Town Vs. Country with Rem Koolhaas

The Famed Dutch Architect on His Love For Public Pools and Why the Countryside Is the Future of the World

  • Interview: Sven Michaelsen
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: OMA

Sven Michaelsen met Rem Koolhaas in his office on the premises of Milan’s Fondazione Prada. The architect’s statements were often simultaneously illustrated with digital images by two assistants. Rem Koolhaas himself hardly lifted his eyes for two hours. Instead, he drew labyrinths, roman numbers and mysterious letter combinations on A4 format paper with his red ballpoint pen. The following is their conversation.

Fondazione Prada, Milan, Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada. Top Image: Rem Koolhaas, Photograph by Fabrizio Albertini, Courtesy of OMA

Fondazione Prada, Milan, Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

Sven Michaelsen

Rem Koolhaas

Mr. Koolhaas, you are the most influential architect of our time, employ about 350 people and have built skyscrapers, bridges, stadiums, libraries and museums on four continents. If you had to define it, what would be the fundamental experience of your life?

I am grateful to be part of a generation that has experienced hunger. When I was born in 1944, half of Rotterdam, my home town, lay in ashes and my parents lived in abject poverty. The wheels of their bicycles were made from wood instead of rubber. Accordingly, I had a modest idea of luxury as a child, and still do today. One of my greatest pleasures is visiting public pools, which is not a costly affair. I feel privileged to be able to differentiate between a desire and a need thanks to my upbringing. Mental strength is built through resistance to the unnecessary, too. Today’s shortage of shortages turns people into flighty and insatiable creatures whose incessant quest for wish fulfilment distracts them from anything of substance.

Can you describe the feeling of your childhood?

Even though Rotterdam remained shattered until the early 50s, the climate was extremely optimistic. Us children lived in great freedom among the ruins. There was little supervision and even fewer categories to split the world into good and evil by. The conditions were fluid, permeable. When I look at my children and grandchildren, I am sorry that they never experienced anything like it.

What is it about public pools that appeals to you?

They are some of the few spaces where Karl Marx’s utopia of a classless society has been realized. There are no class boundaries, every new visitor is integrated immediately. Visiting public pools is lived sociology.

What kind of teenager were you?

Until I was 15, I was a homebody who spent 90% of his downtime reading books. Russian classics, German, French: my appetite for literature was insatiable. When I started going to the cinema, I applied the same fanaticism to movies. I succumbed to Italian post-war cinema and identified with the concepts of humanism and modernity. Up until today, Pasolini and Antonioni had a bigger impact on me than any architect.

Your grandfather designed headquarters for companies like Philips, Shell and KLM. Your father was a journalist, author and cultural functionary. Were you pressured into a specific profession?

No. After high school, I wanted to study film but my father was the head of the academy. I wanted to avoid studying under him by any means, so I worked as a journalist until the age of 24. On the side, I wrote scripts with friends. We were a tight collective called 1,2,3 Group. You’ll know two of us. Jan de Bont went on to direct movies like Speed and Twister. Robby Müller became Wim Wenders’ cameraman. In the manifesto of the collective it was written that we all had to be actors, directors, cameramen and cutters at the same time. Which is why you can find clips of me dabbling in acting on the internet.

In 1974, you moved to Los Angeles for six months to write a script for Russ Meyer who had become famous for his sex films and their stars’ big boobs.

The movie was called Hollywood Tower. In the mid 70s, its plot still seemed utopian: Rich Arabs buy up Hollywood’s movie archives and develop a computer which digitally generates new movies with dead stars. Since the computer puts living actors out of work, the government under Nixon funds a movie starring all the country’s unemployed actors. The filming gets out of hand and the movie never gets finished. One plot line of the film praises pornographic movie making as humanism’s last form—a concession to Russ Meyer.

In an interview with the German newspaper Spiegel, you said that a “light vision” you experienced at 24 made you want to become an architect.

