Francesco Bonami: Do you still think that Manhattan is the center of the culture of congestion?
Rem Koolhaas: It is more the symbol of the culture of congestion than the actual center. What is interesting about Manhattan is that all notions of the center are apparent, but it nevertheless is the center of the need for a center. In terms of genuine congestion, that in Asia, Tokyo or Hong Kong, is much more evident. But the genius of Manhattan, more than any other city, lies in its conception in symbolic terms. The irony of Manhattan is that there are large parts of it that are not dense at all and that, perhaps, it is the last remaining center.
FB: How many of your ideas about architecture are connected with cyberspace communication?
RK: This is one of the most difficult subjects today. In architecture, people are always waiting for the medium that will kill architecture, and nevertheless, architecture is still around. What is highly likely is that virtual reality will merge with concrete reality. What we are witnessing today are basically virtual conditions partly reinforcing the presence of physical architecture. For example, the project we are doing in Lille, in the north of France, is not for that particular city. It is a project which addresses a virtual community which is formed by everyone who lives less than one hour away from it. Because of the tunnel and the super-fast trains, it addresses a theoretical community, and the emblems of that community are built in Lille, almost by accident. This is a typical situation where there are physical elements which are part of a virtual reality. Cyberspace is an enormous world, but for me, in the end, there is no real difference between the telephone and cybercommunication; the telephone already killed architecture. Architecture will remain a kind of survivor. Maybe the only role that architecture can play is to accommodate the still very strong desire on the part of people to group together at some points, and so, to express those moments of collectiveness.
FB: Is the city doomed to be a place of passage, losing its destiny as a residence?
RK: The city has always been a place of passage. It will be increasingly a territory where different collectives are assembled only to dismantle themselves and go their own way. The city will be used much less by a single culture, but successfully by a multiplicity of groups.
FB: Are your projects directed to destined communities rather than to specific social or class groups?
RK: The essence of cultural presence is that everyone belongs to many communities. There is an unbelievable multiplication of communities, which therefore creates a multiplication of different points where groups of people are able to define and constitute themselves. What is interesting is that there are some communities that already inhabit cyberspace, but others continue to share a physical destiny. What needs to be addressed is probably, rather than a generalized idealism, more fragmented and isolated identities.
In the early part of the century modernity was obsessed with generalization. At the last part of this century only the hyper specific still existed as a kind of viable thing. This means that for everything you include, you exclude huge amounts of other things. I found this very exciting because it makes it possible to admit to not loving everyone and everything.
FB: What function does the role of fantasy play in architecture?
RK: I used to be very skeptical about fantasy and about originality. In the early part of the ’80s, when the very idea of modernity in architecture was threatened, I thought it was very important to be very utilitarian and only invent when necessary, to have a kind of economy of invention. Now, somehow, the situation is so extreme that invention has become a very challenging and exciting possibility. I think it is once again possible to invent.
FB: Is any kind of coherence possible for the contemporary metropolis?
RK: The very reason for me to write a text on ‘bigness’ was to theorize a new kind of coherence or of wholeness for the contemporary condition. There has been an incredible cliché that frequency is inevitable, that there will never again be coherence, and that the very absence of a center also leads to a completely chaotic and incoherent condition. At the same time, in terms of capital, there is an incredible genesis of constitution and consolidation. My reason to write Bigness was to see whether economic trends could have an equivalent in architecture or in another concept regarding culture.
What I find really tragic is that the moment when there is a need for big concentration, architects are completely incapable of providing it. What I try to do with Bigness is to argue for a way, on the basis of concentration, a new regime, and of a new conception of concentration, you can still have coherence while doing justice to all the specificities, and maintaining the identity of the specific within a coherent whole.
FB: Can you describe what do you mean by an architectural nothingness?
RK: In general, nothingness is a very important category in architecture in the
sense that, paradoxically, the profession of architecture is a way of thinking about the world, finding expression only in adding something to that world. But if it really were thinking, it could also take away from that world, or extend its field of action toward erasing or eliminating. This is the essence of our project for the Bibliothèque de France where, by taking a chunk out of the building, it’s possible to make a bigger charge to the building than would ever happen by adding to it.
FB: Are your projects thought and assembled on an organic model rather than a mechanical one?
RK: For me there is no longer an inherent opposition between the mechanical and the organic. However, in terms of how we conceive of the searchings, it is definitely more an apparatus and/or a machine than an organic idea. Even though, in terms of the aesthetic, sometimes they are more mechanical and sometimes they are more lyrical. For instance, the library in Jussieu (Jussieu campus, Paris) could be interpreted on both sides.
FB: How will European cities face those probable transformations brought by the next millennium, saving their “ridiculously beautiful” identity?
RK: I think this is going to be a major problem. The more cities like Paris and Venice identify themselves as authentic, the more they are threatened by their own definition.
