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."

Foto: AFP

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.

Biggest, not Tallest, s the Superlative of the Day

SPIEGEL: Can the development that is going up in Dubai be compared with the "Science Center" you designed in Hamburg, a spectacular ring of stacked containers?

Koolhaas: What is comparable is the fact that, in both cases, we are dealing with large projects driven by real estate developers, that is, with a very abstract substance. As a result, people often fail to recognize the differences between such projects. But the real differences lie in the conditions in Hamburg and Dubai, the political environment, the freedom and the amount of latitude an architect is given. This, in turn, highlights a characteristic of contemporary building: In essence, we are trying to pour the same materials everywhere into molds shaped by local circumstances.

SPIEGEL: You complain that modern architecture subjugates itself to the primacy of the iconic, making it arbitrary. On the other hand, you yourself have created a few of the most memorable icons around, especially the building for the Chinese television network CCTV in Beijing.

Koolhaas: I am a critical spirit and an architect at the same time, and I do not feel obligated to constantly validate my own theories in my specific work. There are contradictions, and the possibilities we have at our disposal today provoke such contradictions. Nevertheless, we try to build structures with unstable identities -- that is, buildings with depth. Take the CCTV complex, for example. Now that it's almost complete, the way it functions becomes clear. It looks different from every angle, no matter where you stand. Foreground and background are constantly shifting. We didn't create a single identity, but 400 identities. That was what we wanted: To create ambiguity and complexity, so as to escape the constraints of the explicit.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean that the icons of the 20th century, skyscrapers, sheer vertical structures, are on their way out?

Koolhaas: There were many typologies of building in the early 20th century. Today we have essentially only two of them: the house and the tower, and nothing in between. I see few indications that this is changing. In fact, we are experiencing a veritable apotheosis of the tower in Russia and China. But perhaps some typologies only experience their mystification when they are in fact already dead.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the towers that are competing for the title of the world's tallest building? Do you like any of them?

Koolhaas: I think it's ridiculous. Objectively speaking, I even like a few of them -- the Burj Dubai, for example, simply because it looks so ludicrous, a building that is much taller than anything else that ever existed. I cannot completely resist this temptation, but from an intellectual standpoint I'm certainly capable of rejecting this race.

SPIEGEL: What comes after the skyscraper?

Koolhaas: Height is becoming less and less of a factor, while size -- "bigness" -- is getting more important. In the Middle Ages, a large building had about 200 square meters (2,152 square feet) of space, by the Renaissance it might have been 10,000 (107,600 square feet), and in the 19th century it was 40,000 (430,400 square feet). Today we build complexes of 500,000 square meters (5.4 million square feet). The change in quantity has consequences. One of them is that we are dealing with multifunctional buildings, because a building of that size can no longer be filled with a single function.

SPIEGEL: So that we have, in the case of the Burj Dubai, 50 floors of offices, 50 floors of hotel rooms and 50 floors of apartments.

Koolhaas: Another consequence is that our attention shifts to the interior, because the bigger a building the less contact it has with the outside world. But we are now dealing with different zones in the interior of such complexes, zones that are occupied at completely different speeds, have a completely different metabolism, are constantly in motion, are being renovated, repairs or altered to perform a new purpose.

SPIEGEL: A few years ago you were in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, and you returned with a message of humility: Architects, allow things to take their natural course and adjust to reality!

Koolhaas: The first time I went to Lagos, I encountered a completely dysfunctional city that forced its 10 million inhabitants to find ways to survive. To me it seemed like a process of sheer self-organization -- a term that was in vogue at the time. Meanwhile, I have studied the history of that city at length, and it has become clear to me that this self-organization does in fact take place within the framework of a structure created by a series of modern thinkers, architects and urban planners.

SPIEGEL: You coined the term "junk space" in Lagos. What does this mean in Europe?

Koolhaas: The expression describes the effect commerce has on architecture, how it affects the beauty, authenticity and acceptance of a building. The irony is that in the West, of all places, an overemphasis of the economic forces us into permanent chaos. In the past, an airport could be proud of the fact that its paths, from the airport entrance to the gates, were short and direct. Nowadays the large numbers of shopping areas have turned airports into labyrinths. In other words, starting at the paradigm of clarity, it has taken us only 20 years to end up in a paradigm of chaos.

SPIEGEL: Can architecture and urban development do anything to counteract the forces you describe -- the omnipotence of commerce, the atomization of society?

Koolhaas: When we were planning the Universal Studios headquarters in Hollywood, a problem we had was that the company's individual components are scattered across a large area -- so we designed the building as a sort of machine, which brings the components together again. And now we have done something similar with the CCTV building. It includes something we call a "Visitors' Loop," a common space where people who would normally work away in disparate offices are likely to run into each other.

SPIEGEL: In doing so, are you taking up a concept, in a modern way, that American architect Louis Sullivan defined with the phrase "form follows function?"

Koolhaas: Some of our buildings fulfill this basic concept completely. Ironically, this functionalist idea is so forgotten, so unknown today that it seems completely new once again. Modernity is ultimately shaped by the idea of enlightenment, of progress. As unsteady as these concepts may seem to us today, it would be absurd to abandon them, because it hasn't been until today that we, as Europeans, are in a position to share them with the world. This, in turn, is what makes up the credibility of European architecture in an age of globalization: That we are able to execute our formulas in a less formulaic way than others, and that we can pay closer attention to the circumstances under which other people live.

Interview conducted by Stephan Burgdorff and Bernhard Zand.

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