I was giving a lecture for architects who wanted to learn how to make movies. As I was speaking, a thought hit me: what they’re doing is much more interesting than what I am doing! A few weeks later, a friend of mine and architectural historian took me to the Soviet Union. We looked at buildings from the 1920s and studied the works of avant-gardists like Kasimir Malewitsch and Alexander Rodtschenko in museums and private residencies. When we returned, I had made my decision: I was going to study architecture.

It is said that your peers only had one goal on their minds: designing prefabricated hospitals for the Viet Cong.

That’s not accurate! Because all the architecture students in my homeland were determined to serve the Viet Cong, I studied at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture, a laboratory for new ideas and perspectives. The people there had little to do with the Viet Cong.

Early theologists thought that architecture shaped humans more lastingly than the holy scripture. Do you share their opinion?

No. Architecture can stimulate, but it only becomes overpowering when a person is locked into a claustrophobic prison cell for an extended amount of time.

Fondazione Prada Torre, Milan, Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

“Today’s shortage of shortages turns people into flighty and insatiable creatures whose incessant quest for wish fulfilment distracts them from anything of substance.”

Berlin’s “poor people painter” Heinrich Zille once said you could strike down a person with an apartment just like with an axe.

That sounds good as a sentence, but the sentiment is a bit much for my taste. Dramatically exaggerated phrasing and precise content rarely make a good match to me.

Do you experience physical suffering at the sight of failed architecture?

My tolerance is very high. I just can’t stand when architecture is patronizing.

You have been working with the fashion house Prada for 20 years. What motivates this collaboration?

In 1999, Miuccia Prada and her husband Patrizio Bertelli came to visit me, unannounced, and invited me to develop a new concept for their stores. Their company had become a global enterprise and they felt in danger of their image becoming too monotonous. It was an accident that I had just finished the book The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping and was thus familiar with the subject. We presented our concept three months later. One of our ideas was to use the stores for performance art a few hours every week and to offer them to authors for readings. The Prada customer was supposed to feel like more than just a consumer. We wanted to attract people who were interested in new aesthetic ideas. We called it propaganda for ideational values.

Were you interested in fashion in 1999?

Yes, I had considered becoming a fashion designer when I was 17, but the Netherlands didn’t seem like the right place for that to me.

It is rumored that as an architecture student you distinguished yourself from the left mainstream of the late 60s by attending seminars in suit and tie.

People like you made up that story. The urge to fabulate is an unpleasant idiosyncrasy of journalists. The truth is that after high school, I became a journalist and wrote for the Dutch weekly Haagse Post. Like any other person who wasn’t a hippie, I wore suits with slim ties. And was still a socialist. Only when I started studying architecture in 1968 did I stop wearing suits.

More and more new museums and large exhibitions are financed by unimaginably rich people. Multimillionaires like Bernard Arnault, Francois Pinault or Miuccia Prada are the Medicis of our time…

Stop! I want the record to state that I disagree with almost everything you’re saying. There are no more Medicis and our present time hardly shows any similarities to that of the 15th and 18th century. The same goes for the three people you listed. They hardly have anything in common. I am not in the mood to contribute to simplifying caricatures.

What are the frustrations and audacities of working for a fashion empire like Prada?

We have collaboratively realized over a dozen bold and experimental projects. It would therefore be absurd to tell you something negative. Both of them are exemplary customers because they think big and get straight to the point without the blah blah. They take a left or right turn, there is no middle of the road with them. Their Italian temperament assorts well with my Dutch directness and Calvinistic heritage.

Your latest work for Prada is a backpack called the frontpack.

The spin is that you carry the frontpack on your chest. You know the feeling: You’re standing in line for luggage check-in at the airport and need your passport or laptop, but both are in the backpack on your back and it’s so damn strenuous to reach its contents. With the frontpack, it only takes one movement. Another downside to the backpack are the many collisions. If you have an aisle seat on a plane, you’ll frequently get hit in the head with a backpack because their wearers don’t realize what they’re causing behind them. This problem, too, is solved by the frontpack.

