Without Qualities: Interview to Rem Koolhaas
by Christian Parreno
When I proposed to talk about space instead of architecture, Rem Koolhaas appeared dubious – he said, ‘It’s difficult. Space has been the most important mystification of the Modern Movement. It is a colossal alibi… but we can try.’ His acceptance to negotiate not only set the tone of our conversation but also revealed one of his most admired qualities; the capacity to combine vision and practice. His unprecedented architectural configurations convey a democratic sense of organisation with non-hierarchical suggestions of movement – every user is left equally free to inhabit and absorb the surroundings he creates. Koolhaas’ body of work is a topological relation of ideas, based on observation and materialised under the structure of writing and architecture.
Remment Lucas Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam in 1944. His father, a writer and director of a film school who supported the Indonesian cause for autonomy from Dutch colonialism, was invited to Jakarta to run a cultural programme in 1952. This period abroad would ignite Koolhaas’ interest in understanding social and cultural manifestations. Back in Amsterdam, he studied scriptwriting at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy and in 1968 he enrolled at the Architectural Association School in London. In 1972 he continued his studies at Cornell University in New York. Three years later he founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture together with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp.
In addition to the thought-provoking architectural production of OMA, writing and research are central aspects of his practice. Among many books and collaborations with magazines, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978) and S, M, L, XL (1995) stand out as cult pieces on modern architecture and society. Koolhaas has won several international awards including the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2000 and the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2010 Venice Biennale. He is a professor at Harvard University where he conducts the Project on the City – a hub for urban research of developing parts of the world.
How do you think about architecture as the space of experience?
In our work there is an underlying feeling that the subject should not spend all the attention in architecture but that there are other oppressing concerns that deserve attention. The subject can be inspired by serenity and regularity. Our architecture aims to deliberately reduce first degree excitement. It is about not having properties, as in Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man Without Qualities, 1930) – a very important book for me.
How do you engage with other disciplines?
I am deeply influenced by art. I read about it, I talk about it. I look and I listen. There are more literal forms of collaboration, such as having artists in the office to critique the things we are doing. We have worked with Carsten Holler to make things uglier and we have worked with Thomas Demand to make things smarter. But I think that it is more important to read and simply be aware as deeply as possible as to what is happening in art.
What about your architecture?
During its production it is super engaged with an unbelievable amount of different domains, such as politics, engineering, finance. Architecture is the most engaged profession that actually exists. It has so many obligations in terms of communication and collaboration. Once the project is built, it depends on its characteristics. In the case of Casa da Musica in Porto, the building is unbelievably used. Every single space is occupied almost twenty-four hours a day. It is functioning as a crucial place in the city, not only for one milieu or one generation but in a collective manner.
There are other buildings, such as the recently finished Rothschild Bank in London, that have limited intentions in terms of engagement and probably disengagement. One of our concerns is to make that engagement happen as naturally as possible and as eagerly as possible. If you look at the way our buildings are used, it is very surprising that in spite of how intellectually they are constructed, they have a visceral way of being used and, therefore, a visceral excitement.
You are collaborating with Miuccia Prada and those projects seem more focused on space than in architecture. Is there any thread that links these projects?
One aspect that we try to achieve is concerned and connected to one of the more important issues of today: branding. The way branding is typically done leads to tragic results. People think that to brand something is to reduce it to its essence and then manipulate it, but never move too far away from it. That conception of branding explains a lot about the deadness of our culture. This total paradox is evident in the most successful fashion houses that are the fashion houses of death designers. They are in a constant process of manipulation. An experiment of AMO (the research branch of OMA) is to see whether you can invent another kind of branding, a kind that creates more space and other dimensions and, therefore, see if something goes beyond the initial chromosomes and invents new chromosomes. Another aspect for us, as architects, is to see whether we can come close to one of the most interesting things about fashion; that is, the efficient way of achieving the sublime. In every Prada show there are three or four moments that are really astonishing. If you then simply do the mathematics, with four shows every year, there is a very high production of sublime moments. The process is slower in architecture. It is about whether we can also achieve beauty by different means, with less effort and in less time.
How can the architectural achieve the sublime?
It exists on every level. Anyone who stands on Red Square, with the sky against the Kremlin during winter, would experience the sublime. I am not sure if we come close to that and I am not sure if architecture can do it at an urban scale. But, for instance, I think that we created certain images with sublime impressions in the Transformer Project, in Seoul. We have also tried to achieve the sublime in buildings but the excitement to create with architecture happens maybe every four years – working with Prada is one way that we can try to accelerate it.
You have been working in historical sites from the beginning of your career. What is your position towards history?
