

It’s not particularly workable, I think. So I think it’s kind of utopian thinking, but I think it’s maybe a direction that we can still think in if we now introduce also recycling or other sustainable systems integrated into this.

What was the most enlightening part of your experience doing research for this book?

The most fascinating part, first of all, was to discover that the Japanese architects were interested in speaking to foreigners at the end of their lives and I think that almost all of them made revelations that they would not have made to other Japanese people. For instance, we spoke to the wives and the civil servants—Did you see the interview—when he told us that he would go around with suitcases full of money to kind of create this kind of pride—that was really a revelation. I think that they felt we were good people to give a kind of record of the real situation. Another kind of revealing thing for me was having to deal with really old people. I found it very touching to see that and how each of them was trying to work in their diminished faculties. So somebody with a fading memory would be a visionary. Someone with a memory would be super pedantic, so it’s really kind of touching to see that maybe in old age you have to be more strategic than when you’re young.

If Metabolism was a premonition of the 21st century, what would you predict for the 22nd?

I don’t think Metabolism was a premonition because some of the things are kind of literally applicable, but what I think is very, very applicable is the way that creativity was orchestrated, nourished; how education converged with living together and working together; so the whole thing as a model of engineered creativity, to me, is very important. And I think it will be very, very important for the next century too. How do you organize larger environments that promote creativity and continues it also.

So is that the catalyst that drives you to create?

Oh yeah, in essence, because of course I have an office now [OMA*AMO]—four of them, blah blah blah— so it’s not really easy to maintain a kind of freshness. I was also kind of fascinated to see how each of them [Metabolists] maintained their freshness. They kind of ran from one circuit to another, to another, to another.

If you could create your own think tank now, who would be in it?

That’s OMA. [Laughs] And that’s very important. There is something very unpleasantly passive about architecture that you stand there. You have a certain knowledge and you wait for people to come to you. By creating our own think tank, we are in part, and on a very modest scale, to establish our own agenda. Because I’m interested in the countryside, I can actually liberate myself and organize people to help me. I have a network of people where we can generate knowledge without anybody else asking us for it [first].

So if we’re thinking about the future, is outer space and building on other planets outside of Earth of interest to you?

[Laughs] Ah, no, but I think the aesthetics of it are extremely appealing. I think some of the most beautiful images ever generated are of the man on the moon and so I really admire it as an effort, but I kind of smug at the thought.

Rem Koolhaas’ new book, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks is available for purchase, here.

Follow @RemKoolhaas on Twitter.

Image of Rem Koolhaas shot by Patrick Ibanez exclusively for Stark.

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