Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, 54, has been a cult figure in architecture since the publication in 1978 of his first book, “Delirious New York,” an analysis of “the city of congestion” that identified density and chaos as Manhattan’s greatest virtues. Since that time his reputation has grown as a brilliant thinker whose projects encompass the whole scale of human experience, from the personal to the global, often compressed into the same building. In his 1992 Rotterdam Kunsthalle, a series of massive ramps and roads carve through the art gallery space, as if the city were spilling through the structure. His 1994 Congrexpo Conference Center in Lille, France, wraps gigantic pieces of urban infrastructure inside a thin, corrugated plastic shell.
In addition to working on a headquarters building for Universal Studios, the fate of which remains uncertain, Koolhaas recently landed two major commissions in the United States: a block-long student center at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology and a new Main Branch for the Public Library in Seattle. The library is a particular coup for Koolhaas because his fame was launched, in part, by his 1989 design for Paris’ Tres Grand Bibliotheque, the city’s central library. Though it is considered a groundbreaking design, Koolhaas nevertheless lost that competition and it has never been built. In Seattle, the architect is creating a new form of library for the information age, attempting to create a communal center for learning that hovers somewhere between the virtual and the real city.
Question: You have always seemed fascinated with the immense scale of the modern metropolis. What do you think will be the effects of globalization on architecture?
Answer: For the past year and a half I have been working on a documentation of this incredible shift away from public space to private space all over the world. I think it is a fairly inevitable phenomenon, so we have to investigate how architecture can capture and react to that [new condition]. For example, in [our recent work] with a fashion house and a certain entertainment company, we have discovered that corporations are actually incredibly unstable. They are in the process of continuous reinvention. You know the term “reengineering”? Reengineering is a slightly ominous term that is associated with getting rid of people. But it is also a kind of very poetic term that suggests a process of reinvention. So architecture becomes about reengineering identity.
Q: Do you see these changes as positive or negative? Or is your role to remain an objective observer?
A: Clearly it has positive and negative elements. It is negative because of the relentless increase of the commercial; positive perhaps in terms of extending the field of architecture into domains that it didn’t enter before. At the same time, the situation can change very quickly again. I think that’s the fascinating thing right now, that everything is incredibly turbulent and incredibly unstable. And I think that architecture has to compete with, or acknowledge, that phenomenon.
Q: How are you dealing with these themes in your current design for the Seattle Public Library?
A: The library is an old building type, but at the same time there are many threats [to its identity]. On the one hand, the book is under threat by the e-book and electronic ink. On the other hand, the book is more energetic and vital than it ever was. So we are working so that the library can have a similar identity in real and virtual space. And we use virtual space as an extension of the traditional role of libraries as communities, to make [new] communities in virtual space that can also reassemble in the real space of the library. You can see it as part of an enrichment of the city, or a kind of doubling of the city, with the two kinds ofspace always simultaneously present.
Q: It is not unusual today to hear architects complain about the increasing irrelevance of their profession, that their work serves a small cultural elite and has little effect on society at large. Do you think the profession of architecture--in the traditional sense--is dying out?
A: I think that architects can only deal with those issues that they are asked to deal with. On the one hand, the architect can do nothing without a demand; on the other, architecture currently cannot respond to most of the demands, and that is the real tragedy. So that is why I am so interested in research, not only in examining different phenomena, but also in examining what architecture could become.
Q: Are the traditional elements of architecture still relevant in this new world? Scale, material, proportion, space?
A: Of course, the material world is still relevant. It is there as a kind of big consolation, to make this phenomenon [of globalization] tolerable. It is all part of an ongoing experiment in how we are redefining ourselves.
Q: We once spoke about your first impressions of Los Angeles, the remarkable possibilities it offered because of its sprawl and acceptance of decay. How have those impressions changed in the context of this new global landscape?
A: What I think is very strong about L.A. is that it is so big and so diverse and so formless that it cannot be colonized by a single identity. There is always a counterpoint. It is very similar to London, which is a really vital urban condition, simply because it is definitely not beautiful, it is definitely not planned, it is definitely not coherent. And all these negatives together describe a condition that is open to a lot of different kinds of experimentation. So, for me, that is the virtue of Los Angeles.
Q: So is it capable of absorbing the kinds of phenomena we’re talking about more easily?
A: It has a less tortured relation to them. [In New York, for instance], all contradiction is being systematically eradicated. New York is no longer a city where things are being invented. But that may change too.
Q: So if these traditional distinctions are eroding, what is the job of an architect today?
A: For me, architecture will eventually be simply a profession about how to organize events. It sounds corny. But whether the product needs to be articulated in substance or not is becoming increasingly irrelevant. That is actually very exciting, because that makes working with buildings, which is like working in mud, more exciting than it used to be.
Q: Does there have to be a critical component to that, in the old avant-garde sense? Or is the architect’s role to remain neutral?
A: In architecture, there is this kind of symbolic posturing of resistance, where the outcome is always certain because nothing happens. We are sitting on a kind of beast that behaves rather wildly, and we want to stay in the saddle. The beast is globalization, or modernization, or corporatization. But maybe the best word is “globalization,” because it is the one that is the most inclusive and the least judgmental. Because on one end of globalization is this kind of [worldwide] integration, but on the other there are these incredible pockets of autonomy. So I think that wanting to stay in the saddle is better than saying I don’t want to participate.