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Rem Koolhaas: skewing the real

Despite Mark Cousins' efforts to locate Rem Koolhaas and his work within an intellectual context, the architect's lecture at the Royal Geographical Society seemed more concerned with graphic effects, and somewhat flippant in tone. It is perhaps this quality of his work which lies behind Cousins' assertion that it embodies present-day 'unease about what an architect is, or what architecture might be', and (citing Nietzsche) a manifestation of 'the actual' as 'a skew of what is thought to be real': for Koolhaas has always nurtured a rapprochement of the real and an imagination of the real in his work.

Surprisingly then, Koolhaas expressed irritation at the fact that 'an architect cannot engage a situation without being expected to completely change it', making architecture 'very laborious' - for his work seems always to have been concerned with transformative statements, never understated. This tendency seems to have been reinforced through the influence of graphic designer Bruce Lau, who began working with Koolhaas on the production of the aptly described 'mega-tome' s,m,l,xl.

Koolhaas's assertion that architecture has become 'more related to the computer world and graphic design' indicated a sensibility which was reflected in his highly aestheticised description of the city of Lagos. Here, he suggests, 'what seems chaotic are highly evolved forms of organisation', and the thousands of homeless people forced to live in rubbish dumps 'have intense relationships with dumps.' It was not clear whether he was suggesting there might be socio-architectural lessons to learn from Lagos about letting situations develop under their own impetus, or whether he was more interested in the graphic quality of a form of random pattern-making activity that computers excel in.

Certainly, a significant aspect of the scheme for the relocation of Schiphol airport is the design of the graphic logo which represents (and will communicate) it: a thick black ring, with a black disc located inside it, just touching one edge. This is the Randstadt of the Netherlands - the ever-extending ring of urban development which surrounds the so-called 'Green Heart' of the country - and the huge airport of Schiphol which is the real heart. 'Is it a country surrounded by airport?' asks Koolhaas, 'or a city surrounding a meadow?' The extremely low density of development is due to the existence of no less than 47 municipalities, each helping to sustain endless sprawl through 'feverishly planning its own periphery'. Koolhaas's suggestion is that the vast site occupied by the airport and its extensive infrastructure could be vacated by its relocation to an island in the North Sea, making space for a new urban centre to the Netherlands.

Koolhaas ended by showing an office building in Los Angeles on which he is working with Bruce Lau. This seemed an appropriate summation of the theme of 'skewed reality' in a form of contemporary architectural practice which is highly influenced by global media.

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