Rem Koolhaas: ‘The word starchitect makes you sound like an a**hole’

By Edwin Heathcote

The problem with interviewing Rem Koolhaas is the nagging suspicion that he could write the article better than you. It’s intimidating, it puts you slightly on edge. Which is, of course, exactly as he likes it.

Uniquely in contemporary architecture, Koolhaas, a former journalist and screenwriter turned architect and polemicist, has exerted as much influence through his writing as he has through his architectural designs. Since his debut book, Delirious New York, was published in 1978, he has written a screed of texts that have caused architects to shift uneasily in their Eames chairs to try to get a better view of the future. Provocative, perceptive, blistering and often witheringly witty, his writing has changed the way we look at cities, just as much as his architecture has forced us to reassess what buildings can be and how they can embody radical ideas. 

In 1978, when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy, its downtown neglected, its graffiti-scrawled subways inducing angst among the middle classes, his book celebrated its “culture of congestion” and the creative potential of vertical cities. When cultural figures were condemning the “mall-ification” of the world’s cities in 2000, Koolhaas published The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (written with his students), a paean to shopping as “the last remaining form of public activity”. When everyone was looking to Copenhagen as the exemplar of civilised city living, Koolhaas was studying the chaotic inventiveness of Lagos, which he suggested was the actual (rather than the ideal) model for cities of the future. While the rest of the world was disdaining the fast-rising skylines of the Gulf, his practice was master-planning an entire emirate (Ras al-Khaimah, the northernmost emirate of the UAE) and revelling in exactly the generic, globalised qualities of Dubai — with its landscape of towers, hotels and freeways — that other architects, critics and urbanists had dismissed.

Koolhaas has been writing provocatively and incisively about cities for 40 years and now, just as the whole world catches up, he reappears — not on top of a skyscraper or a traffic island but way over there in the countryside. He has done it again: set the agenda and then waved a sly hello from somewhere else entirely. His new thing is “the rural” — a radical reassessment of the relationship between the city and the countryside — that he will explore in a major exhibition called “Countryside: Future of the World”, next year at the Guggenheim in New York.

I’m advised not to visit him in Rotterdam, where he set up his practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), in 1975, but in a satellite office close to his apartment in Amsterdam, where there will be fewer distractions. OMA has grown into one of the world’s most critically and culturally successful architectural practices, with offices in New York, Hong Kong, Beijing, Doha, Dubai and Brisbane. Its success supports a think-tank, AMO, which takes care of strategies for cultural institutions, exhibitions and publishing.

I arrive to find him with a stack of papers laid neatly on the desk. The office, in a modest brick corner building, is small and uncluttered. Koolhaas is tall, lean and dynamic, with steely blue eyes, his head not quite clean-shaven. He crosses and uncrosses his arms or fidgets with papers. There is a tension about him that indicates he feels he should be somewhere else.

He begins leafing through the projects that are due to open in the next few weeks. There is a new gallery tower for the Fondazione Prada in Milan, a twisting, cantilevered structure that leans out over the street and completes the transformation from industrial complex to art powerhouse. There is the Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, a conversion of a historic building in the Marais into an arts centre with a workshop beneath it and a levitating courtyard. There is the vast Qatar National Library in Doha’s university quarter, Education City. And there is his still-in-progress book of research material on the countryside.

Koolhaas flips through the sheets, rapidly explaining things and getting irritated with his PA for not having printed out the exact pictures he wants. He looks at me scribbling away at my notes and starts pacing the room. “This theoretical article,” he spits out, “that a theoretical critic should write,” he gives me a hard, icy stare, “should kill once and for all the notion of the starchitect.” Well, I reply, a little taken aback at having my theme suggested to me (but simultaneously thinking what a great heading “Death of the Starchitect” would make), perhaps that is exactly what we should talk about?

Although, of course, nothing is ever that simple. Since the 1990s, Koolhaas has been responsible for buildings from Seattle to Seoul that have redefined contemporary architecture: the huge HQ for CCTV in Beijing, the HQ for Rothschild’s Bank in the City of London, the Casa da Música in Porto, a concert hall with a huge window behind the orchestra, co-opting the city as backdrop. His office designed the stock exchange in Shenzhen and the Seattle Central Library (for me, perhaps the greatest public building of the last 30 years). Surely he is the very archetype of the global starchitect?

“Mmm . . . ” he murmurs. “So how do you, as an architect, address the cynicism — which you are probably also partly responsible for but which you have tried in every single operation to counteract? How do you find the terminology even to discuss it? When we set up OMA, we deliberately left our names out [of it]. Every other office had the names of their partners in it. I think the word ‘starchitect’ implies you’re an asshole who doesn’t care.”

To address this question will, it appears, be my project for the next few weeks. “Look,” Koolhaas says, “I’m willing to commit some time to this if you are too.” So, after Amsterdam I find myself travelling in quick succession to Paris, Milan and finally to Doha. We begin, however, with a brisk walk down the road to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, where OMA has just redesigned the subterranean modernist galleries. Koolhaas cuts a compelling figure striding down the residential streets, clad in a black leather overcoat and slim-cut trousers (Prada, I’d guess) with a crease sharp enough to slice cheese, topped with a dark beanie hat. He sets off fast, a little angry, but then, as he begins to point various things out — the unassuming red-brick apartment building in which he lives, the kindergarten he used to go to — he slows down, the steeliness subsides and a warmth begins to permeate his recollections. As I compliment the elegant, brick, inter-war Dutch social housing around us, he becomes animated.

Koolhaas is often accused by critics, journalists and other architects of a kind of cynicism, revelling in the detached gaze of the global intellectual. But it quickly becomes clear that he’s still absolutely in love with architecture. I’ve never seen him more engaged than when he is talking about social housing, hotels or office blocks from the 1970s or Soviet-era museums. He is capable of having profound feelings for buildings that, to most people, are almost completely invisible or even dog-ugly. He can come across as contrarian (it was once half-joked that when he went to a restaurant he would ask the waiter for the ugliest thing on the menu) but this is a misapprehension. What he is in love with is a lost world where architects designed cities for citizens. “After Reagan and Thatcher and the fall of communism,” he tells me, “neo-liberalism became the only thing. At that point, architects lost the connection to the public sector and they could no longer claim to serve the public good. We became extensions of individual ambitions. That lost us a lot of credibility.”

OMA still concentrates on public buildings. It is currently working on The Factory in Manchester, a major performance centre and a home for the Manchester Festival, and the Taipei Performing Arts Centre, which takes theatrical engineering and makes an entire building out of it.

What makes the projects so fascinating is the immense research that goes into each one. These are serious attempts to understand the nature of a city and how it is changing, as well as how a public might engage with it.

In this, Koolhaas betrays his roots as a journalist. He was born into the ruins of Rotterdam in 1944 and then, aged eight, moved to Jakarta, where his father, a journalist and film critic, was charged with setting up a Dutch cultural institute. On returning to Europe, Koolhaas, too, became a journalist, working for the Haagse Post and then briefly attending film school. “The first 12 years of my life were dedicated to coming to terms with chaotic situations,” he says. “Nature, smells, food, risk, lack of security. Plus poverty. It’s not just that I’m interested in contrary examples but that I have an affinity with trying to survive in very complex circumstances — what it does to you, but also what you can achieve in them. The chaos increases exponentially the range of expression and the range of mobilisation.”

His buildings, like his books, are manifestos. Perhaps that explains his fondness for the radical modernism of the Soviet Union, when architecture was always profoundly political. While I’m travelling the world in Koolhaas’s wake, it’s announced that OMA will be remodelling the communist-era New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is as well as a master plan for the State Hermitage in St Petersburg and a success with the 2015 Garage Museum, the conversion of a Soviet-era mass-catering restaurant in Moscow’s Gorky Park into a public art gallery financed by Dasha Zhukova.

While visiting the Soviet Union as a journalist in the 1960s, Koolhaas was seduced by its utopian architecture — so much so that in 1968 he switched to studying architecture at London’s Architectural Association (then at Cornell and New York in the US) — and he retains a fervour for “an architecture made for the people. That era was so incredible.” He talks about early 20th-century Russian Cosmism, the constructivist movement that imagined colonies in space.

For practices such as OMA, every new building has to be a landmark, an icon. It must be exhausting. Working with the Garage allowed the practice to conserve the aesthetic of a former age. Soviet mosaics were meticulously restored, concrete was repaired and cleaned, and damage and decay were stabilised and preserved as evidence of the change in political, economic and aesthetic priorities and fortunes. “It was an intuition,” he told me at the opening in 2015, “that preservation could be mobilised against the current failures of architecture. The expectation for conservation is never a masterpiece,” he adds. “The architecture is constrained . . . so it leads, ironically, to a free territory.”

