“It’s no simple matter to schedule an interview with Rem Koolhaas. He might be in Los Angeles planning the new Universal Studios Headquarters; in China, Rome, or Lagos, Nigeria, conducting research with his students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design; in Basel, fine-tuning Ian Schrager’s upcoming New York hotel with Herzog & de Meuron; in Seattle collaborating with Microsoft on the new public library; in New York, San Francisco, or Milan meeting with Prada; in Las Vegas with the Guggenheim; or, more likely than not, on an airplane.
So we went to Jennifer Sigler — currently the editor of the upstart Dutch architectural journal, Hunch, and previously the editor of Koolhaas’ seminal 1,344 page monograph, S, M, L, XL — and we asked her to track down Rem in Rotterdam, where his office, OMA — and its new counterpart, AMO — is based. Jen caught up with Koolhaas at his tiny 11th floor flat overlooking the Maas River. Typical of Rem, the conversation ranged from American fitness, to Nigerian traffic patterns, to the traditional irritants of shopping.” Jennifer Sigler / Photography by Wolfgang Tillmans
JEN: Let’s talk about something besides architecture.
REM: Do you know that in the past week I’ve been swimming in Lagos, in Milan, in Switzerland, in Rotterdam, in London, in L.A., and in Las Vegas?
JEN: Incredible. In one week?
REM: Yes. That means seven cultures, seven typologies of bodies, seven typologies of movement, seven typologies of exhibitions, of introversion, of hygiene, seven typologies of smell. Taste is almost as important. The water feels like a very thin soup, like gruel, and with some training you can taste who has been swimming there. In Holland they rotate swimmers in a very ideological, politically-correct way — old people, retarded people, Turkish people. I have a sense that I can tell the whole pre-history of the water.
JEN: Why do you swim?
REM: It’s about the relationship between your ideas and your body. It both evacuates and charges. You can influence your mind by being serious about your body – by knowing it very well.
JEN: You also run. When did you start running?
REM: ’74. In America. I was the typical European. That means either you’re perfect, or not. But you’re not perfectible. In Europe, the authentic is foREMost and anything related to sports is suspect. So I was thirty, and in America, and I discovered for the first time the virtues and pleasures of synthetic materials instead of cotton. Sports, for me, are about artificiality.
JEN: I heard that during the construction of the Dance Theater in The Hague you were trying to find a fabric the texture of American women’s underwear. Nobody could imagine what you wanted.
REM: They didn’t know! Anyway, it became incredibly exciting to overcome the European taboo. And running became interesting.
JEN: Were you trying to get in shape or did you just enjoy it?
REM: I enjoyed the intellectual side of it. I enjoyed it as an alternative to letting nature take its course.
JEN: That must have been the start of the running craze. Jim Fixx.
REM: Jim Fixx — who died of a heart attack. And of course it was difficult because it was outside and I had never been outside.
JEN: In New York, you ran in Central Park?
REM: Yes. Around the reservoir, and Jackie Kennedy was there, and sometimes you were trailing Jackie and you would pass her and smell her …
JEN: Jackie was also running?
REM: Yes. There are so many people I know as a kind of after-image of their smell. Seriously. An afterburn. You might not know who they are, but you know them incredibly well because you know how they move, and how they smell.
JEN: That must be why you make people nervous. You take in everything. People feel that.
REM: I can’t ever be oblivious. I wrote a sentence today: “The tyranny of the oblivious …” My whole life has been about envying the tyranny of the oblivious. And feeling the vulnerability of the … recorder.
JEN: Of the what?
REM: Of those who record.
JEN: You call yourself a recorder.
REM: The thing is that I have a really intense, almost compulsive need to record. But it doesn’t end there, because what I record is somehow transformed into a creative thing. There is a continuity. Recording is the beginning of a conceptual production. I am somehow collapsing the two — recording and producing — into a single event.
JEN: In that sense you’re still a journalist. You study a situation and then report it. The Harvard Project on the City — including your studies of shopping and Lagos, Nigeria — seems to be a form of journalism.
REM: Well, shopping lead to my writing “Junkspace,” which goes beyond journalism.
JEN: Why did you want to study shopping?
