The pursuit of boundlessness: the elusive Rem Koolhaas
A residential block in Fukuoka
On a sweltering Sunday in July 2013, I plough my way through the new neighbourhood of Nexus in Fukuoka, Japan. It’s so stuffy that no one has ventured out onto the street, apart from a group of baseball players on the local field. Nexus, initiated in the early 1990s was intended as a sampler of new architectural forms. It would raise the suburban environment to a higher level than that of the traditional terrace house and well-known ‘living street’. Leading architect Arata Isozaki (the originator of the idea) invited the international crème de la crème to add their own interpretations to this modern campus — among them the Frenchman Christian de Portzamparc, the American Steven Holl and OMA/Rem Koolhaas. Of all the housing blocks, Koolhaas’ was the quirkiest, the most radical and so the most remarkable. It differs from the pastel-coloured, candy tones of the surrounding blocks in every respect. It was therefore not surprising that it also won him a prestigious Japanese architecture award.
Because housing is a subordinate element in the Koolhaas portfolio, my curiosity is aroused; moreover Fukuoka, like a Japanese Rotterdam, is busy propagating architecture and design as its trademarks. It’s a hip modern city with futuristic design hotels and clubs.
So the little two-piece housing block delivered around 1991 is radical and quirky. While fellow architects swear by stairs and lifts, Koolhaas uses the ramp as a trail that winds its way through the complex, with inner streets connecting to storage spaces and bicycle parking. The side walls are made of mesh — or what we would have formerly, scornfully, termed ‘chicken wire’. High and low go hand in hand with Koolhaas. The most striking thing is that the apartments are hidden behind a façade of tarred basalt that bends and arches. The windows in the façade are minimal. There’s a glimpse of an upswept roof and a terrace with greenery.
The housing project is an exaggerated form of the reversal of roles, and hence expectations. The plinth behind which companies are located consists of glass, on which rests the heavy basalt. Heavy on top and light below; here gravity is denied. Eventually I stand in front of a door, also made of chicken wire, where a sign in European writing reports the name of the resident: Murakami. That cannot be a coincidence.
The housing project in Japan is as uncompromising as the start of Rem Koolhaas’ career was compromised. No doubt his memories of it are far from pleasant. In the autumn of 1985, he is tense in the public gallery of the old council chamber of Amsterdam. Whenever the meeting is adjourned, he walks away to one of the telephone kiosks — we are talking about the pre-mobile era. On the agenda is the first major building that will be realised in Amsterdam on the site of the GEB (municipal electricity company) headquarters. The plans for its demolition are ready and waiting.
In today’s terms, it’s a triple A location, this corner between the Tesselschadestraat, Stadhouderskade and Vondelpark. Only Jan Shaefer, the Alderman for Housing then, has his doubts. He is more on the side of the underprivileged, the socially disadvantaged who also need to live in the city. This complex is reserved for higher incomes. Its name alone, Byzantium, gives some councillors the shudders — the squatters’ riots are still fresh in their memory. Should politics concern itself with this adventure?
While the debate drags on, the architect sketches what he has in mind on my notepad: a metropolitan apartment complex with a quirkily sloping cornice and, as a focal point, a round crow’s nest at the corner — soon to become known as the pillendoos, the pillbox. A golden pillbox, too, destined for an apartment dweller. That detail divides opinions to the bone.
In my memory, the College of Aldermen eventually suspended the meeting, leaving a desperate Rem Koolhaas behind. Temporarily, a line was drawn through his design — temporarily only, because Byzantium would still come. Although much later (1991) than he and others had wanted, and in such a modified form that he had the process recorded by his son in a manga-style cartoon in his magnum opus, S,M,L,XL (1995). It is the result of his frustration with three developers, one in charge of the car park, another with the apartments and the third with the offices. They clearly entertained other visions of Byzantium than Koolhaas himself: suburban rather than urban, rectangular instead of round windows. Koolhaas won the competition but lost the battle for a groundbreaking piece of architecture.
