The accusation most frequently directed at Rem Koolhaas is that of amorality. For example, I recall an article in The Architects’ Journal in which his works were taken apart in the name of good architecture, common sense, and social reform. Many critics, in Italy as elsewhere, consider other architects more important. Paolo Portoghesi, for example, in his collection of brief profiles, I grandi architetti del Novecento (The Great Architects of the Twentieth Century) (Newton & Compton, 1998), includes Gehry and Eisenman, of whom he gives a positive interpretation, albeit from a traditionalist perspective, but avoids mention of Koolhaas, preferring to discuss numerous other figures who are less well known, and probably less interesting.
Famous, but little liked, Koolhaas plays on his own dislikeable qualities. He has understood the need to make an impression, to surprise and provoke. Even his supporters have been surprised by his recent pronouncements: he designs a shop in New York for Miuccia Prada, and at the same time writes about poverty in Lagos. He studies the Chinese economic miracle, and builds the Guggenheim museum in Las Vegas inside a hotel full of slot machines. As the guest editor of an issue of Wired, devoted to the next century (Wired, June, 2003), he praises trash spaces and the culture of shopping. Now, with AMO, which he has created alongside OMA, he attempts to elaborate new strategies, including image creation strategies, to invent, structure, and finance new projects, which are not necessarily architectural.
The formula works. Koolhaas has become a media phenomenon. Kissed by notoriety, he has even been accepted by the establishment, which in theory would like to despise him, but, understanding the rules of power, would never dream of behaving arrogantly towards anyone successful. In 2000 he was awarded the Pritzker Prize. He teaches at Harvard, the most traditional and sought after American university. He dines with Philip Johnson, as he has done for years, together with a small elite group of members of the star system. In conclusion: we are certainly not dealing with someone who has been misunderstood, or excluded, or with an avant-garde figure in the 19th century sense of the word.
Koolhaas’ strength lies above all in his ability to appeal to young people. His lectures draw crowds of admirers under the age of thirty, and the papers written by architecture students refer continually to his projects. If you write a book about Koolhaas you will sell at least 10,000 copies to today’s youth, increasingly disoriented by attending universities that are light years away from the urban reality surrounding them. There is a reason for this: they are the people who live inside the contradictions pointed out by the Dutch architect. They wear, or would like to wear, Prada, but they are passionate about social issues. They read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and perhaps Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, but they wouldn’t miss an opportunity to go shopping for the latest fashions. They fight against multinationals and their exploitation of the third world, but they would not do without a single watt of electricity or drop of petrol. They would like to earn colossal salaries, but are not devoid of Calvinist austerity.
The temptation to dismiss the Koolhaas phenomenon as a fad or generational trend is strong. But I believe that this would simply fall into the trap of ignoring novelties because our traditional tools are not adequate to explain them. If we want to explain Koolhaas, viewing him through the traditional lens of classical utopianism is not enough.
Few trends, from the post-war period to the present day have been free from the principle which sees the history of contemporary architecture as the precursor of a better world, which on a practical level demands a continuous revolution of functions, and on a metaphorical level, of forms. If you carry on building traditional houses, I’ll show you that it is possible to live in a different way. If you want to go on living in contemporary cities, I’ll show you a plan for a metropolis with more green areas (such as the Ville Radieuse), more space for your privacy (for example Broadacre City), a better relationship with technology (e.g. Plug in City).
During the 1970s –perhaps in part due to the influence of Pop Art – there was a school of thought which attempted to dismantle this universalizing concept, bringing architecture down from the pursuit of utopia to everyday life. In this context, the successful book Learning from Las Vegas by Roberto Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Stefan Izenour, published in 1972 and republished in 1977, makes interesting reading. The thesis underlying this book is both simple and fascinating: Las Vegas, which was neither planned nor designed by architects, is far more interesting than the rationalist city. If we fail to understand why this is so, we run the risk of continuing to increase the already wide gap between what people actually want, and the categorical rules laid down by designers.
In 1978, barely a year after the republishing of Learning from Las Vegas, Koolhaas (at the time thirty-four) published an equally successful book which brought him international fame: Delirious New York. His theories are similar, but more sophisticated: New York, the capital of the 20th century, is a beautiful city, regardless of architects. If we analyse it carefully, we discover that the skyscraper, the prevailing building typology in Manhattan, is actually the antithesis of what the Modernist Movement preached. Within the skyscraper, functions coexist side by side without being integrated with one another, there is no correspondence between inside and outside, the principles of architectural composition do not apply.
