TRAJECTORY AS A POSITIVE, OMA

REM KOOLHAAS - cultivating urban emptiness
Rem Koolhaas has become subject for mythological speculations, accelerating along with his career as an architect and an influential theorist. However, a real fact is that his office OMA - Office of Metropolitan Architecture - has a remarkable reputation for the undertaking of large scale urbanist project at every continent. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist managed to catch Koolhaas at Hotel St. James in Bordeaux, for a conversation revolving around Berlin and the Wall, a subject which has engaged Koolhaas since his student days.

by Hans Ulrich Obrist



Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO): In your book S, M, L, XL you talk about the Berlin Wall. Can you tell me about this very first project of yours in Berlin in the early 1970s?

Rem Koolhaas (RK): I was a student at the end of the sixties, the end of a period of an innocent way of looking at architecture in general. There was especially an optimism that architecture could participate in the liberation of mankind. I was skeptical about this, and instead of going to Mediterranean villas or Greek fishing villages to "learn (as most people did at that time), I decided to simply look at the Berlin Wall as Architecture, to document and interpret it, to see what the real power of architecture was. It was one of the first times that I actually went out and did field work. I really didn't know anything about Berlin and the Wall, and was totally amazed at many of the things I discovered. For example, I had hardly imagined how West Berlin was actually imprisoned by the Wall. I had never really thought about that condition, and the paradox that even though it was surrounded by a wall, West Berlin was called "free, and that the much larger area beyond the Wall was not considered free. My second surprise was that the Wall was not really a single object but a system that consisted partly of things that were destroyed on the site of the Wall, sections of buildings that were still standing and absorbed or incorporated into the Wall, and additional walls some really massive and modern, others more ephemeral all together contributing to an enormous zone. That was one of the most exciting things: it was one wall that always assumed a different condition.

HUO: In permanent transformation.

"I've been appalled ever since that the first thing that disappeared after the Wall fell was any trace of it. I think it is insane that such a critical part of memory has been erased, not by developers or commercial enterprises, but simply in the name of pure ideology really tragic."

RK: In permanent transformation. It was also very contextual, because on each side it had a different character; it would adjust itself to different circumstances. It also represented a first naked confrontation with the horrible, powerful side of architecture. I've been accused ever since of taking an a-moral or un-critical position, although personally I think that looking, interpreting, is in itself a very important step toward a critical position.




THE DUTCH EMBASSY RENDERING ON SITE, BERLIN, OMA

HUO: How do you feel about the disappearance of the Wall, the fact that it was completely erased?

RK: In the early eighties, we did a number of competitions for Berlin that anticipated the fall of the Wall proposals for the "Afterlife of the Wall that made a new beginning without removing all the traces . . .

HUO: The IBA building?

RK: Yes, but it's not the current building. In an early competition it was a much more interesting, more open situation, where walls were used to exclude the impact of the Wall. . . . It was simply through a proliferation of walls that you could live next to the Wall. We thought that the zone of the Wall could eventually be a park, a kind of preserved condition in the entire city. I've been appalled ever since that the first thing that disappeared after the Wall fell was any trace of it. I think it is insane that such a critical part of memory has been erased, not by developers or commercial enterprises, but simply in the name of pure ideology really tragic. The paradox is that it creates now a completely incomprehensible "Chinese situation.

HUO: Can it be compared to the disappearance of the whole industrial architecture which Hilla and Bernd Becher documented?

RK: But at least it disappeared by accident. The Wall disappeared deliberately, and in the name of history.

HUO: Could you tell me about your IBA building which was realized?

RK: Actually, I was so offended by the whole notion of rebuilding the Friedrichstadt blocks, that I didn't work on the IBA building. My partner, Elia Zenghelis, did it. He hadn't done the competition so he had a more objective relationship with the Checkpoint Charlie site. It was for me unbelievable to move from one kind of architectural proposal to a totally opposite proposal, so I couldn't do it.

HUO: But you are very involved with the current Berlin projects . . .