One scenario is that this process will become recognized and the identities of those places will become less single-minded. This would presumably imply turning Venice into a living city, in other words, the things that are now the most attractive will simply be destroyed.
The interesting opposition between Paris and London is that Paris is very defined, having a clear identity, and London is very undefined, but in the end will be the stronger of the two cities as a result. It doesn’t have to deal with this incredible task of removing an authenticity. This means that cities should be made less clear, less accessible, and should work at diminishing their identity rather than increasing it.
FB: What do you mean when you talk about systematic idealization?
RK: It is related more to something we were doing ten years ago. At that time, we were one of the few offices who could say something positive about anything that was built during the ’50s, the ’60s and the ’70s. The dislike for that kind of architecture was so enormous that people were literally blind toward it. We have always insisted on a very disciplined attitude and were seriously looking into any context, completely regardless of our aesthetic, moral, or any other conviction, in order to really be cynical, almost scientific. We felt an obligation to approach the beginning of every project rather than immediately switch on a kind of judgmental apparatus.
FB: What are your relations with other architects?
RK: At this moment it’s interesting in Europe, and maybe very soon also in America, that this isolation and this hyper-specificity of different architect identities has diminished. For the first time, there are important communications between European architects like ourselves or Jean Nouvel, Kazuo Shinohara or Christian de Portzamparc. We are trying to avoid this kind of obligation to become a caricature as it happened in the ’80s. I am quite happy and even collaborate in a very open way to diminish the definition of our identities.
FB: How do you conceive of realism in architecture?
RK: You mean the South European definition of realism? That’s an interesting issue. Last year at a conference in Barcelona it was very clear there was an incredible division between the North and the South; southern Europe being very sure about how cities should be built and what the correct architecture for cities is, and the rest being less sure and more barbaric in comparison.
What is actually happening is that there are two simultaneous tendencies. One is a situation called Globalization where everything becomes the same, and the other is a kind of reaction where differences are cultivated.
There was a very natural hostility toward our position on the part of the South, and I have a kind of modesty in thinking that what I have to offer is relevant there. Perhaps this kind of division should continue to exist and is actually healthy. Maybe realism is appropriate for those areas of the world where it is very clear what existence means. For other areas where it is less clear, I think that our kind of architecture is more interesting.
FB: Why is form not a primary carrier of meaning for you?
RK: We live in a culture where there are several layers that are not material but nevertheless give meaning. There are so many other meanings that can be associated with form in an almost random rate. It makes itself evident in the fall of the Berlin wall, where with the erasure of a single wall and a little barbed wire, suddenly an incredible, huge, worldwide significance is created. Here is another process of meaning which is much more important than the kind of strict architectural meaning of form.
FB: What kind of city is Berlin today, without the wall?
RK: The Germans have been separated for a long time, and now that they are no longer separated it seems as if they are regressing back in time and starting again in the ’50s. What they are doing is resurrecting a completely outmoded notion of the central city along with the idea of the center. It is a ridiculous caricature of a capital, which at the moment nobody needs and nobody believes in anymore. I am convinced it will be a museum piece or maybe not even that. What the Germans are doing is unconscious, and even their approach to architecture is similar to what communists were doing in the ’70s. It’s very bizarre.
FB: What is your idea of context?
RK: I believe that context is an incredibly overestimated word and alibi for a lot of operations. There is only one kind of architectural context between two things that are of equivalent size or value. It’s very important for us to liberate ourselves from the notion of having respect for context, as a kind of reflex, an automatism. We have to be more skeptical about context.
In Europe there was a strange phenomenon in the ’80s when American architecture came with a kind of argument made to show how context functioned. Like Richard Meier constructing huge buildings in Europe over contextual rhetoric. We should have been much more aggressive in terms of saying that not everything in Europe is historical, not everything is worth keeping. We should put ourselves to arguing the possibilities of a new beginning even in Europe.
FB: How do you deal with the short-comings of an existing urban structure?
RK: It always depends on the power you have. Usually the power of architecture is very limited and so therefore each project is a strategic statement in terms of where your efforts have to be concentrated. There is no generalization today, and that is the most important lesson.
FB: Do you feel Vito Acconci is working in a direction similar to yours?
RK: What I always found beautiful in Acconci’s work is his incredible courage to be messy and slightly obscene.
Very few people, even artists, dare to do that, and architects have no life from the neck down. In my new book I also try to show that architecture is also influenced by obscenity, which is also an important domain.
FB: Is architecture as much an ‘affair’ of the elite as contemporary art is?
RK: It’s very exciting if there is a coincidence between an elite and architecture, because it means that you can be very ambitious and very precise.
FB: Can you speak about your idea of the building as an envelope?
RK: The word envelope is very interesting because it suggests an autonomy of the skin compared to the rest of the project: the envelope is a very contemporary issue in architecture. There are even certain commissions which are only about the envelope. It’s an issue of content but also a typical mutation in architecture, where the skin of a project can be conceived and pursued as an independent notion.
