On a perfect autumn morning Rem Koolhaas parks his black 1998 BMW along an Amsterdam canal. It’s not really a sports car, but rather the racing model that a child would draw. Moments later, he is placed behind an impressive desk. This is to be a normal working day. Not in his Rotterdam offices though. Today he deals with his appointments in an Amsterdam hotel. Does that sometimes, more efficient. But this morning, a journalist has been in front of him for more than half an hour. And the guy is saying what?
Just about everyone responds the same when I mention your name: He’s a very unpleasant man, right? Halfway this remark Koolhaas leans back and moves away from the desktop. He rocks back and forth. And he nods. Stuttering he says something like: ‘Yeah, that happens, yes. With people, yes.’ He seems embarrassed, even a little ashamed. Outside assistants, clients, projects, calls about million dollar projects on different continents are waiting, but here, his head is so nude… those little ears that stick out to the sides… Can you describe a man of six feet tall as resembling a little injured bird? Not much more comes out of him. The conversation is over.
I ask his associate Stephan Petermann about it. ‘Rem has a strong character,’ he says, ‘I will not deny that.’
And when does he get angry? ‘Only with work-related things. When people are not well prepared.’
Are there people who do not prepare well when they work with Rem Koolhaas?! ‘He needs the right information at the right moment. If someone says that something has not worked out yet, then that person has not been exerting enough pressure.’
Petermann also told me that he sometimes helps ‘when Rem and a team do not understand each other well enough.’ It sounds like a euphemism.
He is a friendly, bright guy from Limburg, the very Southern part of The Netherlands, this associate Stephan Petermann, who is responsible at AMO, the research arm of Koolhaas’ OMA office. Another autumn morning we have coffee with Koolhaas in a brasserie in Amsterdam. Petermann and I take a croissant, Koolhaas only a cappuccino. He keeps his hands in the pockets of a three-quarter-length coat. He has already swum. Looks clean. Can I not write about him with a bit of humour, he asks. And he says: ‘I hate being an architect. I actually hate architects.’
‘Architect,’ Koolhaas calls it, but it’s even worse: he is a starchitect. He is a member of the elite corps of starchitects that plants its iconic buildings as proud peacock feathers in cities worldwide. Rem Koolhaas is known for the CCTV building in Beijing, the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the Dutch embassy in Berlin, you name it: the Shenzen Stock Exchange, Seattle Public Library etcetera etcetera, and, recently, The Rotterdam, the biggest building in the Netherlands (oh, he loathes that qualification biggest.) And it is almost laughable how often he is described as a mystery, as the ‘hard-working monk’, always busy, always amongst the rich and important, the hottest brands, elusive, unreachable, visionary, unearthly, usually high above the earth in a plane, or in that cool retro BMW, always working, consistently at the highest level.
But now he is sitting opposite me. I do not really know why, but I ask him if everything he says is always precise and to the point. ‘No,’ he replies with a mischievous smile to Petermann , ‘when we are in a car together we ramble on endlessly.’
A conversation with him, Rem, goes like this: you ask a question and the answer can go two ways. The first is quite adequate, very to the point, but makes you feel a little insecure, the notion starts to rise that you could have come up with that answer yourself, or you could have found it out yourself, if you hadn’t been lazy and had not, like you are doing now, occupied the precious time Koolhaas could have spent thinking important thoughts! Or, it gets exciting, when he does not give you a straight answer, but instead starts to associate. Example:
What is the impact of the crisis? ‘Because there are no great stories left, you can not focus on the big stories of others. So self prioritised desires come up, instead of realising the ambitions of others. We could have been enormously wealthy if we had only built Louis Vuitton-boutiques. Twenty-five years of market economy has made us work more on private projects than on government projects. The times in which architects were carrying out the good intentions of governments are long gone. There are no more ideals within governments; increased deregulation has strengthened the market economy to a fatal degree. The Universe is empty now or filled with companies. Progress is fragmented, completely scattered.’
Sometimes he goes in opposite directions, in one sentence he can state that the crisis is an inspiring time and then observe sombrely: ‘When you see how we are trying to get back, you’ll notice that there really is no change. I keep hearing people say that we’ll be okay once we pick up where we left off.’
Words he often uses are: assumptions, intuitions, implications, articulate, concentration, situations. He succeeds in making you feel silly in no time, constantly interrupting his narrative with more questions that test your knowledge: ‘Do you know him?’, ‘Have you read that?’, ‘You know how it started?’ Or: ‘Do you speak Italian?’
The contrast that morning in the brasserie is great: the sleek, clean Koolhaas, tense as a tightly pulled pork bladder, with beside him the chubby Stephan Petermann, listening and carefree crumbling his croissant on his sweater.
It will stand out more often: Koolhaas surrounding himself with friendly and modest people. A few weeks later, when he is honoured by the Dutch governement, many of his friend are present at the ceremony in the Rijksmuseum: people above fifty, stylishly dressed, solid colours, no flashy jewellery, only an abstract brooch here, subtly framed glasses there. How affectionately they smile when a somewhat awkward and anxious Koolhaas takes the stage. They look at each other with an expression of ‘oh, Rem’. Heads tilt to the side during his humble speech. If you’re a true asshole, your friends wouldn’t be looking at you like that, right?
An American student has four words for me: ‘Fifth floor. Now. Rem.’ He grabs his Moleskine and chases after two fellow students. Petermann and I hastily follow and storm through stairwells and elevators. Rem is approaching.
We are in a concrete colossus in Rotterdam, home to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) It’s equipped efficiently. Loads of empty spaces, where teams can set up in a second when new assignments come in. Barren floors striped of everything but the windowsills. Sometimes a few islands of desks in oceans of space. Other floors are filled to the brim with producers, designers, models and computers.
Between 250 and 270 people work at OMA, dispersed over Rotterdam, New York, Peking, Hong Kong and Doha (Qatar). His son Thomas passes by now and again, making a documentary about his dad. And daughter Charlie, sociologist and photographer, he has taken a lot of her London friends and acquaintances on board.
The Harvard students were hanging around all morning on this vast, empty floor, a kind of concrete tundra. Well and fashionably dressed, the modern human being. Between them lie printed PDF’s with texts and pictures. Their project should result in a big book about the fifteen most important elements in architecture: the wall, the door, the roof, the toilet, etc. Koolhaas wil curate the Venice Architecture Biennale in June 2014, entitled Fundamentals, and across the globe people are eagerly looking forward to it.
Now He is coming. What to do? Confusion arises. Should they wait? Or continue?
Now He is coming. What to do? Confusion arises. Should they wait? Or continue? It’s decided that Rem prefers to walk in when they are busy. But then, already, a man crosses the concrete plains. It’s the lone ranger, no: it’s Rem. All by himself, no assistants in tow. Sleek clothes, soft sweater, trousers, ankle boots. He walks like an actor approaching a filmset.
Continue, he gestures, and everybody knows that Rem Koolhaas just left an important meeting while even more important calls vibrate in his pocket. He crosses his arms tightly against his body, bows his head. I see multiple gazes turning away. Everybody is busy not looking at him, at Rem. The possibility of failure suddenly takes hold. A student explains her research in the typical American of girls her age. ‘This is, like, sort of, the why of the toilet.’ Her fellow students are dead serious. She turns to Rem: ‘We’ve discussed the use of excrements in the book…’ He interrupts her: ‘You’re taking a lot of time explaining what this isn’t.’ Now she stammers. She points to the PDF. ‘I’m not totally sure why this is here, but obviously, it… it’s because… it’s architecture.’
