Rem Koolhaas: “There’s Been Very Little Rethinking Of What Cities Can Be”

The Pritzker Prize-winning architect dishes on cities, what architecture and film have in common, and the idiocy of design competitions.


Gary Hustwit: Why is the design of so many cities so bad?
Rem Koolhaas: Very few cities these days are really designed, and that may be partly the problem, the reason why they are so bad. But I would also say that currently we are not really quite capable of conceptualizing cities in a particularly exciting way. I think that currently, particularly since we have entrusted in the market economy so much power to decide how cities come out, there is a really fundamental problem, and that fundamental problem also calls into question the whole notion of designing, of course.


Maybe this is one of the reasons that you started to do more work in China. It seems like in most places the government role has been decreased, and it’s just the market and for-profit developers who are dictating the design.
I think that’s part of the issue. I think the issue is twofold. First, that, basically, the kind of client that now initiates urban development is no longer the public sector. It’s more private sector. I also believe that our vocabulary is really very, very used up and finished, and there’s been very little rethinking of what cities can be.

How do you change that?
I think, in the end, it has to be a political change, and I’m not only saying that as a crazy activist. I am optimistic given the fact that, at my age, I have experienced maybe two or three entirely different political systems, so I’m not pessimistic that this current situation will not come to an end or be modified drastically or really change.


Do you approach architecture differently in different parts of the world?
Architecture is a very complex effort everywhere. It’s very rare that all the forces that need to coincide to actually make a project proceed are happening at the same time. I would say it’s as complex in China as it is in Italy. I don’t think it’s particularly easy anywhere. In China, we were extremely lucky. There was a small window through which projects of exceptional architecture and vision could enter. I think the Olympic stadium was an example, but I think that window is now—not so much closed, but it’s become a much more normal situation.

TonyV3112 via Shutterstock

With the CCTV building, can you talk about your process in terms of how a building like that relates to the city around it? What were some of the considerations?
There were a number of very crucial considerations. It was in a new business district. That meant, in the contemporary situation, that it would be one among a series of high-rise buildings, and so the first consideration was, how could you create place in a collection of high-rise towers? Because towers consume place, but very few towers manage to create a sense of publicness. That was the main consideration, and that really explains the shape as not something that is only taking away from the city but actually defining a larger-than-itself moment in the city. That is a key thing in the terms of urbanism.

Looking at it now, do you have other thoughts about how the building has turned out?
It’s the kind of building that doesn’t have a single identity, and your slightest movement in the city actually changes the building completely. Sometimes it’s a circle, but sometimes it’s a tower or a hammer. Sometimes it’s a very forceful building. Sometimes it’s a very weak or almost awkward building. This is, for me, the most new dimension of it. It’s a building that has an almost unlimited amount of different identities.


What are the things that make you angry about architecture?
Anger is not really the right word. If you ask, ‘”What frustrates you about architecture?” then I would say that there is an incredible amount of wasted effort in the profession, a huge amount of wasted effort. A fair amount of it is generated through the procedure of competitions, which is really a complete drain of intelligence. I don’t know any other profession that would tolerate this. At the same time, people say you are important, we invite your thinking, but we also announce that there is an 80% chance that we will throw away your thinking and make sure that it is completely wasted. I mean, that is basically an insane situation.

True. I’ve started thinking more and more about the similarities between filmmaking and architecture. Do you think there are commonalities between the two?
There are a number of commonalities. Both are complex because they require huge amounts of money. They’re both about teamwork, obviously, and I personally think that you can look at filmmaking and it has a number of elements, such as narrative plot, montage, and jump cuts, and procedures that you could find an equivalent to in architecture very easily. Having been involved in movies in my early life, I think, really facilitated my sense of what architecture would be.


Is it the idea of storytelling through architecture?
Narrative, particularly for our office, is really very crucial. It’s not so much that we continually tell stories, but that we want to be disciplined about how each operation embodies a narrative, embodies an ambition, embodies intentions, and has an aim. I think that we use some of the conventions or laws or discipline of narrative to make sure that those are tight and work well.

What do you think is the future of cities, or what kind of cities are we going to have 50 years from now?
I’m sure that in 50 years, traffic will be better. I’m sure that the car will no longer be petrol-driven. I’m also expecting that there will be a smoother and less onerous form of infrastructure, because with infrastructure the problem is it’s either completely absent or incredibly heavy-handed, and there’s nothing in between. I think that that is one very crucial thing that needs to be invented, a kind of light infrastructure.


A very important part of the near future is that people will become more aware of the interdependency of what is city and what is non-city. I think that there will be a more systematic movement between the two.

What are the things that you want to hear people discussing now?
I see really, really drastic things going on in the former countryside. There is incredible transformation of agriculture into an industrial process, incredible reuse of abandoned infrastructures, villages, and their curious tourism. Their curious double life. Enormous sections of Switzerland, for instance, are full two weeks a year, and the rest of the year they’re completely empty. Completely empty to the point that they really need caretakers to manage that kind of emptiness and to manage the illusion that it’s got to maintain that it’s still Switzerland, and if you look carefully, you see that, actually, tractor drivers are recruited from Sri Lanka to maintain Switzerland. Maids are recruited from Thailand to enable people to inhabit the farms.

You also see how, for instance, the drive for sustainable energy is turning many farmers into energy farmers and therefore is creating accidents waiting to happen in very amateurish and systematic approaches to wind farms and solar collectors. Basically creating a mess. You see how the word eco can completely denature vast territories. In Tuscany, for instance, there are now tourist organizations that buy spreads, 15 by 15 kilometers, that then become tourist sites. In my view, the country is evolving even faster than the city.


I asked you before about what makes you angry about architecture. Now I would like to ask the opposite. What makes you inspired and joyful about it? What inspires you about practicing it?
What inspires me? I mean, a country like Italy is very interesting as a kind of metaphor for the current moment, because there are so many things that could drive you to despair, but there are also so incredibly many things that are completely wonderful and that basically show, without too much effort and in a quite natural and convincing way, how unbelievably beautiful the world can be. It’s the one country where those two things are very, very close together, and that is very inspiring and remains very inspiring.

This interview was condensed and edited with the author’s permission. For more of Koolhaas’s interview and interviews with 70 other designers, buy Helvetica/Objectified/Urbanized: The Complete Interviews here.

About the author

Gary Hustwit is an independent filmmaker and photographer based in New York and London. He has produced eight feature documentaries, including Helvetica, Objectified, and Urbanized