‘Just about everyone responds the same when I mention your name: He’s a very unpleasant man, right?’
Halfway this remark Koolhaas leans back and moves away from the desktop.
He rocks back and forth.
And he nods.
Stuttering he says something like: ‘Yeah, that happens, yes. With people, yes.’
He seems embarrassed, even a little ashamed.
Outside assistants, clients, projects, calls about million dollar projects on different continents are waiting, but here, his head is so nude… those little ears that stick out to the sides… Can you describe a man of six feet tall as resembling a little injured bird?
Not much more comes out of him. The conversation is over.
Are there people who do not prepare well when they work with Rem Koolhaas?!
‘He needs the right information at the right moment. If someone says that something has not worked out yet, then that person has not been exerting enough pressure.’
A conversation with him, Rem, goes like this: you ask a question and the answer can go two ways. The first is quite adequate, very to the point, but makes you feel a little insecure, the notion starts to rise that you could have come up with that answer yourself, or you could have found it out yourself, if you hadn’t been lazy and had not, like you are doing now, occupied the precious time Koolhaas could have spent thinking important thoughts!
Or, it gets exciting, when he does not give you a straight answer, but instead starts to associate.
Words he often uses are: assumptions, intuitions, implications, articulate, concentration, situations. He succeeds in making you feel silly in no time, constantly interrupting his narrative with more questions that test your knowledge: ‘Do you know him?’, ‘Have you read that?’, ‘You know how it started?’ Or: ‘Do you speak Italian?’.
An American student has four words for me:
‘Fifth floor. Now. Rem.’
He grabs his Moleskine and chases after two fellow students.
Petermann and I hastily follow and storm through stairwells and elevators.
Rem is approaching.
We are in a concrete colossus in Rotterdam, home to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) It’s equipped efficiently. Loads of empty spaces, where teams can set up in a second when new assignments come in. Barren floors striped of everything but the windowsills. Sometimes a few islands of desks in oceans of space. Other floors are filled to the brim with producers, designers, models and computers.
He crosses his arms tightly against his body, bows his head. I see multiple gazes turning away. Everybody is busy not looking at him, at Rem. The possibility of failure suddenly takes hold. A student explains her research in the typical American of girls her age.
‘This is, like, sort of, the why of the toilet.’
Her fellow students are dead serious
She turns to Rem: ‘We’ve discussed the use of excrements in the book…’
He interrupts her: ‘You’re taking a lot of time explaining what this isn’t’
Now she stammers. She points to the PDF.
‘I’m not totally sure why this is here, but obviously, it…., it’s because….., it is architecture’
The silences are the worst. You sense Rem is unsatisfied, but he hasn’t expressed it yet. He browses through folders with PDF’s, but also listens.
Then he starts:
‘I get no notion about how people shit in regions like China and Africa’
And: ‘Can you show me a piece of text that you actually wrote yourself?’
Also about the work of others: ‘This is so unclear. Someone somewhere has to take responsibility.’
Red blotches appear in necks
An obliging boy with a trimmed beard shows something
Reaction: ‘Is this a sketch or your best try?’
Both answers seem wrong
‘I find this extremely horrible. And it makes absolutely no sense.’
And: ‘What I expect of you is not this manner of answering politely’
Suddenly: ‘Can you stop taking notes now. It’s making me so nervous!’
In fright I snap up my notebook, but perhaps he was only addressing the students.
If he truly is the bogeyman, than I should note that his critiques were just: the texts were superficial and simplistic.
And then he does something sweet. He steps toward the girl that took most of the hits and stresses: ‘You understand this is totally not personal, right?’
She appears not to be bothered at all.
Another confusing thing, I didn’t tell that Petermann was carrying his adorable toddler during this severe session.
How can you stay focused so long?, I sigh when I am in the car again with Petermann, toddler in the backseat. A focus like that is sometimes associated with compulsive behaviour, even autism.
Peterman loosely replies.
‘Well there is the swimming of course’, he says, ‘every day. And Rem likes to be in exactly the same hotel, preferably with the same driver taking him to and from the airport.’
How did you feel about the article in the Guardian?
