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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Koolhaas’ book Delirious New York cemented his reputation as a provocateur. When Koolhaas wrote it, in the mid-1970s, New York City was in a spiral of violence and decay. Garbage was piling up on streets, slumlords were burning down abandoned tenements in the South Bronx to collect on insurance and the white middle class was fleeing to the suburbs. For most Americans, New York was a modern Sodom.

To Koolhaas, it was a potential urban paradise. With his new wife, the Dutch artist Madelon Vriesendorp, he saw a haven for outsiders and misfits. Manhattan’s generic grid, he argued, seemed capable of accommodating an intoxicating mix of human activities, from the most extreme private fantasy to the most marginal subculture. The book’s positive spin was underscored by the cover: an illustration by Vriesendorp of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings lying side by side in a post-coital slumber. “It was geared against this idea of New York as a hopeless case,” Koolhaas told me. “The more implausible it seemed to be defending it, the more exciting it was to write about.”

These early ideas began to coalesce into an urban strategy in a series of projects in and around Paris. In a 1991 competition for the expansion of the business district of La Défense, for instance, Koolhaas proposed demolishing everything but a few historic landmarks, a university campus and a cemetery; the rest would be replaced with a new Manhattan-style grid. The idea was to identify and protect what was most precious, then create the conditions for the urban chaos that he so loved to take hold.

More recently, Koolhaas has responded to what he termed “the excessive compulsion toward the spectacular” by pushing his heretical work to greater extremes. Architecturally, his recent designs can be either deliciously enigmatic or brutally direct. The distorted form of his CCTV building, for example—a kind of squared-off arch whose angled top cantilevers more than 500 feet above the ground—makes its meaning impossible to pin down. (Martin Filler condemned it in the New York Review of Books as an elaborate effort to impart a “bogus semblance of transparency” on what is essentially a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.) Seen from certain perspectives its form looks hulking and aggressive; from others it looks almost fragile, as if the whole thing were about to tip over—a magnificent emblem for uncertain times. By contrast, the Wyly Theatre in Dallas (2009) is a hyper-functional machine—a gigantic fly tower with movable stages and partitions encased inside an 11-story metal box.

At the same time, his urban work has begun to seem increasingly quixotic. In a 2001 development plan for Harvard University, which was expanding across the Charles River into nearby Allston, Koolhaas proposed diverting the path of the river several miles to create a more unified campus. The idea seemed preposterous, and Harvard’s board quickly rejected it, but it carried a hidden message: America’s astonishing growth during the first three-quarters of the 20th century was built largely on the hubris of its engineers. (Think of the Los Angeles depicted in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a city that diverted water across 250 miles of desert to feed the growth of the San Fernando Valley.) Why, Koolhaas seemed to be asking, aren’t such miracles possible today?

In a 2008 competition for a site off the coast of Dubai, Koolhaas went out on another limb, proposing a development that resembled a fragment of Manhattan that had drifted across the Atlantic and lodged itself in the Persian Gulf—a kind of “authentic” urban zone made up of generic city blocks that would serve as a foil to Dubai’s fake glitz.

His most convincing answer to the vices of global urbanization was a proposal for the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling 99-acre cultural and residential development to be built on landfill on a site overlooking Hong Kong Harbor. Koolhaas traveled to Hong Kong every month for more than a year to work on the project, often wandering up into the surrounding mountains. Inspired by the migrant dwellings and rural marshlands that he found there, he proposed three “urban villages” arranged along a spacious public park. The idea was to create a social mixing bowl for people of different cultural, ethnic and class backgrounds. “In spite of its metropolitan character Hong Kong is surrounded by countryside,” Koolhaas said. “We felt that we’d discovered a really wonderful prototype. The villages were not only a very beautiful urban model, but they would be sustainable.”

The experience ended in disappointment. After more than a year of work on the proposal, Koolhaas lost to Norman Foster, whose projects are known for high-tech luster.

More troubling perhaps to Koolhaas, the architectural climate has become more conservative, and hence more resistant to experimental work. (Witness the recent success of architects like David Chipperfield, whose minimalist aesthetic has been praised for its comforting simplicity.)

As someone who has worked closely with Koolhaas put it to me: “I don’t think Rem always understands how threatening his projects are. The idea of proposing to construct villages in urban Hong Kong is very scary for the Chinese—it is exactly what they are running away from.”


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