In this exclusive interview for The Architectural Review, Rem Koolhaas and his former architecture tutor Charles Jencks debate the morality, message and meaning behind this year’s Venice Biennale
Introduction: Ruskin Koolhaas at the Gritti
The only moment Rem was free for an interview was at an early breakfast 7 June, on the terrace of the Gritti Palace overlooking the Grand Canal. It was a perfect morning, lots of boats, and birds singing, Bellini blue sky, and nothing to occupy the view but picturesque facades, architecture incarnate. Their Ruskinian window arches were most visible as the grammar always is, looking exactly like the elements carefully drawn in his The Stones of Venice, with the idea that architecture rises and falls with the health of civilisation, and is a good index of its morality. For me this was the subtext that morning.
Rem, an old student of mine at the AA (a designation he always denies) and a friend since 1969, arrived and left quickly by a special Koolhaas speedboat that gave the conversation an added urgency and Dutch humour.
Interview: A new research paradigm for the Biennale brings a new message
Charles Jencks: Oswald Mathias Ungers, your friend, called you the Flying Dutchman because you never stay in one place, but you have returned to Venice for two years working with Harvard students and your analytical team AMO on this new paradigm for architecture.
Rem Koolhaas: Yes, I worked for two years with 12 Harvard students and 12 AMO researchers and, in the exhibition there are separate researchers such as Stephan Trüby who looked into the Corridor; Manfredo di Robilant, an Italian who was looked into the Ceiling; Tom Avermaete, a Belgian from Delft University who developed the Balcony; and Alejandro Zaera-Polo from Princeton who looked into the facade …
CJ: Did you take an active role in this research?
RK: Yes very closely. The great thing of Harvard is that they are ‘in-house’ and come to us. And then Harvard organises courses so they could stay an entire semester; and they are organised so we could benefit for this project.
CJ: Synergy. So you have one big narrative in the section Elements of Architecture – 15 elements (doors, windows, walls etc) to show that everything is getting thinner and lighter. Finally this trend is ending with the digital, leading to the disappearance of symbolism and iconography, especially because of the triumph of lighter materials and technology – is that an acceptable summary?
RK:To some extent. But the ideology and inner core of architecture has been incredibly resistant to the understanding that, since 1850, things have fundamentally changed. It is not so much about lightness or weight, but change more in terms of mechanics. I wrote Delirous New York in 1978, in a way to assert the elevator and air conditioner were radical additions to the architectural repertoire that were not thought about, and 40 years later they are still not thought …
CJ: What, is still not acknowledged????
RK: The change was implemented for a century, but the effects of the mechanical devices were not incorporated into architectural thinking, the effects on the morphology of the skyscraper and the cities. 140 years later the neglect is still there and new technologies have arrived. It is more about the modernisation of architectural thinking.
CJ: My old teacher Sigfried Giedion wrote about this in Mechanization Takes Command, and Space, Time and Architecture is taken up with the steel frame and he discussed some of the technologies you are pointing to, like the elevator. And these technologies are a standard part of Modernist histories.
RK: We looked at this, but I was struck by how these elements were described as additional histories, or new phenomena, but were not incorporated into the essence of the thinking. We had architecture and then we had the mechanical systems – not that ‘architecture is now these mechanisms’.
CJ: There is, of course, the problem of technical determinism in your position like Choisy or Banham or Bucky Fuller’s evolution. But we know the problem with technological fatalism is that it does not engage with a lot of things, such as social changes in the larger sphere; how people are living today is more important than ‘smart walls’.
RK: One more thing. During the last 30 years there has been a political shift leading to the state being dismantled, the welfare state has disappeared, coupled with the ideology that the market should dictate innovation and is the ultimate arbiter. This shift has completely changed the status for architecture and architects, who are in complete denial. I wanted to document that and the urgency of today. So the architect today lives in a ‘double denial’ – he has not absorbed the whole extension of the repertoire in his thinking, and has not absorbed his change in status.
CJ: Well, you load the dice to prove your point, but that’s the job of a good polemicist and we’ll come back to it. Your show is like the 1964 book and exhibition of Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects, at MoMA, about the sense and wisdom of non-pedigreed architecture, its beauty. That’s part of your polemic. You are coming to Venice like John Ruskin to give us this message, and finding a new moral centre in the elements of architecture, as he did in The Stones of Venice Books 1,2,3. You find it in The Non-Stones of Venice with the disappearing glass facades of immaterial architecture, and in the ‘double denial’.
