Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rem Koolhaas Builds

article New York Times Magazine By ARTHUR LUBOW


Before he could build, Rem Koolhaas wrote. Now that buildings of his design are cropping up everywhere, he continues to write. "In my own mind, I am as much a writer as an architect," he says.

An architect of Koolhaas's far-reaching ambition might plausibly prefer sitting at his desk to building in concrete. Remaining within the realm of his own imagination, he need not worry about pesky clients who can dilute a project into mediocrity. But, in fact, part of what Koolhaas likes about architecture is the chance to mesh gears with a client. When I asked him if he would consider designing a house for himself, he replied that the idea bored him. "It would feel too solipsistic," he said. "The whole point of architecture is the engagement with the other. So there wouldn't be any sparks."

Koolhaas, 55, is in the business of making sparks. Last month, at a meeting in his New York hotel room, I watched him review the mock-up of a book on shopping, which he produced with Harvard graduate students in a research seminar that he directs. (They meet about every three weeks.) The book had been redesigned since he last saw it. He was not happy. "It's so sedate now," he said as he rapidly turned the pages. "This was supposed to be something with real tension, a kind of schizophrenia where you say something and see another, and now it's too parallel and neat. It's lost an aggressive, invasive quality that it had in the beginning." He delivered all this talk of tension, invasion, aggression and schizophrenia in a polite monotone that barely rose above a murmur.

Koolhaas was an hour and a half late to the meeting, having been detained at a conference on modern architecture at the Guggenheim Museum, where he was a star speaker. "I couldn't sneak out early because they were discussing my work," he said apologetically. These days, Koolhaas's work seems to be constantly under discussion and, even more gratifying to him, under construction. Whereas in the past his cutting-edge designs rarely advanced beyond the model stage, Koolhaas's current commissions include a concert hall in Porto, Portugal; the Seattle Public Library; a student center on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus; three U.S. stores for Prada, the Italian fashion house; and the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. His office is also collaborating with the Basel firm of Herzog & de Meuron on a luxury hotel in downtown New York for Ian Schrager, whose holdings include the Mondrian in Los Angeles and the Delano in Miami.

Koolhaas is at the forefront of what has become arguably the most exciting branch of culture. The wild critical and commercial success of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao has made it clear that in architecture, unlike any other art form, the critics' favorites are also the public's favorites. People are flocking to Bilbao to see the building, not its contents; in Berlin, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum doesn't even have any contents -- the exhibits have not yet been installed -- but the powerful structure is drawing unanticipated throngs. Suddenly, every city wants its own knockout piece of modern architecture. Koolhaas recalls competing for the commission for a new museum of modern art in Rome. "The director said, 'We need a building that does for Rome what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao,"' he recounts. "That is a staggering statement, because Rome doesn't need to be put on the map."

Koolhaas, despite his professed admiration for Gehry, is uncomfortable with buildings that, like the Guggenheim Bilbao, seduce by dazzling. He wants to arrive at beauty as a byproduct, not the goal, of the design process. He is suspicious of the wow factor. "I like to do things that on first sight have a degree of simplicity but show their complexity in the way they are used or at second glance," he says. Although he is not a pop-culture celebrity on the order of Gehry, within his profession Koolhaas is the more influential figure -- because he writes as provocatively as he designs and because his innovative style, unlike Gehry's metallic whorls, has not solidified into a one-of-a-kind signature. "We are flamboyant conceptually, but not formally," Koolhaas says. His firm is known for thoroughly researching and radically addressing a client's needs; this cerebral approach to design undergirds all of his work.

"His intellectual view is a lot more accessible to younger architects coming out," Gehry says. "I look at my work as personal. I'm not trying to create a school." Of Koolhaas's intellect, Gehry says: "He's capable of challenging everything. He's one of the great thinkers of our time." Adding immeasurably to Koolhaas's reputation as a writer is his proven prowess as a builder. His volleys are coming from within the fortress. "When he says that design is not necessary or it's a value not to have it -- if he said all of that and I thought he was an apologist for his own inadequacies, that would be a fascinating position for some mad charlatan," Gehry says. "But it's not about that, because he can do it."

Koolhaas projects the calm of opposing forces held in balance. Although he is mobbed like a rock star at lectures, he disdains the auteur theory of architecture. "It is an insult to me, as well as to the others, to make it all seem like just my work," he says. "If I pride myself on one thing, it is a talent to collaborate." Conspicuously rejecting individual primacy, he gave his Rotterdam firm a blandly anonymous name, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (with the typically droll twist that the acronym OMA means "grandmother" in his native Dutch). This garb of humility, however, barely disguises his estimate of his own abilities. Indeed, if his denunciation of the cult of personality has only enhanced his own mystique, that is the sort of contradiction that he relishes.

Physically, he is a model of functionalism. He is thin, as if to reduce resistance. His aquiline nose, extended ears and penetrating eyes ensure that nothing can escape him. His long legs allow him to outpace the pack. But basically, his body is just a delivery system for his mind. Like Le Corbusier, Koolhaas has the double-barreled power to write brilliant, provocative essays and to design surprising and satisfying spaces. Young architects revere him -- in large part because he has refused to ossify or settle down. "At a certain point, certain architects begin to capitalize on their success, to kind of do it again, rather than look to new territory," says Terence Riley, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. "I've never seen Rem attracted to that. Instead, there is an unbelievable willingness to keep the thing as a series of new questions. When kids go to a lecture by Rem, they come out with questions, not answers." Koolhaas energetically cultivates his renegade persona, not such an easy task as he attracts grander commissions and prizes. When he confided in March that he was about to be proclaimed the winner of architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, he relayed the news with a shrug that approached annoyance.

As behooves a superarchitect, Koolhaas travels as often as a supermodel. (He stays in hotels so often that he is excited to be involved in designing one himself: "It is the typology I have experienced most in my life.") His commissions are divided about equally between Europe and the United States. His life in Europe is also divided about equally between an airy apartment in North London, which he occupies mainly on weekends with his wife, the artist Madelon Vriesendorp, and a workweek centered on his Rotterdam office and often shared with his other female companion, Petra Blaisse, an Amsterdam-based designer of interiors and gardens. (He and Vriesendorp have a daughter, 23, and a son, 20.) Vriesendorp's quirky illustrations grace Koolhaas's first book, "Delirious New York," while Blaisse has long held chief responsibility for Koolhaas's curtains, landscaping and exhibition installations. For the Netherlands Dance Theater, constructed in The Hague in 1984, Blaisse did the interiors while Vriesendorp designed an exterior mural.

"Part of the whole thing in London is it's a place away from the office, so I'm protected from the daily invasion," Koolhaas says. "I can do nothing." In the London flat, Vriesendorp's ebullience is on view everywhere -- for example, in a fish motif that recurs on the shower curtain, on the tablecloth and in a puppet that is sailing through the kitchen-door transom -- everywhere, that is, except for Koolhaas's spare, white, book-lined, high-ceilinged studio.

When asked about his domestic equipoise between Vriesendorp and Blaisse, Koolhaas slips into the counterbalanced syntax that distinguishes Rem-speak: "It's all about facets and a kind of extension of territory, not in terms of claiming but in terms of exploration." Refusing to be tied down to one place or person is also a way of defying gravity. Just as he does in his architecture, Koolhaas welcomes tension into the structure of his life. Other people adjust. "I always feel that he is a plug and the whole world is full of sockets," says Vriesendorp, a striking-looking woman with silver hair, sharp blue eyes -- and a talent for blunt metaphors. "He has chosen different sockets in different worlds. It will always be sensitive, because there will always be competition between different sockets. Everything in his life that seems functional gets everyone around him in hysterics." Koolhaas has manufactured a form for his life that radically rethinks convention to accommodate his requirements. The stress lines are visible. And that sums up both his design for living and his design philosophy.

No comments: