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Rem Koolhaas (1944–)

Koolhaas’s heroic trajectory provides an impossible formula for success, combining unquestioned genius with a waning culture of willigness to embrace the figure of the starchitect

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Rem Koolhaas

Illustration by Markus Färber

Rem Koolhaas does not do small talk. I discovered this last year in Melbourne when attempting to break an awkward silence between us. Wasn’t Australia a long way to come for just 72 hours? His gnomic reply invited no further discussion: ‘In the lifetime of an architect, three days is an immensity.’ 

I spent most of that week traipsing behind him peering over his shoulder, not unlike a live-action version of REM, the eponymous 2016 documentary shot by his son Tomas. When an individual attains such an intense degree of fame it seems to fundamentally restructure their perception of space and time. Every day becomes a theatrical abstraction, a ceaseless flow of ‘events’ – stage sets and scenarios prepared in advance, through which the hero nimbly moves, pausing only to deliver his requisite soliloquies.

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Rem Koolhaas

Source: Itar-Tass News Agency / Alamy

Rem is at peace in the breakfast rooms of international hotels. Otherwise, he is always in a rush, always about to leave, always facing some emergency. This aura of inaccessibility is cultivated as a defence mechanism. His eyes never rest long on any person or object, and this insulates him from potential engagement. Rem literally does not see, recognise, or acknowledge you. Some people interpret this imperiousness as evidence of greatness. Others are incensed when they discover the impossibility of forming any meaningful connection with their idol. To maintain this aloofness, Rem factors a significant amount of dead time into his agenda. These periods appear to be when he does his actual work.

When people ask how Rem became Rem, they are often asking how anyone becomes a Rem. That is, they are concerned with the concentration of power in particular individuals. There are others who want to know how they too can become like Rem. Yet their tendency to focus on inconsequential details – what shoes Rem wears, what books he has read, why he swims every morning – is futile, as well as supremely naive.

When Vasari wrote his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in the 16th century, he established a Western template for fame. Aside from practical strategies, he stressed the need to compete economically with your peers – what he calls the ‘desperate hunger’. More than anything else, you have to want to be famous, and this requires a nearly insane degree of ambition. Publicly, however, you must never, ever admit an interest in fame, nor make any mention of your own. 

‘Do not simply wait for others to write about you, because you are relinquishing control over history’

A modern approach might be summarised as follows. First, develop a trademark design methodology (not merely a specific field of work or style). This should be novel, yet communicable. Use this trademark process to teach and shape the next generation. Your students will enhance your reputation as they seek to play up their own pedigree. You will also need a Great Book, which outlines your methodology in a way others can safely replicate. In the worst case example (Corbusier) this will be a manifesto; in the best case (Palladio) it will be a template for a new world order, with you at its centre. 

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The Strip

Source: OMA

Aerial perspective of The Strip, from Koolhaas’s AA student project, 1972

You must appear to be everywhere at once. If you can’t control the media’s perception of your work, then you should start your own publication or publishing house – for this, you need to cultivate close relationships with non-architectural designers. Importantly, this will burnish your reputation as a figure concerned with and engaged in popular culture. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you are respected by other architects, because they are not your clients. Rather, you must be understood as an artist in the broadest sense. Vasari depicts the creative genius as driven – producing endlessly, obsessively, even maniacally. If you don’t have the means or the interest in owning media, you should control the public narrative by writing vociferously and prolifically (before Mies moved to the US he penned more than 200 articles). Do not simply wait for others to write about you, because you are relinquishing control over history.

To all this we could add some minor embellishments. Among them is the need to craft a relatable origin myth as well as having no qualms about remorselessly melting the wings of anyone who flies too close to your radiant face. Finally, the counterpoint to the Great Book, is the Great House, as this is how non-architects actually conceive of architecture and is also highly relatable. In establishing a timescale for these achievements, Koolhaas has said ‘You only have until 33 to start your career in earnest, because that is how long Jesus lived. If you can’t get your act together by that point, I don’t think you ever will’.

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Serpentine Pavilion, 2006

Source: Oliver Knight / Alamy

Koolhaas’s cunningly inflatable 2006 Serpentine Pavilion hosted marathon 24-hour talk sessions, turning an object building into animated public forum

It should be noted that the character traits and skills required to attain this exalted state exclude pretty much everyone, except middle-class white males who combine bourgeois ambition with the resources and cumulative bias required to act. Some people who hate Rem are not dismissing his work, so much as explicitly rejecting the social acceptability of this model.   

So how did Rem become Rem? He began to emerge in his current form around 1990, although it took a full decade for his invention as a public figure to be complete. During this time he rewrote the history of his ascent, concealing certain bodies and smoothing rugs along the way. The best official biography is probably Nicolai Ouroussof’s 2012 Smithsonian article, ‘Why is Rem Koolhaas the World’s Most Controversial Architect?’ Certain characterful details stick: Rem’s childhood playing in the postwar ruins of Rotterdam, Rem’s youthful period in the tropics of Jakarta, where he ‘really lived as an Asian’, Rem’s early career as a journalist, Rem’s softcore porn script for Russ Meyer …

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Koolhaas Houselife

Source: Bêka & Lemoine

Still from the film Koolhaas Houselife, 2008

Biography

Key works: 

Delirious New York, 1978
Police Station, Almere, the Netherlands, 1985
Netherlands Dance Theatre, The Hague, 1987
Nexus housing, Fukuoka, Japan, 1991
Euralille, Lille, 1994
S,M,L,XL, 1995
House, Bordeaux, 1998
Netherlands Embassy, Berlin, 2003
Seattle Central Library, Washington, 2004
Casa da Música, Porto, 2005
Serpentine Pavilion, London, 2006
CCTV, Beijing, 2010
Shenzhen Stock Exchange, China, 2013
Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2015
Qatar National Library, Doha, 2017

Awards

Pritzker Prize, 2000
Praemium Imperiale, 2003
RIBA Gold Medal, 2004

Quote

‘Talk about beauty and you get boring answers, but talk about ugliness and things get interesting’

But how did Rem become Rem? The trail leads back to his final project at the AA, completed when Rem was 27. Entitled Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, it’s a nice example of paper architecture, presented in the then-fashionable style of Rossi-esque axonometrics and punk-inspired collages. Weirdly, it is described as being authored by Rem, his then wife Madelon Vriesendorp, as well as his tutor Elia Zenghelis and his wife Zoe.

Exodus exhaustively explored the metaphor of the wall as it related to the city. It drew on images of Berlin and was largely a homage to the work of Oswald Mathias Ungers, one of the 20th century’s most underrated architects. When Rem graduated he immediately enrolled at Cornell to study with Ungers where he also met Ungers’ wife, sociologist Liselotte, the Denise Scott Brown of her day. In 1972, the Ungers were just completing a book that Rem later admitted had a significant influence on his oeuvre, Kommunen in der Neuen Welt 1740–1972, a study of utopian communes in America. Typically, the Ungers’ work concerned rationalist architectural form, the history of urbanism, and the role of psychology and sociology in metropolitan design. All of this made a great impression on the youthful Rem and his classmate Hans Kollhoff. 

Between 1973 and 1977, Rem shuttled back and forth between Europe and America. He won a scholarship to study at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, where Philip Johnson sponsored his thesis and Peter Eisenman was his supervisor. The bulk of it would later be reprised as Delirious New York, Rem’s first attempt at a Great Book. In 1975, Madelon, Zoe, Elia and Rem founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in London and Rem started teaching at the AA to bring in some money while pursuing bigger dreams. In 1977, Kollhoff, Ungers and Rem wrote a manifesto on Berlin, The City in the City. Driven by Ungers’ earlier urban theories, it elaborated on an evolving idea about ‘metropolitan’ architecture. 

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Boxers, Delirious New York

Source: Madelon Vriesendorp

Madelon Vriesendorp’s drawing of naked boxers enjoying oysters from Delirious New York

By 1978, aged 33, the destiny of Our Lord and Saviour was beginning to gather momentum and take shape. Rem had leapfrogged his peers and developed a distinct new take on architecture and the city (albeit heavily indebted to Ungers); he had a unique visual aesthetic (albeit heavily indebted to Madelon and Zoe); he had turned out a well-received manifesto; he had associated himself with an older generation to gain authority; he was already teaching (his students included Zaha); and most of all, his nascent brand OMA was strategically placed for full expansion. 

The 1980s were dominated by a shortage of built work and a surplus of drama, but to make an omelette you always have to crack a few eggs. However, not all evidence of the turmoil has been erased. It is telling that OMA’s own website does not seem to know which is their first project, explicitly disowning the Checkpoint Charlie apartments, while naming both the Almere Police Station and Netherlands Dance Theatre in the Hague. Almere was probably the first pure Rem moment, which is reassuring, because it is incomparably banal. For more than a decade Rem then plugged away at small projects and paper work, while trying to break free from the complicated web of dependencies and clouded authorships. He has since made a concerted effort to conceal his debts to the Ungers and Kollhoff, as well as downplay the roles of Zenghelis and Vriesendorp.

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S,M,L,XL

Source: Rem Koolhaas

A spread from S,M,L,XL designed with Bruce Mau

Paradoxically, the more famous Rem becomes, the less there is to say about him. This is because the sanctioned narrative becomes so dogmatic that there is little room for deviation or interpretation. During the 1990s, Rem was now a totally free agent and embarked on the project of becoming properly famous. The turning point came between 1995 and 2000, as the millennium loomed and he was finally incarnated as a starchitect. All his diffuse interests combined in one monolithic greatness, revolving around his second Great Book, the seminal S,M,L,XL (designed with Bruce Mau) and his first Great House in Bordeaux, slaveringly dubbed ‘The Greatest House Ever Built’ by Building Design. The following year he started working with Miuccia Prada, a modern-day Medici, which was perhaps his single best career move. In 2000 he won the Pritzker, the deciding factor apparently being Bordeaux, confirming that without a Great House no one takes you seriously.

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CCTV headquarters

Source: Mathias Beinling / Alamy

CCTV headquarters, 2010, a starchitect bauble for Beijing and an attempt to reconceptualise the skyscraper post 9/11

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Casa da Música, Porto

Source: Inigo Bujedo Aguirre / View

The gawkily angular form of the Casa da Música in Porto, 2005, was apparently inspired by the idea of a meteorite crashing to earth

From here, it’s a familiar trajectory. Prada helped recast Rem’s aura from architecture into fashion and then contemporary culture, where it made the leap to warp speed and achieved critical mass. The subsequent stratospheric litany runs like beads on a rosary: Seattle, Porto, Serpentine, Junkspace, Strelka, CCTV (which Rem called his reaction to 9/11), Rothschild, Project Japan, Shenzhen, Venice Biennale, Qatar, more Prada. 

All the while, Rem has continued to evolve his interests almost annually – there is always some new earworm or intellectual morsel to parse, consume and reframe. The urgent subject is now ‘junkspace’, now ‘preservation’, now ‘the future of luxury’, now ‘the countryside’. Though he loves to methodically interrogate the unpopular, his responses are always journalistic responses, in the sense that they draw attention to a subject but very rarely draw conclusions. Rem doesn’t judge, he only makes observations. This allows a text like Junkspace to be read as both ode and denunciation – and smokescreen for the ironic fact that after its publication, OMA spent the next decade almost exclusively building junkspace. You can practically hear the ghost of Vasari cackling.

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Fondazione Prada, Milan

Source: Riccardo Sala / Alamy

The gilded Fondazione Prada in Milan, 2015–18, an indulgent, de Chirico-esque assemblage of elements for a modern-day Medici

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Berlin campus for Axel Springer

Source: DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy

Model of the new Berlin campus for publisher Axel Springer, now under construction, symbolising the company’s transition from print to digital

No question, Rem is a genius. Nonetheless, his wake is toxic: stained by Randian egos (both triumphal and crushed), the intense interpersonal competition, and the exploitation of intellectual and manual labour. How does it all end, you wonder. In some ways, Tomas Koolhaas’s documentary was a preemptive eulogy. Death is present in every shot, tugging at the great man’s sleeve. The film is also suffused by an intense melancholy. It is the peculiar sadness of endings: when a family line is extinguished, when change erases beauty and meaning, when an entire world order disintegrates. 

Starchitects are still with us, even though their era is over. Koolhaas himself called time on it in the mid-2000s. It is no contradiction to honour them, while admitting that we must give ourselves permission to abandon the figure of the heroic architect, and along with it the Western blueprint for greatness that Koolhaas has so relentlessly and obsessively perfected.

This piece is featured in AR November issue on Emerging Architecture and the Netherlands – click here to purchase your copy today