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The NS Interview: Rem Koolhaas, architect

“I consider myself a socialist. I’m aware of the ambiguities”

Do you enjoy creating buildings that look like they should be impossible?
We try to play with new possibilities, but for us they don’t look impossible to design. It’s not some kind of exhibitionistic exercise. When we stretch limits, we try to do it for a purpose.

What defines a modern city?
When I was 12, I saw a picture of Brasilia in Time and it triggered me to be an architect. It sugges­ted that through architecture you can control cities. But cities are reaching a new scale and a level of organisation where architecture has to recede in terms of its claims. Infrastructure is much more important than architecture.

Do you think architects should be theorists?
Nobody should be anything, but because I once had a different profession and I’m interested in writing, I took it upon me.

Are there commonalities between your first job, as a scriptwriter, and architecture?
I’ve always seen enormous similarities. If you look at people walking over a bridge, you can look at it simply as a bridge, or as an event – people walking from A to B, orchestrated by an architect. That is obviously like scriptwriting.

What do you make of the star architect tag?
Architecture is a rare collective profession: it’s always exercised by groups. There is an essential modesty, which is a complete contradiction to the notion of a star.

You’ve criticised the emphasis on the iconic in buildings, but many of your own buildings have become iconic. How does that square?
The word “iconic” has become debased. It used to be used retrospectively, but now it has become an ambition. You have no control over what happens after something is there. We certainly do not try to make things iconic.

Are we moving on from the skyscraper?
Asia is still dominated by skyscrapers. I hope that, in European cities, it will become a declining trend. They were almost never necessary.

What do you mean when you say that complexity is important in architecture?
It is an art that has many different layers. The discourse about architecture should be open to discussing all those layers instead of reducing it to a caricature of aesthetics or ego.

Is architecture inherently political?
It used to be an expression of the public sector. A housing slab is a belief in a form of organisation, in a form of equality, but in the last 30 years it’s shifted to the private sector, and therefore the architecture frequently expresses the values of an individual or a group of individuals.
It is super-political.

Do you consider yourself anti-capitalist?
I consider myself a socialist. I’m totally aware of the ambiguities of that statement.

In that case, was it contradictory for you to design the Prada building [in New York]?
People have said it’s a contradiction. Society has started to make the market the final arbiter of what happens, no matter how completely irrational it turns out to be. Once that is the situation, certain operations have a valuable element, either in terms of imagination, or the creation of beauty, or a sense of adventure. Prada, for me, has all those qualities.

Do architects have a social responsibility to be selective about their jobs?
Definitely, but it’s difficult to survive in the market. You have to be picky, but there are moments when you cannot afford to be.

You grew up in Rotterdam and Jakarta. How did those cities influence your work?
I grew up in Rotterdam when it was a total ruin. It was very exciting, because it was a spectacular playground. When I was eight I went to Indonesia. It was recently independent, so that was another adventurous environment. I learned how to adapt and be open to other cultures.

Did you always want to be an architect?
I was 25 when I realised, so I started very late. When I finished studying, I spent six more years writing a book on New York. So I was 40 when I started seriously as an architect. I think “wasting time” has given me a huge advantage, because that time enabled me to build a reservoir of knowledge. I still have a lot of stamina.

Is there anything that you would rather forget?
All experience is good. Once I was accused of plagiarism. That was a nightmare – I was in the high court – but I wouldn’t want to forget it.

Was there a plan?
No. One virtue of my generation is that they didn’t make any plans.

Do you vote?

Are we all doomed?
I don’t know, but even if we were, it wouldn’t be an alibi to not have fun and to not work.

Defining moments

1944 Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands
1969 Release of The White Slave, an avant-garde film co-written by Koolhaas
1975 Co-founds the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) practice, Rotterdam
1978 Publishes Delirious New York
2000 Wins Pritzker Architecture Prize
2008 Listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people
2010 Wins lifetime achievement award at Venice Architecture Biennale

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis