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: 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.
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.
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
- 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'
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