Amsterdam: he lives there (with pleasure) and finally builds again. But he pledges his heart to Rotterdam, because there, in his eyes, an adventurer mentality prevails. It’s a tabula rasa, created by the wartime bombardment, a city with the energy to create the waves which Koolhaas surfed from the 1980s onwards. He would actually use the metaphor of the surfer himself: “I can surf the waves which others make,” he once said, formulating his role as a team player.
One year after the completion of Byzantium, the Kunsthal was finished in Rotterdam, and now in 2013 there are two Koolhaas designs in scaffolding in the city and a third coming: the new city hall behind the neo-Renaissance town hall by architect Henri Evers, and the largest multi-purpose building in The Netherlands: The Rotterdam. The Forum shopping centre next to the ABN AMRO Bank (also not diminutive in size) was given the green light in the summer of 2013.
From the seventh floor of his offices on De Heer Bokelweg, Koolhaas can watch over them all. Ironically, in the same Rotterdam one of his first ‘works’ died in 2007, the plectrum-shaped awning plus bus office at the station. He will not be sorry about that, I am convinced, because the past should not be ballast. It is the future that challenges him, not the burden of history.
Thorn in the flesh
In 1975, Koolhaas set up the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), together with Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis. Their goal was to define new relationships between theory and practice and between architecture and contemporary culture. It was the overture to a portfolio of unheard-of diversity in which all disciplines are on an equal footing: fashion, graphic design, comics, urban planning and architecture. In 2013, modular furniture was added to the list, thanks to a commission by the manufacturer Knoll.
In the late 1990s, Koolhaas, meanwhile a professor at Harvard University, added a research department to it, AMO. This free-ranging thinktank was given a conceptual nature, focusing on issues of identity, branding, media and cultural phenomena like shopping. The last, he says, is an underrated, yet defining, occupation.
AMO is apparently necessary to compensate for an architectural design process that is simply governed by the tension between programme and implementation, the client and the creative team. That inevitably leads to an undesirable compromise.
Without the framework of AMO, it might have been impossible to devise a logo for the European Union. In 2001, a demand from Brussels for an iconographic symbol for Europe led to a banner with a barcode. In it are all the flags of the member states together, up to and including the newest member, Croatia. Some prize its logic, others deplore its banality. The point is made: a united Europe has a uniform symbol, or rather a symbol of uniformity, even if perhaps it is something of a false flag.
OMA and AMO never seek out the path of least resistance. In relationship to both, Koolhaas functions as a questioner, a critical thorn in the flesh. The solution does not exist, the simplest way is chosen as the logic flows from the programme. For the office architects, it’s a curious courtship. Because it seems like such a preposterous portfolio, the likelihood of conflict and resistance is always great. OMA has never cared much about the conventional implementation of the architectural design, but has benefitted from a building quality that has improved, compared to its early period. Building is not necessarily easier now, but it is better.
All this means that the list of uncompleted designs is likely to be bigger than the list of completed ones. It may even happen that the OMA team sometimes works on a contract or competition commission before concluding that the solution is non-existent or unsatisfactory, in which case — end of story.
Is this because of the elusive figure that Koolhaas is, or wants to be? Is he an architect? Is he a journalist? Is he theorist? A writer? He is everything, found the jury of the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2000, which means he is always looking for the actual, the tangible. Koolhaas thus acts as a modernist in the footsteps of predecessors like Hugh Maaskant and Le Corbusier.
“Architecture,” he said in a lecture at Rice University, “is a dangerous profession, because it is a poisonous mixture of omnipotence and impotence, in the sense that the architect almost invariably harbours megalomaniacal dreams that depend upon others, and upon circumstances, to impose and to realise those fantasies and dreams.” Byzantium could be considered as an example of the impotence — the architect held hostage by politics and dubious developers. This delicate balance exists on a larger scale, too. As with the 2008 crisis in Dubai, for which OMA had developed ambitious plans, dreams can suddenly seem to crumble and the office is left treading water. The history of OMA/Koolhaas is one of long climbs and track stands, to use cycling terminology. They are inherent in the ambitions possessed and propagated by a rider like Koolhaas.
Opposite impotence is omnipotence, the successful missions, such as the CCTV tower in Beijing, which has become a conscious or unconscious symbol of China’s supremacy. This was a commission that could succeed thanks to a totalitarian regime. Through it, Koolhaas was forced reluctantly — to accountability. How could he cooperate with the propaganda machine of the regime, his critics asked? Koolhaas seemed to have another motive: the CCTV tower might be a means of pointing those in power towards their responsibilities. And anyway, architecture is not politics.
