The following interview is an excerpt from the Journal of International Affairs spring/summer 2012 issue, The Future of the City, and is reprinted here with the permission of the Journal.
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.
Here, Koolhaas discusses how the economic and cultural changes of the 21st century are transforming world cities as well as the practice of architecture.
Journal of International Affairs: 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 clients 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 everywhere or to push ourselves forward, to create an encounter between ourselves 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 entire office has been transformed by these encounters. If you take architecture seriously and assume your responsibilities, exchange can be a very rich thing. The downside is that profit-driven repetition is so common.
JIA: 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 Indian architecture, Thai architecture, Chinese architecture, African architecture, Dutch architecture and 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 its 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.
JIA: 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 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 adamantly 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 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.
JIA: In your first book, Delirious New York, you write that, “Manhattan is the 20th century’s Rosetta Stone.” What city is playing this role for the 21st century? Is it a city in the Middle East or in Asia?
Koolhaas: It is too early to tell. During its rise in the 20th century, Manhattan was incredibly preoccupied with its own uniqueness, and very few cities right now are focusing on that. I am not even sure that the 21st century will have an equally pertinent or key city. I don’t think anything is happening in Lagos or China that rivals the importance of Manhattan’s rise in the last century. I am now working in Doha, in Qatar, which is a city-state reinventing itself on every level — education, politics, culture, entertainment and sports — and somehow our office, OMA, is participating in this transformation in a particularly active way. For instance, we are working on the national library, on the transformation of the country through sports, on all kinds of things that give us an opportunity to help formulate what the future there can be.
The reinvention and the re-imagining of cities is taking place all over the world. The energy that inspires reinvention either comes from pressure — when negative forces lead to a breakthrough, which is what I noticed in Lagos — or cities get their energy from striving. Cities are machines for emancipation. When the striving for emancipation is at its most intense, when there is the clearest promise of success, change is at its most intense. That is why cities in the West are so morose. We can strive until we’re blue in the face, but we have nothing to change, at least not in the way that other parts of the world will change. In these places — particularly in the Middle East and Africa — real change is happening now.