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AJ exclusive: Rem Koolhaas interview

Read the AJ’s exclusive interview with Rem Koolhaas by Rory Olcayto

Does Maggie’s Gartnavel, as Charles Jencks says, represent the culmination of OMA’s 30 year investigation into the ramp-as-corridor-as-room?
It’s less dramatic than a matter of development. It’s really interesting to see how each kind of project has different opportunities of meaning. The loop is a kind of organisational device that enables different departments to communicate with each other and here it more of an articulation of: ‘many people are in the same boat’. Or in the same situation. It’s more an emblem of a community I would say. So it’s not so much about a development as about how meaning shifts, from the scale to the different context.

Underneath all the softness of these centres, though, these buildings are about confronting death.
It’s very true.

How does the architecture here begin to confront that?
What is right is that the Maggie’s Centres are not standalone - that they are complimentary to much larger, more rigorous organisations and institutions. That is why it was important to us to, in a way, claim the centre here. Because wherever you look, you see nature but you also see the hospital you are dependent on as much as you are dependent on a reflective environment where you can think. That complementarity is crucial. I don’t think it can stand on it own. It would be too gentle. It would de-emphasise the seriousness. Being surrounded, it’s a very good position to take.

How can the Maggie’s programme counter criticism of reinforcing a certain frivolous approach to architecture, similar to the star-circuit pavilion programmes, like the Serpentine pavilion for example?
I think of the so called stars, very few of them are frivolous. We should not forget that the star architect is a joint construction, between architects and the press, the media, that has basically created an exaggerated monster. In many cases, this bears very little similarity to the real person. And as far as I know each was extremely eager to be offered an opportunity to show a better side - or a good side. It is an irony that in this period of civilisation we very rarely get asked to do that. These are the essential things we care for.

Although Zaha Hadid recently designed a state school…
Maybe there is a discovery of those sectors, or a realisation among those sectors, that they can ask any one of us…but its tragic how the two are divorced; that star architects have severed connections with the more serious institutions.

With your Rothschild project in London and a cancer care centre in Glasgow, you’re dealing with the big issues: money, mortality, how does an architect switch modes to work on two such different projects?
That is the architect’s [primary] expertise. It rarely gets discussed. The almost unpredictable sequence of areas you are forced to develop a degree of authority and knowledge in. To what kind of different outcomes your engagement with this new world leads to. So you try to develop a form of intelligence, to navigate between these different worlds.

What is the role of the architect now? Is it still a mainstream practice now? Or has it been subsumed by a more general construction programme?
I’m not convinced the role of the architect in the act of construction has been reduced. It always was fairly low. What has been reduced is the potential connection between public architecture and architects but that is because the public sector has been dwindling. But then the private sector has grown so on balance [if there has been a reduction] it not one of numbers numbers but in the reduction in the seriousness of the issue that you can engage with.

On the other hand I very much believe in cycles and returns and I see lots of signs that is changing again. I see people are kind of fed up with this certain kind of excess. They are kind of bloated…I think the past decade was a bloated decade, military bloated, politically bloated.

Your Venice Biennale show last year focused on preservation. One aspect was the notion of proactive preservation…
Preservation will be something you have to do prospectively rather than retroactively. Maybe it needs to be much more predetermined as to whether it is a worthy building or not.

So architects might actively be designing endangered species: ‘this is a building that will be protected from day one’?
Yes. Or this will be a building will have so many qualities that it will deserve a longer life.

Should Maggie’s Centres be considered in this way?I think we should not get involved in that. That is for others to determine.  

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