Interview with Star Architect Rem Koolhaas: 'We're Building Assembly-Line Cities and Buildings'

Part 3: The Perils of Working in 'an Unstable Ideological Environment'

SPIEGEL: Is it true that only 5 percent of your designs are actually built?

Koolhaas: Yes.

SPIEGEL: That must be frustrating.

Koolhaas: That's our dirty secret. We architects are celebrated as heroes -- but humiliation is part of our daily lives. The biggest part of our work for competitions and bid invitations disappears automatically. No other profession would accept such conditions. But you can't look at these designs as waste. They're ideas; they will survive in books.

SPIEGEL: A few years ago, you unveiled a spectacular design for a science museum here in HafenCity, the so-called Science Center. It still hasn't been built.

Koolhaas: I haven't heard anything about it in a long time.

SPIEGEL: How long did you work on the design?

Koolhaas: Maybe three years.

SPIEGEL: And then?

Koolhaas: Then, we suddenly stopped hearing anything. We couldn't reach anybody anymore. The last thing we heard was that a young woman was trying to turn our design for a museum into a residential building.

SPIEGEL: Is that sort of thing normal?

Koolhaas: Very typical. You get to a point where you have nothing to say to each other anymore. The funding is frozen, the project is in a holding pattern, and both sides gradually lose interest.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a telephone number you can call?

Koolhaas: Yes, but the city official in charge of the project has already been replaced twice. I don't think anyone there knows us anymore.

SPIEGEL: While roughly 14 percent of the office space in HafenCity is empty, there is demand for more apartments. What causes this kind of faulty planning?

Koolhaas: Let me tell you a story. In 1980, I received an offer to build low-income housing in an industrial area in Amsterdam. The idea was to realize the social-democratic dream of modern apartments: generous buildings, and no compartmentalized commercial use. Five years later, in precisely the same year in which the buildings were completed, a delegation of the same social-democratic party that had hired us went to Baltimore. The city was in the process of gentrifying its harbor district. Apartments were built for the middle and upper classes, and fashionable shops were opened, a little like it is here in Hamburg. When the Social Democrats returned, they were no longer interested in our low-income housing. They suddenly felt that this austere, socialist architecture was horrible.

SPIEGEL: So, what does that mean?

Koolhaas: As an architect, one operates in an unstable ideological environment. What is true today can be completely wrong in five years, and in 25 years it's most certainly wrong. Ridiculous.

SPIEGEL: Does the criticism bother you? One could attack you for having built a symbol of power for a dictatorship like China.

Koolhaas: I have taken all criticism in that context seriously. My answer has always been that what happens to China affects us, as well. That's why it's important for us to be involved there. I have certain hopes for China, but I'm also aware of the risk that the country could move in a completely different direction.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it odd for this new, self-confident China to commission a Western architect?

Koolhaas: When I received the commission in 2002, a window was open for a brief time. I don't believe that they would still award the commission to a Western architect today.

SPIEGEL: Are you sad you didn't receive the commission for the SPIEGEL building?

Koolhaas: You know, you can design and build a lot as an architect, but there is only a handful of buildings that you absolutely want to do -- because you have the feeling that they are directly relevant to your own life. I was once a journalist with a weekly magazine, and I remain an admirer of SPIEGEL to this day.

SPIEGEL: But?

Koolhaas: We repeatedly made it clear that we were interested. Then we met with the person in charge of the bidding process because we wanted a direct commission.

SPIEGEL: You didn't want to participate in the competition?

Koolhaas: No. We believe that direct commissions lead to better buildings. In competitions, you're compelled to make compromises.

SPIEGEL: Do you or don't you like our building?

Koolhaas: You'll get used to it. But I believe you have to conquer the lobby. Buy two rugs, sew the two rugs together, then buy a third one and declare the lobby occupied. Occupy SPIEGEL!

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koolhaas, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philipp Oehmke and Tobias Rapp; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Spiegel got just what it deserves
erikSF99 12/18/2011
Rem says: "But at least we should take notice of the fact that these upper 10 percent are completely happy with this type of architecture." As Tom Wolfe wrote years ago: Only the very rich and the very poor live in "modern" architecture. The poor because they have no choice; the rich because they've been stupid enough to let themselves be brainwashed by the emperor's new clothes. The "neo-liberal" comment by your writer was great, though. Since Der Spiegel regularly supports neo-liberal economic destruction of countries and supports in turn the US & NATO's inhuman wars on behalf of the neo-liberal-totalitarian banksters, it is only appropriate that the entire staff should now be trapped in an inhuman building in an inhuman district. Anyone, including my teenage kids, could see instantly what an ugly piece of dog-doo-doo the Spiegel building is and what a complete flop the new Hamburg district is. And no matter what Rem says, it is ALL the architects fault because they are clueless and egotistical. They've lost all skills at design and building. Collectively they may be the most incompetent and discredited profession on the planet. They make perfect partners for the discredited mainstream media. I cannot tell you how happy I am knowing that each day the writers at Spiegel have to work in such a wretched building in such a wretched 'new' neighborhood while they lie about the NATO wars and the Banksters wars against the people. It's a perfect marriage, a perfect punishment.
2.
chu082011 10/10/2012
Zitat von erikSF99Rem says: "But at least we should take notice of the fact that these upper 10 percent are completely happy with this type of architecture." As Tom Wolfe wrote years ago: Only the very rich and the very poor live in "modern" architecture. The poor because they have no choice; the rich because they've been stupid enough to let themselves be brainwashed by the emperor's new clothes. The "neo-liberal" comment by your writer was great, though. Since Der Spiegel regularly supports neo-liberal economic destruction of countries and supports in turn the US & NATO's inhuman wars on behalf of the neo-liberal-totalitarian banksters, it is only appropriate that the entire staff should now be trapped in an inhuman building in an inhuman district. Anyone, including my teenage kids, could see instantly what an ugly piece of dog-doo-doo the Spiegel building is and what a complete flop the new Hamburg district is. And no matter what Rem says, it is ALL the architects fault because they are clueless and egotistical. They've lost all skills at design and building. Collectively they may be the most incompetent and discredited profession on the planet. They make perfect partners for the discredited mainstream media. I cannot tell you how happy I am knowing that each day the writers at Spiegel have to work in such a wretched building in such a wretched 'new' neighborhood while they lie about the NATO wars and the Banksters wars against the people. It's a perfect marriage, a perfect punishment.
Thank very much for your comment. It help me to think about for my ideals. Tks again and pls keep posting.
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From DER SPIEGEL
About Rem Koolhaas
  • DPA
    Rem Koolhaas, 67, 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.

Book Bag
  • Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist:
    Project Japan
    An Oral History of Metabolism.

    Published by Kayoko Ota, James Westcott. Taschen Verlag, Oktober 2011; 719 pages; 39.99 euro.

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