REM: I did the family shopping. In Indonesia, when I was eight, in a chauffeur-driven car. That was my first experience with shopping. Markets. That is why the Western experience of shopping is a disappointment. All goods are put in their places — in compartments; there is no surprise. Shopping is based on certainties of what you get where. It’s so sedate.
JEN: What made the Asian markets so alive?
REM: In Asian and African shopping, every transaction is also social, really charged. It’s happening in the free air. That kind of condition is the urban realm. Here, what used to be free — namely, the city — has become private. You have to pay for it. There, it’s still free. That’s why we did the shopping book – to document, analyze, and interpret what was happening.
JEN: Wasn’t there a time in the western world that shopping had that energy?
REM: In the shopping book we have reconstructed the transformation of shopping with these genealogical trees that document it almost step by step. The whole Harvard project is about modernization — “Annals of Modernization” could be its subtitle. When air conditioning, escalators, and advertising appeared, shopping expanded its scale, but also limited its spontaneity. And it became much more predictable, almost scientific. What had once been the most surprising became the most manipulated. When shopping was still connected to the street it was also an intensification and articulation of the street. Now it has become utterly independent — contained, controlled, surveyed. You could say the shopping project is also about nostalgia for a pre-modern condition.
JEN: But are any of those qualities things that you can …
JEN: Yeah – would you have the ambition or interest to try to do that?
REM: I don’t think you can actually do the same thing again. It’s about the numbers of vendors, the scale of the operation. For instance, what you can get in Lagos is infinitely varied, but what you get here is a deliberate narrowing — an undoing of variety to clarify brands and identities. That is the ambiguity of this moment: on the one hand, the possibilities are becoming limitless, but at the same time, the choices are becoming more coherent — they form a single pattern, address a single group, and are becoming more exclusive.
JEN: Tell me more about what you’re doing in Lagos.
REM: This time I was there with Edgar Cleyne, a photographer and an experienced Africa “recorder” who has been instrumental in the whole project. We borrowed the helicopter of President Obasanjo and flew over the city for two days.
JEN: What did you see?
REM: We made an unbelievable video about a traffic jam in Lagos, which is really scary because the sheer pressure makes everything liquefy. There are these jams that are mostly buses — rivers of yellow trying to go through arteries that are too narrow. Huge trucks — almost everything is public transport and trucks — really colliding and squeezing. And in between them, there are these people — almost like cement. According to the myth, they are dismantling the vehicles that are in the jam. Not only are you stuck in the jam — you’re also being disassembled. Maybe that’s the only solution to the jam.
So it’s not just a traffic jam. It’s actually a traffic jam turning into a car market, turning into spare parts turning into a smoldering ruin. All in consecutive phases. It’s really about metabolism and flows and scale. And unbelievable organization.
JEN: Organization? It sounds like a mess.
REM: Every residual space is put to use. There are these highway cloverleaves that lead to nowhere, but they are somehow cooperatively made into a car market. These cloverleaves are patterns of solid color, because all the car parts are organized according to color. That’s how they exhibit them.
JEN: That must have been beautiful from a helicopter.
REM: The city has these unbelievable — you can only call it abstract — compositions. Red turning into white turning into black. You’ve never seen geometry at that scale in the world.
JEN: But why Lagos? What made you go there in the first place?
REM: Intuition. And I really think I was right. Nigeria’s been independent for thirty years, so it’s really an African story. With 100 million people, it’s one of the most populated countries, and potentially the wealthiest. It has a complex history of colonization. For instance, Nigerian slaves exported by the Portuguese went back to Nigeria after they were liberated in Brazil and they imported Portuguese architecture to Lagos. It’s like an infinite ricochet. And when they came back to Africa they became the authorities who controlled the people that never left. So that’s an internal colonial situation. I like this connection to Africa because it’s so unexpected, particularly for me.
JEN: Because you’re so Dutch?
REM: Because I’m so “cynical.” But seriously, aside from discovering Africa, I rediscovered the incredible pleasure of spending a week being free to just look and record. Nothing else. It was sheer reporting. It reinforced my instinct that it would be interesting to start making films again. In Africa, events have a tendency to disappear if you freeze them — if you try to capture them in photographs. There were many moments when we thought we had captured something truly amazing, but when we looked at the photos there was actually nothing.
JEN: You mean it would seem like nothing to someone who didn’t understand it?
REM: It’s partly a matter of having to explain what you actually saw, but to a large extent there was a complete absence of the critical event that you wanted to record. Nigeria is simply an elusive country. That’s probably because we are used to focusing in a certain way, but that is not necessarily the relevant way of looking there. The idea that the “real event” is a moment of crisis — the moment when something is most clear — is of course a very Western way of looking at things. Maybe the “real event” in Nigeria is a process … a slow-motion form of survival.
JEN: Do the videos express this non-moment better than photography?
REM: The video Edgar made of the Miss Nigeria contest is working really well. The contestants were the only people without charisma in the whole of Nigeria. Even the babies have charisma. The video of the train journey that literally slices through the city is very different; it has incredible moments, but in between there is just vagueness.
JEN: Isn’t that slowness what you want to capture?
JEN: Do you know what the conclusion will be?
REM: Of course, there is no conclusion. Or maybe the conclusion is that there are other forms of intensity … that we need a kind of unlearning to deal with it.
JEN: What has to be unlearned?
REM: The idea that you look for climactic events. Instead it’s about the patience of spending an entire day waiting, and then doing something. In Nigeria, there is at the same time an incredible slowness and an incredible speed. So people who first seem capable of not acting at all are then suddenly capable of incredible action.
JEN: What kind of action?
REM: At almost any point in Lagos, there is, somewhere in the periphery of your vision, someone who seems to just slumber — in the street, near a pool, at the station — but who at any moment can turn into a money changer who, in five seconds, organizes the transfer of a huge physical amount of Nigerian money. That’s only one example.
JEN: What will you do with the videos you made there?
REM: We’ll experiment with presenting them at the Arc en Rve show in Bordeaux. So I’m genuinely, carefully, considering some return to film. Basically as some extension of “recording.”
JEN: And I heard you were working with your old friend Rene Daalder again.
REM: We’re not really doing anything. We see each other. He’s in Holland a lot. Eventually we’ll do something. It’s more of the same thing … critical, intellectual. We’re still the same people.
JEN: How old were you when you first met Rene?
REM: We met when we were sixteen. It was a typical adolescent relationship. Super-intense. Fears.
JEN: What’s a typical adolescent relationship for Dutch boys?
REM: I’m not necessarily very Dutch, but … ideas, exploring the world. What he would be, what I would be – a huge, shared, speculative explosion. We tried to exacerbate our identities, in a way. We were both outcasts, and we were both writing. He dropped out, went to film school. We were defining a certain culture for ourselves. It was the ’60s. So there were all these adventures. The article you published in Hunch with Bart Lootsma is interesting — he talks about how in ’68 everyone was either a Provo, a hippie, or part of a revolution. But also there was a strong and more inspiring version of hardcore, modern, abstract, “alienated” modernity. An option beyond “hating” society and wanting to destroy it. More like re-engineering – wanting it to become even more artificial. That’s how we felt. And that explains the ties, the suits. It’s the same ’68 impulse, but a different side of it.
JEN: Can you explain what he’s been doing since then?
REM: Rene Daalder has been a Hollywood visionary since 1973. He’s been on the forefront of digital innovation and computer simulation. In many ways, he’s doing the things that we were speculating about. Recently, he’s discovered architecture and he’s been discovered by architects like Greg Lynn.
JEN: I want to talk about your work since S,M,L,XL because the book is where my personal involvement with your work stopped. Could you say that S,M,L,XL marks the end of a sort of adolescence in your career?
REM: I don’t know of what, but it was definitely the end of something. You know the book was published at a moment of serious crisis in our office, so everything that happened since is part of the construction of a new office, the construction of a new way of looking at architecture that culminated in the founding of AMO. AMO doesn’t stand for anything specific, but it could be Architecture Media Organization. OMA and AMO are like Siamese twins that were recently separated. We divide the entire field of architecture into two parts: one is actual building, mud, the huge effort of realizing a project; the other is virtual — everything related to concepts and “pure” architectural thinking. The separation enables us to liberate architectural thinking from architectural practice. That inevitably leads to a further questioning of the need for architecture, but now our manner of questioning has changed: first we did it through buildings; now we can do it through intellectual activities parallel to building.
JEN: You’re continuing what you’ve always done, but now you’re making it explicit.
REM: Another thing that has happened since S,M,L,XL is the Harvard Project on the City — a series of research projects that I’m doing with students at Harvard. For me, each topic that we’ve undertaken — The Pearl River Delta, Shopping, The Roman City, and now Lagos — started with an intuition. Somehow, that intuition seems to keep coinciding with preoccupations and events that occur in our office.
JEN: It’s your sixth sense again.
REM: It must be. For instance, our research into China was an exploration of the whole notion of acceleration. We identified a speed of architectural production there that we thought never would happen in the West. But suddenly it is actually happening with our project in Porto: the concert hall is materializing at Chinese speed. And the concept for that concert hall actually came directly from a design for a house that we decided not to go through with. We decided to “transform” it under the impact of Nigerian brutality and directness.
JEN: So now you’re running a Nigerian office in Rotterdam! Like when you were working on the housing in Fukuoka and you decided that the office would be more efficient if you started holding “Japanese” meetings.
REM: In a way it’s the same. The other coincidence was that the experience with Prada involved us with shopping at precisely the moment we were completing the Harvard Guide to Shopping. Through the research, we were “ready” for it.
JEN: Where does your practice begin and end? With AMO, you can also be an architect of concepts, right?
REM: I’d say that my profession ends where architectural thinking ends — architectural thinking in terms of thinking about programs and organizational structure. These abstractions play a role in many other disciplines, and those disciplines are now defining their “architectures” as well. There’s a kind of multiplication of architectural activities. I don’t feel that I’m becoming less of an architect, but more.
JEN: And with Prada, what are the boundaries? What is the extent of your involvement?
REM: They asked us to make a proposal for how they could manage their expansion without losing their reputation for adventure and experimentation. So it dealt with an explosion of scale – how they could REMain interesting or surprising in spite of their much greater presence. We addressed a series of strategic and organizational issues. Based on those factors, we defined what a store could be, and how the experience of a store could be extended. Then they asked us to do three stores. Complementary to those stores we’re involved in defining their identity in virtual space. We’re also working on technological advances that can make the experience of being in a store better – we’re trying to reinvent the dressing room, the cash register; we’re trying to REMove some of the traditional irritants of shopping. One of the irritants of shopping is that you always have to know exactly when you’re in a store and when you’re not, so we tried to blur the limits.
JEN: Where will the three stores be?
REM: In New York — at the Guggenheim in Soho — in Los Angeles, and in San Francisco.
JEN: What’s the relation of the store to the Guggenheim Museum itself?
REM: In general you could say that museums have gravitated toward the commercial domain. So we want to make a Prada store in Soho that is still a store, but that can contract all its commercial elements into a single point and liberate the rest of the space for public events. It’s startling how saturated with commercial space Soho is now. We thought that one unique thing Prada could offer is a degree of generosity toward the public — that there doesn’t always have to be heavy-handed commercial presence. At the same time, the Guggenheim is devising a design collection that doubles as a store. You’ll be able to click on anything and have it delivered, even if it’s a car.
JEN: So the Guggenheim has plugged into your idea of “MoMA Inc.”
REM: MoMA Inc. itself has plugged into “MoMA Inc.” They appointed a director of branding three weeks after the competition and are now discussing a system of stand-alone stores and a dotcom in collaboration with the Tate. It was an inevitable development. Actually, “MoMA Inc.” wasn’t an “idea,” it was an observation. For a long time the Guggenheim has been more eager and more honest than MoMA about making those commercial tendencies explicit – it has embraced them wholeheartedly and aggressively.
JEN: What do you think about this alliance between art and fashion?
REM: That is part of the Harvard shopping book. Without anyone being too alert to it, the nature of the city has changed radically from the public to the private. The vast majority of urban substance that is built now is private. The major shift is that the city used to be free, and now you have to pay, whether it’s a museum or a store.
JEN: So has it simply become accepted for museums to project their identity in such a commercial way? Is art being reduced to fashion, or is fashion getting more serious?
REM: I don’t think it’s simply about art and fashion. That’s not the essential part. There is such a complete, across-the-board commodification today that expectations have shifted from a didactic experience to an entertainment. The shift from the public to the private is a shift to a completely new kind of market-driven demand that is made of the city. So the city has to perform in a completely different way, it has to “deliver” — whether museums or stores. They are becoming a continuous spectrum. So I don’t think it implies the convergence of art and fashion only.
