Rem Koolhaas: National identity in architecture

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A montage by Koolhaas as Venice curator, illustrating the conformity of contemporary architecture worldwide, and the inherent loss of national identities and vernacular.

A montage by Koolhaas as Venice curator, illustrating the conformity of contemporary architecture worldwide, and the inherent loss of national identities and vernacular.

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Rem Koolhaas’s poster for <em>Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014</em> the Venice exhibition showing a recognizable national architecture that existed in 1914.

Rem Koolhaas’s poster for Absorbing Modernity 1914–2014 the Venice exhibition showing a recognizable national architecture that existed in 1914.

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OMA’s TVCC tower (centre), with the neighbouring CCTV building (right).

OMA’s TVCC tower (centre), with the neighbouring CCTV building (right). Image: Iwan Baan / Courtesy of OMA

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The Casa da Música in Porto.

The Casa da Música in Porto. Image: OMA

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The Casa da Música in Porto.

The Casa da Música in Porto. Image: OMA

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The Seattle Public Library.

The Seattle Public Library. Image: Philippe Ruault / Courtesy of OMA

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The Seattle Public Library.

The Seattle Public Library. Image: Philippe Ruault / Courtesy of OMA

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The Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

The Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Image: Philippe Ruault / Courtesy of OMA

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The Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

The Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Image: Philippe Ruault / Courtesy of OMA

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Commissioned in 1997, completed late 2013, De Rotterdam, by OMA, is a mixed-use project with a series of programs – commercial, residential, hotels and restaurants – organized into distinct but overlapping blocks.

Commissioned in 1997, completed late 2013, De Rotterdam, by OMA, is a mixed-use project with a series of programs – commercial, residential, hotels and restaurants – organized into distinct but overlapping blocks. Image: Ossip van Duivenbode / Courtesy of OMA

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The 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by Dutch architect and founding partner of OMA Rem Koolhaas, will examine “the evolution of national architectures in the last [sic] one hundred years.” In an interview from Architecture Australia March/April 2014, Koolhaas spoke to Andrew Mackenzie about this trade-off between regionalism and globalism in architecture, his studio’s work and his involvement with research and publishing through AMO.

Andrew Mackenzie: Your proposition for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale asks whether national identity has been, as you say, “sacrificed to modernity.” Some might view this as a project of reclamation, not unlike Frampton’s regionalism. How would you differentiate your proposition from Frampton’s?

Rem Koolhaas, legend, curator of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. Image:  Fred Ernst / Courtesy of OMA

Rem Koolhaas: Well, Kenneth Frampton is a smart guy, but the problem is that he looked at regionalism as an antidote to cosmopolitan development. In so doing he perverted the cause of regionalism, because suddenly regionalism was mobilized as a private cause that couldn’t be sustained. However, the question of national identity is an open one. For instance, at first sight [the Netherlands] is a very internationalist country, but looking closely you can see an enormous return of not vernacular, but quasi-vernacular architecture and quasi-old fortresses that are newly built with a national flavour. Look at Zaandam and that huge assemblage of so-called vernacular buildings.

I understand this very well, because the vast majority of so-called modern architecture now is really a kind of gimmicky modernism and this creates space for traditionalism to be gimmicky too. It’s like a set of communicating vases, where movement in one translates directly to movement in the other. I see this less from an architectural perspective than from a social or anthropological one. Recent years have seen an extraordinary growth in what I would call quasi-vernacular, particularly across Europe.

AM: If Zaandam represents a kind of quasi-vernacular, what qualities, quasi or otherwise, would you ascribe to yourself as a Dutch architect?

RK: It’s at the same time a simple and a complex question. In its most blatant sense I have a huge sympathy for orthogonal organizations and this, at some level, is very visible in the work. But at the same time there is a counter force, as [a result] of my early years in Indonesia. My parents took me to Jakarta when I was eight. I was transplanted from a ruin to an extremely chaotic tropical city that was in a state of euphoria because of its recent independence. I went to an Indonesian school, spoke Indonesian and behaved more or less like an Asian child. When I returned to a totally reordered [Netherlands] at the age of twelve, I never felt comfortable in that state of completion. From there many of my interests are clear. I was exposed to Dutchness as a young child, then its counterpart. So I would say that I am slightly less dogmatic than the Dutch. You might say that I am as attracted to Mondrian as to batik and, in this, I would say that the work is an oscillation between the two.

AM: Is this also why you are interested in Asia? I’m thinking particularly of your collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist on the book Project Japan: Metabolism Talks.

RK: Yes, in particular China and Japan are very important countries for me. Japan [because it’s] the first non-Western country where there was an architectural avant-garde. My interest in Metabolism is an interest in how globalization rearranged architectural areas of initiative, in the sense that you can no longer claim that the Western city is the model that fits all. I was interested in how this end of the Western hegemony was already announced in Japan in the 1960s.

AM: Your work in China has been somewhat controversial, due mainly to assumptions that are made in the West about what one might call the client’s values. How do you respond to criticism regarding your engagement with communist China?

RK: Of course we do not participate in any project where we fundamentally reject the values of the client. We interpret the client’s values, not always in a literal way.

In the case of China, I had visited it for the first time in ’95, years before the CCTV competition in 2002. Working with Harvard students I had developed more or less an understanding of what was going on and where the country was moving. This led me to the political conviction that all of us have a huge stake in how things develop in China. It is incredibly stupid for Europe to point fingers and insist on Europe as the only model of democratic behaviour.

After the destruction of the Berlin Wall in ’89, there were a lot of expectations that the world would turn into a seamless tapestry of market economy and liberalism, which to me was clearly not going to happen. On the contrary, what became obvious was that the market economy would be joined by a very diverse patchwork of different systems and different degrees of democracy. So essentially I said yes, not so much to CCTV, but to participation in the development of China.

I was confident that the Chinese media would, in parallel, change a lot as well. Now CCTV has an English channel, which in itself means that it has to be more global and engage meaningfully in a global English-speaking world. Interestingly, the fire that happened in the [adjacent TVCC building] contributed to the modernization of the media, because for the first time they apologized to the Chinese public and they had no choice but to convey their own disaster as a news story.

OMA’s TVCC tower (centre), with the neighbouring CCTV building (right). Image:  Iwan Baan / Courtesy of OMA

AM: For Venice this year, you have curated a biennale that focuses on “the inevitable elements of all architecture.” Can you tell me more about the forensic way you have pulled apart the contents of “all architecture,” as you describe it?

RK: I have, in the past, written a lot about the city and the shifting ways that cities are seen. When I started [practising architecture], the Western city was considered the measure of all things. I tried to create an openness to the situation in other countries. Now, after all these years, for me it is interesting to look at pure architecture features.

We live in a very flat digital world in which everything is accessible but increasingly there is less and less memory. We are, you might say, condemned to the perpetual present. So I thought it was important to go back, to show the incredible richness that has been associated with what are now seemingly banal elements … doors, windows, stairs, walls. I want to make a statement about how much history our profession still contains, and how many latencies and unconscious expectations there still are. It is, I think, a history that we are barely aware of.

To this end, we have had a team of students working within AMO researching these twelve elements: floor, door, wall, ceiling, toilet, facade, balcony, window, corridor, hearth, roof and stair.

AM: The bible-sized book that is being produced for the biennale appears to be walking a tightrope. It’s technical, but not a manual. It’s historic, but not a history book. It contains theory, but is not a theory book. It’s trying hard not to be located in any genre.

RK: Exactly. And that, you can say, is a kind of general reflex.

AM: I notice there is a cadre of Harvard students assisting with research for the book. Having them embedded within AMO is very different from the typical architectural education.

RK: I am very lucky that Harvard is interested in that model. It started in ’95 when I started teaching there. We were about to start work on a project looking at the rehabilitation of a pier in Boston. I looked around at the students and saw a number of people who had already had careers in different areas – one had been involved in urbanism, another in shipping and so on. I began to realize that the traditional role of the teacher, who has knowledge that he conveys to people who don’t have that knowledge, needed to be drastically revised.

As a direct result of globalization, each student had knowledge that I didn’t. So I reversed the dynamic and said, “You are experts and with your expertise I want to look at different subjects.” It is now adjusted slightly as I have the luxury of choosing students. So assembling a team has become like casting a movie.

The Casa da Música in Porto. Image:  OMA

AM: Besides your oscillation between Mondrian and batik, as it were, I’m interested in another oscillation, between the Casa da Música and Seattle Public Library. Former principal of OMA New York Joshua Prince-Ramus has described the concert hall as determinedly irrational and the library as a kind of hyper-rationalized organization. Is this an accurate description?

RK: It’s always slightly disconcerting to hear my former collaborators describe the projects. I have to say that one thing that is rarely discussed is how big the influence of forces other than the architect is on the architectural project. The economy is an obvious example, but there are other examples, such as how a project is commissioned. When a project starts as a design competition, you have to overwhelm the client from the first moment with a fully fledged project. On the other hand, when a project is a direct commission you are typically involved in a much more collaborative effort with the client or trustees – and in that case, overwhelming with a single idea almost never works. So that is a difference that is totally independent of the architect and can have a huge effect on the outcome.

In Seattle, we had been directly commissioned and our process had to appear, at least, to be very linear and very rational. At the same time we were working on the competition for the Casa da Música. I had done a house for a family where the client said, “We don’t really like each other, so we each need our own part of the house and then a place where we can get together if we want to.” It was a challenging proposition, which we thought was negative at first, but which was actually quite inspiring. But every time I presented the house, the client keep pulling back and resisting the design. At the same time we were doing this competition in Porto and I was getting increasingly desperate to get an idea. Then I realized that, if we multiplied the scale of this house we were working on by five or six, the space that we had designed for the family to get together would work perfectly as a concert hall. We simply took the idea and enlarged it. It was a purely intuitive leap, with which we subsequently won the competition.

All of which is to say that the comparison of these two projects is less a question of being torn between two languages [and more] a consequence of working within two completely different situations in which projects are generated.

The Seattle Public Library. Image:  Philippe Ruault / Courtesy of OMA

AM: Few architects are willing to acknowledge the conditions that affect architectural outcomes, which often lie outside of the architect’s control. Why is that?

RK: The profession has an investment in the idea of the architect having superhuman powers. It is totally counter-productive, because it cuts off any real communication between the architect and the public. When we put ourselves on a pedestal it makes any engagement with other aspects of the profession almost impossible. Since I am interested in communication and I write, I like to understand what the real issues are and what the changing conditions are.

For architecture the conditions have changed more in the last thirty years than they changed in the previous two centuries, yet we still act as if it’s the same profession. There have been radical changes to so many things, such as computing power, engineering and the relationship between architect and client, yet we persist as if we are still old pipe-smoking gentlemen.

In the ’60s and ’70s the public sector was very strong, but in recent decades that has given way to various forms of market economy. This has changed the conditions in which architecture can be produced enormously. In the first instance, the architect was expected to do things for the public benefit. Now we are expected to broadcast the interests of individuals or corporations. So, although we still maintain the core values and ambitions for what architecture can do, this change has radically transformed the architect’s work.

AM: Is that shift from public to private interests connected to the circumstances that led to the connection between practice and brand?

RK: The profession has become entangled in that kind of thinking, but there is branding and branding. The Anglo-Saxon version of branding means you try to reduce something to its essence and then ram that essence down everyone’s throat. And at a certain time, that essence becomes a prison and you cannot change anything. But maybe there are also more subtle forms of branding that are based on contradiction or unpredictability. Our office has an affinity with that approach.

See an update on Koohlaas’s exhibition strategy for Venice, and the Fundamentals program.


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