The silences are the worst. You sense Rem is unsatisfied, but he hasn’t expressed it yet. He browses through folders with PDF’s, but also listens. Then he starts: ‘I get no notion about how people shit in regions like China and Africa.’ And: ‘Can you show me a piece of text that you actually wrote yourself?’ Also about the work of others: ‘This is so unclear. Someone somewhere has to take responsibility.’ Red blotches appear in necks. An obliging boy with a trimmed beard shows something. Reaction: ‘Is this a sketch or your best try?’ Both possible answers seem wrong. ‘I find this extremely horrible. And it makes absolutely no sense.’ And: ‘What I expect of you is not this manner of answering politely.’ Suddenly: ‘Can you stop taking notes now? It’s making me so nervous!’ In fright I snap up my notebook, but perhaps he was only addressing the students.
‘Can you stop taking notes now? It’s making me so nervous!’
Then he explains how everything should be much more daring: no simple history lessons, nó! ‘What you make,’ he lectures, ‘should be a time bomb, tick tock, tick tock. And then all you can do is hope it will not blow up in your face.’
If he sounds like a bogeyman, then I should note that his critiques were just: the texts were superficial and simplistic. And then he does something sweet. He steps toward the girl that took most of the hits and stresses: ‘You understand this is totally not personal, right?’ She appears not to be bothered at all. Another confusing thing, I didn’t tell that Petermann was carrying his adorable toddler during this severe session.
Rem takes off. Petermann and I scurry behind him and soon we are in an elevator together, three men and a small child. ‘Look,’ says Rem, ‘he sees himself in the mirror. He enjoys watching.’
When we leave the elevator people immediately crowd around Rem, assistants, secretaries, all kinds. It’s like one of these American series about law or politics where all conversations take place walking along dynamic workspaces. Rems pupils are dilated, and he seems to have grown even taller, he looks like he can handle all of the hundreds of different things people will throw at him, no matter how important. Suddenly his piercing look finds me, in his eyes an expectation that emanates: now you will ask me something truly important like all the best journalists do.
’I don’t know what we should be doing now, what do you want?’ ‘Uh…’ Oh no, what am I saying, did I say uh? I just want to be near him. He turns towards Petermann. ‘Stephan, how do you want this to continue?’ Petermann says we will see. Cue missed. Moment gone. Rem turns and disappears between new people and glass walled meeting rooms.
How can you stay focused so long? I sigh when I am in the car again with Petermann, toddler in the backseat. A focus like that is sometimes associated with compulsive behaviour, even autism. Peterman loosely replies. ‘Well, there is the swimming of course,’ he says, ‘every day. And Rem likes to be in exactly the same hotel, preferably with the same driver taking him to and from the airport.’ But that would mean that all men are compulsive idiots — a thought that could ring true nevertheless.
Petermann says there’s something weird. Whenever they’re at a party or a social gathering of some sort and they meet new people, often those people will confide their whole life stories to Rem. Or at least all kinds of personal, intense stuff, like their father recently dying or something. Is it the fame? What is it about Rem that makes people do this? Petermann has not found the answer yet.
Talking with Koolhaas for a longer stretch of time proves difficult. These months he’s continuously in China, the Middle-East, England, Germany. I am invited for an intimate dinner in an Italian restaurant the night before the opening of The Rotterdam. Marvellous. A good chance to listen to Rem, maybe he will loosen up with some wine and a plate of lasagne. When I arrive at restaurant Lux In Rotterdam it turns out that a hundred other journalists and relations are also invited. Pity. A young lady welcomes me, gives me to the organising woman, a press guy joins us and tells me how he loved my piece on Rem, I tell him I haven’t written it yet. The atmosphere is great and sort of loose. Rem is not here. Yes, he was for a while, but during the first course he left.
Rem is legendary also in this environment. I tell an architectural journalist that I sort of like Rem. He tells me how good Rem is at making you feel close to him. Like now, eating in his favourite restaurant. I tell him I think Rem is quite down to earth and that he told me how he loathes the title of starchitect. The architectural journalist asks me, why Rem if indeed he is so down to earth, lately claimed in another paper that his favourite working space is chair 1-A in a Boeing.
It’s 2014 and big money is finished. The crisis has wreaked havoc and the few last remaining architects in Western countries busy themselves building small housing blocks or reconstructing old offices and factories into hotels and homes. Everything else is conservation. But what is happening outside the cities: after the privatisations city councils have only their land to make good money. They rent it out to companies and developers who fill it up with rubbish, preferably without an architect. A hodgepodge of glass houses, shacks, barracks, horrendous industrial estates and failed office parks infest the view on nature and landscape. What can we do? Does a countermovement exist that goes beyond some loosely gathered locals? Are there architects who think about how we can build a better and more beautiful environment? We are living in the midst of trash.
Rem is suspect, as a starchitect he is associated with neoliberal, antisocial moneymaking.
I want Rem, I have learned he is working on countryside explorations. He might even be writing a novella about the countryside (Koolhaas started his career writing for a Dutch weekly.) But Rem is suspect, as a starchitect he is associated with neoliberal, antisocial moneymaking. This is tragic. In his lectures and books it’s his sense of community that stands out. I find it in his writing, in his work at Harvard, his project for the European Union, the research about the organic structure of the city of Lagos. But also in his first architectural interests in Russia and the constructivism of the historical avant-garde, in his phantasmagorical design for Manhattan. Or in his last big project from 2011: an oral history of the Japanese Metabolists (written together with Hans-Ulrich Obrist), in which he writes almost longingly about a group of architects that change their country together, and says that just at ‘a moment in time, when the bond between architects and their own culture is almost gone and the marketplace has slain the brotherhood of colleagues, it seemed urgent.’ Yes, in his books, his lectures, his designs, I think I find a constant: a commitment to the communal. A commitment to this article is sadly still undetectable.
The Rotterdam opens. The journalists are back again, clients, dignitaries, hostesses, press ladies. The big hall is decorated festively and some people have dressed their best — not the journalists. Rem enters, still wearing his three-quarter-length coat. His body language wreaks immediate confusion. Will he turn left? No he goes right, then stays put. Men in shiny suits receive pats on shoulders, elbows are touched, hands shaken, alpha males acknowledge the super alpha male: the man next to whom Rem finally comes to a halt, beams as if he has just won the lottery. I see the body bend often; arms hold it most of the time, in a sort of self-embrace, almost as if he rocks himself. His hand stroking and touching the face again and again. Why does he need that? Why does he need his sense of touch to confirm his existence? My attention strays for a moment (I see men with blow-dried hair) and immediately Rem is out of sight.
There he is again: now bended over a high table. A journalist is taking notes. A circle forms around them. People are looking as if they’re watching an art performance. Two journalists walk towards a table and open up all the bread rolls to inspect the contents. And Rem has moved on again. Some people use dictaphones to record their tumultuous thoughts. Rem uses assistants. There is always an ear at hand to whisper something into. Would someone mind the brevity of these conversations? Who would want to disturb his thought process?
Some people use dictaphones to record their tumultuous thoughts. Rem uses assistants.
Speeches start and at the sudden high screech of a feed backing microphone, a startled Rem grabs his ear and quickly steps back. He was the only one between all those people who stepped back. Would his hearing be super sensitive? It reminds me of this theory on autism that states, put bluntly, that autistic people shut down because of a too great sensitivity for impressions — don’t worry, I’m not out to prove that Koolhaas is autistic. When he has to stand on the stage, he goes to the utmost back. Books are being distributed. Rem is the only one who looks interested and flicks through the pages.
I go outside, bit of a shame that I didn’t get to speak with him. But then he sees me. He darts away from a French television crew and showers me with his attention. Have I walked towards the building from the bridge? That’s so beautiful. Shall we do it together one time? Will I join him in the car to Rotterdam? Just the two of us, no driver, I would prefer that, right? Thursday next week for instance. Then we can have a quiet talk. Elated I leave the building. Rem is amazing. The next Wednesday I ask Petermann at what time I should present myself. He tells me Rem is in Monaco now, Milan on Thursday.