Your morality springs positively and negatively from these points. Anyway, ‘architecture without architects’ means there are no contemporary architects here; or if they are they are very understated (like Bakema in your Dutch Pavilion). But you certainly shifted the paradigm here, and for the next organiser of the Biennale, they will either have to refute you or take up your challenge. The good thing is that you have rescheduled the Biennale to June and put in two years of work on it – that is undeniable. But since Death in Venice (the constant sinking of the city and the previous autumn date) was a constant theme, you could have pushed it to springtime.
It would be even better here at the Gritti Palace in the springtime, as the birth of architectural culture. I applaud your basic shift in the Biennale paradigm, but I wonder what you say to some wits who observe – ‘yeah, it is architecture without architects, except one architect who’s the whole show’.
RK: Well, it’s an obvious point, and there’s some truth in it, but I don’t think anyone seeing the show will have this feeling, necessarily. There are over 40 architects in the Monditalia section, who are not talking about themselves either.
Research as exciting creation
CJ: Your tracing the history of these 15 elements or fundamentals has given you a new passion for research as a form of invention – a kind of born-again feeling of many architects, especially the Christian Modernists of the 15th and 16th century who said, one after another – ‘when I went to Ancient Rome and saw the beautiful classical elements I felt born again’. Like those born again through Jesus, the Re-naissance metaphor was one of spiritual re-birth. You know Brunelleschi, Filarete, Giorgio Vasari, born-again through elements. Does back to basics get you into an exciting frenzy like that?
RK: Without any doubt the re-acquaintance with architecture got me re-engaged but not born again.
CJ: But you do see research as a positive, creative thing, which is Renaissance, Leonardo, and geared to learning. You have started 15 little horse-races, you observe things emerge which you never knew about, and that’s incredibly exciting. And the research project as analysis is not usually thought of as creative.
RK: Yes, but that has always been my – not philosophy or conviction so much as an automatism. I can’t help it; that’s the way my mind works. The only way I can describe it is as a parallel with Salvador Dalí’s Paranoid-Critical Method – where analysis is equivalent to the construction of an alternative vision.
The missing part of the polemic: superordinate rules. Or do the multiple speeds of evolution make rules impossible?
CJ: There is an obvious missing part of your polemic if I compare it with the elements of Ruskin or Vitruvius or any of these writers like Alberti who write on the elements. They always include superordinate things, for instance about how you put these elements together to give beauty, firmness, commodity and delight etc. Why do you have nothing to say, for instance, about the rules of composition?
RK: Well, I believe in composition, but not ‘rules’. Because the effect of these developments, that is the evolution of the 15 elements, is to destabilise and deny both the crucial nature of composition and the possibility of rules. New patterns and new models to discover are OK. But new rules? – I do not know. For rules you would need a political and cultural ideology that would be consistent with the whole idea of rules. It is not for nothing that the last 30 years are dedicated to de-regulation. Today there is a technological and societal dogma against rules, as being irrelevant …
CJ: Yes and no, but it makes you sound like two previous characters. First the Metabolist precedent, when you look at the elements as being in different cycles and evolving independently - but, they hope, in metabolic relation between them so they can change efficiently. And, secondly, you sound like Peter Eisenman, who also seeks to destablise the language –
RK: How Eisenman?
CJ: Well, particularly with Deconstruction he was looking at the autonomous relationship of the part to the whole. And also my work with Adhocism, which I wrote about in 1969, we were looking at the independent evolution of elements leading to a bricolage of parts. Your thing leads to a natural bricolage. If you take these 15 elements, walking around in search of each other, you get an exquisite corpse of additions, one on top of another. Eisenman’s Deconstruction says that can be a good thing; or at least it questions stability. So I hear Metabolism, Eisenman and Adhocism in you …
RK: OK, Adhocism you hear in here, but that is more the conviction that what is interesting about architecture now is the various speeds of change. Previously you could believe that elements evolved more or less in parallel, but you now have a situation where certain elements stay behind in terms of their evolution, while others are accelerating, and others are threatened by evolution. So, instead of a single movement, each of them is evolving at different velocities and some of them are even regressing; so it’s become not so much bricolage but the assembly of fundamentally unequal entities.
CJ: So again the argument is a kind of technical determinism.
RK: That’s right. But what’s interesting about this inequality – and that’s why I am hesitant to confirm that everything is becoming lighter – is that certain things are definitely staying very heavy, while still others are becoming heavier and heavier.
