Rem Koolhaas: Politics of Practice

“I am giving a lecture about politics,” stated Pritzker Prize–winning architect Rem Koolhaas, 2018 Baumer Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Knowlton School, to introduce his lecture, “current preoccupations,” to a capacity crowd in Knowlton Hall’s Gui Auditorium. “I will show a series of projects to be seen within the context of communication and of remaining in contact with the so-called enemy,” he added. Through the Baumer lecture and seminars with graduate architecture students, Koolhaas highlighted work from his renown portfolio, and touched on the politics of both their design and the environments in which they exist. 

After a brief presentation of his Cold War-era adolescence and career as a journalist, Koolhaas presented a selection of his most famous projects, opening with China Central Television (CCTV) (2012). “It was the beginning of the reading of our work as collaborating with evil,” he stated, drawing out the political implications of this and other projects with regimes at odds with the United States and Western Europe. Other highlighted projects included the Taipei Performing Arts Centre (Ongoing), Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (Russia 2015), and Qatar National Library (2017).

Koolhaus concluded with an overview of Countryside: Future of the World, a collaboration between The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and AMO / Rem Koolhaas that examines radical changes transforming the non-urban landscape. “I was most fascinated by Koolhaas's attention to various socio-political environments on a global scale as a way of generating architecture and design,” commented graduate architecture student James Amicone. “I see AMO's recent investigation into the Countryside as an example of this attention in addition to a kind of relentless attitude towards the contemporary role of architecture. That's why this office constantly requires our attention—why their past projects require the same diligent consideration as their current work."

Prior to the evening lecture, Koolhaas participated in two seminars in which he presented work and engaged in a dialogue with third-year graduate architecture students. After beginning the morning session with a discussion of the Prada Epicenter New York (2001), he elaborated on his work developing various fashion shows and installations, highlighting the 2012 and 2013 SS Prada Men’s Show and the 2013 FW Miu Miu Women’s Show. He concluded with a discussion on the design intentions behind one of his most recent projects, the Fondazione Prada (2018) in Milan, Italy.

The afternoon seminar allowed students to question Koolhaas on topics ranging from the function of morality in architecture to the notion of political correctness in design practice and client relationships. “Our conversation with Rem was invaluable. One moment that stands out in my mind was when a classmate asked about the challenges of political correctness in architecture,” reflected Christina Tefend, a third-year graduate architecture student. “Rem’s answer was delicate yet precise, as he explained that architects shouldn’t necessarily be tied down to doing what’s politically correct—in some cases, that can lead to a lack of experimentation. He clarified, however, that sometimes the best architecture can be described as ‘a political animal with political motivations’—one that deliberately responds to and opens up conversations about the politics of its surroundings.”

When asked about his current motivation and approach to design work, Koolhaas indicated that his interest now is in personal projects, citing Lafayette Anticipations (2018), a multidisciplinary center located in the historic Marais district in Paris that offers flexible space in which new work from the fields of contemporary art, design and fashion can be produced and presented. Koolhaas also notably reflected that as his career has advanced, he considers himself more as an anthropologist and journalist.

“I was introduced to Koolhaas’s Parc de la Villette project my sophomore year and have been following his work ever since. The opportunity to interact with him in an intimate seminar setting to offer my questions was invaluable,” stated third-year graduate student Ali Sandhu. “Knowlton’s commitment to bringing leading practitioners to the school is one of the features of my education I have cherished throughout my time here. Koolhaas’s visit, in particular, was the grand finale of my architectural education.”

Rem Koolhaas founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1975 together with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp. In 2000, he was named the Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate. Time Magazine named Koolhaas one of “The World’s Most Influential People” in 2008. In 2014, he was the director of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, entitled Fundamentals. Considered one of the most important architectural theorists and urbanists of his generation, Koolhaas is a Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University.