Koolhaas is not so much interested in architectural bragging as in complexity. Aesthetics seems an afterthought. The expression of a building is powered by the content.
The bigger the programme, the more he is challenged. Is this the reason why his projects take a long time or have a lengthy lead-time? Almost ten years preceded the CCTV tower in Beijing, De Rotterdam on the Kop van Zuid has a history that started somewhere in 1997 as the project then known as the MAB tower. Koolhaas is simply an architect who not only addresses the border, but also crosses it — and it can happen that a crisis overtakes you or that a new (city) government surprises you with other points of view.
For this reason, it is obvious why Koolhaas mainly operates in new areas and not in Paris, Rome or Amsterdam, says Ian Buruma in the collection of essays, What is OMA? The old European cities are picturesque, compact but perhaps exhausted — ultimately they are manifestations of decayed glory, has-beens. Koolhaas’ hunting ground extends along the south side of the Persian Gulf, China and Manhattan. Manhattan was also his first research laboratory after he had said goodbye to journalism. Although, as often appears from his later career, he never entirely gave up the journalistic attitude. So in the essay collection Project Japan (2012), he questions Japanese colleagues about their views on the metabolism.
Around the turn of the century he added a new megacity to the range of challenges: Lagos in Nigeria: a teeming metropolis which hugely impressed Koolhaas, because order seems to prevail in an apparent chaos. Lagos, where he was also sick, changed his view of the world and ground down the sharp edges of his personality. Is the architect still an appropriate figure to design a malleable society when citizens, as in Lagos, can do it themselves?
Complex projects, architecture and urbanism that deals with density, form a leitmotif in the work of OMA/Koolhaas: easy solutions, again, do not exist. This helps to explain the fascination for ‘Bigness’, the XL scale from his equally extensive lexicon of architecture, S,M,L,XL (1995) Bigness is something that few architects know how to do much with. For Koolhaas, on the other hand, it means a jump to a new cosmos, to a city within the city. Unnoticed, bigness has become reality. In 2014, for example, De Rotterdam will be encountered by many thousands of users, residents and passers-by, the very realisation of his theory of the generic city, of which more later. The CCTV tower is already an autonomous city in itself.
In S,M,L,XL he explained the theory of bigness: “Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”
That fragmentation or small scale is an abomination, according to an altercation with his colleague Herman Hertzberger. The architecture of Hertzberger leans too much towards welfare for his taste. “I like to put issues on the agenda,” he said in the NRC newspaper’s high-end glossy DeLUXE in 2011. According to Koolhaas, Hertzberger is located at the other end of the spectrum with his structuralist buildings. He is someone who puts a brick next to the front door designed for the milkman to place the milk bottle on, so to speak. That is why Hertzberger’s buildings have failed to interest him in a long while.
Unlike Hertzberger, in a theoretical sense he is more interested in bigness, the large scale. Bigness, as it occurs initially only in Manhattan. In fact, Koolhaas laid the foundation for the city-within-the-city philosophy in his book, Delirious New York (1978). In studying the typology of the skyscraper — which at first is called simply the ‘tower’ — he praises the collecting of functions in one building. “There is no manifesto, no architectural debate, no doctrine, no law, no planning, no ideology, no theory, there is only — skyscraper...” So he explains the vertical skyline of Manhattan. Once the barrier to the hundredth floor is broken — by, among other things, the invention and perfectionism of Otis Elevator Co. — a metropolis arises under its own steam, a mammoth structure challenging the clouds. Functions are stacked together: industry below, trade above, residential on the third layer and on top a hotel. Markets might be accommodated, swimming pools, a shopping centre and an amusement park. And it is fascinating, Koolhaas writes, that every floor can have a life of its own, without the upper or lower floors cross-contaminating them. Now, 35 years after the publication of Delirious New York, his own metropolis is a reality. De Rotterdam is a Manhattan in itself.
