Rem Koolhaas: A survey of his work and aesthetic philosophy

The radical Dutch architect and architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas is often called one of the world’s best — and one of the world’s most controversial — architects. Koolhaas is as much known for his aesthetic philosophy as he is for his work. “Koolhaas’ most provocative — and in many ways least understood — contribution to the cultural landscape is as an urban thinker…he has written half a dozen books on the evolution of the contemporary metropolis and designed master plans for, among other places, suburban Paris, the Libyan desert and Hong Kong” (Ouroussoff 1). Koolhaas does not merely wish to create buildings but also change the way in which the world conceptualizes buildings and aesthetic space.

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One of Koolhaas’ most famous buildings is the French convention hall the Congrexpo, located in Euralille, a shopping and entertainment complex in Lille, France. It is described as an “elliptical shell…sliced into three parts, with a 6,000-seat concert hall at one end, a conference hall with three auditoriums in the middle and a 215,000-square-foot exhibition space at the other…clad in plywood and synthetic leather” (Ouroussoff 1). The shopping complex itself has been described as relatively pedestrian and ordinary but Koolhaas’ contribution is unique. As observed by one critic: “Koolhaas sometimes seems to be a reluctant architect — someone who is unconcerned with conventional ideas of beauty — but he is a master of the craft, and I can’t help marveling at the intimacy of the space. The room is perfectly proportioned, so that even sitting at the back of the upper balcony you feel as though you were pressing up against the stage” (Ouroussoff 1). Koolhaas’ designs unite functionality and form — the auditorium’s design enhances its functionality but is also striking and arresting in the way it arranges space in an idiosyncratic fashion.

The intention of the structure was to generate a “perfectly self-contained system, yet inside is a cacophony of competing zones” with different purposes (Ouroussoff 1). Koolhaas’ aesthetic in this building is resolutely postmodern, fusing Roman columns and mirrors which contrast with the airy openness of the exhibition space. “The tension created between them seems to capture one of Koolhaas’ principal preoccupations: How do you allow the maximum degree of individual freedom without contributing to the erosion of civic culture?” (Ouroussoff 1). Koolhaas was attracted to designing for the Euralille because of its unfettered populism: it is a popular site for working-class shoppers, not the elite, and Koolhaas is determined to bring architecture ‘to the people.’

Koolhaas’ spirit is the antithesis of the idea that architects should elevate the populace. Koolhaas is known for the cheeky, irreverent view he has of Modernism specifically: he once made a sketch of London that was a deliberate satire of architectural Modernism’s stated aim to elevate the population. “In his work, Koolhaas’ tongue-in-cheek proposal for London carved a wide swath through the center to create a hedonistic zone that could ‘fully accommodate individual desires.’ As the city’s inhabitants rushed to it, the rest of London would become a ruin” (Ouroussoff 2). This design, along with other city designs was catalogued in his book Delirious New York. Koolhaas has openly acknowledged the influence of the Japanese Metabolism movement in his work, which views architecture as something that must have an organic quality to it, versus the evidently planned and manmade texture of modernism. “Metabolist architects and designers believed that cities and buildings are not static entities, but are ever-changing — organic with a ‘metabolism.’ Postwar structures of the future are thought to have a limited lifespan and should be designed and built to be replaced” (Craven 1).

Koolhaas’ philosophy is that architecture is meant to be an impermanent medium. Koolhaas has extremely rigorous notions of what constitutes truly radical architecture. In one interview he stated: “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” (Mackenzie 1). Koolhaas has been particularly critical of what he sees as the increasingly dominant, dangerous influence of the United States on architecture which has been eating away at Europe’s ability to develop an architectural language of its own. “It [Europe] should become less U.S.-oriented. I am not saying we should turn against the Americans but I think we should also look towards building relationships with Russia, Turkey, the Arab world and China and India, and on an equal basis. China built the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Olympics and they chose European architects to design it — an unbelievably wonderful gesture” (“Interview,” Spiegel Online).

Rather than seeking out elite and rarified locales to design for, Koolhaas deliberately looks for accessible venues. Today, “architecture looks more and more like a form of corporate branding,” dominated by “real estate developers and corporate boards whose interests were not always so noble-minded” and Koolhaas strives to resist this trend (Ouroussoff 1). Although Koolhaas works as a professional architect, he is equally comfortable in academia and shares an academic’s willingness to criticize corporate culture in a manner that many other architects shun. Despite this attitude, he has had no shortage of clients.

