Interview with Star Architect Rem Koolhaas 'We're Building Assembly-Line Cities and Buildings'
Part 2: Architecture as the 'Cherry on the Cake'
SPIEGEL: In "The Generic City," you ask whether it might not be intentional that our cities are becoming increasingly similar and faceless.
Koolhaas: Yes. And the answer could be: The traditional city is very much occupied by rules and codes of behavior. But the generic city is free of established patterns and expectations. These are cities that make no demands and, consequently, create freedom. Some 80 percent of the population of a city like Dubai consists of immigrants, while in Amsterdam it is 40 percent. I believe that it's easier for these demographic groups to walk through Dubai, Singapore or HafenCity than through beautiful medieval city centers. For these people, (the latter) exude nothing but exclusion and rejection. In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable. These cities function like airports in which the same shops are always in the same places. Everything is defined by function, and nothing by history. This can also be liberating.
SPIEGEL: The German philosopher and media theorist Peter Sloterdijk has described your essay "The Generic City" as the "zero hour of architectural history." How did you hit upon the idea of describing interchangeability as a deliberate development?
Koolhaas: Because all we do is complain. You are too, by asking why everything here looks so interchangeable. Well, perhaps it's because there are people who like it this way. I have always created portraits of individual cities. "Delirious New York" was my first essay.
SPIEGEL: It brought you overnight fame as an architectural theoretician. That was in 1978, before you had even made a name for yourself as an architect.
Koolhaas: I went on to analyze cities like Atlanta, Singapore and Lagos. I have always been interested in very special and unique cities. But it suddenly occurred to me that the differences between these cities actually aren't all that interesting. I wanted to uncover their similarities. The essay "The Generic City" was meant to be applicable to any city.
SPIEGEL: One could also describe the face of our cities as the face of neoliberalism.
Koolhaas: Under neoliberalism, architecture lost its role as the decisive and fundamental articulation of a society.
SPIEGEL: How does a society articulate itself?
Koolhaas: Take, for example, the prefabricated building. No matter how misguided this ultimately turned out to be, it actually was a very clear articulation. But neoliberalism has turned architecture into a "cherry on the cake" affair. The Elbphilharmonie is a perfect example: It's icing on the cake. I'm not saying that neoliberalism has destroyed architecture. But it has assigned it a new role and limited its range.
SPIEGEL: In the last few years, more and more cities have sold land to international investors. At the same time, these investors have looked at architecture from a purely economic perspective rather than from an urban-planning one.
Koolhaas: It's a bit more complicated than that. During this period, the political system has tried to maintain the appearance of control by setting many rules: what height restrictions have to be adhered to, which materials have to be used, what artistic language the façades should speak. This has merely concealed the fact that so much control over use had been ceded to the investors. The commercial impulse, paired with bureaucratic rules, leads to these highly unsatisfactory results: You have neither the structures of an unfettered economic drive, which make New York and London so exciting, nor the clear planning of German cities from the Gründerzeit period (ed's note: generally speaking, in the second half of the 19th century).
SPIEGEL: Do you want to see a return to greater government control? This longing shines through in your massive new book about the Metabolists, a Japanese group of architects that is largely unknown in the West.
Koolhaas: That's right. The state wasn't always the hopeless and powerless entity it is often perceived to be in the West today. We learn this from the Metabolists, who the government engaged in 1960 to combat their country's structural weaknesses: earthquakes, tsunamis, the parceling of the country. Another interesting thing about the Metabolist movement is the fact that, despite being great individualists, its members acted as a group. Today, this possibility no longer exists. The compulsion to compete has isolated architects.
SPIEGEL: Astonishing. But haven't you also benefited from the system of "star architects" who dominate the major international architecture projects these days?
Koolhaas: It's true that we architects are getting a lot more attention today. But we are being taken less seriously. Perhaps this is the therapeutic moment of our conversation, after all: I refuse to admit to a crisis. Is HafenCity truly the expression of a crisis? It might be that only the upper 10 percent live there, and one could criticize that. But at least we should take notice of the fact that these upper 10 percent are completely happy with this type of architecture.
SPIEGEL: Is a star architect like you even interested in whether people who live or work in your buildings are complaining? How is it with your building for the Chinese state television network CCTV in Beijing?
Koolhaas: I take this very seriously. I still go to Beijing once a month. Even in China, the building's users are involved in the process. We listen to them and their suggestions. This is a very democratic process, even there.
SPIEGEL: Ten years ago, you had to decide whether to participate in the competition for the new development of the Ground Zero site or to apply for the construction of the CCTV tower. You chose China. Is it easier to build there than in the Western democracies?
Koolhaas: It's never easy to build. It's just as difficult to convince the Chinese as it is to convince Americans or Germans. The only difference is that the people making the decisions in China are in their mid-30s. In the United States, they're in their mid-70s.
SPIEGEL: So, are you saying that an authoritarian country is offering architecture new possibilities?
Koolhaas: You'll never get me to sign off on that. I'm not pessimistic when it comes to the prospects for the West, for democratic societies, and the ability to build strong statements here. The only reason I chose not to take part in the Ground Zero competition was that the project's connection to the past was too clear for my taste. There is more willingness to experiment in China. So much is being built there -- entire cities! -- that greater risks have to be taken. There, failure is not a disaster.
- Part 1: 'We're Building Assembly-Line Cities and Buildings'
- Part 2: Architecture as the 'Cherry on the Cake'
- Part 3: The Perils of Working in 'an Unstable Ideological Environment'