Density vs emptiness
In the early 1990s, the edge of the northern French city of Lille is one big building site. It is almost impossible to decipher where it begins and where it ends. Half-finished columns stick out from the concrete. The walls of the under-construction congress building Congrexpo consist partly of naked steel wool that has yet to be removed. The contrast between this megaproject and the historic city is huge, athough the result cannot yet be seen. I try to speak to the instigator of all this, but Koolhaas seems apparent untraceable in the army of helmeted construction workers. And if I do find him in the Congrexpo, he’s in a hurry. Must speak with the project leader. Hurry, drive, impatience, even irascibility, are constants in the career of Koolhaas. He must surely be in possession of a fast-lane ticket for every airport by now, and he uses the plane as his mobile office.
Lille is pulling itself out of the morass of unemployment with this Euralille project. At the expense of Amiens, the former Prime Minister of France and Mayor of Lille, Pierre Mauroy, has succeeded in winning the city a Eurostar stop on the London-Paris and Brussels-London routes. OMA is building the terminal building — again, not just a terminal, but a city within a city. More precisely, a city next to the historic city. Combining a shopping centre, offices above, a hotel and a convention centre, it does not so much reduce Lille to the status of a stopover, as lend it significance as a crossroads of Europe.
In a relatively simple hotel canteen I finally get to speak with Koolhaas. He is full of this complex adventure, in which he’s juggling with many balls simultaneously. And he reveals something of his dreams, which have transcended the Netherlands. The united Europe will be born in Lille, a crossroads between nations states which do not substantially matter any more. The man or woman of the 21st century will be a new nomad, for whom ‘home’ is no longer a logical given. Current architecture has no solutions for this. While the smartphone and iPad have yet to be invented, Koolhaas paints a scenario — something he is very skilled in — of a society adrift. Herein lies the germ of his ‘invention’ of the generic city, a city that can be anywhere and, if it’s there already, can expand endlessly — horizontally, as in Atlanta, which is more a landscape than a city, or vertically, as in Hong Kong.
Euralille is the beginning of a series of masterplans for OMA. Urbanism Is raised to a large scale. Koolhaas is called upon to devise a vision of the IJ banks in Amsterdam, of the new cities of Asia but also of the Chassé campus in Breda and the centre of Almere. Later, there is a new airport in the North Sea as an alternative to Schiphol and the Delta Metropolis, asking how the Randstad can reconcile congestion and airiness.
Euralille or Almere city centre differ in size, but share the search for the limits of density. How compact can a metropolis be? Where is the critical limit? Only through density can the city stand out from the emptiness of the countryside, the void. The preliminary answer is a kind of lasagne of functions that lie smooth and fluidly over each other, with parking on the bottom layer, shopping and strolling above, and living (permanently or temporarily) in towers. The smooth, almost organic line is the binding element to indicate the connections. This circuit is a response to the skyscraper, where each floor has its own story.
I consider the best example of this chequerboard of features to be the Souterrain tram tunnel in The Hague which, like many OMA projects, is the result of a long history. In fact, it is a small project in OMA’s oeuvre, but it has a large urban impact because it creates an infrastructural artery. The underground tram route from the Central Station runs beneath the Grote Marktstraat — unfortunately, it is plagued by leaking groundwater, from an unknown subterranean stream. Consciously or unconsciously, OMA has exploited this, with walls that have the appearance of a grotto, and where you sometimes see traces of moisture. The coarse concrete is combined with a wooden floor with an inlaid pattern. The Souterrain is a confrontation of brutality and sophistication. Koolhaas may have as an adage, “no money, no details,” but this seems an exception. You could also say the reverse: a bigger budget paves the way for a nicer finish, as in the Rothschild Bank in London. For the Netherlands at least, the basement is undoubtedly one of the most interesting underground areas. But the finesse is again in the layering. Between street level and underground platform is an elongated parking garage landscaped with a half-open character, so that the movements of traffic can be seen from various angles.
