A pizza with Rem Koolhaas, the Lion of Venice
We are sitting outside Ristorante Giorgione on Via Garibaldi, on the second day of the Venice Biennale. Rem Koolhaas is the man of the moment, chosen by Kazuyo Sejima, this year’s Biennale director, as winner of the Golden Lion award. Rem is talking nineteen to the dozen between mouthfuls of pizza (I am making do with spaghetti with clams) and sips of mineral water. The architecture correspondent of the Financial Times is taking copious notes.
The Leone d’Oro award is more or less for lifetime achievement, but Mr K is emphatically not thinking about slowing down. As he says at the acceptance ceremony, ‘It is a really wonderful moment to get a lifetime achievement award in the middle of my career. I will certainly treat it as an encouragement for further action.’ Given that he is now 65, this looks like a Niemeyeresque aspiration, but the architecture practice he co-founded in 1975, OMA, seems to be firing on all cylinders currently, with significant projects across the world.
In Venice itself, the Biennale is the occasion for the announcement that OMA is to transform the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a 13th-century palazzo near the Rialto Bridge, for Benetton, creating what is described as a ‘culturally programmed department store’. The project neatly combines three of Rem’s interests: preservation (the subject of an OMA installation at the Biennale), shopping, and immensely wealthy families (think Prada). OMA is also exhibiting in the Hong Kong pavilion, showing masterplan proposals for a huge cultural district in West Kowloon, the subject of a year-long competition. This prompts a public discussion with the other competitors, Rocco Yim and Norman Foster.
The presentations are stimulating. Rem reminds us that he doesn’t like competitions and doesn’t normally do them, but having a year gave time for thought - and to open an office to get under the skin of the Hong Kong situation - ‘the Chinafication of OMA’. Their proposals are based on three villages, with a big park which is ‘quasi-industrial rather than over-controlled leisure space’; Hong Kong is ‘relentlessly programmatic’ and ‘inspiration, technicality and pragmatism’ will be required.
The Koolhaas aphorism is in evidence: ‘This moment is the definitive death of the masterplan’, to whichNorman Foster ripostes: ‘Long live the masterplan!’ Rem thinks a big issue is how you create an ‘artistic masterplan designed for artistic purposes’; he thinks in 10 years there will be a biennale based on graphic design ‘to clear the messes we leave behind’. He wants to know why no architect has appeared on the cover of Time magazine since 1979 (Philip Johnson), and seems to think this was ‘when we started using the word icon’.
Rem never gives the impression that he is particularly keen on architects or architecture as generally understood. He famously remarked that the profession is hopelessly suspended between ‘megalomania and impotence’, choosing global workload, endless travel and unexpected initiatives as a route between. Needless to say, when OMA decided to run (through its research arm AMO) an architectural education programme, it picked Russia as the location. Together with his fellow director Reinier de Graaf, Rem presented the programme of the Moscow-based Strelka Institute in Venice.
Of course, Koolhaas has produced one iconic building after another because he and the practice are truly talented designers - but that is not what makes them so very distinctive. OMA’s unique place in the world of architecture derives from an absolute determination to think more laterally about the world, engage with ideas that have little do with architecture as a technical discipline, and to relish with deliberate cynicism the realpolitik of working with the wealthiest clients, the least democratic governments, the most extreme structural ideas. It wouldn’t be enough to talk about conservation - it has to be preservation. As the consequences of the consumer society became increasingly suspect, Rem naturally chose shopping as the appropriate area for investigation with his Harvard students.
Rem’s understanding of the world and its scripts, languages and navigation methods was all evident in his first groundbreaking production: Delirious New York, still an extraordinary read after more than 30 years. A decade after 9/11 and the architectural and political battles over what would replace the Twin Towers, would it be fanciful to imagine that Rem might embark on a third edition of his psycho-architectural-historical city exploration? Only he could do it - a prince of the city that, unlike Venice, never sleeps.