Shooting from the hip and moulding the modern
RIBA Gold Medal winner Rem Koolhaas is acclaimed both for his buildings and his writings. Murray Fraser assesses the work, ideas and influence of a man who likes to shock
Rem Koolhaas is the key architect of his generation and it is fitting that he is to get the RIBA Gold Medal. His writings and buildings are exceptional. It is hard to think of another figure since Le Corbusier, maybe Louis Kahn, who is seen as being truly international class both for their writings on architectural theory and for their design projects. Most top architects at best manage one or the other.
Koolhaas has written the three seminal texts of the past three decades. First came Delirious New York, which crystallised the impact of post-structuralist theory at the Architectural Association and elsewhere in the 1970s. In the 1990s, 'The Generic City' essay set in train a Western fascination with urban development in Asia. It was the standout piece in the otherwise over-hyped S, M, L, XL, a vanity monograph by any other name.
Now for our time comes his essay on 'Junkspace'. It taunts Modern architecture with the claim that for all its attempts at social and aesthetic revolution, its real contribution to history is the shopping mall. Super-serviced sheds with clip-on cosmetic skins are its progeny. In typical Koolhaas fashion, it is written as a scintillating and deeply ironic stream of consciousness. The essay attacks consensual political values, High-Tech mythology, the soft and pseudo-humanistic Modernism of figures such as Van Eyck and Hertzberger, and the general self-importance of architects. Find a language to discuss what you really do, he says, and, echoing Manfredo Tafuri, above all be realistic about what you can ever produce within capitalist society.
It is also classic Koolhaas in its over-statement. The suspicion is that he never fully believes the positions he outlines. The desire is to shock. Koolhaas is like an architectural gunslinger shooting from the hip, often hilariously accurate, at other points way off the mark. 'Junkspace' offers a genuine attempt to think about architectural and urban conditions, and to avoid the trap of swallowing professional self-delusions.
This approach was taken up increasingly in the work of Koolhaas' practice, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, now spreading across the world. Yet the early designs were far from stunning.
Those of us who loved his prose found buildings such as the Hague Dance Theatre to be mannered and flimsy, far too reliant on the weak formal inversions and empty critical posturing of 1980s Post-Modernism.
But as Koolhaas moved away from the abstraction of post-structuralist theory, and began to argue that architecture could be subversive while engaging with the economic and political relations that enable it to be built, so his work matured. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam was the best building of the 1990s, one of the best anywhere for decades. It reworked Mies' Berlin National Gallery by splicing it with an ingenious ramped circulation system. Translucent walls and bifurcated floors opened up the hitherto segregated spaces of the modern museum. His ethos is to fuse the avantgarde with explicit engineering. Since then, working with superbly talented engineers like Cecil Balmond, the output of Koolhaas and his office has become prodigious: the private house in Bordeaux with its levitating central room, and punchy city projects such as the Prada store in Manhattan, the student building at IIT in Chicago, or the forthcoming television headquarters in Beijing.
Koolhaas has influenced a host of younger Dutch architects, from Ben van Berkel to MVRDV, and many others internationally, from Herzog & de Meuron to Foreign Office Architects, in part through the urban research carried out with students on his master's course at Harvard. He is the star international lecturer, a cultural celebrity known beyond the world of architecture. For someone who has had such strong links to Britain through education and residency, it is absurd that Koolhaas has not built here.
Maybe his opposition to the High-Tech brigade has helped to exclude him. Who knows, but perhaps the seal of RIBA approval might change the situation.