RK: Yes. It has been very exciting. In terms of my personal history that was the early eighties. In the early 1990s I participated in the Potsdamer Platz competition where I disagreed with the outcome, in fact, not even so much with the outcome, but with the whole content of the discussion, with the virulence of the discussion, with the arguments put forth.

HUO: Did you agree with Libeskind? This idea that there shouldn't be a master plan, that there shouldn't be an overall solution? That it should be much more heterogeneous, heteroclite and fragmented.

"What is fascinating there is also to discover that there is a whole army of formerly East German bureaucrats who are actually much more rational about the whole reconstruction of the city, who clearly feel offended that the "liberalism of the East has led to the imposition of an inflexible urbanistic doctrine."

RK: There were many beautiful projects, not only the project by Libeskind, but also the project by Alsop. The project by Kollhoff was also really interesting. In other words, it's not that there weren't any interesting proposals, and the three of them, Alsop, Libeskind and Kollhoff were then in one camp of architects who could work with the destruction that was the essence of Berlin, and who were not out to repair, to (re)create a synthetic metropolis.
    After the Potsdamer Platz competition, there was a serious discussion in the Berlin Parliament to deny me the right to enter the city. . . . Recently it has been very exciting for me to be involved again in Berlin, as the architect of the Dutch Embassy, to rediscover Berlin and at the same time the Dutch, and also a certain spirit of adventure which is perhaps Dutch, in the sense that they chose a very courageous location, not near all the other embassies but in the former middle of Berlin, in the formerly communist part, according to a very logical reasoning that in this way they will be near to the other Ministries. They are willing to engage in the East Berlin condition. What is fascinating there is also to discover that there is a whole army of formerly East German bureaucrats who are actually much more rational about the whole reconstruction of the city, who clearly feel offended that the "liberalism of the East has led to the imposition of an inflexible urbanistic doctrine. So they have been extremely collaborative in terms of doing things differently. I think that simply because of the fact that we work with a formerly East German bureaucracy we have been able to experiment.

HUO: Since 1991 a conservative idea of architecture is prevailing in Berlin. As Philipp Oswalt showed in Der Mythos von der Berlinischen Architektur an initial idea of conservative reformism which in Kollhoff's words follows the new, only "if it proves to be more performative, more comfortable and beautiful than the old. Oswalt shows how these initial ideas little by little turned against the twenties and became a formal anti-modernist reconstitution of the city according to the conservative, metropolitan architecture as it existed from 1870 to 1930. You told me yesterday that even if many forces in Berlin tried to reconstitute the center, it would, nevertheless, against all odds, become a "Chinese city. Could you develop that a bit?

RK: I think that Kollhoff as an architect is still very powerful and very interesting, and that the discourse is to be separated from what he does. I still sense that what he does is seriously felt. Disregarding the discourse, some of the work is strong. What's exhilarating about being involved in Berlin now is that there is a completely new situation. You can see the results of the "first wave. In a way, I admire it. At least they were very serious. In spite of that, in spite of the most incredible effort to "control the new substance, simply through the sheer quantity, it has become a Chinese city. It shows that the Chinese city is seemingly inevitable everywhere where there is a lot of building substance.

HUO: How would you define the Chinese city?

RK: The Chinese city is for me a city that has built up a lot of volume in a very short time, which therefore doesn't have the slowness that is a condition for a traditional sedimentation of a city, which for us is still the model for authenticity. Beyond a certain speed of construction that kind of authenticity is inevitably sacrificed, even if you build everything out of stone and authentic materials, and that's a kind of irony. For instance, if you look at the color of the stone of the new Berlin, it's the color of all the worst plastics that were produced in East Germany in the 1960s. It's kind of a weird color of pink, a weird color of light yellow . . . , they're artificial. There is no escaping the artificial in the new architecture, and certainly not in large amounts of architecture being generated at the same time.




TRAJECTORY AS A CARVED VOLUME FROM A BLOCK, OMA

HUO: There is this story about this speed that everyone tells in Shanghai the Mayor of Berlin was boasting about the rate of construction in his city and the Mayor of Shanghai responded by saying it's 20 or 25 times more in his. There is very little knowledge in Germany about the urban explosion in China.

