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Reinventing the city: An interview with architect Rem Koolhaas

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Fraioli: There has been a shift in your client base in the last 20 or 30 years: Fewer architectural commissions come from city governments and public agencies, and more come from multinational corporations and developers. How is this changing the field of architecture and cities that become home to these projects?

Koolhaas: This has been an enormous shift, and it has been very bad for architecture. At OMA we have tried to resist this trend, so only about a third or a quarter of our projects are developers. The rest are for public clients. I have been dealing with this problem in my writing more than in my architectural practice. The fact is that architecture is losing sight of the collective good by cutting off its connection to the public sector. To put it differently, the public sector has become so weak that it cannot afford to take the initiative on these projects. It is surrendering to private forces. 

My newest book, “Project Japan,” is an oral history about a Japanese avant-garde movement called “metabolism” that emphasized public projects and preserving a traditional style that rejected the uniformity of modernism. My conversation with the pioneers of metabolism reaffirmed this point again and again: The public client is an inspiring definer of what architecture should be.

The biggest difference between working for private clients and public clients – although it is becoming less and less pronounced – is that private developers are extraordinarily good at maximizing profits. They see everything that does not contribute to those profits as incidental, as a sacrifice that preferably should be avoided. The public sector is able to understand why a certain generosity is important.

Fraioli: Globalization is making it easier for corporations and developers to do business in cities around the globe. Is this having an effect on the practice of architecture in cities or on the kinds of projects that cities are demanding?

Koolhaas: The question is so pertinent that it is almost unanswerable. Things are changing enormously in almost every sense. The effects of globalization have been positive and negative. My generation of architects is the first that could work almost anywhere in the world. We had the option to repeat the same building and the local culture.

This has been incredible for OMA because we have had a deep encounter in China creating the CCTV building and another in Qatar. It is a three-dimensional anthropology lesson, and I think our office has been transformed by these encounters. If you take architecture seriously and assume your responsibilities, exchanges can be a very rich thing. The downside is that profit-driven repetition is so common.

Fraioli: How do major urban architectural projects impact the national and cultural identity?

Koolhaas: This repetition I just mentioned causes anxiety about identity. There is a natural reaction from citizens and from governments when their cultures are not reflected in urban building projects. This often comes up in the Middle East. So many international architects make it their business to be contextual; as a result, their projects will feature doves, camels, falcons and other first-degree symbols of local history.

This issue is fascinating because if you look back a hundred years, you find that there was still such a thing as an Indian architecture, a Thai architecture, a Chinese architecture, an African architecture, a Dutch architecture, a Russian architecture. But now, almost all of these languages have disappeared and are subsumed in a larger and seemingly universal style. The process has been like the disappearance of a spoken language.

Remnants of these differences still exist. For example, a high-rise in Singapore is inhabited in a very different way from a high-rise in the suburbs of Paris or a high-rise in China. Each of these cultures, which once had its own form of speaking, is not trying to resurrect old language, but is interested in defining and asserting its uniqueness again.

On the other hand, some cultures have managed to maintain their distinctiveness. It still is meaningful to say that someone is a Japanese architect, but relatively meaningless to say that someone is an American or a Dutch architect. The Dutch happily subsumed their identity into international modernism and found international resonances and connections. In Japan, however, there has always been an insistence that even a modern thing should respect tradition. Japanese forms are still particularly careful, particularly well made, particularly intricate; they do not surrender to a large or brutal scale.

It is actually a paradox that Japan has maintained its style. I discovered in Project Japan that the Japanese have a philosophy of impermanence. They rebuild the sacred Ise Grand Shrine every 20 years. They do not hang onto things. They have a totally different attitude toward preservation than we do in the West and yet have preserved a lot more.

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