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Rem Koolhaas Interview: 'We Shouldn't Tear Down Buildings We Can Still Use'

Interview Conducted by

Photo Gallery: Rem Koolhaas' Fondazione Prada Photos
OMA

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas talks to SPIEGEL about the new Fondazione Prada museum he designed in Milan, the danger of turning cities into historical Disneylands and his desire to raze an entire neighborhood of Paris.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Mr. Koolhaas, the Fondazione Prada -- a new art museum you designed -- will be opening in Milan in early May. It is located in a converted old distillery and will be dominated by a tower with a gold leaf façade. Is the latter a provocative reference to the fact that a luxury brand is behind the project?

Koolhaas: No, that has nothing to do with it. We wanted to show that a razor-thin coating can completely transform an unremarkable building. Our aim with the Fondazione Prada is to create a spectrum of materials and colors. The gold is one side of the spectrum. It contrasts with the other side, which consists of the rather humdrum gray of the old building and the white concrete of the new tower.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: What did you think when you first saw the roughly 100-year-old factory buildings?

Koolhaas: I found them unspectacular. But these kinds of industrial structures, with their modest architectural language, are very popular as museum buildings around the world. Why is that? Many years ago, when we took part in the competition for the conversion of the Tate Modern in London, we were explicitly told that artists want clear industrial architecture. They don't want spaces that compete with their works. Apparently they don't want any "architecture" at all.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: But you're not the kind of architect who is happy clearing out an industrial space and painting the walls white.

Koolhaas: Correct. Our goal was for old and new to coalesce into a hybrid. We made endless lists of the works of art belonging to the foundation, and then made detailed analyses of the buildings. We racked our brains trying to figure out how to guide visitors through the buildings and what to do with the spaces that were available. Then we added what was missing -- primarily a central, large exhibition room.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Since, as you say, there are already many museums located in former industrial buildings, you could have proposed tearing the old building down and constructing a spectacular new one.

Koolhaas: That was never an option. Besides, I generally believe that we shouldn't tear down buildings that are still usable.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Not every functional building is worth retaining for aesthetic reasons. It's easier for architects to make a mark with an iconic new building than with a conversion.

Koolhaas: Our ambition has always been to create the most intelligent possible designs, not the most spectacular ones. With the Fondazione Prada we spent a great deal of energy mapping out the relationship between old and new. The outlines of the old structure's windows, for instance, are projected onto the half-transparent surfaces of the new building by daylight.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Why are you so interested in preserving architecture?

Koolhaas: At the beginning of the 21st century, a growing amount of attention was focused on an ever-smaller number of architects, who were expected to produce more and more spectacular buildings.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: You also belong to this elite circle. You've been awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, and caused quite a stir with buildings like the headquarters of China Central Television in Beijing.

Koolhaas: Yes, but in our architectural firm we felt increasingly uncomfortable with the obligation to constantly surpass ourselves. Then we embraced the theme of preservation. It requires intelligence, precision and creativity -- and there's no expectation that we'll be making a huge splash. Conversions are more about concepts than effects.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: When it comes to conversations, it is probably an intellectual challenge to deal with the many building regulations involved.

Koolhaas: No, it's not an intellectual challenge, but it can sometimes be difficult to apply today's regulations to old structures. You first of all need wheelchair-accessible entrances, which require plans for ramps and elevators and space (for wheelchair users) to turn, and specific door widths. Sometimes you have no choice but to make an architectural intervention that was actually not part of the plan.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Does a building need to have a certain age or degree of prominence for us to recognize it as important?

Koolhaas: The idea of preservation dates back to the beginning of the modern age. During the 19th century, people essentially felt that something had to be at least 2,000 years old to be worthy of preservation. Today, we already decide during the planning stages how long a building should exist. At first, historical monuments were deemed worthy of preservation, then their surroundings, then city districts and finally large expanses of space. In Switzerland the entire Rhaetian Railway has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The dimensions and repertoire of what is worthy of preserving have expanded dramatically.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Were there structures in recent years that you think should have been better preserved?

Koolhaas: The Berlin Wall, for example. Only a few sections remain, because no one knew at the time how to deal with this monument. I find that regrettable.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: And what do you think of the concrete architecture of the 1960s, a style known as brutalism? Should it be protected or torn down?

Koolhaas: We should preserve some of it. It would be madness for an entire period of architectural history -- that had a major influence on cities around the world -- to disappear simply because we suddenly find the style ugly. This brings up a fundamental question: Are we preserving architecture or history?

KULTUR SPIEGEL: What is your answer?

Koolhaas: We have to preserve history. Future generations, after all, should understand the past. To achieve this, we need to selectively preserve history -- and a building can represent history. When you stroll through Rome, you embark on a journey through over 2,000 years of history. That's wonderful.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: These days, many people prefer to live in old buildings than in new ones. Where does this trend come from?

Koolhaas: In my generation, it was all about tackling new challenges. We identified with the ideals of the French Revolution, namely liberty, equality and fraternity, and in that kind of culture, people were very interested in new things. The new generation is more concerned with comfort, security and sustainability. It is in keeping with this lifestyle that people want to live in buildings with a history.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Does this create the danger of so many structures being faithfully preserved that cities will morph into Disneylands?

