Home > Home > Almost an Animal Dimension. Rem Koolhaas on China, Fame, and Space.

Almost an Animal Dimension. Rem Koolhaas on China, Fame, and Space.

November 20, 2011

By Linda Meijvis

“One of the nicest things of being an architect is to have an extra dimension, almost an animal dimension”

Entering the room full of people, Rem Koolhaas positions himself on the baroque sofa. His tall and stately posture does not show any sign of nervosity, sipping modestly from the glass of water in front of him.

Dressed in an army green jacket and blue pants combined with black shoes would leave the fashion police stunned, but this is what Koolhaas is renowned for: swimming against the current. Or, as he likes to see it, swimming with an early current, a current that does not know yet it is not against the current.

Koolhaas (67), world’s leading Dutch architect, born in Indonesia, started off as a script writer. Growing up in the sixties gave him the opportunity to freely move between interests due to the transparency of the society.

“I’m really a child of the sixties,” Koolhaas says, “You didn’t need to study, you didn’t need to have a diploma, every initiative was embraced.”

Nowadays, he still considers himself to be a journalist by pointing out the similarities within architecture and writing. “I think architecture is very close to script writing, you think of a script, a space, and then you create a sequence which hopefully makes sense”, he says, “Through writing I created a space that I then occupied.”

According to scholars, Koolhaas’s work is difficult to classify. His projects are namely a contrast in themselves. Koolhaas likes to use beautiful, expensive materials in combination with bizarre, inexpensive materials.

By setting up the Office for Modern Architecture (OMA) in 1975 with Vriesendorp, and two friends, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, Koolhaas engaged in an organization that would emerge into the leading international partnership practicing architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis.

“Rem Koolhaas has expanded the possibilities of architecture. He has focused on the exchanges between people in space,” says Director of the Architecture Sector for the Venice Biennale Kazuyo Sejima, “He creates buildings that bring people together and in this way forms ambitious goals for architecture. His influence on the world has come well beyond architecture. People from very diverse fields feel a great freedom from his work.”

Also his appearance on Time’s list of The World’s Most Influential People in 2008 makes him a man with status, but “actually, I hate those lists,” Koolhaas says smiling, “Once you’re in it, you’re in it. It is just a circulation of the same names. It doesn’t say much.”

He gains international exposure by designing for the Grand Palais in Lille (1994), the Prada Epicenter in New York (2001), the Guggenheim Museum in Las Vegas (2001), the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin (2003), the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul (2004) and the headquarters of the CCTV in Beijing (2008). Logically, there are few ‘normal’ days in Koolhaas’s daily life, he admits. “Half of my time I spend on traveling, going to construction sites.”

However, Koolhaas’s work is not only subject to praise but equally subject to criticism. Particularly his work in China causes some revolt. In 2008 he designed the headquarters of China Central Television, a building that “modernizes the way China looks at structure,” Koolhaas explains.

On a question from a Chinese student about the contrast between his buildings in China and the authentic Chinese architecture, he answers quietly: “This contrast has always been characterizing China. It is precisely this contrast that shows the beauty of China.”

He acknowledges that working in China remains contradictive. “But if you want to participate, it is better to do it with a significant thing than with harmless things,” Koolhaas says.

Actually, the controversial architect himself is rather inspired by the Asian way of life. “What I notice best in the street is, in a way, the Asian body language. We [Europeans] are typically very forceful and we behave like we own the territory, we can be quite crude physically,” he says, “They’ve got something much more elegant, smoother, with less resistance, and discretion in expression of claiming space for themselves.”

Working on projects in China requires some dedication: Koolhaas visited China every six weeks in the past 24 months.

At the age of 67, Rem Koolhaas has no intention to stop working and creating. “Creativity is engaging in the world”, Koolhaas says, “Once you are interested in how things evolve, you have a kind of never-ending perspective, because it means you are interested in articulating the evolution, and therefore the potential change, the potential redefinition.”

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