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DWR Kibbitzes About KoolHaas


above: Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas

Architect Rem Koolhaas turned up in San Francisco last month and gave a presentation to a packed house composed mostly of students at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was lucky enough to get in and find a seat on the floor in front of the first row. Sitting quite close to him, I was almost as transfixed by his body movements, mannerisms and words as I was by his slideshow. Rem Koolhaas cuts a unique profile – skinny, big eared, tall and hunched over the podium, he is equal parts intensity, intellect and designer machismo dressed in black, like a stalking heron ready to strike. He has a great sense of humor as well.

At his best, it was like listening to Dylan Thomas with an almost poetic flurry of words and images held together by a global world view and cynicism about man's intentions and the effects of modernism. At his worst, well there was no worst. It was one of the most entertaining and provocative design presentations I have ever attended. If you get the chance to hear Koolhaas speak, don't pass it up.

Koolhaas ripped through 134 slides that varied from frustrated clients' emails to global maps of his own design, hand drawn esoteric charts to photos of urban landscapes taken from helicopters and more. Click here for examples. He is a master presenter, a skill he must maintain as a rock star architect having to compete for major projects with the other marquee names. "I am always in competition with ten of my best friends," says Koolhaas, "and resort to unusual tactics to get the commission. It is very legitimate to question my motives." Koolhaas admits he is complicit in the "obscene extravagance" of "starchitecture" and sees no end in sight. But he identifies the evil forces and takes shots at them and their buildings (and at himself) in words and images. The text below is just one example of the slides he presented:

"The Enemy: Suits, with mustaches and receding hairlines with suspect waistlines huddled in a collective pose of preemptive servility, architects from a city that was put on the map by a single outrageous building when it was nothing – grown-up preemies of the Bilbao effect – they peddle their soulless wares with shameless calculation – Anglo termites of pragmatism – or tell reassuring fairy tales like the 'Skyscraper as Citizen' as if to four year olds."

above: the new Casa da Musica by Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas

Few of Koolhaas' own buildings were included in his presentation and he appears to have little interest in talking about himself. Instead, he prefers to pounce on political, economic and global ideas that he then uses to frame his largely conceptual work. Decrying Dubai as a bad theme park for architecture, Koolhaas used elegant graphic slides to show how architecture has followed the fortunes of oil and the stock market in a new but "poisonous" silk route of trade across Europe. The yen, the euro and the dollar are held up as symbols of support and corruption, made elegant through his barrage of graphics and language. Less is not more with Koolhaas. He revels in complexity while simultaneously showing examples of new works that he designed with generic intent.

Above: the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, designed by Koolhaas

There are not many people who can be self-effacing and arrogant in the same breath, but this maybe Koolhaas' genius. It certainly is his character. He checked his watch perpetually throughout his presentation as he had to make a flight that night. But he slowed down after his talk and listened and responded to audience questions in the style of the best teacher, with spontaneous responses that made every question seem more insightful than it was. He is at his best in this role, the ideas guy, which makes it fitting that he also teaches at Harvard.

above: Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library

I wrote a piece on his Seattle Public Library recently click here to read it . If you get the chance to visit this facility, it is a phenomenon and is in keeping with the spirit of the man himself, though it was designed with significant input from the community. Before seeing the library, I was familiar with Koolhaas' work for Prada in New York and the Guggenheim in Las Vegas, but it was the SPL that made me understand how it was that Koolhaas earned the 2000 Pritzker Architecture Prize .

above: Rem Koolhaas' Soho PRADA store

Koolhaas' Art Institute presentation was punctuated with bold graphic images and the seemingly intentional use of color to bring out ideas. His "barcode" concept for a European Community flag is an excellent example in the way it uses country colors, fused in bars, to create unity in disparity. How much more provocative and insightful this is when compared with the flag that was chosen, with its ring of stars that suffers in anonymity. Color is not a tool used frequently in modernism where industrial materials like glass, metal and plastic are the norm, and is more often associated with decoration and the covering up of surfaces. It takes a special character to make color work in modernism. Koolhaas is a special character.

above: Koolhaas' proposed new European Community Flag

Rob Forbes
Founder DWR

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