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Rem Koolhaas: ‘Beauty can give you a false sense of existential security’

Author: Timur Zolotoev

The founder of OMA sits down with the veteran Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner for an extensive interview about the legacy of Soviet modernism, the city of the future, and post-human architecture.

Last week, Rem Koolhaas attended the Moscow Urban Forum, which brought leading urbanists, architects, officials, and activists to the Russian capital. Entitled “Megacity of the Future: New Space for Living,” the forum focused on the results of large-scale urban transformations, trends, and challenges that are currently facing the world’s major cities.

The renowned architect recently presented a renovation plan for Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery – OMA’s third project in Russia that follows in the wake of such initiatives as the research for the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

As part of the forum’s program, Pozner interviewed Koolhaas about his life, career, and vision of the future. Strelka Mag offers an abridged transcript of the interview.



Vladimir Pozner: You first came to Moscow in 1967, and you were 22. And you were a journalist?

Rem Koolhaas: I was a journalist and I was a friend of somebody who invited me to come because he wanted to do an exhibition about Russian architecture.

VP: I have read that this visit to Moscow played a very important role in your becoming involved in architecture, is that right?

RK: That's true.

VP: How so?

RK: Basically when I came to Russia I understood for the first time that architecture was not about making shapes, or making buildings even, but that it was a profession that kind of could define the content of society and it could intervene in shaping society. So it’s a kind of very, in a way, ambitious interpretation of architecture, but when I saw the work of Russian architects of the 20s and 30s, I understood that that was their essence, that architecture was a way of scriptwriting, but with buildings rather than words.

VP: That was half a century ago.

RK: Yeah.

VP: Have you come back to Moscow over the years?

RK: Yes.

VP: I know this is a naive and also a difficult question but could you sum up in your view how has Moscow changed over that period? How would you characterize that change?

RK: Well when I first came, Russia was – if you came from a sweet country like the Netherlands – a really harsh country. But I also liked the aesthetics of harshness where we tried to compose everything. In Moscow, totally radically different entities existed next to each other and some things were really beautiful, some things were extremely ugly, and I always thought that the quality of Moscow was to accept that coexistence almost as if it was nature. And I think that quality is still there, except that maybe in the last five years, Moscow is going in the direction of something that is better composed and maybe more coherent.

VP: I arrived in Moscow in 1952 when I was 18 years old, over the years it changed very slowly. It did change, but it wasn’t anything radical. Then suddenly something happened. When a city changes that quickly, when there’s that kind of urban change, is that good? Is that bad? Is that a promise? Is that a potential? Is it something to worry about?

RK: I’ve become increasingly bad in terms of those kinds of judgments. If you asked me what’s good and what’s bad maybe 20 years ago I would know, but now I’m much more ambiguous and I see that basically in everything there are good and bad things at the same time. So I would say yes, it is very good what happened in the last 20 years because you can see that there’s a degree of public consciousness and the public is taken care of and therefore the kind of brutality of the city is reduced, but perhaps some of the wildness and strangeness has also been lost.

VP: You were not an architect initially. Did you have an architectural education?

RK: Yes. When I was here [in Moscow] I suddenly decided to become an architect and then I started to study in London when I was 25 and then I finished when I was 30.



VP: You came up with a word called “bigness.” What do you mean when you say that?

RK: At some point I thought that the world was on its way to fragmentation and fragmentation was becoming also in terms of deconstruction a very fashionable philosophical position. And in a way I was feeling that of course fragmentation is not a particularly nice perspective and I was thinking how architecture could contribute to reintegration and to reasserting the whole idea, the completing. And my experience in New York in certain cases gave me a sense that certain things are so complex and require the collaboration of so many people and so many different professions and combinations of science and art that the sheer effort of that integration is an antidote or another model against fragmentation. So really, bigness was for me an ideal where through sheer complexity and sheer ambition we could begin to collaborate again. And I was just talking about it with an interviewer – what we see now is very interesting because what we see is bigness again but not in terms of more and more complexity but very very large, very simple simplistic entities such as data centers, storage places, distribution centers that are all getting bigger and bigger, many of them too big to actually be built in cities; we typically build them outside cities, so we have a different kind of bigness but without the complexity and therefore without idealism.