Numerous cancelled appointments later I am finally next to him in a car. In the backseat. In front Petermann and the driver. After the opening of The Rotterdam, the reviews came in, from Canada to Australia and Spain (El Mastodonte vertical de Koolhaas). Exactly that what provokes Rem, is happening. Good or bad, they are talking about the biggest building of The Netherlands.
De Volkskrant (Dutch newspaper; sp) wrote an article beforehand, juxtaposing the new generation of architects and you. ‘There are many capable young architects. Their concerns are of course different. They have different experiences and are working within different conditions. But to compare, rhetorics: nowadays that’s less. There is so much.’
But why did you have to tell Die Zeit (German paper; sp) that you would be ashamed of yourself if you were considered only as a Dutch architect? ‘I don’t know, did I say that?’ Petermann: ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Koolhaas: ‘But being ashamed, that’s more meant like, that has more to do with modesty. That as an architect, you have to play a part in different environments. I think I mean it more as in adventure: it wouldn’t be adventurous if I was only a Dutch architect.’
The Guardian was very negative about The Rotterdam and described it as “a dreamlike stage set of financial capital” and “the Twin Towers resurrected in a Frankenstein muddle.”
How did you feel about the article in the Guardian? ‘Well, if you look at the reality of the moment, then almost every approach is at one moment diametrically wrong compared to other moments. That’s one of the weird things about architecture; it takes a long time. So yes, you could say, in times of crisis it’s not very appropriate to build something grand. But in the long term I think that this building finally realises the ambition to involve this part of the island with the city. Moreover, this kind of criticism is also welcome. Every well-written piece, no matter how derisive, is an asset.’
Are you Buddhist? Don’t you get annoyed? ‘No, seldom. I am not someone who says: I never read them. I read them carefully. I can imagine a lot of things.’
Of course he evokes these criticisms. His texts are often put in the language of the manifests we know since the historical avant-garde movements: a language brimming with visions, sweeping statements, metaphors and concise recapitulations on the zeitgeist, with compulsory paradoxes. ‘Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian,’ he writes. And: ‘There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways. Or: ‘Shopping: arguably the last remaining form of human activity.’ And in these writings he likes to state his ‘final lack of interest’ in architecture. ‘I have made so many assertions,’ he tells me as we glide along the motorway, ‘there is always something you can throw at me later.’
‘There is always something you can throw at me later.’
The Netherlands we drive through so speedily, shows all sorts of ugliness coming off industrial estates and office parks. I ask him if he can deal with that. Petermann has already been to a German agricultural fair and has travelled all over the province Noord-Holland on his bike to knock on random doors gathering information about the countryside. But he says: ‘It’s funny, but government for me is ancient history. I made the Bijlmer-strip (in the eighties he made a plan to pimp up one of Amsterdam’s roughest neighbourhoods. It was rejected.) I worked for the European Union, even thought up more utopian stuff: Airports in sea, all inhabitants on a strip next to the border and the bulk of the land free and green. And I would be invited by ministers of state, to dinners, breakfasts or lunches. But nothing. It is of course true that government has withdrawn.’
How fundamental research is to him, I learn during a public talk with Madelon Vriesendorp. In New York she and Rem collected postcards, old magazines and books about the history of Manhattan and it’s skyscrapers. Maps, leaflets, manuscripts, they even joined a club for postcard collectors. Rem wrote the texts for the book, which would establish his name: Delirious New York. She made paintings, drawings, watercolours and gouaches that featured in the book. Later they moved to London, but the English, she says, never understood Rem. We Dutchmen don’t use words liker ‘rather’ or ‘quite.’ The English told Rem: ‘You don’t say something is white or black, you say: ‘it’s rather a bit like’.
Well… of course I’m curious, but I’m not going to ask the man in which bed he sleeps, does it matter?
Vriesendorp has been with Koolhaas since the sixties and still lives in London. But Rem lives in Amsterdam, right? Mmm, The Guardian tells me he lives in Amsterdam with designer Petra Blaisse and that he leads a ‘complex private life.’ Well… of course I’m curious, but I’m not going to ask the man in which bed he sleeps, does it matter? Anyway, he probably sees the vague description ‘complex private life’ as adding to the mystification. I bet he’s just with Petra Blaisse. Most significant I guess, is the fact that Blaise with her studio Inside Outside is one of the important partners of OMA. They played a big part in projects like the Prada shops, the library in Seattle, Porto. And that she has a similar status to Koolhaas as a leading thinker in her trade, based on her lectures and projects. They seem partners in design.
Another good view is given by Gerrit Oorthuys. He used to teach at a Dutch technical university in Delft and made numerous architecture trips with Koolhaas. To Prague and Russia to research the utopian plans of the constructivists, and later to New York. Oorthuys: ‘Rem would go to the countryside to buy old stuff in old shops. He was always on the lookout for the curious. He was enthralled by the fact that the homosexual salesman in an expensive fashion shop would daintily hold up the underwear before his crotch if you asked him about the size. Or that there was a little porn cinema in a well-known shopping street. Everything outside of the ordinary.’
According to Oorthuys he comes from a clever family with an extremely likeable mother and a father (a well-known writer and journalist Anton Koolhaas) who would spend serious time in the garden next to a frog as if they were having a conversation. Oorthuys says the affected environment of big-time architects is not suited to Koolhaas, who fits in better with traditional architecture. Oorthuys: ‘One of the holy grails in architecture is the social cause. The utopian ‘we are doing something good for mankind’ is still ingrained in most schools. Architecture is one of the few art forms that is by its nature socially involved. Rem has returned to functionalism: taking architecture seriously — but in a humorous way.’ Only the CCTC building in China, made by Koolhaas, he thinks is for a controlling regime, and in that he doesn’t agree with Oorthuys.
The Biennale. In Rotterdam they are finalizing the books and the logistics. But in the room that holds the models, a brainstorm is taking place with half the board of directors of the German publishing group Axel Springer Verlag about the future of books and media, because OMA is going to build their new office in Berlin. Koolhaas travels between the Amsterdam office of Irma Boom, the designer of books and catalogues, and OMA (when he is not travelling between continents.) OMA has succeeded in getting the most outrageous objects, from an age-old Chinese roof, to a floor from the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, a Yurt tent, the oldest toilet known to man, fireplaces, etc.
It’s somewhat sad that both you and the director of The Biennale criticize the influence of the market economy on architecture in the catalogue, and then we find a huge ROLEX logo on the following page. ‘Yes, terrible. I think I’ve spent the most part of the last six months raising money.’
Is every serious countermovement immediately encapsulated and stamped with a brand-logo? ‘People can distinguish between that.’
But it feels symbolic of your work. Can I interpret your career also as a big tragedy? You were so interested in the collective, the community, but your fame was based on neoliberalism. ‘I wouldn’t view that as tragedy. I’ve been given the opportunity to struggle with new issues in a new way. One of the things that has surprised me the most is that my curiosity has been explained as complicity: Koolhaas does a book on shopping, so he’s all for shopping. He does a book on the YES-regime (YES stands for yen, euro, dollar; sp), so he’s into YES. In a way it has enabled me to develop a critical structure and at the same time develop things that are based upon that old structure, like the library in Seattle, the concertbuilding in Porto. And on the other side there was the intelligence of some of the new stuff, like G-Star and Prada.’
No tragedy? ‘Absolutely not. Rather, it’s doing the splits on a large scale. And nothing is more interesting than working in that position. You could say that my whole story is about the splits. From the beginning up to this point: first between Europe and America, then between Europe and China. And a split position always has these elements: you feed from both sides, you make a bridge, or a schizophrenia. Those are the three models of the splits that all happen sometime, but with which you can develop a dynamic position. I really hope you have written this down correctly, because I have never formulated this so precisely, you’re the first one to hear it.’
‘I really hope you have written this down correctly, because I have never formulated this so precisely, you’re the first one to hear it.’
So the red line in your work is not in your buildings, but in the attitude that gave birth to them? A split between two worlds? ‘Between worlds. Sometimes it’s a split with three legs. It’s about a kind of engagement to deal with the contradictions of these times. To use an old-fashioned word: engagement. But being critical is the basis of it all, I think that in the last 25 years the critical from outside is no longer existent. Just like Žižek, Latour and all those other ones are declaring. You can’t look at it from the outside.’ Petermann: ‘I think the challenge of our generation lies in how to be able to organise criticism.’
In 1989, whilst presenting a plan for the library in Paris, Koolhaas already concentrated on the relation between the digital and the real. What’s left for the architect in his view is: articulating collectivity. ‘You can see that the private sector has a need for collectivity. Different sectors are suddenly similar. Executives now want giant spaces where everybody can be fatalistic and desperate about the future together, where employees sit side by side like in a giant NASA control room thinking: ‘oh, hé is going in that direction.’ A space from where you can follow and improvise and think. Really, all kinds of people are coming to us asking for big spaces, demanding big spaces.’
Petermann: ‘One of the door manufacturers I spoke to concerning the Biennale is really worried about it. Fewer walls means fewer doors.’ Koolhaas: ‘Really?’ Petermann: ‘Yes.’ Koolhaas: ‘No!’ Petermann: ‘They are selling fewer doors.’ Koolhaas: ‘No, but… tell me.. in what way… how did he explain it? What was he worried about?’ Petermann: ‘Well, in homes the doors are disappearing because people want big living spaces, with kitchen, sitting and everything together, so there’s a decline in demand, but there’s also a decline in offices.’
Those are the facts they are discovering because of Fundamentals. It’s incredible, says Koolhaas. Suddenly you see how everything is changing. Floors will be readable, windows too. All manufacturers are working outside of their elements. He sometimes feels like his employees are archiving everything before everything changes. One of his concerns is: how to get people away from screens? ‘Behind screens, on their smartphones, I often don’t know if people are working or enjoying themselves. I think they don’t know it either.’
‘I often don’t know if people are working or enjoying themselves. I think they don’t know it either.’
Would more people start to resist and escape the dominance of the digital, of Google, and Facebook, etc.? Koolhaas: ‘I am so curious about that. My kids are reducing al their involvement to this, I don’t know. Do you know this, Stephen?’ Petermann: ‘Yes, Thomas is paradoxical: he’s on Facebook being quite anti-active.’ Koolhaas: ‘On Facebook and against Facebook!’ In father’s voice sounds a mixture of admiration and satisfaction.
Rem Koolhaas masks with mystifications. During lectures he sometimes stands just outside of the spotlights, it looks deliberate. His sense of metaphors and symbols makes his buildings legendary (just slightly tilted, different proportions, oblique, round skyscrapers, etc.) He loves stuff that causes friction, that evokes criticism ánd arises from criticism. And along with that he is constantly looking for the curious, often I hear the story of when he was living in Indonesia and a boy peed in the same water in which women were doing their laundry. It’s never boring around him. He chooses humor, or at least his work originates in the same area where humor originates: there, where the normal flow of affairs does not coincide with how things could also feel, or could be promised. Like when two cultures collide.
And from his first to his last texts I encounter the same two metaphors: the zeppelin and the swimming-pool. The zeppelin stands for the enthousiasme about the future: people are amazed, a zeppelin contrasts the human size with something larger, but it’s size can still be digested.
And the swimming-pool, he once called it the social capacitor. A lot has been published about Rem’s fascination with pools, he’s in one every morning.
In Delirious New York, the book that made him famous, we find his short story: The story of the Pool. It’s a strong piece of fiction, worthy of a literary author, about a group of Russian constructivist architects who build a floatable pool. They discover they can move with it and swim from Russia to America. The swim with their heads facing the country they are fleeing and their asses towards New York. When they arrive there, the American architects don’t know what to do with their colleagues. So they swim on and encounter the raft of Medusa. They cut through it, like a hot knife through butter. And swim on Upstream, like their creator, searching for new splits.
A Dutch version of this article appears in the weekly Vrij Nederland