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 Koolhaas has always sought to locate the beauty in places that others might regard as so much urban debris, and by doing so he seems to be encouraging us to remain more open to the other. His ideal city, to borrow words he once used to describe the West Kowloon project, seems to be a place that is “all things to all people.”

His faith in that vision doesn’t seem to have cooled any. One of his newest projects, a performing arts center under construction in Taipei, fuses the enigmatic qualities of CCTV with the bluntness of the Wyly Theatre. And he continues to pursue urban planning projects: Sources in the architecture community say he recently won a competition to design a sprawling airport development in Doha, Qatar (the results have not been made public). If it is built, it’ll become his first major urban project since Euralille.

Koolhaas first thought of writing a book about the countryside while walking with his longtime companion, the designer Petra Blaisse, in the Swiss Alps. (Koolhaas separated from his wife some years ago and now lives with Blaisse in Amsterdam.) Passing through a village, he was struck by how artificial it looked. “We came here with a certain regularity and I began to recognize certain patterns,” Koolhaas said. “The people had changed; the cows in the meadows looked different. And I realized we’ve worked on the subject a lot over the years, but we’ve never connected the dots. It has sort of been sublimated.”

In the mock-up of the book, images of luxuriously renovated country houses and migrant teenagers in dark shades are juxtaposed with pictures of homespun Russian peasants from a century ago. A chart shows the decline in farming over the past 150 years. In a ten-square-kilometer rural area outside Amsterdam, Koolhaas finds a solar panel vendor, bed and breakfasts, souvenir shops, a relaxation center, a breast- feeding center and a sculpture garden scattered amid land that is farmed mostly by Polish workers. Robots drive tractors and milk cows.

Koolhaas says the book will touch on a vital theme: how to come to terms with the relentless pace of modernization. The countryside has become “more volatile than the accelerated city,” Koolhaas writes in one of the mock-ups. “A world formerly dictated by the seasons is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, industrial nostalgia [and] seasonal immigration.”

It’s hard to know whether you regard this as nightmare or opportunity, I tell him. “That has been my entire life story,” Koolhaas said, “Running against the current and running with the current. Sometimes running with the current is underestimated. The acceptance of certain realities doesn’t preclude idealism. It can lead to certain breakthroughs.” In fact Koolhaas’ urbanism, one could say, exists at the tipping point between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it.


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