Der Spiegel's newly built HQ in HafenCity, built by Danish office Henning Larsen, where the interview took place.
Rem Koolhaas gives interviews like a star quarterback: flippantly and often, breathless even in print. These interviews must be an unremarkable part the Dutch architect’s daily life, necessitated by the ever-churning production machine of his multi-office firm, and the endless stream of books, exhibitions, and talks. Koolaas’ newest book, a tome written with Hans Ulrich Obrist on the Metabolists, was the pretext to an unusually candid interview published yesterday in Der Spiegel.
Ørestad via Linear City.
Hamburg's waterfront redevelopment, HafenCity.
There’s a bit of backstory to his conversation with several members of Spiegel’s editorial staff. The newspaper just moved into a brand-new Henning Larsen-built building in HafenCity, a redeveloped section of Hamburg’s industrial waterfront. HafenCity has its facsimiles in just about every other post-industrial port city: Vastra Hammen in Malmo, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Copenhagen's Ørestad, or even New York’s East River Waterfront, where Mayor Bloomberg centered his “Vision 2020” plan to reclaim New York’s waterfronts. The trend towards redevelopment has been embraced wholeheartedly by cities, developers, and architects alike, and these neighborhoods stand as tributes to the unfettered process of “luxury residential/storefront commercial” redevelopment in dense urban areas. Koolhaas has his reservations. He walks into the Henning Larsen building and asks the reporter why’s he’s whispering in his own atrium, and if he’s comfortable in his new space. “I get the feeling what you need from me,” says Koolhaas, “isn’t so much an interview as an hour of therapy.”
There’s no one better than Koolhaas to criticize (and embrace) such generic city development. He is at his best when talking about cities and the lifestyles associated with them. The quote you’ll see popping up on your facebook or tumblr dashboard (and in the title of this post) from the Spiegel interview is a rhetorical bate-and-switch: “These days, we’re building assembly-line cities and assembly-line buildings, standardizing buildings and cities.” It’s the kind of line that makes people stop reading the article, satisfied by the conversation-ending statement.
If you did keep reading, though, you’d find that Koolhaas believes the generic city is also the freest. Liberated from the codes and rules of the old city center, it’s a free zone, a safe haven for the migrant workers who make up (in Amsterdam’s case) 40% of the city’s population. Generic plug-in waterfronts are the product of a simple equation between developers and city governments, architecture is “icing on the cake.” Architecture, in this scenario, is a broken, outdated profession, validated at random by an “unstable ideological environment” that changes according to the whims of an ever-changing bureaucracy.
A few years ago, AMO wrote an essay postulating about a new demographic they called the “Kinetic Elite.” Members were more at home on a plane than in their own beds, lulled to sleep by the humming of jet engines, unable to prepare their own meals and comforted by the placelessness of the airport. You couldn’t help but see the reflection of Koolhaas and his partners in the essay, flying on a daily basis and only at home in airport lounges. In the same way, you can see the reflection of OMA’s recent work in the subtext of his arguments about unstable ideological systems. Behind rhetorical devices about history and authoritarianism used to defend CCTV, for example, is a yearning for a government that treats architecture as more than neoliberal “icing.” The Metabolists were famous for collaborating with the Japanese government, solving major infrastructural problems and speculating radically on the future of urbanism at the same time. Talking about a stalled OMA project in HafenCity, Koolhaas speculates on why it was dropped, saying “the city official in charge of the project has already been replaced twice. I don't think anyone there knows us anymore.”