Rem Koolhaas began his career as an architect not by designing a building, but by writing a book. Not the usual kind of architect’s book, full of glossy colour pictures of the author’s work, but a book of ideas. Delirious Manhattan , as it was called, purported to be a retrospective manifesto, an account of how New York became the embodiment of what Koolhaas describes as ‘the culture of congestion’. It was a brilliant move, instantly establishing Koolhaas as an intimidating presence on the architectural landscape when there was nothing to show for what his vision of the architecture of the contemporary world might be like.
A second book followed, a couple of bricks thick, that went by the name S, M, X, XL. This time, there were plenty of pictures of Koolhaas’s buildings. He had built a couple of houses by then: a conference centre on top of the TGV station in Lille, a dance theatre in the Hague, an art gallery in Rotterdam. But it was even less like the conventional architectural monograph than Delirious Manhattan . Koolhaas’s work was depicted as a series of raw cut-and-paste collages, rather than airbrushed perfection.
Alongside the buildings were lots of other kinds of images – a fantastic history of Mies’s Barcelona pavilion, Japanese pornography, the Berlin Wall – as well as diagrams of the amount of time Koolhaas himself spent in hotel rooms. Clearly the intention was to signal that Koolhaas was about something more important than mere architecture. It did as much as his architecture to make Koolhaas’s name inevitably linked with every new project involving the requisite high-octane mix of fashion and celebrity.
His architecture is bracing and unsettling and even though nothing he has done yet has had the same popular impact as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, he is clearly going to be the next big thing. When Ian Schrager decided he wanted a change from Philippe Starck, it was Koolhaas who was his first choice. The surprise was that he is working on the project in partnership with Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Tate Modern. Koolhaas certainly has an ego, but he is not interested in the architectural cult of personality.
Miucca Prada has commissioned Koolhaas to design three new stores for Prada in America. But perhaps the most remarkable project Koolhaas is working on is for the Guggenheim Museum. Not content with branches in Venice, Bilbao and Berlin, the director, Thomas Krens, has asked Koolhaas to build a Las Vegas Guggenheim, tacked on to the Venetian, a casino and hotel complex modelled in hyper-real Las Vegas style on the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square, and the Rialto.
Such is Koolhaas’s strength as an architect that it is impossible to predict from his previous work what any of these new projects will be like. There are clues. You can see an enthusiasm for jagged shapes, the unabashed use of found industrial materials used as if they were precious and beautiful. He makes abrupt juxtapositions between solid and open, between rough and smooth. Koolhaas isn’t interested in signature architecture, in making things look pretty, or in hiding from the realities of contemporary life by treating architecture as a craft skill. Why worry about making an elegant façade, or create a coherent public space, when the world’s cities are being overwhelmed by an avalanche of what Koolhaas calls ‘junk space’?
What really interests Koolhaas is the reality of the contemporary city; that is the subject of Mutations , a spectacular exhibition that he has organised which opened last week at the Arc en Reve in Bordeaux. It is an exploration of the world of shopping malls and airports, of urbanism Lagos and Shenzen style. The message, delivered in Koolhaas’s punchy sound bites, is that we had better get on with it, and start to deal with such places as they are, rather than as architects would like them to be.
To Koolhaas, the phenomenon of shopping has swallowed the world, making museums and malls and hotels all part of a single chaotic whole. He set his doctoral students at Harvard to work on a three-year study of shopping and concluded: ‘The best metaphor for shopping is that of a dying animal – a dying elephant that in its death struggle becomes completely wild and uncontrollable.’
The subtext is that Koolhaas is the toughest kid on the block. While most of his fellow professionals wring their hands in horror about theme parks and urban sprawl, he looks the world in the eye and deals with it on its own terms. Talking of the chaos of Lagos, Koolhaas says: ‘What I thought would be depressing was powerful, inspiring and brutal.’
Brutal, in Koolhaas’s vocabulary, is a term of enthusiasm. Indeed, Koolhaas’s client, Thomas Krens, uses it to describe the Las Vegas project. Koolhaas is trying to prove that the well-intentioned architects who tried to tame the contemporary city with pedestrian precincts and conservation got it all disastrously wrong. They should have been trying to intensify the city’s intrinsic qualities, not neuter them. ‘What is amazing is that you can draw a genealogy between Jane Jacobs and Disney. Since the Sixties, the most well-meaning brains in our profession have con tributed to this final, terminal condition of shopping.’
The effort to preserve the street, the hostility to the car, the hostility to all those elements that were the inevitable elements of the twentieth century – all of this has somehow created the space for this preservation, and, in the name of preservation, the conversion of entire areas in the centre of the city to fundamentally anti-urban conditions. This ought to make everyone weep. Nobody could have guessed that the twentieth century could end on a Faustian bargain with a mouse.
The Las Vegas commission is the project that Koolhaas has always been waiting for, a chance to confront the realities of the contemporary city. The idea of the museum establishing a branch linked to a casino is literally surreal. As Thomas Krens describes it: ‘The museum has to make a very powerful statement that cuts right across the main themes of Las Vegas. If you see a city that has embraced artificiality, we will make something that is absolutely the opposite, a very aggressive, even brutal statement.’
For Koolhaas, it’s the chance to see if he is tough – and brutal – enough to face up to the void that is Vegas, with nothing more than architecture to help him.
posted on: http://www.guardian.co.uk.