Rem Koolhaas 'An Obsessive Compulsion towards the Spectacular'

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas talks about new trends in architecture and urban development, the end of the European city, the rise of Dubai, Russia and China, the obsession with XXXL and the difference between the people who design buildings for a living and "star architects."

Rem Koolhaas on the CCTV Tower in Beijing: "It looks different from every angle."

Rem Koolhaas on the CCTV Tower in Beijing: "It looks different from every angle."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koolhaas, you are designing buildings in Europe, the United States, the Persian Gulf and China. From which part of the world do you expect to see the strongest impulses for architecture and urban development emerging in the future?

Koolhaas: We have to draw some distinctions here. As far as the experience of building goes, the strongest impulse will undoubtedly come from China and the Middle East, and probably from India, as well. Things get more complex when it comes to thinking. The intellectual force of the West is still dominant, but other cultures are getting stronger. I expect that we will develop a new way of thinking in architecture and urban planning, and that less will be based on our models. There are many young, good architects in China. The unanswered question is whether our cooperation, this internationalization, will result in a common language of architecture, whether we will speak two different languages or whether there will be a mixture of the two.

SPIEGEL: At a recent talk in Dubai, you showed two slides. The first image was of a series of iconic skyscrapers that you, Zaha Hadid and other star architects designed. The second was of a collection of high-rise buildings designed by unknown architects. The images were surprisingly similar.

Koolhaas: I have a very hard time with the expression "star architect." It gives the impression of referring to people with no heart, egomaniacs who are constantly doing their thing, completely divorced from any context. I believe that this is a grotesque insult to members of a profession who -- to the extent that I know my colleagues -- go to great lengths to find the right thing, the appropriate thing, for each individual case. At the same time we are, of course, driven by the market -- and by developers who try to pin us down to certain forms. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the best way for us to escape this being pinned down to the purely formal. That's why I decided to simply demonstrate it: There is, in fact, no great difference between the buildings by "star architects" and those designed by others.

SPIEGEL: When you work on large projects, how much time do you have to engage with a place, a specific context? In Dubai, you recently designed, in the space of only one year, a city for 1.5 million people, known as Waterfront City.

Koolhaas: There is less time available for research, so that a tendency toward imitation develops. One of our theories is that one can offset this excessive compulsion toward the spectacular with a return to simplicity. That's one effect of speed. Another one is the now universal demand for everything to be "sustainable." We have been interested in this idea since the 1960s, so in that respect we feel vindicated. But now sustainability is such a political category that it's getting more and more difficult to think about it in a serious way. Sustainability has become an ornament. Designs are increasingly winning competitions because they are literally green, and because somewhere they feature a small windmill.

SPIEGEL: You apparently don't like the concept of sustainability.

Koolhaas: Because it's become an empty formula, and because, for that reason, it's getting harder and harder to think about ecology without becoming ironic. On the other hand, there is of course a benefit to the label of sustainability being so popular today. We have long been trying to build in such a way that we can manage without air-conditioning as much as possible, by avoiding unnecessary exposure to direct sunlight and by creating a mass that provides shade. There was hardly any interest in this in the past, whereas today customers pay for it.

SPIEGEL: Your Waterfront City in Dubai is also supposed to be sustainable. What exactly do you want to achieve with this project?

Koolhaas: My goal is to establish a section of the city in Dubai that is a true metropolis. That includes, most of all, a true public space -- not the caricature of a public space, meaning shopping malls. I am very grateful to the government in Dubai for the fact that we will have a court there, hospitals and the terminus stations for two subway lines. In other words, this space will have a recognizable identity: ingredients of what characterizes Dubai, but also a real urban life ...

SPIEGEL: ... which is still lacking?

Koolhaas: It isn't lacking, but it is confused. We have a neighborhood there called Deira, which is completely urban. It's unbelievably dense, mixed, exciting and beautiful -- the type of beauty that will probably need our protection soon. In fact we, as city planners, will have to spend more time in the future thinking about how to plan and preserve at the same time.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the organic European city that we know could soon be a historical memory, a world cultural site?

Koolhaas: Exactly. Though we don't have to bid farewell to the European city -- it's still there. But it simply happens to have served long enough as a standard, as the only model. This is, in a sense, the tragedy of the last 20 years. Because it is so dominant as a standard, because it is so obsessed with contemporary architecture, everything else comes across as negative. We are against China, and we are against Dubai, because all of this isn't European. Perhaps this also describes one of Europe's problems, in a broader sense: We are so strongly influenced by our model that we have trouble thinking in terms of other worlds.

SPIEGEL: Critics of development on the Gulf say it's "all Disneyland."

Koolhaas: In truth, the constant return of this Disney fatwa says more about the stagnation of the West's critical imagination than about the cities on the Gulf. What our office is building is the subject of controversy everywhere, but I have noticed that people who actually live in China or on the Gulf are usually open to our ideas. They happen to be out in the field, and when you're in the field you have a different perspective.


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