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Profile of Rem Koolhaas

Article by Mark Leonard

September 15, 2006

As a student in the 1970s at London’s Architectural Association, Rem Koolhaas had to produce a “Summer Study” to get his diploma. Koolhaas wrote about the Berlin Wall, then the most potent built symbol in the world. Recalling that project 20 years later he wrote: “Were not division, enclosure (i.e. imprisonment), and exclusion – which defined the wall’s performance and explained its efficiency – the essential stratagems of any architecture? In comparison, the 1960s dream of architecture’s liberating potential – in which I had been marinating for years as a student – seemed feeble rhetorical play.”

His unorthodox choice of project reflects an impatience with the rules of a profession that he entered only late in life. The son of a famous novelist, Koolhaas went to school in Indonesia, returning to Holland as a teenager. He initially eschewed university, finding work as a journalist and film scriptwriter, and was in his 30s by the time he moved to London to study in 1968. After further studies in New York (including a stint of literary theory under Michel Foucault), Koolhaas shot to global prominence as an architect without building a single building, on the back of a best-selling book about the architecture of New York. And his books, which continue to make as many waves as his buildings, document the peripatetic existence he has enjoyed since then – a house in London, offices in Rotterdam, New York and China, teaching at Harvard – with graphs showing the number of nights spent in hotel rooms.

He recently returned to Berlin for the opening of his award-winning Dutch Embassy and a retrospective of his work in one of the shrines of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie. Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Koolhaas warms to the theme of political power: “There is no city that I know better than Berlin and no place I care more for. It brings out the relationship between architecture and power. Berlin is the capital of guilt. There is a horrible industry of memory here.”

His words could be taken as a veiled attack on Daniel Liebeskind, whose Jewish Museum in Berlin set him as the unofficial architect of memory – with commissions for the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and a new World Trade Center following swiftly on. Liebeskind is one of a handful of “superstar” architects operating at the same level as Koolhaas – designing buildings that make a conceptual statement that is as strong and as important as its aesthetic form. While Frank Gehry’s buildings – like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – marvel visitors with the boldness of their design, the beauty of their geometrical shapes and the luminescence of their materials, it is the ideas underlying the physical form that make Liebeskind and Koolhaas buildings a lived experience. And if Liebeskind has made a name for himself painstakingly recording the trauma of the 20th century, Koolhaas’s ambition is to become the chief architect of political power of the 21st. Three recent projects – the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, the CCTV tower in Beijing, and the EU headquarters in Brussels – act as case studies for his granulated understanding of power, and show how he can interpret its subtleties with the same clinical precision that Liebeskind brings to pain.

I join him in the lobby of his latest commission – the Dutch embassy in Berlin – where builders add the finishing touches before the official opening on the next day. I have known Koolhaas for five years (and worked with him on the Brussels project) and though he has been showered with prestigious commissions and awards (including the Royal Institute of British Architecture’s prestigious Gold Medal last month) he has managed to retain an edgy relationship with an establishment that fetes and fears him in equal measure. The embassy is a truncated glass cube – elegant and perfectly formed – but trying not to get in the way of the city around it. Chunks cut out of the building’s interior and the neighbouring apartments he designed simultaneously to preserve the view of the city’s iconic Communist-era television tower, the river Spree and the former Nazi headquarters. This perfectly encapsulates the Dutch position in Europe and the rest of the world. Koolhaas explains: “The Netherlands is a country with a super-placid history with no incidents and the embassy is in the city that carries drama in its genes. This building is all about soaking up the environment.”

The foreign ministry had asked for an expression of “Dutch openness” – and Koolhaas’s building delivers it with a very modern twist. His latest book Content gently mocks this central Dutch self-perception by drawing a parallel between the two greatest exports of Dutch culture: Vermeer and the reality TV series Big Brother: “Through an alchemy of transparency and daylight, Dutch painters like Vermeer turned, in the 17th century, the everyday into a Low Countries sublime; a world with nothing to hide – inside and outside separated by mere sheets of glass – its only intolerance for what is hidden. Three centuries later, the Dutch still trade on intimacy – perhaps their last resource after agriculture has become ornamental, the seas over-fished, the waters tamed, industry disappeared into sweat-shops… when they unleash Holland’s contribution to the late 1990s – Big Brother – ruthlessly engineering exposure to industrial- strength exhibitionism.”

