Acknowledgment by Rem Koolhaas
on receiving the Johannes Vermeer Award 2013
I am overwhelmed by praise and I’m not so good at dealing with that, but a prize requires an acknowledgement and I have written this for the occasion. In it, I haven’t dwelt on everything I have achieved nor on everything we’ve done, but since I consider life as a mixture of chance and design, I have in fact made an inventory of everything in which I was fortunate. In other words, everything which fell naturally into my lap and which I have used to build upon.
You are looking at a fortunate person, one who has enjoyed lots of good luck in his life.
This is a word of thanks, and the thanks should go to luck and intention. Tonight, I especially thank luck.
The fact that I happened to be born during the war, which by definition made for an adventurous youth. A youth between ruins and renewal, chaos and planning, and extreme optimism after a black hole of pessimism.
I thank the luck I had in being born into a family with an exemplary respect for the imagination in all its manifestations, and whose members took the trouble to transfer this to me. I thank my good fortune that this particular family took me along to Indonesia in 1952, submerging me deep in the euphoria of a newly invented country, a new language and a new identity. A contagious euphoria that was the beginning of my own independence.
I thank the luck that meant that I, aged nine, could attend a barbecue with Sukarno, experiencing charisma and learning about power. I thank the luck which meant that I knew early on that there were other worlds, other fragrances, gods, colours and clouds, systems and lines, and I have therefore still as much affinity with the style of Mondrian as with the swarming of batik.
I thank the luck I had to enjoy a super-ambitious education, or so I think now, as a product of the 1960s: Latin, Greek, French, German, English, Dutch, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and history; while yet being a part of that generation which once trained began to tinker and half break everything.
I thank the luck that made me a sort of tourist Zelig in Paris in May 1968, and in Prague in September when the Russians invaded, the whole split between the creative and ideological supremacy illustrated in a single summer.
I sincerely thank my good fortune in being a journalist at the precise moment in which society literally lay open. That Sandberg, Armando, Vinkenoog, Duyns, Hilterman and Hofland seemed a part of everyday life. Passolini, Fassbinder and Polanski were accessible to their fans and Fellini, Le Corbusier and Wijdeveld lent themselves as subjects whether they wanted it or not, whether they knew it or not: they were part of my DNA, stored in the insatiable sponge of my brain.
I thank the luck that sent me to London when it was at its most swinging, and allowed me to proceed to America at the time of maximum ferment and radicalisation. I thank the luck I had to be there in 1972: the World Trade Center was just completed, as a sparkling welcome, the Concorde flew overhead for the first time, and America was both the kingdom of Richard Nixon and the domain of Michel Foucault. Dalí and Warhol wandered around at large and were not stingy with their company.
I thank my luck — and this is very important — in being an architect at the precise moment when the computer unleashed a tsunami of change in my profession, with a greater impact than all the previous revolutions in its 2000-year history put together.
I thank the chance that made neoliberalism and globalisation break open the world willingly or unwillingly, installing a religion of money, giving our speciality — for we architects are experts in change and conservation — a new urgency, a new credibility, Suddenly, we could work anywhere — in Russia, China and Qatar, countries that cannot match Dutch perfection, but where men and women endeavour with all their might to positively influence as many lives as possible.
I also thank the luck that made this endless expansion coincide with an even more beautiful experiment here at home, the reinvention of Europe. A great story on the threshold of which we are all part; a big story at the very moment when we no longer believe in big stories, when we no longer see what big stories are. And for me, Europe remains a fascinating flight ahead from which our political class now is now recoiling — temporarily, I hope.
I thank my luck in having friends who all act as much needed excursions outside architecture: writers, curators, scholars, designers, filmmakers, politicians, bookmakers, engineers and journalists. I have deliberately worked with all my friends. They could all do something I could not, or together we dared to do things, we took risks that we would never take alone. Willem Frederik Hermans once said that a hero is someone who has been careless with impunity. Thanks to my friends I have occasionally been careless with impunity.
I am grateful for the chance that made me allergic to the ‘I’ so that I therefore have five partners and 300 employees with 49 different nationalities. We are a productive mini UN and refute Europe’s foolish resistance to immigration on a daily basis.
I thank the chance - but maybe it’s not entirely chance - that I was raised, from my mother onwards, by intelligent, civilized and generous women. Developed by one and launched by another. Finally, I thank the luck I had in being born a Dutch citizen and being able to work occasionally for the Dutch ‘regime’. And that, I think, is probably why I am able to accept this wonderful prize, for which I am deeply grateful.