I think that my activity seems to try in a lot of different environments to define what intelligent interventions should be. We try to define a theoretical framework when we work with historical substance, as in the Cronocaos exhibition (participation of OMA and AMO in the 2010 Venice Biennale – it featured twenty-six unpublished projects linked by the notions of time, history and preservation). We also try to be historical in a symbolic manner; for instance, in the project for the Dutch Parliament. In that project we proposed a building, with Zaha Hadid, which created a breach in a historical fortress. That was romantic symbolism. Recently we are trying to convert a storage building into a department store in Venice. In a minimal but very explicit intervention we are attempting to show and reveal not only one history but many histories. We want to deny the suggestion that a building from 1945 has a history that stopped in 1945. All buildings have continuing histories – good histories and bad histories: of modification, of abuse, of renovation. We are trying to embrace the full complexity.
The 70s saw the emergence of other prominent architects – however, their work is different from yours, for example Zaha Hadid’s …
I think she is interested in a particular kind of architecture and she is doing it in an impressive way. I have more hesitations, or more competing interests, that probably lead me to a more sceptical way of approaching architecture. I am less focused on aesthetics and more interested in engaging different languages. A very important part of my architecture is that it is deeply engaged with engineering. If you see the CCTV project in China, in particular the interiors, there is an astonishing amount of visible engineering, almost like sculptures in the room.
You have witnessed the creation and development of our current understanding of the notion of sustainability. How do you see it has progressed?
I was educated within an eco-friendly and sophisticated understanding of sustainability. Buckminster Fuller (an American theorist, architect and futurist renowned for his concerns about design in relation to the resources of the Earth, mainly materialised through the development of geodesic domes) described the earth as spatial and I think it is a good metaphor because it indicates that everyone is in it together. Architecture has a very intelligent tradition, starting with the Romans, of thinking about the issue of how not to waste effort and matter and not to create garbage. The market economy has erased that considerably and is being exploitative. Now we are fortunately in a situation where it has become part of the market language that buildings are sustainable. But this does not always lead to greater, purer or more intelligent buildings. Our projects do not use the symbolism of sustainability but they are engineered to perform. For example, in the Seattle library we integrated this notion by the kind of the material we used and how things can be dismantled.
You are considered not only an influential architect but also a very powerful individual. How do you feel about this?
It is not something that I have thought a lot about before. I would say, so far, it is simply about being involved in many things with a sort of intelligence and seeing what happens. There are certain hypotheses that I am interested in testing: one case is my campaign against the skyscraper – that’s an area where I have tried to exercise an influence. Power is incredibly tantalising but also burdensome. What becomes difficult to outrun and outwit is to be followed. I hate being followed and that is not a convenient characteristic to have in my situation. I prefer to be influential in terms of writing, making statements, indicating what things should be looked at, or saying that by exploring this we can compensate for a loss of that. I try to be strategic in declaring interest in certain themes, in a parallel and critical way to my practice as an architect. I am more interested in the role of the critic rather than in the role of someone who is producing mainstream things.
What are your plans for the future?
In the last ten years, I and a group of friends have been seriously thinking about getting involved in politics. We have thought to try to influence the European community. My convictions are vaguely socialist, extremely European and interested in communicating with other forms of thinking. We live in a period in which it is not possible to believe that one system will triumph over all the other ones. It is about establishing an intelligent coexistence where nobody is humiliated. That requires mediation and a lot of the work we do is mediation, simply because we work in so many different cultures. I am against inequality. In 2008 I was part of the so-called “group of the wise” – one of them was Mario Monti, now Prime Minister of Italy. Invited by the European Union, our task was to think about what would be the important issues for 2030. That was a super interesting situation because we were speculating about market economy, open borders, Turkey and other aspects.
Was it considered how the rest of the world looks at Europe?
My first comment was that it was extremely unwise that the entire group consisted of Europeans. If I would have composed the group I would have definitely asked representatives from different parts of the world to be part of it. But we tried to put ourselves in the position of them. We interviewed a lot of Asian, American and African people so they could inject their point of view. It was a mediational role. There is a limit of how real that can be, but you cannot jump over your own shadow.
You have travelled and studied different parts of the world and also elaborated on globalisation. How do you think that experience can be combined with politics?
That remains to be seen. What is not clear at this moment is whether we are actually witnessing the formation of blocks based on similarities or other logics. After a period in which we [Europe] were really able to overcome our differences, we are thinking of falling back to a situation where only what is similar and familiar creates a kind of intimacy and a sense of grouping. It is a form of regression. We all have become less intellectual; things are less done through organisations like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, interestingly enough, we are still forced to communicate between blocks that are explicitly different in their values. That is why I am interested in mediation.
It reminds me of Heidegger. For him, there are only two ways of inhabiting the world: one is through anxiety and the other one through boredom.
I would say that very few people are bored right now.
Is that good or bad?
(Laughing) It is up to you.
by Christian Parreño
Rotterdam, April 2012.