"That's the whole point, Berlin is very scary. And somehow everything that tries to cover it up, either by an Ersatz past or by a kind of Ersatz exorcism (which is what modernity is doing), is equally implausible."

RK: That for me is the debatable thing about the Prussian, because the Prussian is either a form of naïveté or just a strategic claim. There is a deep ignorance in Germany about conditions outside Germany, an incredible preoccupation with the self, and therefore those kinds of misreading occur easily. At the same time there is something irritating about the automatic assumption of modernity, of the "inevitability of, or the application of, state modernism.
    For instance, their conversion of the Reichstag is at least as strange as the emphasis on Prussian building, because these are two forms of innocence or naïveté, and to think that in the Reichstag you can exorcise the spirits with a new sort of dome is a sort of very polite gesture and a very compromised esthetic. It is an equally weak intellectual stand.

HUO: I didn't understand the word "innocence in this context. By the way, Gabriel Orozco has a show at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris at the moment entitled "Clinton is Innocent.

RK: Innocent in terms of historical givings. For Foster, high-tech architecture was never dealt with in context, etc. To simply put a new head on a building that had an incredibly ambiguous history is innocent, or perverse, whatever you want to call it. Therefore it's a very moving condition. Only now are all these civil servants realizing that they actually have to inhabit Nazi buildings as their new ministries, with the anxieties that emanate from that, that demand exorcism, but do glass and steel still drive out evil spirits?

HUO: I remember this very strange event in 1989. . . . There was the Metropolis exhibition at the Gropius-Bau, followed by a party in the former Reichstag which was abandoned at the time. It felt very scary.

RK: That's the whole point, Berlin is very scary. And somehow everything that tries to cover it up, either by an Ersatz past or by a kind of Ersatz exorcism (which is what modernity is doing), is equally implausible. I also believe that the monumental production of monuments is not going to work either, because that's part of an "official exorcism.

HUO: In certain ways, the monument by Christian Boltanski is very interesting. It is a sort of anti-monument, a missing house where he just inscribed the names of all the former inhabitants before the war on the adjoining walls.

RK: Yes.

HUO: How do you see the East-West exchange? In art there is very little exchange between Berlin and Warsaw, Berlin and Prague. . . . The lack of exchange is even more evident in Vienna where Bratislava is half an hour away and there still is this wall in people's heads.

"The Berlin Wall as architecture was for me the first spectacular revelation in architecture of how absence can be stronger than presence."

RK: I think it is related to the whole misreading: the single misreading that has a number of sub-misreadings. . . . The idea of the encounter between East and West is still based on difference. What they don't realize is that there is no difference. They consider themselves an advanced trading post. This was incomprehensible to me when I first came, that West Berlin was sort of a satellite in the middle of East Germany, and that condition of being in the middle of another condition is something that they still do not completely assume. If you're working on this, and looking at it in an architectural context, there is one group of works that you should look at, an architectural operation by Oswald Mathias Ungers which he did when he was a professor at the TU in the 1960s. He took Berlin as a laboratory and said "this is a unique situation of a city which is totally cut off and completely artificial, therefore presenting a new condition, so I'll turn it into a laboratory. He systematically investigated the conditions of Berlin in terms of a presence of historical particles, but also the presence of the contemporary, with a very utopian, futuristic dimension. As a professor he organized a series of design seminars, which every time posed the question of how the historical and contemporary could coexist, and how the new numbers, new programs and the historical could coexist. For instance, he would have a year devoted to highways and plazas, or mass housing and the Brandenburger Gate. He made a very beautiful project for how to reconstruct Leipziger Platz in totally contemporary forms. That is a kind of hidden domain. People like Sawade and Kollhoff, who are now at the core of the "Prussian architects, were very involved in that, too. So there is an interesting ambiguity there.

HUO: So it is a source for many things.

RK: Yes. There is kind of latent modernity there, which was evident in Kollhoff's Potsdamer Platz project. So the language of the architecture was retro, but the concept of the architecture, of the urbanism, was very contemporary.

