Why is Rem Koolhaas the World’s Most Controversial Architect?

Age has not tempered the Dutch architect, who at 67 continues to shake up the cultural landscape with his provocative designs

The architect Rem Koolhaas, 67. Koolhaas' habit of shaking up established conventions has made him one of the most influential architects of his generation. (Tung Walsh)
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Yet what strikes me most is how Koolhaas was able to express, in a single building, bigger urban ideas. Congrexpo’s elliptical, egg-like exterior suggests a perfectly self-contained system, yet inside is a cacophony of competing zones. The main entry hall, held up by imposing concrete columns, resembles a Roman ruin encased in a hall of mirrors; the exhibition space, by contrast, is light and airy. The tension created between them seems to capture one of Koolhaas’ principal preoccupations: How do you allow the maximum degree of individual freedom without contributing to the erosion of civic culture?

The rest of Euralille is a bit of a letdown. The development lacks the aesthetic unity that we associate with the great urban achievements of earlier eras and that, for better or worse, give them a monumental grandeur. Because of a tight budget, many of the building materials are cheap, and some haven’t worn well. The high-speed train station, designed by Jean-Marie Duthilleul, feels coarse and airless despite vast expanses of glass. The addition of metal cages above the station’s bridges and escalators, to prevent people from throwing refuse onto the tracks, only makes the atmosphere more oppressive.

With time, however, I discern a more subtle interplay of spaces. The triangular plaza acts as a calming focal point at the development’s heart, its surface sloping down gently to a long window where you can watch trains pulling slowly in and out of the station. By contrast, the crisscrossing bridges and escalators, which descend several stories to a metro platform behind the station, conjure the vertiginous subterranean vaults of Piranesi’s 18th-century etchings of imaginary prisons. Up above, the towers that straddle the station, including a striking boot-shaped structure of translucent glass designed by Christian de Portzamparc, create a pleasant staccato effect in the skyline.

Best of all, Euralille is neither an infantile theme park nor a forbidding grid of synthetic glass boxes. It is a genuinely unpretentious, populist space: Streets filled with high-strung businessmen, sullen teenagers and working-class couples pulse with energy. This difference is underscored later as we stroll through Lille’s historic center a few blocks away, where the refurbished pedestrian streets and dolled-up plaza look like a French version of Disney’s Main Street.

Koolhaas’ achievement at Euralille is not insignificant. In the time since the development’s completion, globalization has produced a plethora of urban centers that are as uniform and sterile as the worst examples of orthodox Modernism—minus the social idealism. What was once called the public realm has become a place of frenzied consumerism monitored by the watchful eyes of thousands of surveillance cameras, often closed off to those who can’t afford the price of membership.

In this new world, architecture looks more and more like a form of corporate branding. Those who rose through the professional ranks once thinking they would produce meaningful public-spirited work—the libraries, art museums and housing projects that were a staple of 20th-century architecture—suddenly found themselves across the table from real estate developers and corporate boards whose interests were not always so noble-minded. What these clients thirsted for, increasingly, was the kind of spectacular building that could draw a crowd—or sell real estate.

Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam in 1944, during the Allied bombardment, and grew up in a family of cultured bohemians. A grandfather was an architect who built headquarter buildings for the Dutch airline KLM and the state social security administration; his father wrote magical realist novels and edited a leftist weekly paper. After the war, the family moved to Amsterdam, where Koolhaas spent afternoons playing in the rubble of the state archive building, which had been blown up by the resistance during the German occupation.

His first experience with a mega-city and all of its moral contradictions was as a boy in Jakarta, Indonesia, where his father ran a cultural institute under the revolutionary Sukarno, who had led the country’s struggle for independence. “I had never seen such poverty,” Koolhaas said. “And I almost instantly understood that it was impossible to pass judgment on what you saw. On some level you could only accept it as reality.”

Back in Amsterdam in his early 20s, Koolhaas avoided radical politics, joining a small group of Dutch Surrealist writers at the fringes of the European cultural scene. “There were two kinds of ’60s,” he said to me. “One was avant-garde, highly modernist— Antonioni, Yves Klein. The other was the Anglo-Saxon, hippie-ish, political side. I associated with the avant-garde tendency.” Koolhaas worked briefly as a journalist, writing a profile mocking a vision by the artist-architect Constant Nieuwenhuys for a post-capitalist paradise suspended hundreds of feet above the city on a huge steel frame. A later story satirized the Provos—a group of young Dutch anarchists whose actions (planning to disrupt a royal wedding with smoke bombs) were intended to goad the Dutch authorities. Koolhaas even co-wrote a screenplay for the raunchy B-movie king Russ Meyer. (The film was never made.)

By the time Koolhaas got to London’s Architectural Association, in the late 1960s, he had established himself as an audacious thinker with a wicked sense of humor. The drawings he produced for his final project, which are now owned by MoMA, were a brash sendup of Modernist utopias and their “afterbirths.” Dubbed “The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” the project was modeled partly after the Berlin Wall, which Koolhaas described as a “masterpiece” of design that had transformed the western half of the city into an irresistible urban fantasy. Koolhaas’ tongue-in-cheek proposal for London carved a wide swath through the center to create a hedonistic zone that could “fully accommodate individual desires.” As the city’s inhabitants rushed to it, the rest of London would become a ruin. (Galleries and museums ask to borrow the Koolhaas drawings more often than anything else in MoMA’s architecture and design collections.)


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