Speech by Minister Bussemaker on the presentation of the Johannes Vermeer Award to Rem Koolhaas on Monday, 21st October, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen,

In 1952, John Cage wrote a composition in which the performing pianist must be silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds — without playing. During the performance of that piece, every background noise becomes audible simultaneously: a passing car, a cough from the audience, a gust of wind. In this way, the composer redefined the term ‘silence’ as ‘sound that is not directed’.

In the 1990s, you, Rem Koolhaas, introduced the concept of emptiness (as the opposite of volume) as the basis for architecture. As you wrote, while ‘do nothing’ is a permanent part of the repertoire of the doctor, by definition the architect always wants to build in space. You contrasted this with the method of the urban planner, in which open space plays a much more important role. By differentiating between ‘volume’ and ‘void’, you set the tone for a new way of working that became your hallmark: analysing and diagnosing what happens in a particular culture, in society, partly as a starting point for your manner of building. In this way, rather like John Cage you broke the boundaries between architecture and other disciplines — and turned on its head the way people work, think and look at this field.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Every year, we give out the Johannes Vermeer Award.

We give it to painters, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, architects and other people active at the summit of the international cultural world. By definition, these people are often innovators, people who push boundaries, for whom looking at things differently is completely normal — and who thus make history.

Rem Koolhaas is a great example of this. This time around the jury, chaired by Jeanine van den Ende, quickly agreed that Vermeer Award of 2013 had to go to one of our most important architects. As a source of national pride and a figurehead among our most successful applied artists in the international arena, not to mention as the winner of numerous international awards, it was high time to honour him with the Dutch state prize.

Mr Koolhaas, I must confess here that I am a great lover of architecture. Your buildings (I know a few of them) have always appealed to me enormously. I particularly want to mention the Kunsthal, where the spaces run into each other in such a beautifully cinematic way, and where each room offers a different view of the surroundings and the city. But I also love the fascinating buildings that you have placed in China, Berlin, Porto and Seattle. Robust buildings, sometimes stacked, yet always of a piece. You can’t get around it, while they are so layered, transparent and clear.

But we would not be doing justice to your work, which we’re putting under the spotlight with this award, if we only reflected on your powerful buildings. The name Rem Koolhaas is also synonymous with a sizeable stream of books, writings and lectures which have had a persistent influence on the architecture world. In books like Delirious New York and S,M,L,XL you introduced ideas such as the stacked city (and ‘culture of congestion’) and the phenomenon of the ‘generic city’ — the ever-expanding metropolis, without a centre and without a history, which is so designed and constructed that it could actually be anywhere. Your theories are often rational; they capture the zeitgeist and identify trends in society. They contain no opinion or ideology — and there are sometimes misunderstandings concerning that. They are the result of minute observation and description, and from them develops an architectural outlook which is sometimes visionary. Every trend report you open these days, whether from the CPB or the WRR, gives a central place to the increasing dominance of urban conglomerates over countries. Your generic cities now have a concrete, visible development in Dubai and China — whether we are happy about that or not. In an interview with Wired, you commented:

Architecture can’t do anything that the culture doesn’t. We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. And yet, maybe in truth these cities are what we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living.

In your work, thinking about urban and social developments in society, and designing buildings, are complementary things. They do not coincide, but they do influence — and mutually reinforce — one another. OMA, the agency that you set up with three others almost 40 years ago — and now located in four metropolises with hundreds of employees — has therefore had a permanent counterpart since the 1990s in AMO, which exists solely to think, research and write.

That brings me to my next point. I started my story by naming you as an example of a top-level international culture creator, innovating and setting new boundaries. That applies not only to the concepts you develop and the viewpoint you take as an architect, but also to the concrete working process that results from these. The people of AMO, preferably up-and-coming young people from around the world, supported by your students at Harvard — put their nimble, creative minds to work under your direction, thinking about a variety of issues. These range from the sale and presentation of commercial products, from new cars to Prada fashions, to issues of sustainability and development — such as an ongoing project on the urban development of Lagos, a major city in Nigeria. And on the subject of Europe: AMO designed a European flag as a multi-coloured barcode — a symbol of borderless connection while maintaining separate identities. This fits into a current trend. The added value of artists for our 21st-century society is continuing to increase in importance, not only because of their intrinsic, but also because of their social value. Not for nothing are the creative industries one of the nine top sectors that shape our economy. But for you, this has long gone without saying — a logical development, a solution to practical problems and obstacles. The growth market for architecture, in Europe especially, has been drastically reduced due to the economic crisis. But with your brainpower and expertise, you can win quite different commissions, ones that don’t rely on literal design. Also from a commercial point of view, you and your partners found it a waste to throw away all the thinking that is done for a design that comes eventually into literal existence only after about after five years. And this, meanwhile, means you fit perfectly within a vanguard of applied artists who are helping our society to move forward in this technological age. Next to artistic value, this is something that, as a government (together with the private sector) we want to support, promote and stimulate.

Dear Rem Koolhaas — as a successful architect abroad, you are a figurehead for our country. As a builder you belong to the global top level, you push conceptual boundaries and have even renewed the discipline. We honour your entire oeuvre to date — but (to put it in movie terms) it is equally a snapshot, a moment in time. In Rotterdam alone, within a few years, the urban climate will be enriched with three landmark buildings, including De Rotterdam on the Kop van Zuid, the largest office complex ever realised at one time. In London, you have recently delivered the new headquarters of the Rothschild Bank. And next year, you are chief curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale.

This lifetime achievement award represents the appreciation of The Netherlands for what you put into the world, literally and figuratively. But at the same time it is as an incentive. Because this much is certain: we can still expect a lot from you.

I congratulate and thank you.