Thursday, April 19, 2012

Meeting Rem Koolhaas

My first exposure to Dutch architects was in the late 60’s when Herman Hertzberger was invited to be a guest at the University of Toronto School of Architecture. I don’t remember a lot about him, other than his passion for exposed grey concrete block, which was something I thought should be hidden, not exposed.

I’m told Hertzberger is still around. But he has been significantly overshadowed by a number of other very talented Dutch architects. Perhaps none is more famous than Rem Koolhaas, whose extensive works can be found around the world. (While he has not done anything in Western Canada, he is best known by many for the Seattle Public Library, a dramatic building although not one of my favourites, especially on the inside.

He was also the architect for the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. I remember driving by it in a taxi on the way to the airport while it was under construction. I couldn't imagine what it was at the time, with its angular steel structure. Many people cannot quite figure out what it is today, with its cladding completed. An adjacent building with equally dramatic forms caught fire in 2009, just prior to its opening.

Nonetheless, I was pleased to see that our itinerary included a visit to OMA which is one of his two companies. I didn’t expect to see Koolhaas. I was therefore very surprised when he not only showed up, but spent more than two hours casually showing myself and about a dozen other international correspondents (as he called us) around his office.

When I tweeted out that I met with Koolhaas, Blah_City, one of my Twitter correspondents asked if we had been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. We were not, although we were asked not to take any photos. It seems that in the past, it was understood that although one could comment on what Koolhaas said, he could not be quoted. This was definitely not the case this time around.

So what did he say? I opened the discussion by asking whether he thought of himself as a Dutch architect working internationally, or an international architect who did a lot of work in the Netherlands. He responded by saying he would answer later. What he did say was that he does so much work around the world, and has so many non-Dutch people in his office he no longer thought of himself as a Dutch architect, but he has Dutch neuroses!

His associated was more direct. He said the Queen likes to describe him as a Dutch architect; however, in order to broaden their appeal to potential clients from outside of the Netherlands, they think of themselves as an international firm.

Whether he thinks of himself as a Dutch architect or not, there is no doubt that he has had a significant impact on Dutch architecture and other Dutch architects. There is no doubt that despite its small size, the Netherlands does have a lot of very talented people who have created a very distinct, modern architectural vocabulary.

One of the first projects he showed us was an addition to the Italian Prada compound. RK has had an extensive involvement with Prada over the years doing everything from designing catwalks to catalogues and other marketing materials. I thought the additions were just awful…completely out of character with the context. My colleague Amr asked him about the importance of context. He responded that he respects the context but is confident he can add to it. He noted that the buildings were not designated heritage per se, adding that a polemic in his office is when is something a monument, and when is it not.

When asked why he had chosen an unusual aluminium cladding for an addition to a very traditional Italian building, he was quick to retort it was not a cladding!

He then showed us a museum project but would not say where it was located. One comment with which I did agree was his claim that he found it alarming that so much money is being invested in museums around the world at this particular time. He then proceeded to describe a number of projects in Asia and elsewhere around the world.

While I may not like the aesthetics of his work, I certainly enjoyed chatting with him. He is much more than an architect. He is a big thinker who is concerned with energy consumption, the future of Europe, and many issues not normally associated with architecture.

He joked about being invited to undertake a commission in Rome. The client told him he wanted Koolhaas “to do for Rome what Gehry had done for Bilbao”. He responded that it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t take the commission.

When asked about the other architects whose work he admired, he responded that he liked Japanese metabolism of the 60’s and 70’s and had just written a book about it. He noted that he liked some Chinese architects; however he hoped to collaborate with Chinese architects so as “not to see them do what American architects do”.

When asked about the difference between working for public and private sector clients, he responded that in the case of the former, the architect serves the public; whereas when working for private sector clients the architect serves the developer.

He was asked whether he prefers to do renovations or ‘starting from scratch’ he correctly noted there is no such thing as ‘starting from scratch’. He has yet to find a country where he can design whatever he wants, nor does he want to. There is always history, context and rules.

He was asked about ‘sustainability’ and which measuring system he prefers. While I’m not sure he really understood the question, he noted that architects have been concerned about sustainability for much longer than everyone else, adding it was a key topic when he went to school in the 60’s. He’s now more interested in how Europe is going to meet its energy needs and has been looking at systems incorporating oil, wind and sun. He’s written extensively about this too.

Someone asked him if there’s a particular project he’d like to do. He didn’t answer directly although noted he’s a keen swimmer, yet has never designed a swimming pool.

He then described a new project that is being designed to work as either an office building or housing. When I suggested that I thought this approach often ended up with something that was neither a good office nor residential building, he responded that I could write that if I wanted. He was confident he could incorporate the qualities in the building that would allow it to function in different ways.

After touring his office and chatting in a very relaxed way, he then left but invited us to return to a ground floor space where a very elaborate catered reception was served, and we were joined by a number of his staff. The service was overseen by a gentleman in a black suit, white shirt and black tie. I assumed he was the caterer but in fact, he was on staff, to perform such functions. They often have potential clients and others in the office for such receptions.

While I couldn’t take any photos, I was subsequently provided by the City of Rotterdam with an illustration of a new office complex now under construction in Rotterdam.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the two hours. I didn't really like much of his work, although I was fascinated by the man, and what he had to say. I was intrigued by his new interest with rural areas, and what should be their future now that so many people are moving to the cities.

I suspect I will now see his buildings in a very different way. Although I don't think I'll necessarily like them any more.

I also look forward to chatting with Brent Toderian about him. Brent considers him a very dangerous man. I'm not sure if I agree, although I might if he gets to build the additions to the Prada compound anything like the models he showed us.

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