Conservation liberates the architecture. It is something he is keen to point out in Paris, when showing me around the 17th-century building, extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, that was once a warehouse for the department store Galeries Lafayette. Now it has been converted into a cultural building with a spectacular lifting floor: the whole courtyard jacks up, changing the way the building functions and making the engineering of the structure itself a performance. As Koolhaas explains, the limitations were the creative driver: “The beauty for us was that we had no influence on the proportions, and by surrendering to that logic we were able to create a really drastic new conclusion.”

It’s something he has done to yet more spectacular effect for Miuccia Prada in Milan. OMA’s Fondazione Prada has seen the reimagining of a former distillery on the wrong side of Milan’s railway tracks as a high-culture playground. The tallest existing structure on the site was covered in gold leaf and new buildings were clad in “foamed aluminium”, a counter-intuitive metal froth. One was sheer luxury, the other a product formerly only used in the defence industry, a typically provocative material cocktail.

And now OMA has added a new tower — a striking corner structure and the signpost the building had lacked. “Every floor is one metre taller than the one below,” Koolhaas tells me. “It sounds simple but it’s actually really radical. It changes everything.” The galleries are small at the bottom and epic at the top, culminating in a rooftop bar with a panorama of the city and the Alps beyond. Last month’s catwalk shows were held in the unfinished interior — and the shows, too, are designed by OMA.

The relationship with Prada has been long and deep. In 1999, he says, Miuccia Prada “just walked into our office and said, ‘We don’t like our stores any more.’” The practice’s Prada “Epicentre” for New York’s SoHo was the first major building to open in the city in the strange, subdued days after 9/11, a high-concept fashion store reinvented as a public agora, augmented by a barrage of high-tech screens and media. Its reception was muted, the timing terrible.

The shopping, the fashion, the work for the Chinese and Gulf governments, the constant globetrotting, it can all appear a little cynical from an architect apparently attempting to escape the starchitect label. And what about the politics? OMA’s biggest building to date, the huge arch for Chinese state broadcaster CCTV in Beijing, was supposed to make the media more visible on the skyline, to force it to open up and be accountable. It did not. Koolhaas can seem almost magnetically attracted to working with regimes that others might disdain. In response he points to the dangers of the west’s global decline and its ignorance of the rest of the world.

“I’ve been convinced that since 9/11 the west is not sufficiently aware of the situation it is in. We have abandoned diplomacy and lost the ability to communicate. You see the Chinese today playing an incredible role, and the problems we face — like climate change — only the Chinese can do anything about it, and we’re not being honest about the need to collaborate. The west has also lost out to Russia. We could have established a partnership but instead, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we chose to exploit their weakness. Now there is no creativity in the dialogue.”

What can the architect do to address these issues? “The next level is informed engagement. As an intellectual I see that there is something wrong in this role-playing of confrontation. Every article about construction in the Gulf has to begin with the conditions of workers. But if those journalists looked at the conditions on farms in their own countries, they would find eastern European workers being treated just as badly.”

The first time I visited OMA’s new Qatar National Library last year it was still filled with hundreds of Indian labourers, many cleaning sand off the glass. Now I’m back with Koolhaas, and it is peopled by a mix of Qataris and a sprinkling of maids and nannies. A vast UFO of a structure, it was conceived as a university library for Doha’s Education City but subsequently elevated to national status. As it neared completion, a political crisis erupted in the Gulf, as neighbouring countries accused Qatar of funding terrorism and established a blockade of the country. According to Koolhaas, it was the crisis that made “it [become] a real public space” and of all his recent projects, the one he is most pleased with.

I have an affinity with trying to survive in complex circumstances — what it does to you, but also what you can achieve in them

“Look around, look how well used it is.” And it is. The children’s library is heaving, the café is full of foreign students, and Qataris are both studying and lounging. “We designed it so you could see all the books in a panorama,” Koolhaas says. “We lifted the corners of the floor so everything could be seen. The interior is so large it’s on an almost urban scale.” The library is indeed vast, with an excavated, travertine-lined central area where rare books, maps and manuscripts are housed, and which looks like an archaeological excavation of an earlier city below.

Did he have any qualms about designing a building as a national symbol? “I’m really happy that we didn’t start this as a national library, we weren’t burdened with representation,” he says. “It was a university library which became a national symbol. It’s something for the people to do beyond the shopping mall, a public space.”

The library sits in a strange landscape. There is a sense the desert wants it back. Is this another example of his contrarian streak: working in places that other architects might reject? “On the one hand, it is contrarian, yes,” he says. “But there is also a greater curiosity and a greater tolerance of unusual situations.”

It seems a typically Koolhaasian leap from the desert back to the lush landscape of rural Europe. Perhaps the link is migrant labour. Neither the Qataris nor the Swiss want to do the backbreaking work of labouring or agriculture. How did the guru of globalised urbanism find himself fascinated with the future of the rural? “I’d been going back to this house in Switzerland for 25 years,” he says, “and noticed these radical changes.” The house, which belonged to the parents of his partner (the Dutch designer Petra Blaisse) in Celerina in the Engadin, has now been sold but it triggered this investigation. “The population of the village was disappearing but the village was expanding. A neighbour I thought was a local turned out to be a nuclear scientist from Frankfurt. The sounds of the cows disappeared. The fields were being worked by Sri Lankan tractor drivers and, as people from the towns moved in, the home interiors were being redesigned in a kind of global minimalism. There were cushions everywhere, as if to anaesthetise against some invisible pain. Barns were turned into second homes or spas. Ninety-eight per cent of the surface of the globe,” he says, “is not city.”

He flips through the research for the Guggenheim show. He stops at one map illustrating how 20–30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass is being preserved in some way, as heritage sites, protected landscapes and so on. “That means the rest of the planet needs to mutate at a faster pace, the countryside is changing much faster than the city,” he says. Another shows a thick vertical stripe running down the central US. This defines the routes taken by the massive agricultural machines as they harvest their way northwards, from Texas to the Canadian border, from May to October. “The laptop has become the ground,” Koolhaas observes. “All this is computerised, and every centimetre of earth is surveyed and known.”

He then turns to a picture of gorillas. “We found in Uganda, where they have demarcated a buffer zone between humans and the shrinking habitat of gorillas, that the gorillas actually preferred to live in the buffer zone. It was a more stimulating environment to be near humans. Our relationship with animals is changing, but their intelligence is also adapting. We’re looking here at the world as an organism.”

There are also photos of seemingly endless data centres, agricultural sheds and polytunnels. There is Tesla’s partly operational $5bn battery plant, and Google’s proposed new data centre, both the biggest of their kind. “Factories of this scale would [once] have had 10,000 workers,” Koolhaas says, “now maybe they have 12. This is an epochal shift. There are distribution centres, Dutch greenhouses and data centres over 1km long — there are completely new aesthetic possibilities here.”

Most architects get excited by the prospect of building. Koolhaas gets excited by change itself. He raves about the beauty of the cooling spaces above the Reno SuperNAP data centre, “an architecture which no one is prepared for — abstract and codified, uninflected by human need, distant from us and nevertheless produced and needed by us”. At the same time, agriculture is moving indoors. “They are growing tomato plants 14m high. They demand a new architecture,” he says. The new generation of agri-sheds “shuts out the light frequencies that are not necessary for the individual crops”, creating bright purple or glowing pink interiors. It is the sheer abstraction of these spaces that seems to energise him.

“I have an instinct that what the 21st century has to offer is this post-human architecture,” he says. “This is a new sublime. A landscape totally dictated by function, data and engineering. The scale alters, the human becomes almost irrelevant. The paraphernalia of human habitation can be reduced. We are in a moment of transition now, in a half-human, half-machine architecture. Is this a post-city? If we articulate it properly it could be insanely beautiful.”

“At this point,” he adds. “I barely feel like an architect, [more like] a journalist or an anthropologist. Journalism is, by definition, a sequence of interests rather than a commitment to a single project. You have to be [both] patient and impatient in a strategic way.” It’s then that I confess that niggling insecurity, and say he should probably be writing this article. “Sometimes,” he replies, “I think I should just shut up.”

The writing and research gives him an “independence”, he says. So is it a relief from the architecture? An escape? “It allows us to create a space,” he says, with what might be the hint of a smile, “to pre-empt our potential failures.”

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic. He was in Doha at the invitation of the Qatar Foundation

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