SPIEGEL Interview with Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas: "Evil Can also Be Beautiful"
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas talks about Prada and politics, building in autocratic states and the allure of the ugly.
Mr. Koolhaas, you plan to enter politics as a socialist. Doesn't being a working top architect keep you busy enough?
Koolhaas: I'm not interested in going into politics in the classic sense, but why shouldn't I, if I can do something useful? There are so many unresolved questions, and in my view politicians are not up to the challenge. I don't intend to help out as an individual, but rather with my entire firm, OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and my think tank, AMO.
SPIEGEL: What is a socialist like you doing designing shops for fashion house Prada and its world of luxury?
Koolhaas: Do the old-fashioned socialists you are apparently referring to even exist anymore? I'm pleased to have Prada as a client that is moving today's culture forward. I like fashion, whether or not it's overpriced, because it creates a sense of the sublime with relatively few means. Where else do you find that?
SPIEGEL: What connects architecture with politics?
Koolhaas: All important architecture of the last century was strongly influenced by political systems. Look at the Soviet system, with its constructivism and Stalinism, Weimer with its Modern style, Mussolini and, of course, the Nazis and Albert Speer's colossal structures.
SPIEGEL: And the present?
Koolhaas: Today's architecture is subservient to the market and its terms. The market has supplanted ideology. Architecture has turned into a spectacle. It has to package itself and no longer has significance as anything but a landmark.
SPIEGEL: You also criticize yourself with statements like those. Your television center in Beijing, the CCTV Tower for the Central Chinese Television network, will change the city and give it a new face.
Koolhaas: One cannot completely avoid this landmark character with large buildings such as these. But the city itself is also gigantic. Working on this project at this location and for these people gives the building a powerful sense of content and, as a result, a great deal of seriousness.
SPIEGEL: Do national peculiarities still play a role in architecture these days?
Koolhaas: There are essentially two possibilities. One is to be, shall we say, an average architect and do the same thing everywhere. The other is to let yourself be inspired and even changed by the unique qualities of the place where you're building. We always try to take the second approach. As far as I'm concerned, our CCTV in China is inconceivable in another location and, of course, cannot be duplicated.
SPIEGEL: You often criticize fellow architects like Frank Gehry, with his stacked metal designs, and purist I.M. Pei for not being serious enough. Why?
Koolhaas: I don't criticize them. I merely try to put as much distance as possible between them and me. I find their approach unsatisfying. I don't believe that every ambition has to be expressed in steel, glass or concrete.
SPIEGEL: These architects are very successful.
Koolhaas: That's fine. But Gehry, to focus on him for a moment, would never be asked about his political views. On the other hand, our firm AMO has worked for the European Union in Brussels. We tried to make the EU's political message clearer, more attractive and easier to communicate.
SPIEGEL: So architects should have a social and political conscience?
Koolhaas: It certainly doesn't do any good, but I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that that's true and to look for this conscience.
SPIEGEL: Sociologists have assigned part of the blame for the recent riots in the French suburbs to failed architectural concepts. Are they right?
Koolhaas: The architecture per se isn't at fault. The more important factor, in my view, is the political neglect of these areas, which have essentially been cut off from other neighborhoods.
SPIEGEL: Berlin painter Heinrich Zille, whose work often portrayed the poor, said that one can kill a person with an apartment as effectively as with an ax.
Koolhaas: Let's put it this way: One can be happy or unhappy in a building. But some buildings make us more depressed than others.
SPIEGEL: One of the goals of the Bauhaus movement was to design an antidote to the gloom of tenement housing. Does the motto "form follows function" still apply today?
Koolhaas: It was always more of a slogan than a program. I don't think anyone believes in it anymore. I see many superfluous things in design today. It may be that the pendulum will swing back and the austere esthetic will return.
SPIEGEL: You are also an author. Can architecture be compared to a story, a novel or even a poem?
Koolhaas: Yes. I used to write screenplays for Russ Meyer?
SPIEGEL: ... who became famous for his sex films starring large-breasted women.
Koolhaas: In a script, you have to link various episodes together, you have to generate suspense and you have to assemble things -- through editing, for example. It's exactly the same in architecture. Architects also put together spatial episodes to make sequences.
SPIEGEL: Tell us about "Hollywood Tower," the script you wrote for Russ Meyer.
Koolhaas: I wrote it in 1974 with Rene Daalder, and it consists of three levels. At the first level, wealthy Arabs buy up the Hollywood film archive and build a computer with which any star can be put back on the screen. The second level deals with the Nixon administration, which spends a fortune helping out-of-work actors -- including Lassie -- get jobs in the movies again. Finally, the third level is about Russ Meyer, of course, who is shooting a porn film -- the last form of humanism.
- Part 1: "Evil Can also Be Beautiful"
- Part 2
© DER SPIEGEL 13/2006
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