FB: How do you define Globalization? Is a global architecture possible?
RK: It is very clear now that on one hand there is an homogenization; things are becoming more similar, and within those similarities more and new differences are acquired. If we look at modern architecture in Taiwan, Korea or Singapore, in spite of their similarity at first sight, they exhibit, from place to place, completely different contents and a completely different system of meanings.
FB: What is the function of the “exterior”?
RK: It depends mostly on the scale. It is important that private buildings retain a certain discretion, but it is also very important that public buildings reveal a direction.
FB: What do you think about architec-
ture’s suggestion of a persistent desire for collectivity?
RK: There was an idea about the end of architecture with the existence of cyberspace, but we still live in cities and we still get together. I was inspired by this explosion of the need to physically be together. Maybe there is a direct connection: the more cyberspace there is, the more people will want to be in collective spaces.
FB: Does architecture function today to create symbolic spaces?
RK: The main thing and the main problem for architects is that they have no sense of legitimacy anymore, so maybe through a symbolic space they might gain it back.
FB: You were once questioned about the danger of the exteriorization of the banal.
RK: In every sense it is important to experiment with things, even if they are dangerous, without knowing where they will end. That is contrary to the very strange aberration of the ’80s where architects became so important that the idea of a famous architect failing or doing something wrong was shocking.
FB: Do you believe that Europe can be fed by knowledge, experience and correctness and become innocent again?
RK: There were some promising moments in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but now the contamination of politics, and the crisis that has followed makes things very difficult for architects.
FB: Is the Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media Technology your idea of innocence; a visionary center with a kind of subliminal architecture, to be memorized rather than experienced?
RK: In spite of our skepticism of the marriage of art and technology, I believe that a less cynical approach can be taken, therefore your interpretation is quite correct.
FB: Is the fireplace in Karlsruhe, which can be seen from the outside through the glass wall, a sign of longing or a sign of hope?
RK: We were playing with all the expectations that through the virtual all our old sensations would disappear forever, but we also were convinced that those experiences created by the fireplace could have been realized as a very modern incentive towards reality. The fireplace was a very important gesture, you are the first person to notice that there is a fireplace.
FB: Is architecture today about formlessness?
RK: Architecture has always been a sequence of ambitions which were formulated even if they could never be achieved. Architecture will always have form but nevertheless it is an interesting idea to investigate formlessness because the form will, at least, become different.
FB: Are you still fascinated with New York? Is it still the center of populistic modernity?
RK: There are probably other cities now that are more emblematic, like Singapore. But nevertheless New York has a strange persistence.
FB: Is urbanism today the reinvention of a psychological space?
RK: There are, in a large scale infrastructure, interventions taking place all over the world. Each of them has the incredible potential to redefine the geometry but also the psychology of different regions. However, the conservatism that is incorporated in architecture, especially in the avantgarde positions — as ‘bigness’ is a typical fear of the avantgarde — is very suffocating and is preventing incredible experimentation.
FB: Why do you think that the city is all we have?
RK: Basically, if you travel in Asia or in China everything has been urbanized. Forty years ago, urban areas constituted 20% of the world. Now they constitute 60%.
FB: Is there a city existing in the world today that you see as an example, a vision for the future.
RK: Miami has incredible potential — if you look at it, it is really the middle of North and South America. However, we have learned that cities used to emerge or die very slowly, so it is possible that something can happen in the life of a city which totally transforms it in five years. What is going to happen, for instance, if cars are forbidden in LA? What’s interesting today is that anything can happen and you can’t make long term predictions.
FB: Do you see any Italian cities that could be taken as an example for possible transformation?
RK: Rome has an incredible potential to transform itself.
FB: Is architecture still possible in Europe?
RK: Always, but conceptually it is difficult. Still, our buildings are more or less hypocritical, cowardly or second rate arguments in terms of what exists.
FB: Are specific identities going to
survive in our society or will we see an increasing homogenization?
RK: Specificity will survive; on the other hand we will have new associations based on a kind of specific identity which will maintain its own legitimacy.
from Flash Art n°182,1995
This interview was published on the occasion of the exhibition “Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Public Architecture,” on view at the MoMA through January 31, 1995. It was the third in the Museum’s “thresholds” series devoted to thematic explorations of contemporary issues in architecture and design. Organized by Terence Riley, chief curator, department of architecture and design, the exhibition then traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, where it was on view through August 13, 1995.
Francesco Bonami is an art critic and curator based in New York. Having worked as an artist, he moved to New York in the early ’90s, where he started his collaboration as Flash Art US Editor. Bonami is Manilow Senior Curator at MoCA Chicago; artistic director of Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Pitti Immagine Discovery, Florence, and Villa Manin, Passariano di Codroipo, Italy.
Rem Koolhaas was born in 1944 in Rotterdam where he lives and works. He founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1975 together with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp.