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

Renowned architect Rem Koolhaas is viewed as one of the most important theoreticians of his trade. In an interview with SPIEGEL, he discusses soulless cities, the failings of Europe's largest urban redevelopment project in Hamburg and the problems with SPIEGEL's brand-new headquarters.

A man in a dark-green coat flapping in the wind strides through Hamburg's HafenCity district. He is almost two meters (6' 6") tall, wiry, bald and with the face of a bird of prey. From the SPIEGEL building at the eastern entrance to the northern city's newest district, he heads toward the Elbphilharmonie concert hall being built at the western end of HafenCity. Two assistants and two culture editors are having trouble keeping up as Rem Koolhaas walks and talks nonstop.

We had invited the 67-year-old Dutch architect to tour HafenCity and to show him the new SPIEGEL headquarters building. Over time, some have starting questioning whether HafenCity, Europe's biggest urban development project, has been a success. There are also differing opinions on the SPIEGEL building, designed by the Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen. In 2006, Koolhaas' bid to design the building was rejected. At the moment, he has been commissioned to build the so-called Science Center in HafenCity, but that project has not been moving forward.

Koolhaas is controversial. In July, Nicolai Ouroussoff, an architecture critic for the New York Times, wrote that his spectacular building for the Chinese state television network CCTV in Beijing, completed two years ago, "may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century." But Koolhaas has also been sharply criticized for helping a dictatorial country create its most powerful structural symbol.

Recently, Koolhaas (together with curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist) has come out with the new book "Project Japan," which is about the first non-Western avant-garde movement in architecture. In the 1960s, a group of Japanese architects and city planners called the Metabolists developed an architecture that didn't prioritize the interests of private investors and developers, as is often the case today. Instead, it put the needs of the community first -- which brings us back to HafenCity. The walk lasts an hour and ends where it began, at the SPIEGEL building, which was dedicated only a few weeks ago.

SPIEGEL: Welcome, Mr. Koolhaas. So, this is SPIEGEL's new building, and we are standing here in its atrium.

Rem Koolhaas: Why are you whispering like that?

SPIEGEL: We are? We hadn't noticed.

Koolhaas: I know. The acoustics in this atrium signaled to you that it'd be better to whisper.

SPIEGEL: What makes you say that?

Koolhaas: The acoustics swallow the sound. The silence intimidates you. Do you feel comfortable here?

SPIEGEL: It's taking some people a bit of time to get used to it.

Koolhaas: That could have something to do with the fact that this is a very ambitious building. Look, we -- that is, my firm and I -- work in a completely non-descript building in Rotterdam. It couldn't be plainer. It's from the 1960s, and it's an open room with a nice view. We are almost ecstatically happy. Why? We can do anything there. We can imprint our personality onto the building. In an ambitious building like yours, it might be the other way around.

SPIEGEL: One has the feeling that the building is more powerful than those working inside it.

Koolhaas: Well, you've only been here a few months. You're going through an initial learning process. Over time, you'll probably learn to understand your building. And the building will also learn to understand you.

SPIEGEL: That sounds a bit esoteric.

Koolhaas: But it's true. Our building in Rotterdam has less character than yours. In fact, it has zero character. It can be wonderful when a building has character, but it can also be an obstacle. It can limit you. I have mixed feelings about this.

SPIEGEL: Just now, when we were in HafenCity, standing in the new Unilever headquarters building designed by the Behnisch architecture firm, you said that ugliness can make a building more open.

Koolhaas: I don't think the Unilever headquarters is ugly. But the building is more disorganized and more chaotic. And disorder can have a stimulating effect. It is more accessible to people than a rigid form. What's more, it was louder there. But, with time, you'll get louder here. You seem a little unhappy with this building that was built for you. And you are skeptical about this new neighborhood in which the building is located. I get the feeling that what you need from me isn't so much an interview as an hour of therapy.

SPIEGEL: Isn't skepticism appropriate?

Koolhaas: Perhaps. But I can't comfort you. Nowadays, and everywhere, we are in a situation in which many things are interacting and producing results like this building or this HafenCity. It doesn't matter whether it's in Hamburg, Dubai or China. It would be easy to say: "The architect has failed" or "The city has failed" or "The evil consortium of investors is to blame." No, it's the interplay of all these conditions that produces soulless buildings.

SPIEGEL: What kinds of conditions?

Koolhaas: These days, when a building is constructed, there is less individual involvement. Take the old SPIEGEL building by Werner Kallmorgen. One can assume that (SPIEGEL founder) Rudolf Augstein saw this building as his personal statement. There was something at stake for him when he had it built. It was supposed to reflect the identity of the magazine. But, nowadays, a client is in a much more abstract and opaque situation. Money has become more important; a lot more people are involved. Nowadays, a building like this is mainly a development project. Take this building, for example: Its neighbor is its double. SPIEGEL (the German word for "mirror") is mirroring itself. Of course, that introduces a personality crisis. And there always has to be an atrium! In its emptiness, it forms the actual substance of the generic city.

SPIEGEL: Soulless buildings in generic cities? That isn't exactly comforting.

Koolhaas: Soulless means that it's difficult to determine what a building wants to convey. It is difficult to pinpoint the elements that make the difference. In my essay "The Generic City," I tried to get to the bottom of this soullessness, though in terms of entire cities rather than buildings. These days, we're building assembly-line cities and assembly-line buildings, standardized buildings and cities.

SPIEGEL: We just toured HafenCity. Is it one of these typical generic cities?

Koolhaas: Yes. (It has) this strange sense of familiarity, as if you've been there before. And yet you haven't. It's all the familiar building blocks that are constantly being assembled in different ways. If you look down the main thoroughfare of HafenCity from your building, you'll see that this street tells the entire history of architecture over the last decade: no clear ambitions.

SPIEGEL: Have we yielded control over our cities?

Koolhaas: There is still a degree of residual control -- in other words, the attempt to create a unity by having the same heights, the same materials and a similar structural vocabulary. These are meant to be statements of respect. And, although only established architects were approved here, despite all the effort, the results are disappointing. And it's the same everywhere.

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