HUO: In your book S, M, L, XL, there is this entry under "Berlin which talks about memory, loss and emptiness. How do you see these notions with regard to the contemporary city? This is something Libeskind pointed out a lot, like when he kept the center in his building empty.

RK: The Berlin Wall as architecture was for me the first spectacular revelation in architecture of how absence can be stronger than presence. For me, it is not necessarily connected to loss in a metaphysical sense, but more connected to an issue of efficiency, where I think that the great thing about Berlin is that it showed for me how (and this is my own campaign against architecture) entirely "missing urban presences or entirely erased architectural entities nevertheless generate what can be called an urban condition. It's no coincidence for example that the center of Shenzen is not a built substance but a conglomeration of golf courses and theme parks basically unbuilt or empty conditions. And that was the beauty of Berlin even ten years ago, that it was the most contemporary and the most avant-garde European city because it had these major vast areas of nothingness.

HUO: Landing in Berlin was very beautiful, with all these gaps and holes in the urban tissue.

RK: Not only was it beautiful, but it also had a programmatic potential, and the potential to inhabit a city differently represented a rare and unique power. The irony of course is not only that the architecture being built is not the right architecture, but that it is built at all. It's a city that could have lived with its emptiness and have been the first European city to systematically cultivate the emptiness. Like Rotterdam where there is a lot of emptiness inside. For Libeskind, emptiness is a loss that can be filled or replaced by architecture. For me, the important thing is not to replace it, but to cultivate it. This is a kind of post-architectural city, and now it's becoming an architectural city. For me that's a drama, not some kind of stylistic error.

HUO: So it's not an issue of the quality of the architecture being built . . .

RK: . . . nor esthetics.

HUO: What has happened in Berlin, this city planning, has happened without any involvement on the part of the different communities. I recently had a discussion with Itsuko Hasegawa, in Tokyo, who thinks that one should advance in a city in a participatory mode, so that the users of the buildings could almost say "this was my idea. Many contemporary artists today work with this issue of participation. This is a critique heard quite frequently in Berlin, that the city could have been built with the involvement of the people. How do you see this?

"Yes, and therefore participation is not necessarily for people to be able to say "this is my idea, this is your idea, but on the contrary, a situation where it becomes impossible to say whose idea it really is, either the architect or the user."

RK: That's a very tricky question, because if you ask around and do real surveys, I think the current reconstruction is very popular, because the current mythology of going back to a traditional notion of plazas and streets could be a very populist platform. The other conditions of inhabiting emptiness or living with scars and accepting the rampant and blatant oppositions of the East and West, and standing the distressed esthetic are much harder to grasp. The whole difficulty of participation in architecture is completely ambiguous. For instance in the Bordeaux house, on the one hand you could say it's extreme architecture, but on the other hand it's extreme participation.

HUO: Because it's a very strong dialogue.

RK: Yes, and therefore participation is not necessarily for people to be able to say "this is my idea, this is your idea, but on the contrary, a situation where it becomes impossible to say whose idea it really is, either the architect or the user.

HUO: So it's a kind of ping-pong?

RK: Not necessarily, but rather to imagine a process in which the intelligence of others is mobilized. But it's not to establish a dogma according to assumed preferences, which I think is what's happening.

HUO: Can you tell me how you came to the idea of building the house in Bordeaux for the Lemoine family with a mobile elevator-platform?

RK: It was a house for somebody who in the middle of his life became handicapped, and who interestingly enough is very courageous and assumes that condition without any inhibitions. Therefore it became interesting to think of a house not dealing with that issue, but almost inspired by that issue. So there are basically two attitudes toward the handicapped, the idea of helping them but reasoning within the possibilities which are still left, and building on the strength which exceeds by far the idea of compensation, or helping them in such a way that the entire building makes a step forward in general. So it's a building which is entirely based on his possibilities and not based on his impossibilities.

HUO: It's an inversion.

RK: Yes, and that's why there are no signs of impossibility but only signs of possibility, and that has also allowed the entire family to live in that kind of logic.~