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Essay

The Architecture of Rem Koolhaas
By Paul Goldberger
Architecture Critic, The New Yorker
Executive Editor, Architecture, Architectural Digest

There is Rem Koolhaas the architect, there is Rem Koolhaas the writer, there is Rem Koolhaas the urban theoretician, and there is Rem Koolhaas the figure to whom younger architects are drawn as moths to a flame. The Pritzker Prize jury has taken note of every one of these aspects of Koolhaas’s rich talent, but to its credit, it has honored Koolhaas as much for his built work as for his ideas. For the truth about Rem Koolhaas is that he is, at bottom, an architect, a brilliant maker of form whose work has done as much to reinvigorate modernism as any architect now living. His statements about the inability of architecture to respond to the problems of the contemporary city may have gained him fame, but his best buildings belie his own message, for they prove that architecture can, in fact, continue to have meaning, that the possibilities of formal invention are far from exhausted, and that in an age of the virtual, there is a profound need for the real.

In this sense, it is hard not to think of Koolhaas in the same way one thinks of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, other architects who could speak in brilliant sound bites (“New York is a catastrophe, but a brilliant catastrophe,” said Le Corbusier) which so easily distract from the originality, richness and complexity of their buildings. Unlike Le Corbusier, whose urban theories have turned out to be utterly misguided, Koolhaas’s rhetoric about the city—which could probably be summed up as a celebration of what he has called “the culture of congestion,” and a recognition that technology has made both urban and architectural form vastly more fluid and less rigid than it once was—gives every indication of being completely true. Unlike Le Corbusier, Wright, and most other urban theorists, Koolhaas is less interested in creating a universal model as he is in describing the unworkability of universal models; his is a kind of urban design for the age of chaos theory, and he has made much of the notion that in an age of cyberspace, conventional kinds of urban form, not to mention conventional kinds of architecture, cannot function as they once did, and therefore can no longer be expected to have the meanings they once did, either. Koolhaas wrote in 1994: “If there is to be a ‘new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty; it will no longer be concerned with the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential; it will no longer aim for stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form….it will no longer be obsessed with the city but with the manipulation of infrastructure for endless intensifications and diversifications, shortcuts and redistributions—the reinvention of psychological space.”

In a time when it is fashionable to decry the increasing sameness of places—the homogenization of culture—Koolhaas has had the courage to inquire as to whether the generic city, as he has called it, is entirely a bad thing. How much does physical form have to determine identity, he asks, and he has argued persuasively that an exaggerated belief in the value of the old urban center, far from helping urban identity, has so weakened peripheral areas as to assure their deterioration. The Generic City, Koolhaas has written, “is the city without history. It is big enough for everybody. It does not need maintenance. If it gets too small it just expands. If it gets old it just self-destructs and renews. It is ‘superficial’—like a Hollywood studio lot, it can produce a new identity every Monday morning…The Generic City is what is left after large sections of urban life crossed over to cyberspace.”

As Le Corbusier made much of dismissing the architecture of the past as irrelevant to the future, Koolhaas takes a certain pleasure in his own rhetorical excesses, but they often tend to contain blunt and astonishingly simple truths. “The future is here, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed (yet),” he has written. Or: “The elevator—with its potential to establish mechanical rather than architectural connections—and its family of related inventions render null and void the classical repertoire of architecture.” On the subject of Atlanta: “Atlanta is not a city; it is a landscape. Atlanta was the launching pad of the distributed downtown; downtown had exploded. Once atomized, its autonomous particles could go anywhere, opportunistically toward points of freedom, cheapness, easy access, diminished contextual nuisance.” And on the contemporary condition of urbanistic thinking: “We were making sand castles. Now we swim in the sea that swept them away.”

It is not so much the clever phrasemaking as the fact that Koolhaas’s writing—and his thinking—are so blunt and determinedly non-linear that accounts, surely, for his immense appeal to younger architects; they see in Koolhaas a fearless critic of the socio-economic and political forces that have shaped the modern city, a figure who professes indifference to power and yet seems, paradoxically, able to accept many things as they are. Koolhaas declaims in every direction at once, one part Jeremiah, proclaiming imminent ruin, and one part Robert Venturi, viewing the world with a fascination bordering on love that implicitly connotes a degree of acceptance. Never mind the contradiction—there is no contradiction, for this is how the world is, Koolhaas is saying, and how we must deal with it. Above all Koolhaas is an observer of reality, and he is utterly unsentimental. His deepest scorn, it would seem, is for those who would respond to the urgencies of this moment by retreating into the nostalgia of the past ...

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