While his ancestry is Dutch, from a personal perspective, Koolhaas does not specifically see himself as a Dutch architect. He grew up in Jakarta and notes the considerable influence East Asia had upon shaping his worldview, as well as the extreme poverty he witnessed as a child. “I was transplanted from a ruin to an extremely chaotic tropical city that was in a state of euphoria because of its recent independence. There I went to an Indonesian school, spoke Indonesian and behaved more or less like an Asian child” (Mackenzie 1). This memory has driven Koolhaas to design numerous projects in China and Japan. However, because of China’s human rights record, this decision has been yet another controversial element of the architect’s work. However, he dismisses such concerns: “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…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 behavior” (Mackenzie 1). Koolhaas’ stress upon globalization and his view that America should not dominate the architectural landscape also extends to politics. His political views have caused him to demand of his fellow European architects a more critical view of the U.S. just as much as his architectural views. “The Chinese miss Europe on the world’s political stage. They say that without Europe, it is impossible for China to confront the United States’ domineering stance on issues such as the invasion of Iraq, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the nuclear conflict with Iran” (“Interview,” Spiegel Online).

Koolhaas is pursuing a number of East Asian projects at present, not all of which have been equally successful:

His most convincing answer to the vices of global urbanization was a proposal for the West Kowloon Cultural District, a sprawling 99-acre cultural and residential development to be built on landfill on a site overlooking Hong Kong Harbor. Koolhaas traveled to Hong Kong every month for more than a year to work on the project, often wandering up into the surrounding mountains. Inspired by the migrant dwellings and rural marshlands that he found there, he proposed three “urban villages” arranged along a spacious public park. The idea was to create a social mixing bowl for people of different cultural, ethnic and class backgrounds. “In spite of its metropolitan character Hong Kong is surrounded by countryside,” Koolhaas said. “We felt that we’d discovered a really wonderful prototype. The villages were not only a very beautiful urban model, but they would be sustainable” (Ouroussoff 1).

Although the Hong Kong project did not bear fruit, Koolhaas’ commitment to being a global architect remains. Despite his criticism of the U.S., Koolhaas has collaborated with a number of public entities in America, such as the Seattle Public Library to create the venue Casa da Musica along with the group OMA, which he founded. “The 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-rationalised organization” (Mackenzie 1). OMA describes itself as “a leading international partnership practicing architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis. OMA’s buildings and masterplans around the world insist on intelligent forms while inventing new possibilities for content and everyday use” (OMA, Official website).

OMA’s projects have often encompassed civic and academic spaces. Cornell University’s Millstein hall specifically contracted Koolhaas and OMA to create a location which would facilitate the study of architecture and promote the concepts of Koolhaas through daily inspiration of the students at the school. “An adaptable and open floor plan on the top level provides opportunities to respond to the changing needs of design curriculum. The ground level offers immediate entry to the college’s auditorium which accommodates classes, presentations, and a variety of other meetings. The lower level combines large and small exhibition venues, access to the auditorium, and a connection with the Green Dragon Cafe.” (Millstein Hall, Cornell University). It is an enclosed, organic unit in the Metabolist tradition designed to facilitate the study of architecture and to promote the psychic health of the inhabitants. Koolhaas is proud that the structure is not only beautiful in its massive, sprawling quality (which it is) but that it also facilitates the pedagogical intentions of the university.

The marriage of form and function continues in all of the projects Koolhaas is pursuing through OMA. Recently, OMA won a public design competition for the right to design the publisher Axel Springer’s Berlin media center. “The new office block is bisected by a diagonal atrium that opens up to the existing Springer buildings — an extension of the Springer campus. The essence of the proposal is a series of terraced floors that together form a ‘valley’. Each floor contains a covered part for formal work, which is then uncovered on the terraces to act as an informal stage and a place to broadcast ideas to other parts of the company” (“OMA wins competition,” OMA). As with Millstein, transmitting information and bringing individuals together in a positive fashion infuses the design philosophy of the structure.

Koolhaas is something of a rarity in the history of design: he is a brilliant theorist who is also a brilliant architect. Even those who disagree with his politics and some of his design philosophies find his work challenging, provocative, and compelling. His influence in the profession seems likely to continue in the future.

Works Cited

Craven, Jackie. “Metabolism.” Apr 2014.

“Interview with Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas: ‘The World Needs Europe’.” Spiegel Online.

30 October 2008. Retrieved on 6 Apr 2014.

Mackenzie, Andrew. “Rem Koolhaas’ Current Fascinations: On Identity, Asia, the Biennale, & More.” Architecture Daily. 19 Mar 2014. 6 Apr 2014.

Millstein Hall. Cornell University .7 Apr 2014.

OMA. Official website. 7 Apr 2014.

“OMA wins competition to design Axel Springer’s new media centre in Berlin.” OMA. Official website. 7 Apr 2014.

Ouroussoff, Nicola. “Why is Rem Koolhaas the World’s Most Controversial Architect?”

Smithsonian Magazine. September 2012. 6 Apr 2014.