‘Well, if you look at the reality of the moment, then almost every approach is at one moment diametrically wrong compared to other moments. That’s one of the weird things about architecture; it takes a long time. So yes, you could say, in times of crisis it’s not very appropriate to build something grand. But in the long term I think that this building finally realises the ambition to involve this part of the island with the city.
Moreover, this kind of criticism is also welcome. Every well-written piece, no matter how derisive, is an asset.’
Of course he evokes these criticisms. His texts are often put in the language of the manifests we know since the historical avant-garde movements: a language brimming with visions, sweeping statements, metaphors and concise recapitulations on the zeitgeist, with compulsory paradoxes.
‘Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian,’ he writes.
And: ‘There is no progress; like a crab on LSD, culture staggers endlessly sideways. Or: ‘Shopping: arguably the last remaining form of human activity.’
And in these writings he likes to state his ‘final lack of interest’ in architecture.
‘I have made so many assertions’, he tells me as we glide along the motorway, ‘there is always something you can throw at me later.’
Later they moved to London, but the English, she says, never understood Rem.
We Dutchmen don’t use words liker ‘rather’ or ‘quite’
The English told Rem: ‘You don’t say something is white or black, you say: ‘it’s rather a bit like’.
Another good view is given by Gerrit Oorthuys. He used to teach at a Dutch technical university in Delft and made numerous architecture trips with Koolhaas. To Prague and Russia to research the utopian plans of the constructivists and later to New York.
Oorthuys: ‘Rem would go to the countryside to buy old stuff in old shops. He was always on the lookout for the curious. He was enthralled by the fact that the homosexual salesman in an expensive fashion shop would daintily hold up the underwear before his crotch if you asked him about the size. Or that there was a little porn cinema in a well-known shopping street. Everything outside of the ordinary.’
But it feels symbolic of your work. Can I interpret your career also as a big tragedy? You were so interested in the collective, the community, but your fame was based on neoliberalism.
‘I wouldn’t view that as tragedy. I’ve been given the opportunity to struggle with new issues in a new way. One of the things that has surprised me the most is that my curiosity has been explained as complicity.: Koolhaas does a book on shopping, so he’s all for shopping, He does a book on the YES-regime (YES stands for yen, euro, dollar) so he’s into YES.
In a way it has enabled me to develop a critical structure and at the same time develop things that are based upon that old structure, like the library in Seattle, the concertbuilding in Porto. And on the other side there was the intelligence of some of the new stuff, like G-Star and Prada.’
‘Absolutely not. Rather, it’s doing the splits on a large scale. And nothing is more interesting than working in that position. You could say that my whole story is about the splits. From the beginning up to this point: first between Europe and America, then between Europe and China. And a split position always has these elements: you feed from both sides, you make a bridge, or a schizophrenia. Those are the three models of the splits that all happen sometime, but with which you can develop a dynamic position.
I really hope you have written this down correctly, because I have never formulated this so precisely, you’re the first one to hear it.’
So the red line in your work is not in your buildings, but in the attitude that gave birth to them? A split between two worlds?
‘Between worlds. Sometimes it’s a split with three legs. It’s about a kind of engagement to deal with the contradictions of these times. To use an old-fashioned word: engagement.
But being critical is the basis of it all, I think that in the last 25 years the critical from outside is no longer existent. Just like Žižek, Latour and all those other ones are declaring. You can’t look at it from the outside.’
Petermann: I think the challenge of our generation lies in how to be able to organise criticism.
‘Behind screens, on their smartphones, I often don’t know if people are working or enjoying themselves. I think they don’t know it either.’
Rem Koolhaas masks with mystifications. During lectures he sometimes stands just outside of the spotlights, it looks deliberate. His sense of metaphors and symbols makes his buildings legendary. (just slightly tilted, different proportions, oblique, round skyscrapers, etc.) He loves stuff that causes friction, that evokes criticism ánd arises from criticism. And along with that he is constantly looking for the curious, often I hear the story of when he was living in Indonesia and a boy peed in the same water in which women were doing their laundry. It’s never boring around him. He chooses humor, or at least his work originates in the same area where humor originates: there, where the normal flow of affairs does not coincide with how things could also feel, or could be promised. Like when two cultures collide.