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Reinventing the city: An interview with architect Rem Koolhaas

'What I see more than anything is the inability of almost every political system to anticipate, mobilize, and take precautions for the future, even when it is obvious that cities will grow or shrink rapidly.' At the same time, 'The reinvention...of cities is taking place all over the world.'

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Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed Nexus Housing, pictured here in Fukuoka, Japan. In an interview, Mr. Koolhaas says 'creative flexibility allows us to design buildings that are more versatile, which can be successful in new economies and in new contexts.'

Kawano

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Rem Koolhaas is a leading urban theorist and a Pritzker Prize-winning architect who is engaged in building projects around the world. He co-founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), which is receiving international attention for its recent completion of an enigmatic new headquarters for China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing.

In an interview with Paul Fraioli for the spring/summer 2012 issue of Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs, Mr. Koolhaas discusses how the economic and cultural changes of the 21st century are transforming world cities as well as the practice of architecture. (The full interview can be found here.) 

Paul Fraioli: Do cities around the world, whether they are well established or just emerging, share common challenges? Are they finding common solutions?

Rem Koolhaas: What I see more than anything is the inability of almost every political system to anticipate, mobilize, and take precautions for the future, even when it is obvious that cities will grow or shrink rapidly. It doesn’t take particular expertise to deal with these challenges. However, this inability to plan ahead is widespread, and it is always shocking when it happens in individual cases.

It seems as if our ability to respond to advance warnings has eroded. In Europe there used to be politicians who were able to think 20 years or 50 years ahead, but now the political horizon is four years, if that. This is a global phenomenon, and as the issues become bigger, perspectives become shorter.

Fraioli: Many architects are designing and building “green” structures around the world. What impact will this have on the sustainability of cities?

Koolhaas: What is now called “green architecture” is an opportunistic caricature of a much deeper consideration of the issues related to sustainability that architecture has been engaged with for many years. It was one of the first professions that was deeply concerned with these issues and that had an intellectual response to them.

The “Spaceship Earth” concept that emerged in the 1960s had a visionary awareness of the interdependency of things, and also of the need to be systematically frugal. I have more affinity with this tradition than with the current “greenness.” At the same time, there is now strong pressure on buildings to function better, and there are finally clients willing to pay for it and the engineering needed to realize it. The exciting thing is not green buildings, it is that buildings are built better.

Fraioli: Has the future, so to speak, already arrived in today’s modern cities? Will the biggest change in the coming century be the diffusion of modernity to new places in the world rather than the reinvention of modernity?

Koolhaas: I am incredibly bad at predicting the future; I am only smart enough to observe the present and listen to my intuition about tendencies. But this question makes me think: Since global economics is the dominant influence on the well-being or degeneration of cities, one can make predictions about where urban development will take place. My limited prediction is that great expansion will take place in some part of the world. I see this happening not only in China, but also in places like Iran or Turkey, where cities of the future will be made in great quantity.

Fraioli: Do you think about the future when you design particular projects? So many things can change from design to completion to the end of a building’s life cycle, including politics, economics, culture, and architecture itself.

Koolhaas: Architects work in two ways. One is to respond precisely to a client’s needs or demands. Another is to look at what the client asks and reinterpret it. You must make a judgment about whether the client’s project will create value for society because you must always answer that demand through your work. There is something in every project we do that goes beyond how it was initially defined. We try to discover potentials that the client did not or would not realize.

For example, with the Rothschild Bank building we just completed in London, we discovered that if we lifted the building off the ground, it would reveal quite a bit about London’s past. The developer was adamant against it, but we were able to do it. 

This creative flexibility allows us to design buildings that are more versatile, which can be successful in new economies and in new contexts. At OMA we try to build in the greatest possible tolerance and the least amount of rigidity in terms of embodying one particular moment. We want our buildings to evolve.

However, if you look back in history, you also see that almost any building is able to accommodate almost any kind of activity. Something that was built as a home becomes an office building and then becomes a housing block. A building has at least two lives – the one imagined by its maker and the life it lives afterward – and they are never the same.

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