VP: So what can we do about that, can we do anything?

RK: I think that architecture used to be a profession maybe until the 70s of the last century where if you would ask “can we do anything about it,” the average architect would say “yes, we can do this, we can do that.” But I think since then, something has been taken away from us and what has been taken away from us I think is the way in which – whether it is in China, Russia, Europe, or America – we have invested in the market economy with the final voice about things and therefore this whole connection to knowing recipes or knowing what to do has been eliminated, I would say, from the repertoire of an architect.

VP: That’s a pretty sad thing to say, isn’t it?

RK: It’s maybe not that sad… because I think the history of architecture is also the history of a series of incredibly irresponsible ambitions.

VP: To what extent do you think the surroundings we live in affect us as we are born and grow up? Do you think that – and this is not just an academic question – but do you think that if a person is born in a friendly, attractive, original, urban setting and grows up in that, that person will be different from the one who grows up in these identical buildings? What do you think?

RK: Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask because I was born in a bombed city that was completely ruined and spent the first seven years of my life there, and I would say I have mixed feelings about it. Yes, I think that you would benefit from harmony and beauty but I think it could also give you a sort of false sense of existential security and that therefore in every life there needs to be maybe a cocktail of anxiety, disbelief, insecurity, and creativity. I think that those areas are actually quite close together and I think that to be too certain of your environment and to have an environment that is only affirming a secure situation is probably not a big blessing in the end.

And I think that this is actually an important issue because a couple of years ago I organized a Biennale in Venice and I suddenly realized that – I’m a typical generation of May '68 – so I typically endorse the values of the French Revolution, liberty, freedom, fraternity, etc., and without really a drastic shift we were in a new situation where comfort, security, and sustainability became the main drivers of society. And there again I have mixed feelings whether that is actually so crucial.



VP: I’ve read most of the interviews you've given and also some of the things you’ve written and one thing that comes up pretty often is “city of the future.” What is that? Do we know what it’s like? Is Moscow going to be a city of the future?

RK: I think that first of all I don’t know what the city of the future is and I’ve also allowed myself to be really incompetent about the future and I try to be a specialist about the present – and I think that’s already quite complex. In that sense I have a really journalistic drive to understand the present and I think a typical journalist doesn’t speculate about the future. But of course I have some instincts.

VP: You’ve called Moscow the only megacity of Europe. First of all, what's a megacity? And what makes it the only megacity in Europe, with cities like London and Paris?

RK: I think the unique thing about Moscow is that it is a single spot in an unbelievably vast territory. And although it has relationships with this vast territory, it’s not quite explicit. So it’s relatively isolated as a city and there’s very few big cities next to it. But of course if you look at the whole region between Holland, Belgium, Germany, that is all urban… but it has less identity and it is less historically defined and therefore it’s a more open-ended condition. I think that Moscow is the only megacity in Europe because it’s the only isolated city of that scale.



VP: Nikita Khrushchev – the man who denounced Stalin – was also the man who changed urban architecture in this country. Maybe that wasn’t his goal, but he did. On November 30, 1954, at the All Union Congress of Builders, Architects and Workers of the Building Industry, so-called socialist architecture was put to bed. Khrushchev criticized the Stalinist architecture with what he called unneeded curly q's and what have you, and began putting up these five story box-like buildings for housing obviously, and now the plan is to knock a lot of them down. And first of all how do you feel about that?