JEN: And what is Prada’s stand? Will these shops be more of these “don’t touch” clothing museums like Comme des Garçons?
REM: Definitely not. They really emphasize the condition of stores selling matter and texture — in an almost peasant-like way. There’s almost a horror of overpretentiousness.
JEN: Well, I wouldn’t be caught dead in those shoes with the red stripe on the heel. Even if I like the shoe!
REM: Part of our proposal is to eliminate the red stripe.
JEN: So – can you fill in the blank? This isn’t shopping as entertainment, but shopping as what?
REM: It’s shopping as shopping. It’s about displaying goods and organizing the interaction between goods and people. And making it all as efficient as possible.
JEN: Now I want to talk about architecture as architecture. I asked you before about S,M,L,XL marking a rupture in your career and you answered by talking about how the structure of your office has changed. But what about your architectural work? How would you define the relationship of your recent work with the themes dealt with in S,M,L,XL? Are there certain themes that you are still trying to work out, or realize?
REM: There is, in current culture, a relentless demand for newness. But there are also certain themes in S,M,L,XL that were never realized but that would still be interesting to realize. There’s also almost a degree of embarrassment because some of the themes have been partly realized by others. After S,M,L,XL I felt an obligation to do something new – it was very clearly imposed by that external expectation. At the same time, I wanted to resist that commercial pressure and — where interesting or relevant or plausible — maintain an interest in “old” things.
Jack Lang is again the Minister of Culture in France. I’m seeing him again to talk about actually building our Jussieu Library, which was from 1993. That would be very interesting because the concept in its pure form was about scale – to contain within a building the dimension of the urban experience. That’s never really been done well. So there are some themes that continue. But in a formal sense there is also an entirely new chapter with buildings like the concert hall in Porto or the headquarters for Universal Studios, the library in Seattle, or IIT in Chicago, that have nothing to do with that.
JEN: If these buildings are a new chapter, what would you call it?
REM: I’m not ready to give that chapter a name. S,M,L,XL forced us to be very explicit about what we were doing – we felt an obligation to be our own commentators. Increasingly, I want to resist that. We want the relative freedom to hide our motives or develop many things simultaneously, and to avoid a coherence which is pREMaturely imposed. I see a number of themes that we are pursuing at the same time that are partly close and partly very different. I think the issue of speed is one theme; our work is more about different processes, different domains, than about formal qualities.
JEN: Do you think S,M,L,XL was too explicit? Did you give too much away?
REM: S,M,L,XL asserted the equivalence of things whether they were built or not. But it also gave many people access to our ideas. So I feel part of a very crowded field. Now we need new secrets.
JEN: I don’t think I can interview you at this moment in time without asking how you feel about winning the Pritzker Prize.
REM: In no sequence of importance, it’s exciting, it’s a lot of money, it seems that for the first time in recent memory they gave it to another kind of architect, and they acknowledged that other fields, like writing, are also important. They adopted a certain kind of openness toward the definition of architecture in the 21st century, and a modification of the identity of the architect. That will be good for other people.
It’s interesting that it came at the moment that we questioned the identity of OMA, or at least doubled it with that of AMO. The identity of our “signature” is also blurred by a number of collaborations with other offices, like the New York hotel we’re doing with Herzog & de Meuron.
JEN: There are some people who have very specific goals that they are trying to reach in their lives and others who seem to wander into their accomplishments. Which do you think you are? Is there a certain contribution that you aspire to make?
REM: It’s very simple and it has nothing to do with identifiable goals. It is to keep thinking about what architecture can be, in whatever form. That is an answer, isn’t it? I think that S,M,L,XL has one beautiful ambiguity: it used the past to build a future and is very adamant about giving notice that this is not the end. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. That is in itself evidence of a kind of discomfort with achievement measured in terms of identifiable entities, and an announcement that continuity of thinking in whatever form, around whatever subject, is the real ambition.
JEN: Maybe I’m not being as direct as I should be. Maybe I should just ask: What is your goal for the rest of your career?
REM: Then I’d still give the same answer. To keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could be.
JEN: Could be or could do?
REM: Could be. Could do. Could do is more interesting. Be or do. That’s in itself beautiful.
JEN: Be or do? Is that a choice?
REM: It’s an oscillation