Of all the places I might have expected to have lunch with architect Rem Koolhaas, Venice ranks low on the list. I could have imagined London, where he used to live and study; perhaps Rotterdam, where he now lives and works; maybe Hong Kong, where he spends a week a month, or Moscow, where he has helped establish a new architecture school. Almost any metropolis, in fact, that struggles with the problems and contradictions of modernity, of the endless, formless space of contemporary consumption, the themes that Koolhaas incessantly explores in his architecture. But not picturesque, decaying Venice. And definitely not outside a tiny trattoria on the Via Garibaldi, the city’s last remaining artery reserved for locals.
We didn’t book (his assistant gets an earful for this), so we try to find an available table. As we sit down, Koolhaas removes his watch and puts it on the table, which makes me a little nervous. To compound my unease, my recorder is giving up. As I fiddle with it two people stop to greet him. He suggests we sit the other way round, so his back rather than mine is to the street. It works. I can’t help remembering a famous story – possibly apocryphal but probably not – that Koolhaas used to ask waiters for the ugliest thing on the menu. But on this occasion he simply asks for a pizza marinara with anchovies, no cheese. The waiter, however, is implacable. No. He’ll have to have a Margherita and remove the cheese himself. I go for a pizza with prosciutto. We get water and Koolhaas orders his first espresso.
Now 66 years old, he is perhaps the most influential architect of our age. His designs span the world, from Seattle to Beijing, New York to London and include work at every conceivable scale, from museums and theatres to corporate HQs, shops and books. His masterpiece is not a museum or a skyscraper but a municipal library in Seattle, its brilliantly lit top-floor reading room usually populated by the snoozing homeless. It is a building of Dantean ambition, a spiralling journey through words towards the light, a new conception of what uncommercial public space can be.
He is also one of the few architects who still talks about ideas and politics. Yes, there are Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, with their instantly recognisable icons, flamboyant, sculptural structures that might be exquisite but often have little to do with their specific surroundings. And, yes, there are Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, inheritors of a British Victorian tradition of exquisite engineering. Of these only Rogers has been politically engaged. All use ideas to generate, justify and explain their architecture, of course, but none apart from Koolhaas employs ideas as an end in themselves, as a vehicle to poke and provoke. And none has shown the incessant reinvention and intellectual ambition of the Dutchman, who seems to feel duty-bound to take the counter-intuitive line, to use his intellect to question rather than to impose.
In the mid-1970s, when New York was bankrupt and crime-splattered, Koolhaas wrote a brilliant paean entitled Delirious New York, positing it as the future city of insanely, intimately mixed uses; a place, for example, in which a skyscraper could become a world in itself. He termed this the “culture of congestion”. In the 1990s he saw the modern metropolis in an increasingly urban world as lying somewhere between Lagos and Dubai. Equally impressed with the teeming intensity of the former and the development explosion in the latter, both seemed to him to suggest new, if rarely utopian, forms of city.
Koolhaas is busy. He has recently completed an HQ in the City of London for NM Rothschild, is working on a cancer caring centre in Glasgow and is finishing the gargantuan headquarters for Chinese State TV (CCTV) in Beijing, which will be completed later this year). And he is here in Venice to pick up one of architecture’s few major honours, the Golden Lion. The watch on the table is ticking. Today, before we arrive at the restaurant, he has already given me a lightning tour of his Venice Architecture Biennale exhibit. Typically provocative, it explores the increasing ubiquity of preservation. An increasing area of the world – landscapes, cities and villages – is now preserved (“an area around the size of the USA”, he says); in addition, the age of what is preserved is decreasing. Will there come a point, the exhibit asks, when everything is preserved, even what has not yet been built? In this most meticulously preserved of cities, it is an appropriate question.
Before the food, the waiter brings the espresso – it seems typically Koolhaas to begin at the end. So where did this contrariness come from, I ask? This interest in chaos rather than the serenity most architects seem to desire? “I was born in the last year of the war,” he says, “in Rotterdam, then we moved to Amsterdam. But [when I was] between the ages of eight and 12 we lived in Jakarta. My father was a journalist who had supported the Indonesian position – the country had only just gained independence from the Netherlands – and he became director of a cultural institute trying to cement relationships between the cultures. It was a chaotic existence in Indonesia and when I returned to Holland it looked like a country that had been entirely straightened out, flat. I experienced it as really boring. Perhaps that’s where my interest in – or facility with – chaos comes from.”
Like his father, Koolhaas began his career as a journalist. “I worked for the Haagse Post (a liberal journal which survives today as HP/De Tijd) and in those days you could write about anything – sex, film, art. It was the mid-1960s and it was so free that I was asked to do the layout and, at 23, that’s what I was doing – typesetting, learning that everything you do has an impact somewhere else on the page, reading everything upside down in lead.” He also wrote a script for a film called The White Slave, which he describes cryptically as “an allegory of the European condition”, and for another film that was almost produced by light-porn, heavy-breast specialist Russ Meyer. “The distance between script writing and architecture is very small,” he adds. I ask him to elaborate. “Both are about narrative and surprise,” he replies, “about creating intrigue; for me the move felt very smooth.” He eventually arrived at London’s Architectural Association in 1969 and credits this late start (“At 30 I wrote Delirious New York and I only started architecture seriously at 35”) as the reason he retains “a certain freshness” in his work.
The pizza arrives. The base is slightly undercooked, though at least the prosciutto on mine is decent – sweet and melting in the mouth. I look sympathetically at Koolhaas who, removing his cheese, is left only with dough and tinned tomato. He does this with the detachment of a pathologist removing organs, then orders another espresso, apparently surprised I still don’t want one.
Earlier, at his exhibition, Koolhaas had pointed out a photo of an architect taken some time in the 1960s. The man is standing with a drawing in his hand on a windswept building site and behind him lies what is obviously a vast tract of new social housing. He looks serious, engaged. “I would love to have been like this,” Koolhaas said, with what seemed like slight yet extremely uncharacteristic yearning. I remind him of this and ask whether he is disappointed with the role of architects today? With what they can do? “When I started,” he says, “the suggestion was that the architect would work for the public good. That photo emanates those good intentions. But architecture has been taken over by the private sector, we now serve private interests. There is this irony that as we have become more famous we are also taken less seriously.”
His own practice, OMA (the Office for Metropolitan Architecture), a specialist in public building, is certainly a rarity today. As is work such as the Seattle Public Library, the Casa da Musica in Porto and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas. “Yes, we are lucky to be able to do traditional public buildings. We do around two-thirds public to one-third private buildings. And we like that a scheme such as Kowloon [the West Kowloon Cultural District, a huge competition OMA is involved in along with Foster & Partners] has arisen from a popular protest about the size of a private development (the new design will designate one of the city’s key sites as a massive cultural hub). These buildings cannot be passive icons for the consumption of culture but a platform for the production of culture. Culture administered on this scale reinforces the viability of the creative industries.”
If Kowloon represents one extreme of Koolhaas’s ideas, a willingness to conceive whole new cities in a futuristic whirl of skyscrapers, sea and public space, it is tempered by his work at St Petersburg’s Hermitage. Here the architect was brought in to determine a future for the sprawling 18th century museum and his radical, surprising answer was to build nothing. “We based our work there on the assumption that we wouldn’t build anything new; rather we would work with the existing buildings, to revitalise Winter Square, the public space at their centre,” he explains. “We wanted to work with the history of the museum itself.” The subtle, intellectual and surprising work at the Hermitage is, in its way, as radical as the huge CCTV building in Beijing, now that city’s most visible landmark and a scheme that represents a shift from the self-conscious “iconic” structures that have sprouted up across the world since Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim in 1997.
The idea of working with ideas rather than fabric is partly the result of of OMA’s Think Tank arm, AMO [founded in 2000, the acronym is intended as an intellectual mirror-image of the practice]. “We found that separating out the research into another department allowed us to approach everything in a critical spirit and to establish a rigorous intellectual, sociological and political context,” he says.
In S,M,L,XL (1995) Koolhaas’s witty, visually arresting book on cities and architecture, there is a chart documenting the number of nights spent in hotels around the world by architects – in itself a record of the curiously nomadic life of someone who is nevertheless expected to digest the local context and complement it. I ask him whether incessant travel can hinder an architect’s understanding? “That was irony,” he spits back. “I am amazed how people don’t seem to get the humour. In the architecture too.”
He is tall, lean and angular and when he speaks at a lectern he looks a little like the odd, cubist arch of his CCTV building. He has developed an ever-so-slight stoop but it seems to give him a kind of forward momentum, as if he were always about to lunge towards the next thing. He has an inquisitive, almost frustrated expression which dares you to ask the next question. “I live in Rotterdam,” he says, to underline his point. “I am there most of the time. Except I am in Hong Kong for a week a month because we have an office there. It is impossible to do all this on a plane.”
Koolhaas once extolled Rotterdam as “a laboratory of indifference”, a place so dull and free of distractions it enables him to concentrate. He is also said to be fond of its ugliness. He used to split his time between there and London, where he has a flat with his wife, artist Madelon Vriesendorp (with whom he has a grown-up son and daughter) in Finchley, north London but now lives with his partner, Petra Blaisse, an interior and landscape designer. Today he talks of the contemporary city being caught between “simultaneous radical stasis and radical change”; of the “pre-emptive mediocrity” of architecture that aims to just scrape through planning and legislation; of how “the senses can be dulled by affluence”, while a city like Lagos breeds “innovation through poverty”. He is a curious and intriguing kind of architect, just as interested in society and surroundings as he is in buildings. He recalls a recent commission where “we were asked to design a cultural centre in Damascus but we found this uncompleted concrete frame and decided to build using that, something that can use what is already in the city and change it”. It’s the perfect illustration of his unorthodox approach. “We’d always thought that preservation was somehow anti-modernist, an opposite, but in fact it is a pivotal part of modernity.” Venice, it seems, might not be such a strange place to meet after all.
By now he is checking his watch at regular intervals, so I get up and go inside to pay. When I get back, this time with my own espresso, Koolhaas is already standing. I throw back my coffee and tell him that was an extremely cheap meal. “Good,” he says, “that feels appropriate for this moment.” His body seems to be leaning away, under an irresistible momentum to keep moving. I shake his hand and, like a spring released, he’s gone. Radical stasis? Not here.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic. Read his piece on how to build heritage
Via Garibaldi, Castello 30122 Venice
Acqua minerale x2 €6.00
Pizza margherita €8.00
Pizza con prosciutto €9.00
Espresso x3 €4.50
Total (including service) €33.00
The great call of China
The spectacular, digitally enhanced fireworks fizzing around Beijing’s “Birds Nest” Stadium in August 2008 announced the arrival of China not just as the home of probably the biggest Olympics there will ever be, but also the country’s opening-up to the kind of blockbuster architecture that has been redefining city centres across the world.
Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron collaborated on the stadium with dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was put under house arrest in November during a dispute with authorities over his new Shanghai studio. This was a perfect illustration of the attraction and repulsion that China inspires in architects: it is one of the few countries able and willing to build on the megalomaniac scale that architects find so compelling, but one in which repression is a prickly issue.
Norman Foster’s vast new airport terminal in Beijing is an astonishing structure – at roughly 1.3m square metres it is one of the biggest buildings in the world – and an extraordinary, expressive gateway to a vast country. Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s China Central Television Tower (CCTV) has become the most distinctive shape on the capital’s skyline: a huge twisted arch in which the structure expresses the forces on the steel frame, it has become a powerful symbol of new Chinese media. Not far away, US architect Steven Holl has built what is rather unromantically called the “Linked Hybrid Building”, a kind of reinterpretation of a medieval city wall, a monumental apartment complex that recalls some of the most extreme utopian public housing experiments.
In Nanjing, Holl’s soon-to-be completed art museum is similarly striking in form – though thankfully more intimate in scale. The most prominent new building, however, is Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House. Due to open later this year, it creates a space-age landscape and contains a hugely theatrical auditorium; it is the building that this most dramatic of architectural divas has always somehow seemed destined to build.
The scale of growth in China and the sheer size of its exploding cities is offering architects a moment of almost unprecedented freedom. So for now western superstar architects are both in demand and apparently happy to work there. But Chinese architects are learning fast. Some firms, including MAD, Limited Architecture and Studio Pei Zhu, are designing structures every bit as expressive and at times excessive as their western counterparts and are beginning to make an impact abroad. Even Ai Weiwei is in on the act, having built some of the subtlest and most reflective recent architecture – including his own Shanghai studio, which authorities ordered to be demolished. The next generation of “super-starchitects” might well be Chinese.
This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.