Embassies are meant to be sites of national projection – but the sort of power the Dutch are comfortable wielding is understated and liberal. Koolhaas has tried to compensate for the lack of ambition of his compatriots by giving the building a few coups de theatre that would not look out of place on the set of a James Bond film. Halfway up the ramp on the west side, concealed doors open with the flick of a button to let you into the antechamber of the ambassador’s office. Go through the next door and you walk into a suspended VIP room that protrudes into the void like a plank on a pirate’s ship. Continue up the ramp a little further, and at an unmarked part of the wall there is what looks like a light switch which, when pressed, causes the aluminium walls to swing back to reveal a set of small glass offices. This is the political department protected from the public space by double-thickness metal doors. The building oozes cool and modernity. When I point to the influence of 007, Koolhaas smiles and says: “They need some glamour – but please don’t write that – this is our first serious building.”

As the Dutch prepare for their reception to open the embassy in Berlin, the bulldozers in Beijing’s Central District are clearing the way for Koolhaas’s next pro- ject – the 10 ha site that will be the new headquarters for the Chinese State Television network (CCTV). Koolhaas’s 553,000 sq m headquarters will be among the first of 300 towers to be constructed in Beijing’s new central business district – and ranks with the space project and the Olympic stadium as a flag-carrier for a new assertive, outward- looking modernised China. The total construction cost is estimated at E600m.

This project has none of the ironic, semi-detachment of the Dutch Embassy. The design will become an iconic rebuke to the ultimate physical representation of American capitalism and hyper-power – the skyscraper. Koolhaas and his team have developed a building that forms a continuous loop echoing Chinese calligraphic shapes. Koolhaas explains that he felt that the skyscraper is being hollowed by a meaningless competition to build higher and higher: “There is an aggressive thing about the skyscraper and its deadness and its redundancy and how it makes everything look the same and how it is fundamentally unnecessary because it can be distributed in other forms.”

Koolhaas’s moral rejection of the US – and his public boycott of the competition to design a replacement for the World Trade Center – is remarkable given that he made his reputation with a gushing paeon to the founders of that style. His book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan gloried in the boundless ambition of those who built the city. But Koolhaas has come full circle. In a special issue of Wired magazine that he edited last summer he is devastating about the competition: “New York will be marked by a massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful. Instead of the confident beginning of the next chapter, it captures the stumped fundamentalism of the superpower. Call it closure.”

Again the building seeks to embody the values and ambitions of the country he is working for. The scale is as monumental as China itself. The technical requirements stretch engineering to its limits. And the construction must be completed in a mere five years – the time it would take to get planning permission in central London. I ask him if he thinks it is absurdly ambitious, and he throws it right back at me: “Why do you use the word absurd? I think it just shows a different reality there. It is a different way of doing things.”

Koolhaas’s defensiveness reflects his realisation that this project is a big gamble. He has attached himself to the Chinese political project and doesn’t want anybody else to be able to retreat into the comfortable space of the critic. When I show him a piece in the magazine Prospect criticising him for taking on the construction of the mouth-piece of a totalitarian state, he refuses to answer until I have pinned my colours to the mast: “You have visited China recently, do you think I should have built it?”

Instead of giving him a direct answer, I play for time by saying it is too early to know. The Chinese government is embarking on a breathtakingly ambitious political project and has already taken more people out of poverty than any government in history. It is a juggernaut that is unstoppable and is changing the shape of the modern world. However, like all juggernauts, its progress is marked by a brutality and lack of humanity that is shocking. People must get on board or out of the way, and we tend to focus on the people who are crushed on the road rather than the final destination.

He agrees but is impatient. For him the Chinese government offers a new hope: “In the CCTV building there is a utopian nostalgia that is the foundation of architecture and in my work in the past there have been very few triggers for that. There has been a sort of distance. What attracts me about China is there is still a state. There is something that can take initiative of a scale and of a nature that almost no other body that we know of today could ever afford or even contemplate.” He claims that this allows the architect to focus on the public interest – rather than retreating into aesthetics as a cover for the sacrifice of their principles to a capitalist regime that puts the profit motive above all else: “Everywhere else – and particularly in architecture – money is everything now. So that is blatantly not a good situation as it leads to compromises of quality or interconnections or integration. An overall dismantlement of ties that had a richness because there was a willingness to support them either on an individual level or on the level of the state. Money is a less fundamental tenet of their ideology.”

Koolhaas has been pilloried for this project. Ian Buruma in the Guardian puts it bluntly: “It is hard to imagine a cool European architect in the 1970s building a television station for General Pinochet without losing a great deal of street cred.” But in Content, there is an aggressive rebuttal. Amid the usual mix of humorous imagery, verbal and visual puns, the section on China has an almost earnest quality: “Participation in China’s modern- isation clearly does not have a guaranteed outcome. The future China is the most compelling conundrum; its outcome affects all of us, a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental… On our own we can at most have good intentions, but we cannot represent the public good without the larger entity such as the State… To make matters worse, the more radical, innovative, and brotherly our sentiments, the more we architects need a strong sponsor.”

It is this lack of a strong sponsor that makes his third political project, defining an imperial capital for the European Union, the most ambitious yet. Instead of a single sponsor, Koolhaas must deal with a fragmented European bureaucracy, the governments of 25 countries, the central government of Brussels, and the 19 communes that make it up. If CCTV is the epitome of a modernist political project – projecting the power and ideology of the most centralised and powerful government on the planet – Koolhaas’s European project is the defining experiment in postmodern political architecture – capturing the essence of a network of interdependent states without a single political centre.

This project began in 2001 with an invitation from Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, prime minister of Belgium, to join a group of intellectuals charged with discussing the needs and functions of a European capital and how to express them. The trigger was the decision by the European Council to formalise Brussels’ de facto role as capital of Europe and to hold all European Council meetings there (ending the European roadshow which saw each meeting take place in a different capital). Prodi, who has an academic’s fondness for abstract discussions and conceptual conundrums, indicated that if the results were daring, so much the better.

Koolhaas took the invitation very seriously. Shortly after he was recruited, I got a telephone call asking if I would like to get involved. Armed with a pile of textbooks and pamphlets on Europe and European identity, I travelled to his offices in Rotterdam to lead a seminar on the institutional structure of the European Union, the process of “co-decision”, the balance of power between the Commission and the member states, and the workings of the convention on the Future of Europe. Over the months that followed we held more brainstorms, visited Brussels to map the buildings and institutions and gradually Koolhaas and his colleagues started to form an alternative language to describe the intricacies of the EU.

His group spent months trying to define the problem: “One of the difficulties that Europe currently has is that it is in a perpetual process of redefining itself. Somehow it seems an unstable identity and it is notoriously difficult to capture unstable identities in physical form. That is why it is really critical to first help to try to represent the whole idea of Europe, not perhaps in architecture, but more in terms of a narrative to its own population and maybe at that point you can begin to define both how certain institutions should function and also how it should look.”

Koolhaas argues that the representation of the EU is “flat and without eloquence” – articulating neither the unity nor diversity of Europe in convincing ways. On the one hand there is a “mosaic Europe” emerging, which breaks the EU down into ever smaller blocks of regions, languages and local identities. On the other a “plain blue Europe” that flattens all differences, represented by an image of groups of elderly ministers standing for photos; politicians getting in and out of cars; or long lists of names in all the official languages. He contrasts the EU’s uncertainty and inability to project itself with the self-confidence of the US administration – and its systematic attempts to portray Europe as a weak limp- wristed continent.

At the same time, the buildings of the EU say nothing of its nature. Brussels has accumulated an ever-growing stock of real estate, but this demand was implemented without the institutions ever trying to choose or design any of the buildings: “Brussels is today a European capital by default, a curious aesthetic landscape, sometimes generic and sometimes of such a scale that one can only talk of megalomania. In this condition, it is impossible to articulate any idea of Europe.”