Do you remember the moment that sparked your idea for the frontpack?

I was asked to contribute something to the fall collection. The inspiration for the frontpack came to me five seconds later. I got out my red ballpoint pen and a piece of paper, and drew a sketch. My design was accepted without many alterations or discussions. No ever-changing instructions, no endless conferences: this efficiency is what makes our collaboration so pleasant. Miuccia and I didn’t even discuss the frontpack face to face, our exchange of voice memos sufficed. I’m not telling you this to show off. You wanted to understand why I work for Prada. I know the history and mythology of the company, which is why I have an easy time extrapolating what it is they want from me.

Are you one of those people who don’t wear clothing or accessories with visible logos on them?

Yes, you are right about that.

If it were up to you, would you remove the printed Prada logo in white letters from the frontpack?

No, after all I am the one who placed it. Have you taken a closer look at it?

The typography of the logo resembles that of the Russian newspaper Pravda, which acted as the communist party’s publicity organ for decades. An inside joke?

If you get it, it’s not an inside joke.

Fondazione Prada Torre, Milan, Photograph by Bas Princen, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

You have lived in London for 25 years. Over the next few years, about 250 new skyscrapers will be erected in the city. Is there anyone taking care of its overall aesthetic impression?

No. Almost the entire world willfully submitted to the dictatorship of the market economy. It is therefore illusionary to still assume city planners even capable of influencing the image of a city with rules and regulations the way they did back in the day. Capitalism robbed these ladies and gentlemen of their power and exiled them into irrelevance. The last heroic efforts to create a coherent city image were undertaken by Hans Stimmann during his time as the senate construction director of Berlin, but he left that office in 2006. However, I don’t believe in the imminent demise of the occident. I have witnessed too many political climates in my 73 years to believe that the current one will last for eternity. The laissez faire attitude prevalent in city planning now will sooner or later revert into its opposite again. People will get fed up with it and global warming will force us to make fundamental changes.

Louis XIV merely had to snap his fingers to move whole buildings like they were Legos. Are architects secretly mourning the end of absolutism?

Have you ever read the memoirs of architects who worked under Louis XIV? I can recommend the autobiography of the Roman architect and sculptor Lorenzo Bernini. Louis XIV had called for him to come to Paris in 1665 to consult him on extensions he planned to make to the Louvre. He was also asked to design a monument to the Sun King. These commissions resulted in an endless chain of humiliations and total frustration for Bernini. Architects don’t yearn for builder-owners with absolutist power, not even in the darkest corners of the basement of their souls. They’d be first to fall victim to these potentates.

Which of the humiliations Bernini had so suffer did you find most memorable?

He once had to wait 12 years for a reply from Louis XIV. Take that in for a moment: 12 years!

CCTV, Beijing, Photograph by Philippe Ruault, Courtesy of OMA

CCTV, Beijing, Photograph by Philippe Ruault, Courtesy of OMA

Your most famous building is the 237 meter high broadcasting headquarter of China’s state television CCTV in Beijing. It houses 8,000 employees. At its inauguration in 2012, when it was the world’s second biggest building after the pentagon, did you feel like a godlike creator?

As you know, God built the world in six days. He is not known to have produced a single bead of sweat in the process. Meanwhile, I flew to Beijing once a month for 10 years to supervise the construction of this building. As an architect, I have never for a second felt like a demiurge who enriches the cosmos for a prestigious construction with the turn of a hand.

Which advantages do you see in working for a totalitarian state like China?

China reinvents itself every day. The decision makers are between 30 and 40 years old. They say yes or no at an accordant speed. The decision makers of Europe and the USA are between 50 and 70 years old. At that age, people are risk-averse. They call committee conferences and try to burden as many shoulders as possible with the responsibility for their decision. Once the blame game commences, they have half a dozen people to point at.

An inability to enjoy their own creations after a while becomes the cruel fate of many composers. Do you experience this with your buildings, too?

When I’m standing in front of our buildings, I neither pat myself on the shoulder nor do I transform into a masochist focused exclusively on mistakes. The distance to our buildings is so big, I feel like I’m studying the work of another, unknown architect. For the most part, I’m pleased by what I see.

Are some of your buildings embarrassments to you?

Answering this question with a yes surely would be personable, but my reply is no.

Your colleague Frank Gehry allegedly got the idea for his Paris museum Fondation Louis Vuitton when he spent 45 minutes in an MRI system. People say your best ideas come to you in seat A1 on airplanes. Is that true?

Yes, but there are a few other places I work well in. It is crucial for me to feel like I won’t be disturbed by anyone or anything. But I don’t really believe in these moments of genius conception in architecture. This is how it works for me: My day begins with a brainstorming session with my employees, followed by an interview, around noon I get on an Easyjet plane and am sat in a minivan after we land. This cocktail of heterogenous experiences, by the end of the day, distills itself into an idea.

What did you do the day you had the idea to have the two towers of the CCTV tower look like a folded loop?

Go online. You’ll find at least eight employees of mine who are convinced they invented this shape. And they are all correct! This confusion mirrors the reality of an architecture firm. You demand ideas and hash and rehash the best suggestions in design sessions. Many participants will leave convinced they were the ones who contributed the defining vision. The truth is: architecture is a collective achievement. A refined silhouette is just as important as the building’s energy balance and political enforceability.

What do you do when you can’t think of anything?

Authors know writer’s block, but I’m not aware of an equivalent that exists for architects. We have an entire machine in our back waiting for our output. It forces us to deliver. If you act like a zombie or think you have to serve Hamlet, you’ll be out of a job in no time. Architecture is scheduled work.

CCTV, Beijing, Photograph by Jim Gourley, Courtesy of OMA

Since publishing your theory tomb Delirious New York in 1978, you are considered a visionary and apologist of metropolitan life. Next year you will present the exhibition Countryside: Future of the World at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. What is it that suddenly draws an urbanist like yourself to farm life?

I have vacationed in a small village in the Swiss canton Engadin for 25 years. Six or seven years ago, I noticed a change that had happened with such consistency, I hadn’t even registered it: I hardly saw any locals anymore, even though the village had grown. There were nuclear scientists from Frankfurt and cleaners from Vietnam who took care of the chalets of Milanese designers. It didn’t smell like cow dung anymore either, because there were no longer any cows. Along with the cows, the old farms disappeared. They were replaced by vacation homes and apartment buildings of a strangely dual style, a kind of luxurious minimalism. Most new-builds stood empty most of the time. The village seemed to explode only during vacation seasons. I realized how we rape the earth just to make city life tolerable. For the past 10 to 15 years, the countryside has been changing more rapidly and more radically than cities. The epochal meaning of this transformation is lost on us. The reason for this blind spot is that architects focus 90 percent of their attention on city planning and related issues. The exhibition at the Guggenheim is supposed to help change this.

In the press release, you write that the future of architecture lies in the countryside. How did you arrive at this thesis?

The automation of the workplace is moving to the country. Tesla is spending five billion dollars on building their Gigafactory 1 in Nevada, which is meant to become the largest factory in the world with a square kilometer of floor space. Only a handful of people will work there. Are they worth architectural efforts? What should automatized server farms, shipping centers or production halls look like? Does a work robot need a window? Do these spaces need to be designed accessibly? While technological progress is advancing at light speed, the imagination of architects hardly evolves at all. They still have one foot in antiquity and continue to fight yesterday’s battles. Sooner or later, this will make them irrelevant. The past is too small for living in.

To film the documentary REM, your son Thomas accompanied you on your travels around the world for four years. Later, when he was asked why the film shows you from behind or the side so much, he replied: “My father walks very fast and has appointments all the time. He doesn’t wait for you. So I often had to walk behind him and film his back.” Are you a workaholic who urgently needs to take it down a notch?

No, my concept is simple: I have to hurry so I can afford phases of deceleration. I can only do certain things with dedication and focus because of the time I save hurrying places. If I am defined by anything, it’s my ability to focus.

Do you want to be seen as an artist or do you agree with Frank Gehry, who once said: “Someone once said: if it has a toilet, it can’t be art. Since my buildings contain toilets, I prefer the term architect”?

This is not a subject I’d like to spend time discussing.

Why not?

Because the differences between artists and architects are obvious. Last year, Francesco Stocchi and I curated an exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s works in Milan. From the very beginning, the gallery made sure to let me know what an honor it was for me to be working with LeWitt’s works. The men who transported them behaved as if they were carrying religious relics. There is no equivalent for this phenomenon in architecture. Artists may, and must, make random decisions without justification. We have to go ask the builder for permission if we want a window to be 10 centimeters bigger.

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, is one of the biggest successes in the history of German architecture. Do you want people to consider your buildings beautiful?

It’s not my primary goal. Beauty can’t be created by striving for it. It occurs almost accidentally, not after careful planning. For me, beauty isn’t necessarily tied to sensory impressions. I can see beauty in an estate of prefabricated buildings of East Germany because it represents the strive for equality.

You once said: “Architects don’t get rich. Maybe Norman Foster and Frank Gehry do, but I haven’t. Architects work like a medieval guild. We receive a small percentage of the building sum. And that remains the same, no matter how famous you are.” Are you seriously trying to claim you’re not a wealthy man?

My office designs prototypes that never go into production. This means we solve problems from dusk till dawn, and instead of applying the lessons we learn to our next project, we start at zero every time. Economically, this is outright idiocy, but I’m not complaining. Routine would depress me.

Beijing’s CCTV tower cost about a billion Euros. How much did you make off that project?

We lost money on that. For one, because the Chinese don’t spend much money on architecture. But also because a large fire caused us four extra years of work. Before we started planning the building, we lived in China for a few months to learn and understand the country better. We rode bicycles, ate street food and visited public pools. This introductory phase is important, for example because people keep a different distance from one another in every country. If you don’t take this distance into consideration, nobody will feel at home in your building. You can’t bill people for this kind of research.

How serious were you when you said you couldn’t afford building a house of your own?

I don’t even long to live in a Rem Koolhaas building. I would miss the interaction with the builder-owner. If I have to spend time with myself, I prefer to fill it with different subjects.

Our cities would probably look better if architects had to live in their own creations. Is it true that you’ve never lived in a building younger than a hundred years?

This is a typical tabloid question, but I’ll still give you an answer. The building I live in in Amsterdam is from 1924. It looks like many other buildings from around that time. No one stops to look at it when they walk past it.

Qatar National Library, Doha, Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani and Marco Capeletti, Courtesy of OMA

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Image Courtesy of OMA

“The truth is: architecture is a collective achievement. A refined silhouette is just as important as the building’s energy balance and political enforceability.”

Is it true that 95% of your designs land in the trash?

I would guess it’s around 80%. One of the best kept secrets of my profession is that degradation is our daily bread. It is completely normal to lose a competition or call for proposals and feel like a radio preacher whose mic has been turned off. If you’d like your rate to be better, you should work exclusively for private builders.

Let’s say you only have 24 hours left to live. Which of your buildings do you spend them in?

I have a hut on an island between Sardinia and Corsica. Every second month, I spend 10 days there. I would also want to spend my final moments there.

Are you using the word hut as an understatement for a villa with…

If I say hut, I mean hut. There is one door and one window.

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Photograph by Timur Shabaev, Courtesy of OMA

  • Interview: Sven Michaelsen
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: OMA