Why, asks Koolhaas, is the city of New York so attractive? Because it is the incarnation of the metropolitan fantasy, the desire for social density. It is an architectural projection of an imagined world. The concrete realization of a multiplicity of potentials that give shape to the principle of the unreality of the real, which states that what actually happens is more utopian, more unpredictable, and in the end, more desirable, than any abstract utopia based on rational principles. If you walk around New York, or live there, you realise how successful this urban experiment is, despite the fact that it was never designed by anyone, beyond a weak grid system and a few essential rules on the gaps between buildings.
If we want to be consistent, we should hope for the end of the utopia, understood as a project external to the way things actually work. We should force ourselves to uncover the fantastic, unreal, creative aspects which lie within any phenomenon. We should adopt an approach whose methodologies are similar to those of Surrealism, the only poetics which has successfully managed to transform reality by working from the inside. Salvador Dalí, then, rather than Le Corbusier (it is worth noting the interest with which Koolhaas discusses the Spanish artist in Delirious New York).
If metropolitan reality is surreal, the architect’s point of view can only be Cubist. Today’s world, ever more fragmented, will be reconstituted in a mosaic of dislocated and dissociated observations. Nothing, today, is more interesting, or more incredible, than the truth. Paradoxical juxtapositions can produce new and useful tools for understanding and transformation, which are more effective than traditional ones.
It does not take much to realise that the anti-utopia advocated by the Dutch architect represents more a development of traditional utopianism than a radical antithesis to it. It is a utopia sought within reality, rather than outside it. If his approach seems amoral (in the sense that it plunges into the contradictions of reality without destroying them), and the methods he develops seem unorthodox, this is a response to a sort of stratagem of reason, which prefers to call itself into question rather than being sidelined, as is the case with the theories of his more traditionally minded colleagues. Basically, Koolhaas’ goal is still to produce good architecture. Finding the extraordinary within the banal is completely different from creating the banal. In fact, it greatly resembles that search for the Spirit of the Times which the Modernist Movement has adopted as its goal. It would be a serious error of judgement to think that Koolhaas’ projects are populist or passive. Rather, they are aristocratic, snobbish, and elitist in essence. Suffice it to recall the arrogance with which Koolhaas describes the objections that a lady (“with a shopping bag” as he said), made to his projects: in fact, one of his least successful creations, the IJ Plein.
Although Koolhaas has not hesitated to declare the instruments of the architecture of the past dead and buried, in the name of the metropolitan ideal, it is not difficult to see in his projects numerous references to Le Corbusier, Mies, the Russian constructivists, Constant… If we look at Villa dell’Ava or the house at Floriac, we are inevitably struck by the mastery with which he plays with fragments of the Modernist Movement. And if the details are harsh, broken, or sloppy, this is because they are the result of an attentive inattentiveness. A bit like those contemporary items of clothing which look badly cut, or jeans that have been deliberately torn. It is true that in his writings the Dutch architect praises the haste of the Orient, the ability to grow at a dizzying pace, the speed of Chinese architects who churn out a project a day. Yet the works developed by his own practice, on the other hand, require energy, time, continuous adjustment. Basically, these references to the culture of speed are anything but hurried. And behind this proposal of novelty there is an excess of historical re-working. The same is true of his research: the illustrations in the issue of Wired, with the research carried out by his Harvard students, are brilliant thematic diagrams which recall the long Anglo-Saxon tradition of visualizing abstract concepts. It is strange that many academics have failed to notice that, in essence, no one is more in harmony with the architectural tradition than Koolhaas. It is simply that, instead of copying it, he appropriates and reinvents it, within a post-Cubist and neo-Surrealist discourse.
At the same time, it is difficult to find, in contemporary theoretical writing, a designer who is more aware of the problems, potentials, and myths of contemporary life. It is sufficient to observe the projects for the enlargement of New York’s MoMA, or the Centre for the Contemporary Arts in Rome to become aware of this. Two lessons on the plurality of uses to which the museum is put today. On how an architectural structure should relate to the public, balancing the needs of the individual and of mass consumption. Here we have gone well beyond the approach of many of Koolhaas’ contemporaries, who do little more than propose magnificent but basically traditional sculptural spaces. The same could be said for his large-scale works: the Sea Trade Center, the Bibliothèque de France, the centre of Almere and of Euralille… these are all studies in methodology. As Francesco Tentori has observed, the new Le Corbusier is Koolhaas. No other contemporary designer has such methodological rigour, or such a brilliant ability to investigate the links between forms, uses, society.
This is no small compliment, yet in my view, in our cruelly disillusioned age, it is also an accusation. Like Le Corbusier who confuses art with life, poetry with the spirit of the times, projections of himself for objective needs, Koolhaas remains in the end, in his better moments, a visionary who pretends not to be one.