Passion for the metropolis
Koolhaas’ involvement in planning stems from his love, perhaps even passion, for the city. He calls this “the culture of congestion”. The germ of his career was laid in the city, the metropolis. Koolhaas was probably the first to recognise that technology has made both urban and architectural forms far smoother and less rigid than ever before. Conventional forms of architecture are no longer enough, they no longer function. In 1994 he wrote prophetically: “If there is to be a ‘new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallised into definitive form; it will no longer be about meticulous definition, the imposition of limits, but about expanding notions, denying boundaries not about separating and identifying entities, but about discovering unnamable hybrids; it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infrastructure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions — the reinvention of psychological space.”
This is the prelude to his description of the eponymous city in Generic City, an entity which forms the antithesis of the historically shaped city centre. The generic city is the city without history, big enough for everyone, and not needing maintenance services as the historic city does. A city without qualities, characterless and interchangeable. If it is too small, it simply expands. If it is too old, it destroys and then renews itself. The city is as shallow as a Hollywood backdrop and can assume a new identity any and every Monday morning.
No wonder that Beijing exerts such an appeal for Koolhaas, as a metropolis that has no trouble clearing away the past, like a snake shedding an old skin. But Las Vegas, where he has designed a Guggenheim satellite, is another such anonymous, general city. His Corten-steel box hacks through the romance of The Venetian Resort, a vicious commentary on the replicant architecture Las Vegas. A box which, in the spirit of the generic city, can be folded away again at a certain moment. He isn’t dramatic about it, but nothing, not even a building or interior, is for eternity. On the other hand, we do sense a kind of ambivalence. In an interview with Anna Tilroe (in the book Het blinkende stof from 2002) he refers to outrage and pain over the loss of urban values. It cannot be otherwise. It is the reality of today, a reality that he always trying to capture. Herein lies the germ of a new phase in his career, in which he wants to draw attention to cultural heritage. He focuses his sights back on the historic (European) city, in Moscow and in Venice, with totally different projects. In Venice, he transforms the Palazzo Tedeschi into a new department store.
Added to this, he is currently working on a book about the countryside. Because of excessive interest in the city, this has become an area about which, according to Koolhaas, we hardly know anything, a terra incognita. There are developments which now require our attention, such as the automation of agriculture, elusive migrant labour flows, the disappearance of village life due to the demographic exodus, which is offset by tourism and second homeowners.
What drives this architect who attracts hordes of young students, who has admirers but also critics who loathe his work, and who travels the world like a guru? Not just the aesthetics of architecture, although Paul Goldberger, critic at The New Yorker, says that he would never have received the Pritzker Prize had his buildings not been so evocative. The jury of the prize were known to be impressed by a few buildings such as the Villa d' All Ava in Paris and the Maison à Bordeaux — the first because it is a lucid continuation of the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, the second because it offers an inventive solution for a man in a wheelchair. The client asked Koolhaas for a complex home “in line with my world.” The heart of the villa moves up and down like a huge lift so that the occupant can reach all floors. With the Villa d’ Ava, the client was an intellectual book collector who wanted a house that would be an extraordinary environment for both himself and his family. In both cases, Koolhaas wraps the design in the wishes of the client and the form is ‘only’ the derivative.
This brings us to a fundamental principle of his architecture. Not form follows function, nor less is not more, but form follows programme; and programme is driven by data. Perhaps for that reason, AMO, the research department, has become increasingly important as that question is paramount. This suits the journalist that Koolhaas has remained at heart. The answer to the question can sometimes lead to a building, other times to an organisation. Instead of construction, an expansion is also possible.
In his standard work S,M,L,XL, facts and figures form the main outline, the pillar of the research. What began with demographic and econometrical data usually used in the planning process is expanded into research into traffic movements, the growth of the population per hour in major cities around the world, the degree of air and light pollution and even the number of flying hours that the architect has completed. All these facts and figures are arranged as diagrams by graphic designer Bruce Mau.
This way of collecting and organising will play a role in his analysis of the Delta Metropolis, for which the then Government Architect Jo Coenen recruited him around 2003. The collection of statistics does not necessarily result in a design, but clearly indicates how we might consider the Randstad Plus: as a city landscape in which greenhouses adjoin green areas, with a dense, intensive infrastructure and with the non-city Schiphol as its core. Schiphol unites the thesis of the Generic City and the culture of shopping which he charted around 2000. “I want to understand what’s happening,” he told Anna Tilroe. Moral judgments are not in place. For a correct understanding, research is the appropriate instrument. A building can ultimately be seen as a sum of diagrams. The idea behind it is that the architect can design a building according to his own logic, a building as a product of the information age. After his research in Lagos, that premise seems to become less sacred to Koolhaas, because that microcosm proved to him that a society need not be based on figures and numbers.
Around the turn of the century, data is the carrier of a design. This is most obvious is the way he determines the Seattle Library (2004). In the book Content (2004), Koolhaas dissects the phenomenon of the library by cutting the complex into three stacked boxes which are also slidable with respect to each other. The problem of the traditional library, Koolhaas writes, is its flat organisation. Departments are or were organised according to classification per floor. That is perhaps fine if the collection consists only of books, but since the 1990s this is less and less the case. In the typical library, the information is packed into a kind of container — librarians behind desks with rows of books around. Open the containers, he advocates, and enable information flows to occur which are based on movement. Dynamic and interactive displays show which actual publications are in the library, computer workstations, information about lectures, news and movies. In short, a data stream accompanies the visitor in a spiral around the building, beginning in the garage and ending only in the boardroom on the top floor. The fact that Koolhaas began his career as a screenwriter becomes obvious here. As a visitor you are led from scene to scene — a leitmotif in many of his buildings. And he places it all behind a transparent façade in which a mesh-like grid is packaged in glass.
We see these diagonal lines and stripes return in the façade of the CCTV tower. And now the pattern is widely copied. Fortunately for Koolhaas, it didn’t stop with a single library: in summer 2013, his design for a new library in Caen (Normandy) was begun — with its uneven cross shape set to result in a completely different dynamic. A library for Qatar is also in the making.
The spiral of the internal backbone of the library of Seattle had already occurred before in Koolhaas’ work. The Kunsthal from 1992 leads the visitor in a loop through the building, with ramps as binding element. In the Kunsthal the ramp is also combined with an auditorium. Now, twenty years later, there’s a considered relocation of the entrance, and a break with the looping trail - to the regret of the architects, because the smooth line is essentially the power of the design, a loop that leads the audience organically from room to room. Koolhaas still considers the Kunsthal one of his strongest designs, because of the complex form in which the various components are riveted to each other. The pathway breaks through the idea of different floors. Sometimes you don’t know where you are or how to get somewhere — that unruliness makes the Kunsthal intriguing. Only by moving though it can you discover the secret of the building, and even then discovery is not guaranteed.
Buildings are constructed around movement, as in the Dutch Embassy in Berlin and certainly in the CCTV tower in Beijing. In the contest won for the Zeebrugge terminal (unfortunately not completed), the driver would be led via a spiral to the ferry jetty, so logical and so compact a solution that any other design would have been unthinkable. The embassy building is essentially an architectural promenade. The visitor follows a trail of lazy stairs, ramps and corridors that sometimes even project outside the building. Windows offer unexpected views of the Berlin skyline. Again, the resemblance to a film is striking. From the outside, the embassy might look conventional (cube-shaped and semi-transparent), but inside it reveals itself as an adventure through the arrangement of the offices along the internal corridor.
The CCTV tower is built up from the same collection of data as the Seattle Library: assembly rooms, the newsroom, the sections for television and radio, public spaces and boardrooms. The organisation has determined the quirky shape, the angled ‘legs’ and the crooked connections between them. Visitors and employees can follow a trail here which seems to have no end.
Movement, of course, is greatest in fashion, so it was perhaps inevitable that Miuccia Prada would invite Koolhaas in early 2000 to design her label’s shops and fashion shows. From Koolhaas, Prada required a brand. The heart of the Prada store in New York is formed by a broad, easy stairway on which the products are placed in order to shine. The shops behave like the dresses or skirts which are supposed to dance when their wearer is walking. At the Prada fashion show in Milan in 2011, Koolhaas turned the tables. He sat the audience on scattered cubes through the room, with the models showing the clothes between them. That can be seen as a re-evaluation of values — an Umwertung aller Werte — because it undermines the term, ‘front row’. To be a commercial success à la Gucci isn’t the point for Koolhaas and Prada; they are more interested in the experiment, the incorporation of contradictions.