RK: Basically of course I’m incredibly interested in the relationship between politics and architecture and particularly Khrushchev I think he is really a key figure in that whole situation because I’m deeply admiring of what he did – the amount of housing he created in a very short time, the simplicity of that housing, and actually the quality of that housing, and open spaces next to them is for me a really important paradigm particularly because it was an articulation of accommodation of intelligence, beauty, simplicity, and equality, and I think that culmination of activities, of values, is very difficult to discover today. But I also see that a lot of the substance is that you can no longer maintain it and that something needs to happen about it. I’ve been for that reason involved in the idea of preservation which is not typical for architects, but simply to see whether through preservation you could achieve other aims or maintain qualities that you cannot recreate today. And as part of the Strelka effort that we launched, I worked with one of the students to declare one of the Khrushchev apartments where the poet [Dmitri] Prigov worked, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it was the most normal architecture with the least architectural quality, the most banal view and we wanted to get recognition for those values.

VP: Do you think the idea of simply knocking them down and then putting in a denser kind of architecture is a positive thing?

RK: I think that to some extent it is inevitable, I think it could also be done in the right way. I’m not saying it cannot be done, and I’m also not saying it’s not an intelligent effort, but I do hope that the city doesn’t erase any evidence of that past. Because for instance I think the city of Berlin made a mistake after the unification to erase everything that was part of the kind of communist aesthetic and I think that has been really a historical mistake so Moscow shouldn't make the same mistake.

VP: I’d like to quote you, you said the following: “You can say so many things about the Soviet system that were bad, but in terms of public architecture it was generous.” Generous meaning...?

RK: For instance one of the the strongest experiences I had as a human being was to swim in the pool that was created in the basement of the monument to the Third International and it had beautiful dressing rooms, you were diving under the glass plate and you would enter kind of a world of water – a totally magical and unique world. So there were moments of that generosity, particularly when the public at large had to be recognized. I think the Moscow metro is another form of that generosity that I did admire, and do admire still.

VP: Traveling around Europe I’ve been struck by the similarities between the fascist architecture of Mussolini, the Nazi architecture of Hitler’s Germany – especially of public sculptures in public places – and the communist architecture of the Stalinist period. I don’t know why they have these similarities but it seems to me that they do. Or do you think i’m mistaken?

RK: It’s obviously a very tricky subject because I don’t want to go on record to admire that kind of architecture but at the same time I think it’s also important to recognize that each of those systems, perhaps the Nazis the least, created important architecture. If you look really, really carefully I think Nazi architecture is on the whole more banal and more gloomy, I would say. But in both Mussolini’s architecture and Stalin's architecture there was at least incredible imagination.



VP: How do you feel about preservation?

RK: Maybe 10 years ago, I was teaching at Harvard, and preservation was something I never thought about. And preservation to any architect seemed to be the enemy or the other side of architecture. But when I really started studying it carefully, it became a very fascinating domain and one of the reasons is, for instance the first law of preservation was made by the French after the French Revolution and it’s very logical because if you have a revolution you have to decide what to keep. And the second preservation law was maybe the Victorian Industrial Revolution for the same reason. And basically the first preservation law – the interval between the present and what they wanted to preserve was maybe 1,000 years. The second law – it became 200 years, then it became 100 years and now already this interval is obviously getting shorter and shorter. There are even kinds of things that we build ourselves that are preserved the moment that we finish them and therefore I think that preservation is not a thing where you have to look behind you and say “let’s keep that.” I think in the future you have to decide even before you build something whether it has the quality and the solidity and the depth to be maintained over time, while other kinds of buildings are more provisional. So I think that will be an important kind of separation. That’s my point about the city of the future.

VP: But how do you go about deciding? I understand your point that you should start by thinking before you build something about whether or not it’s going to be something that should be there, but a lot of stuff is already there.

RK: Maybe I’m a bit extreme or a bit polemical, but I think that there are certain cases where within 20 years you have to decide in or out. And that domain for me is a really exciting intellectual domain.

VP: What’s the argument? It’s ugly, let’s get rid of it?

RK: Typically that’s the argument. I think there’s a whole value system that is driven and that kind of suggests that only important things and only exceptional things and only historical things should be kept. And that I think has a very negative effect because for me it is important to preserve things so that anyone who lives in 100 years understands how we lived.

VP: You once said “open season” had been declared on post-war social architecture. And now the idea is to try to get rid of all that?

RK: I think it’s maybe kind of part of a collective shame. I think in those periods there was a kind of political layer and a political domain that was visibly taking care and thinking about how the population should live and that was also dedicated to not letting inequality become the dominant factor in urban life. And I think that for that reason, now that we are in a situation not only here but basically everywhere in the world, that cities are to some extent kind of monuments to inequality then obviously this whole other way of thinking about what a city can do for a population is almost like an embarrassment.

VP: Look at Paris – Baron Haussmann knocked down god knows how many buildings in Paris, which before that I don’t think was ever really considered to be an incredibly beautiful city. But it’s after that that Paris acquired this world aura of the most beautiful city. So here’s this man that knocks down half the city and then rebuilds it?

RK: What are you suggesting? Could one do the same thing?

VP: It seems that it’s not all bad, but as far as preservation is concerned, one might say he committed a crime.

RK: I think one of the crucial words maybe to introduce is “modernity” and maybe even more important, “modernization.” What does modernization mean? Modernization means there is an ideology that suggests that things can be improved and suggests that basically you can live longer, your streets can be planned, there are sewers that take your waste, you get running water. So I think that Haussmann is one of the manifestations of let’s say an initial or almost a package of improvements combined with a sense of aesthetics and in a way a very tangible intervention that almost everybody would have beneficial conditions. And I think that equivalent is very hard to imagine today.



VP: There’s two cities you’ve written about a lot – Lagos and Palermo. You say Lagos contradicts almost every defining feature of the modern city, yet it’s a city that works. What is a city that works? Or give me an example of a city that doesn’t work.

RK: Basically Lagos was supposed to be the most dysfunctional, dangerous city in the world and I went to see it at the end of a really ruthless dictatorship when basically the whole public sector had disappeared. So it was a free for all and it was complete and utter chaos. It had once been a city with infrastructure and what a modern city should look like – all of that was completely gone, yet 16 million people used it as a tool to not improve their lives, but to survive. And somehow this completely broken machine extricated and created pockets of maybe sanity or pockets of energy or pockets of intelligence or pockets of imagination to survive. For instance, and I think what I really discovered is that in cities like Moscow maybe in one day we have to take 200 decisions at the most – where to go, where to take a taxi. But in a city like Lagos you had to probably take 20,000 decisions and each could have a really radical affect on your life. So it simply enabled me to really stretch the understanding very much and not to be judgmental and say “OK, it’s bad it isn’t working, it stinks,” but to see to what extent under those conditions a city still offers.

VP: You called Palermo an incubator of the global problematic, an ideal blueprint for the Mediterranean and Europe as a whole. Because it...?

RK: I should say, we have an office with eight partners, this is a statement by one of our partners who actually is from Palermo but I of course completely endorse it and also believe in it. Palermo is not comparable to Lagos but it is to some extent an almost unique collection of very problematic European conditions and also very persistent European hypocrites that come together there and… it’s very lucky to have a very creative politician as a mayor who is able to read many of those features in a positive rather than a negative way.



VP: You have an upcoming exhibition in the Guggenheim which is called “Countryside: Future of the World.” How is the countryside the future of the world?

RK: Well I became aware of a paradox that basically ever since this statistic of 50/50 [living in cities and countryside] we have overwhelmingly looked at cities and celebrated cities and argued about the unique effect and abilities of cities to lift the economy, to lift the population. This morning [at the forum] was one big autocracy of the city and what it is. Then if you listen to it, what is really very noticeable is that the countryside is completely absent from the discussion, so I simply made a very simple observation – yes, maybe 50 percent live in cities, but the other 50 percent still live not in cities but in the countryside. And so I became fascinated by the simple question “what is happening in the countryside?” And once I started looking at what is happening in the countryside I realized that cities are relatively stable.

It’s globalization that has put its tentacles everywhere and I simply find it interesting to forget about the city for a while, not as an architect, and to focus on the changes in the countryside. And what we discovered you could say is that in order to maintain the spectacle of the city, in order to maintain the feeling of the city, in order to maintain in certain cases the energy of the city, the countryside is becoming more and more structured, organized. And that sounds difficult to understand but if you look at agriculture in America or agriculture in the Netherlands, it is now based on digital data that it receives from satellites that are transferred to a laptop; that information of the laptop is transferred to an automated tractor. So for many, many reasons the countryside is transformed into a completely unrecognizable condition.

VP: That’s why you call it the frontline of transformation?

RK: Yes.

VP: Then tell me this – do you think this presents new opportunities for architects for instance?

RK: Of course but since we were so uniquely obsessed with the city I think we need to really make a serious effort to connect to those developments.



VP: I was intrigued when I found out you’re involved in working on the New Tretyakov Gallery. I happen to believe it’s one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen. If I could, I would blow it up, but I can’t. What attracts you? What are you doing there?

RK: I mentioned in the beginning that for me the exciting thing about Russian interpretation of architecture was to see if there’s a kind of form of scriptwriting by other means. And if you look at architecture like that and basically every square meter is a potential invitation to change something or write. Let’s say a square meter of architecture is like a white page of a novel and this building happens to be an enormous building and so therefore it is without making the effort or the expense of creating a new building out of nowhere – it simply has an unbelievable potential for accommodating more activity, richer combinations of activity and also I think a degree of experimentation with how you can interact with art, how you can combine art, how you can experiment with art that you know if you would start from scratch you could never achieve at the same scale so that is a practical reason to save it. And then if you actually know the history of architecture, the building is inspired by the Duccale Palace in Venice. You would never guess it but there it is. So I think apart from simply being perhaps ugly or not deeply appealing, it has a history that in itself compensates for that lack of beauty maybe.

VP: Is function more important than beauty?

RK: No, but I don’t want to either complain or involve you in too much architectural jargon but there is a fundamental consideration or interpretation of architecture today for which the word “starchitect” – which is a word I hate at every level – has been used, which sort of suggests that architects are invited to display the full force of their imagination to create an exceptional work which I find as a method deeply repulsive. And so for me preservation is also an interesting field to create a kind of camouflage.



VP: Let me give you a quote from yourself. “I have an instinct that what the 21st century has to offer is this post-human architecture. This is a new sublime. A landscape totally dictated by function, data, and engineering. The scale alters, the human becomes almost irrelevant. We are in a moment of transition now in a half human/half machine architecture.”

RK: Just to reassure you and the audience, I think there will always be a place for human beings and also a role for architecture to accommodate and make human beings happy. Living is a very obvious example. But what I’m saying is the last avant-garde, the last moment of a breakthrough in architecture was perhaps in the beginning of the 20th century. I think we are facing a similar moment where in addition to all the architecture that we make for human beings we are also beginning to make architecture for the new conditions that we are creating. The whole morning [at the forum] was all dedicated to a digital world, smart cities, self driving cars. In all those environments and all those conditions there is at least an equal importance to accommodate machines and to think about how an environment where machines are perhaps more important than the human beings that supervise them – all of that is new in the classical sense of the word. So we haven’t explored it, we don’t know what it means but it is new and I welcome newness in my profession.

VP: Although you said you prefer not to talk about the future because who knows what the future is, instinctively, are you optimistic about how things are going to develop or are we gradually destroying ourselves?

RK: Thanks to a really early and efficient redesign, I’m optimistic. So it's a kind of self-engineering that I performed when I was 20 and from that moment I was officially optimistic.

Photos: Mark Seryy

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