Koolhaas explains the dilemma: “Brussels has suffered from a triple trauma. First, Brussels’ architecture was built at a time when people hated development, so Brussels was hated by its inhabitants. Second, the rotating presidency of the EU showed that even on an institutional level Brussels was being spurned for other cities. Third, Brussels became a term of abuse for national politicians who sought to blame it for unpopular policies.”

Brussels is in many ways a microcosm of Europe – representing and encapsulating European history. Every single invasion and political project – from the Roman Empire, through Napoleon to the Third Reich has come through and absorbed Brussels. And today its population, architecture and ideology represents their remains: a haphazard overlayering of architectural styles; a third of its population is foreign (with the rootless, well-paid elite of Eurocrats living side-by-side with the socially excluded immigrants of European empires past – Congolese and Rwandans – who have come home to roost); and its role as the capital of a country with no real sense of national identity (and a constant jockeying for positions between the Walloons and Flemings who inhabit it).

However, Koolhaas now detects a re-emergence of hope. At public meetings he has attended with local groups who have blocked many of the developments in the past, there is an end to the trauma and a real desire to engage. The official confirmation of Brussels’ role as capital of Europe should mean that the institutions will need to engage with its development in a more concerted way. And most importantly, he argues, the trauma of Iraq means that national politicians see the European Union as the key to their survival in an era of US hegemony.

At a popular level he sees the large majorities that opposed the war in all European countries as the emergence of a European political identity. And at the level of governments, he is heartened by the growing attempts to abandon the divisions of the past and focus on building a common European foreign policy: “The Americans tried to humiliate Europeans by showing that their power is different, but people are all of a sudden aware of another definition of power. The current confusion of Europe looks not only like confusion but a subtler and more advanced form of deliberation. Its creative ambiguity has become more attractive and this is also visible to the rest of the world. The real significance of Iraq is the waning of the attractiveness of the American Model.”

Koolhaas’s project had two concrete recommendations. First an attempt to construct an iconography that shows Europe as an opportunity for citizens and countries to expand themselves rather than as a threat. One idea was to represent the EU as a bar-code made up of all the national flags rather than with the blue stars. When the report came out with this symbol, it prompted a tabloid ruckus with The Sun leading a chorus of Eurosceptic opprobrium.

Second was a recommendation that instead of moving to a new Euro- Quarter, the EU should take responsibility for its own buildings and plan over time to create a quarter that makes sense (he argues that as buildings become old and obsolescent they can be replaced so that in 30 years a new quarter could be created). He calls for a new conceptual framework with a physical path that links all the existing institutions: “This should create an area that does justice not only to bureaucratic needs but also to aesthetic quality, openness, political representation and improves the links with the rest of the city.” Inspired by the demonstrations against globalisation and the war in Iraq, he even argues for creating an official space to house demonstrations outside the buildings.

Many meetings followed on from these proposals and many promises have been made about follow-up and implementation. A competition was launched by Verhofstadt to develop the European district (but the shenanigans of the Brussels local government system saw the contract being awarded to an all-Belgian shortlist). Prodi has invited Koolhaas back several times to talk the ideas through. I accompanied him to a meeting in the summer where Prodi was visibly moved by the presentation and declared his intention of organising a repeat performance in front of the whole Commission. But so far it has been impossible to build the momentum for the ideas to become a reality.

As Bert Muynck, a Belgian architectural commentator who has followed the process closely, comments: “A few months down the road and the results could not be more bewildering: no results, top bureaucrats who consider missing signatures a lack of vision, compromises, and last, but not least, the sale of land on ‘Ground Euro’ to the chief contractor.” Koolhaas’s ideas have become victims of the complexity of the political system he is trying to simplify and communicate. We will see over the months ahead whether Europe’s political leaders will have the courage to give Koolhaas the means to realise his vision for a post-national iconography – a Europe united in its diversity.

Koolhaas’s political projects reveal an uncanny ability to grasp the essence of political power in its different stages of development – from the modest wit of the Dutch Embassy through the vaulting ambitions of the Chinese model to the emerging greatness of a Europe that is re-writing the rules for power and sovereignty. But his designs do more than soak up the demands of their clients. They chart out a pathway from the modern politics of the 20th century to the postmodern of the 21st. Though Koolhaas himself would never make such a pompous claim.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre

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