CJ: Well, we are sitting here looking at a whole lot of facades that haven’t changed since 1350 in spite of the fireplaces changing - with Ruskin’s various elemental arches very prominent -
RK: Well, by the way, one outcome of the whole effort here is an incredible book by Giulia Foscari [of the Villa Malcontenta] called Elements of Architecture where she applies the logic to Venice. I really recommend it, she published it now to coincide with the Biennale, and I’ll see you get a copy. It’s truly amazing because one of the things she shows is that more than half of Venice was constructed in the 19th century.
CJ: It may have been reconstructed in the 19th century …
RK: No, constructed!
CJ: Well, it looks much the same … The 13th-century Doge would have recognised the urban patterns …
RK: No, I don’t think so because she shows the whole pedestrian infrastructure of Venice was an invention of the 19th century … imposed in the 19th century.
CJ: Well there’s 117 islands still here, 117 Calles, and 117 fundamentalist Campos; so I refute you thus … Besides, because of your interest in urbanism, I would have thought you’d discuss the superordinate units, like the streets and squares …
RK: But I refrained for reasons of time and clarity. In my writing and research I have done a lot to reinterpret what a city is, so it’s become common knowledge or a cliché.
Postmodernism and the Three Ms: Modernism, Modernisation, Modernity
CJ: At the National Pavilions you’ve introduced the theme of Absorbing Modernity and some have addressed the paradigm very well.
RK: Which ones do you mean?
CJ: The French, as you would expect, have taken the issue straight on because they have been debating the Three Ms for many years. Jean-Louis Cohen has done it in great style and philosophy with Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle at the centre. And the Korean Pavilion includes the north and the south …
RK: Isn’t that amazing…
CJ: And the Japanese with their ’70s commitment to pluralism …
RK: Japan is so fantastic, that period of the 1970s. I was thinking of you all the time when I was looking at it, your mentality was very visible and partly your knowledge of the Japanese then. It is really moving for me, for it is the moment when you can imagine an alternative interpretation of Postmodernism …
CJ: For sure …
RK: There is also a fascinating transition between the Japanese looking at the Middle East and the vernacular, and a Postmodernism that never happened. What is interesting is that Japanese Postmodernists transformed Mediterranean villages, and Americans only reinterpreted Renaissance palazzos - the first is more fertile than the second …
CJ: Yes, but I would add that I’ve never had the view of Postmodernism that many associate it with – that you have included in your introduction to the Biennale Catalogue – that it is to do with pediments …
RK: Yes, the Japanese alternative would have been a Postmodernism-Without-Pediments.
CJ: Yes, that is an impediment in people’s way of thinking about Postmodernism. I’ve always from the start had two axes of Postmodernism - one that of radical pluralism, the other about the need for better communication. The Language of Post-Modern Architecture is about those two and not about pediments. Pediments were only one element that Bob Stern and Robert Venturi tacked onto the discourse of the Biennale, and I bridle under your misapprehension. Your description at the beginning of the book-catalogue is outrageously wrong, and I will quote you so you can try to defend yourself …’Each structure in the show was crowned by a pediment’ (page 17) … And I would say that out of the 20 on the Strada Novissima maybe six had pediments, that’s maybe 30 per cent correct …
RK: I stand corrected …
CJ: Yes, and I would have said that since yours, as one design, didn’t have a pediment you might not have said the word ‘each’. There’s a problem in your discourse, if I may say, that sometimes scholars, historians and academics think that you are more of a journalist than a serious thinker. So some of your work is dismissed as being superficial because you do say these amazingly contentious things that are simply untrue - but to make a point that is probably true. I would argue that, with Postmodernism, the pediment is in the eye of the beholder. And the same is true with your diagrams on the opposite page, which are funny about Reagan, Thatcher and privatisation. You know as well as I do that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote famously about ‘private wealth and public squalor’ in the 1960s, so the Reaganite shift was already well under way, and we all bemoan it. But your diagrams actually show - and are like Thomas Piketty without Piketty’s sources - you need footnotes to tell people where they are from.
RK: Actually in the Catalogue there is no sloppiness, we have been clear about sources.
CJ: Yes, exemplary, but here with your second polemic they should be in a footnote on this page. Let’s talk about the Three Ms, which you accept - Modernism, Modernisation and Modernity - because we all get confused sometimes when using the words interchangeably. Your polemic for the national pavilions is called Absorbing Modernity, but your description employs modernisation, and what is missing is Modernism, the cultural expression of the avant-garde. The confusion is like that which Isaiah Berlin brings up between liberalism and democracy - people assume they are the same but often they are opposed to each other. Modernism can be opposed to modernisation, in literature and philosophy, positively.
RK: My initial inspiration as an architect is with Modernism, and the most ideological version of it, and it revealed a huge inhibition as an architect, because Modernism was over – and there was a nostalgia in the pursuit of it. So I used the abstraction of modernisation against the limitations of Modernism.
CJ: Like Jim Stirling and many architects you were aware that Modernism was in crisis and so like a radical conservative you went back to it – like Leon Krier in crisis went back to a radical traditionalism – to bring forward a new synthesis.
RK: I was attracted to this but able to escape from the gravity fields of Modernism, so going back is not accurate.
The Ruskinian agenda of creation
CJ: Yes, but Stirling, Venturi and Hollein did the same - and they even resisted the term Postmodernism, just as they became the father of the movement. You are similar, but more radical in moving beyond your own synthesis. I have a funny feeling that you are exactly like John Ruskin, who has come to Venice to write The New Stones of Venice without the Stones, in order to point up the decline of contemporary architecture, its slackening, of how the diagonal of risky living has been flattened out into disabled architecture. You are quoted endlessly: ‘[my condition for being Director is] I can sever all connections with contemporary architecture - which is not in particularly good health’. Ruskin could not have put it more medically, and you are injecting the patient with a new morality by going back to fundamentals.
RK: Charles, the issue is that all these issues and terms are acute improvisations when I proposed the project to the Biennale President Baratta. I could barely perceive the relationships between the three components - see the cacophony or reinforcement. I don’t think you should take them that seriously. But in retrospect I think the three Ms mutually reinforced each other in the pavilions. I am not prepared to defend them as explicit ideologies but rather as virtuosic intuitions.
CJ: That’s a typical Koolhaas disclaimer which has it both ways with a vengeance. But you want to engender a new morality, like Ruskin, who spent a lot of time analysing the element of the arch – with 40 types. If we look across the canal here we can see 15 types, which he drew - the arch evolving to its high point and then its degeneration into stiff stereotype and repetition. He wanted to get rid of the disease by inspiring creativity and in that sense the parallel is similar, except that you don’t quite bring it off in each diagram – the healthy evolution, and its decline. You could still do this by November. Ruskin took the acanthus leaf and showed it blowing in the wind to demonstrate the craftsman’s creative freedom – and there’s the creative agenda underlying your 15 elements, as there was his.
RK: That’s my point, that these evolutionary charts could be made. But what we see are ruptures, and the elements that die out through decadence – and these are not assumed or understood. Those deaths are in 1870 or 2014 and maybe in the 1990s; they have been my preoccupation. The apparent need of architecture to see itself in terms of continuities, and therefore be in denial about discontinuities and real revolution rather than evolution.
CJ: You are asking us to take evolution as the paradigm, but to what end?
RK: By architects thinking the way they do now, they have declared themselves incapable of taking part in the vast majority of operations that take place now. You cannot do a good shopping centre, good skyscraper, an intelligent house - on every scale it degenerates into incompetence.
CJ: Because we don’t have the right paradigm?
RK: And the tools and the manual – and the two are completely out of sync with each other. The manual talks about the hammer, but in the toolbox you have a drill. When you use the drill as a hammer the precision suffers.
CJ: Again we come back to technical determinism – yet there is a kind of cultural independence of evolution as you know. For instance, with the toilet (one of your 15 elements) there are ‘bedpans, commodes, loos, crappers, the outhouse, WCs’ etc, and in the US the cultural component of ‘the bathroom’ is demonstrated in the novels of JD Salinger and Philip Roth, where the essential dramas between mother and daughter take place.
Also, in the understanding of Modernism and Adhocism, there is the famous architectural example of the ancient, 9,000-year-old peasant culture of Matera in southern Italy. When in the 1950s the farmers were given all these Modernist urinals, they continued to relieve themselves in the usual way and re-used the new industrial gadget to wash their grapes – as Umberto Eco pointed out. You can misuse technology and your techno-determinism underrates the fact that the art-form of architecture can always be a personal misuse of standard functions …
But to ironise the Ruskin parallel again to emphasise the cultural nature of the elements, you have come to the city in the world where every element is a variant of the universal grammar: there are 117 islands, a transformation of the universal districts; 150 canals which are usually roads; 400 bridges which are really pedestrian walkways; maybe 200 Campos which are usually squares; Calles = streets. Every single word and usage is a variant from the usual element, and I think you have missed a great chance to show in the exhibition that the universal grammar is both completely universal and different in this city.
RK: Well, to the extent that we have addressed these issues it is in the Monditalia section: in a nuanced way, it is showing many reinterpretations and re-readings … Charles, I have to go, but I love this conversation and want to continue these discussions but you are leaving Venice so we have to stop …