Fashion is not a whim. On the outskirts of Amsterdam stands the G-Star headquarters which, judging from the sketches and artist’s impressions, will be a hive of activity: a lab where jeans are developed at a rapid tempo. Its heart is a ‘raw space’ that like a giant display window allows passers-by to see the goings-on inside.
With the CCTV tower we come to a major theme in the work of Koolhaas, the loop. His buildings seem to strive for infinity, for limitlessness. With this theme, Koolhaas embroiders on the projects of Archizoom, the Italian architecture group which, in the late 1960s, presented the No-Stop City, an artificial city without borders, and with a central heating and cooling system. Because the endless city is not easy to achieve, Koolhaas takes elements from it, as in his lexicon S,M,L,XL, and in the catalogue for the Venice Biennale (Summer 2014) on the theme Fundamentals. Elements of Architecture is a part of it too: these are all ingredients with which architecture is constructed, ceilings, walls, doorframes, windows, roofs, and so on. The catalogue expands and shrinks.
As the skyscrapers of Manhattan test the saying, the sky’s the limit, so Koolhaas seeks for a non-specific form. Floors which turn into walls, which continue their way as ceilings. It started with the lobby of the Dutch Dance Theatre (1987), several areas of the Kunsthal (1992), and we find it in the Educatorium (1997) of Utrecht University.
In his masterplans the smooth line, the recognisable movement, is the strongest in Euralille and Almere city centre. You could even see the latter as a universal ramp, raising the polder above ground level. Almere could have been a generic city or even — who knows? — a No-Stop City, but ultimately it has a distinctive city centre. The centre is a variation on a flying carpet, where various functions lie below or protrude from beneath each other.
The end (or the beginning) of architecture?
Architecture, Koolhaas writes in his second lexicon, Content (2004), is an unsatisfactory discipline because it is slow and therefore cannot easily respond to current issues. “Architecture is a fuzzy amalgamation of ancient knowledge and contemporary practice, an awkward way to look at the world and an inadequate medium to operate on it,” reads the opening sentence of his creed. Nevertheless, outside the profession architecture is treated with respect, because it feeds the dormant wish that form be given to the hefty wave of information that engulfs us daily. But there is hope: perhaps architecture does not need to be so powerful. If you free architecture from the necessity of construction, it can be a way of thinking about everything, a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections and effects, the diagram of everything.
Does that mean the end of architecture? There is something to be said for that idea, given the current crisis that has paralysed building and, at least at present, does not challenge us to new creations. Koolhaas himself is not blind to these developments: witness the way his attention in recent years has shifted to heritage and to conversion, as shown in the Venice Architecture Biennale of 2010. Construction is difficult everywhere, notes OMA, especially when it comes to complex tasks.
OMA/AMO has pitched its tent in China, Russia and the Arab world. Something of the No-Stop City glimmers in those parts, because both space and budgets there are more expansive than in Western Europe. And so, most importantly, is the interest in innovation. Despite this, the offices nevertheless bring in projects in Europe that are interesting because of their quirkiness: a garage in Moscow that is transformed into an art gallery is one of them.
The leitmotif in projects such as the library of Qatar is not the loop but the roof, the roof covering everything. The roof shelters and connects. If there is one defining element in architecture, then it must be the roof — in all its shapes and forms. With this, Koolhaas picks up the thread of the roof which the legendary architect Kenzo Tange designed for the Universal Exhibition of 1970 in Osaka (prominent in the book Project Japan).
Before the civil war broke out in Syria, the Aga Khan Foundation organised a competition, to which OMA responded with a design for an all-over roof with all the archaeological finds collected beneath it. This concentrated museum will probably never see the light of day in a country that is in ruins. The related concept of the library of Qatar has a greater chance of success, if only because there is a balance between politics, culture and economy. Under the big roof, Koolhaas puts his old principle into practice — that the visitor should move as though in a movie in order to absorb the wave of information.
Architecture that moves under the protection of a static element like the roof — it seems a contradiction, and perhaps it is. But that is ultimately Koolhaas’ design: flowing, elusive, recognisable and yet perhaps not; in motion — and yet in such an undynamic art form as architecture.
English translation: Jane Szita, Amsterdam