Atlantic Cities

Koolhaas's Defense of Generic Architecture

Koolhaas's Defense of Generic Architecture
Reuters

Rem Koolhaas gives interviews like a star quarterback: flippantly and breathless, even in print. These interviews must be an unremarkable part the Dutch architect’s daily life, necessitated by the ever-churning production machine of his multi-office firm, and the endless stream of books, exhibitions and talks. Koolaas’ newest book, a tome written with Hans Ulrich Obrist about the Metabolists, the first non-Western avant-garde movement in architecture, was the pretext to an unusually candid interview published in Der Spiegel.

There’s a bit of back story to his conversation with several members of Spiegel’s editorial staff. As the paper writes:

We had invited the 67-year-old Dutch architect to tour HafenCity and to show him the new SPIEGEL headquarters building. Over time, some have starting questioning whether HafenCity, Europe's biggest urban development project, has been a success. There are also differing opinions on the SPIEGEL building, designed by the Danish architecture firm Henning Larsen. In 2006, Koolhaas' bid to design the building was rejected. At the moment, he has been commissioned to build the so-called Science Center in HafenCity, but that project has not been moving forward.

The trend toward redevelopment has been embraced wholeheartedly by cities, developers and architects alike, and these neighborhoods stand as tributes to the unfettered process of luxury redevelopment in dense urban areas. Koolhaas has his reservations. He walks into the Henning Larsen building and asks the reporter why’s he’s whispering in his own atrium, and if he’s comfortable in his new space. "I get the feeling what you need from me," says Koolhaas, "isn’t so much an interview as an hour of therapy."

There’s no one better than Koolhaas to criticize (and embrace) such generic city development. He is at his best when talking about cities and the lifestyles associated with them. The quote you’ve seen popping up on your Facebook or Tumblr dashboard is a rhetorical bait-and-switch. "These days," Koolhaas said, "we’re building assembly-line cities and assembly-line buildings, standardizing buildings and cities."

It’s the kind of line that makes people stop reading the article, satisfied by the conversation-ending statement. But if you did keep reading, you’d find that Koolhaas' views are more complicated. This is what he has to say about the building where his firm works:

Look, we -- that is, my firm and I -- work in a completely non-descript building in Rotterdam. It couldn't be plainer. It's from the 1960s, and it's an open room with a nice view. We are almost ecstatically happy. Why? We can do anything there. We can imprint our personality onto the building. In an ambitious building like yours, it might be the other way around.

Our building in Rotterdam has less character than yours. In fact, it has zero character. It can be wonderful when a building has character, but it can also be an obstacle. It can limit you. I have mixed feelings about this.

Koolhaas believes the generic city is also the freest. Liberated from the codes and rules of the old city center, it’s a free zone, a safe haven for the migrant workers who make up (in Amsterdam’s case) 40 percent of the city’s population. Generic plug-in waterfronts (like the Baltimore Inner Harbor, New York's East River Waterfront and, yes, HafenCity) are the product of a simple equation between developers and city governments.

In these scenarios, architecture is "icing on the cake," a broken, out-dated profession, validated at random by an "unstable ideological environment" that changes according to the whims of an ever-evolving bureaucracy.

A few years ago, Koolhaas wrote an essay postulating that there's a new demographic called the "kinetic elite." Members were more at home on a plane than in their own beds, lulled to sleep by the humming of jet engines, unable to prepare their own meals and comforted by the placelessness of the airport.

You couldn’t help but see the reflection of Koolhaas and his partners in the essay, flying on a daily basis and only at home in airport lounges. In the same way, you can see the reflection of Koolhaas’ recent work in the subtext of his arguments about unstable ideological systems. The Metabolists were famous for collaborating with the Japanese government, solving major infrastructural problems and speculating radically on the future of urbanism at the same time. Talking about a stalled project in HafenCity, Koolhaas speculates on why it was dropped, saying "the city official in charge of the project has already been replaced twice. I don’t think anyone there knows us anymore."

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is a writer for Architizer.com. All posts »

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