Koolhaas: No, at least not as long as architects have a say in the matter. Some architects work with the stylistic elements of the modern age -- confrontation and contrast. Other architects take a postmodernist approach focusing on simulation and similarity. The overuse of simulation as a stylistic element could lead to pseudo-authenticity. But the real danger stems from commercial interests.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: You also have to satisfy market interests. The Fondazione Prada has a museum shop and a museum café that was designed by Wes Anderson.

Koolhaas: True, but it's about finding intelligent, not dull, solutions to commercial needs. In the Fondazione Prada we are building a bookstore -- not a souvenir shop -- and the café will be a recognizably non-authentic replica of a typical Milanese coffee bar.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: In Paris' historic Marais district, you are transforming a building belonging to Galeries Lafayette into a gallery and studio space. A number of your designs were rejected because they involved partial demolition. Instead of being converted, the building is now being expanded, with a complicated elevator being installed in the inner courtyard. Does this frustrate you?

Koolhaas: Not when I think about the end result. The elevator floors can be moved up and down to allow for 49 different partition arrangements. We would have never achieved such intelligently diverse spaces with our initial proposals.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: London has seen the construction of several spectacular skyscrapers, like the Shard and the Gherkin, in recent years. Over 200 others are in the planning stages. What defines a city more -- existing historical structures or spectacular new buildings?

Koolhaas: A major city like London will never be characterized by individual skyscrapers, if nothing else because of the size and diversity of the city. That's what I like about big cities. A monolith can only change the image of a smaller, provincial city -- like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum did in Bilbao.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: But taken together, skyscrapers determine a city's skyline. These buildings belong to private investors. How do you feel about the fact that hedge funds and super-rich investors have more influence on a city's atmosphere than the public sector?

Koolhaas: Before the 1980s, the decisions were made by cities. Since then power has shifted toward private investors. Nothing good has come of this for Holland. The area between Amsterdam and Rotterdam has been completely developed and connected with freeways lined with the predictable junk food restaurants. I regret that cities no longer have money to even pursue a vision of their ongoing development.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Government agencies can still exert a great deal of influence through building permits and building regulations.

Koolhaas: Not as much as before, when they had enough money to build their own projects. But different cities take different approaches. Here in Rotterdam, investors are given a great deal of freedom. During Hans Stimmann's term as Berlin's building director, he kept a much tighter rein on what was built in that city.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: You work a great deal with private clients, like Miuccia Prada in Milan and Dasha Zhukova, the wife of Russian multibillionaire Roman Abramovich. Zhukova has commissioned you to transform a former socialist Moscow restaurant into an exhibition space called The Garage. Is it easier to collaborate with people like them than with public officials?

Koolhaas: No, I see no fundamental difference. But the Fondazione Prada and The Garage are quite generous gestures toward the cities in which they are located.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: It's possible that not everybody in Milan is rejoicing over this generosity. Spectacular architectural transformations that attract large crowds can have a negative impact on surrounding areas if they trigger a wave of gentrification.

Koolhaas: I think the highly industrial surroundings of the Fondazione Prada on the outskirts of Milan are relatively immune to this. Perhaps there will be a few more cafés, but the museum won't radically alter the character of the neighborhood. In principle, though, you're right, that is a risk. For me urbanity is also about diversity -- about rich and poor living side by side. A homogenization process like the one that takes place during gentrification is anti-urban. Nevertheless, there are examples of outstanding buildings that benefit neighborhoods.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Could you give us one?

Koolhaas: The Centre Pompidou in Paris.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: The limited amount of urban space available in today's cities alone means that not all buildings can be preserved. How can we achieve a working balance between preservation and demolition?

Koolhaas: We are intensively grappling with this question. If we assume a new attitude toward preservation, then we need a new attitude toward demolition. We once made a radical proposal for Paris in a competition: The district beyond the city's La Defense neighborhood is made up of miserable and mediocre architecture because at the time aesthetics weren't taken into consideration in the planning. Instead of expanding Paris, we said they should tear down every building there that was older than 25 years. The beauty of this idea is that you can create something better every 25 years.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: Earlier in this interview, you said that we shouldn't tear down anything that is still usable.

Koolhaas: That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn't. The economic logic these days is to build buildings with a life expectancy of 25 years. The buildings being built by today's generations are often not only architecturally substandard, they lack the structural integrity required for a longer lifespan.

KULTUR SPIEGEL: But in Paris they didn't embrace your proposal.

Koolhaas: No, of course not. But that doesn't matter, because our competition entry was still a statement. For us, the balance between old and new is a very, very important issue. We shouldn't be sentimental about everything that is a few decades old. Without balance, we run the risk that some cities will become their own museums while other urban centers will generate a frenzy of new architecture that springs up virtually overnight.

About Rem Koolhaas
  • DPA
    Rem Koolhaas, 70, was born in Rotterdam and went on to study scriptwriting in Amsterdam and to briefly work as a journalist. In 1968, he began studying architecture in London and, later, in Ithaca, New York. In 1975, he cofounded OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture) in London, though it is now based in Rotterdam. He first became famous as a writer and theorist on architecture before going on to design several major and highly esteemed projects, including the headquarters for China's state-run media in Beijing, which the "New York Times" said "may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century." He has also won several prestigious international awards and, in 2008, was named him one of the world's 100 most influential people by "Time" magazine.

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