Rem Koolhaas is clearly a very busy man. Although his team confirmed my request for an interview, since 8 in the morning, thrice has it been rescheduled – from 12 noon to 11am then 10.30. Determined to meet the highly respected architect - starchitect, according to some - and author at any cost, I leave office at 9.30am when I get yet another message from his assistant. ‘Can you be here at 10am?’ she asks.
‘Here’ is Concrete, the first completed project by Rem’s company OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), in the UAE. Located in Alserkal Avenue, the art and culture district in Dubai’s Al Quoz, the mixed-use space for art exhibitions and the like opened last month and is already becoming a magnet for events.
A metro ride - to skip the traffic - a taxi ride and a brisk walk later, at five minutes to 10, I am in front of the brand new, 600sqm hangar-like, shiny – thanks to the translucent polycarbonate cladding – Concrete.
Created to host large-scale art exhibitions, conferences and corporate and private events, Concrete, to a novice’s eyes, might appear to be modest by Rem’s standards. But enter it and you will notice hints of master touches subtly sprinkled all through – double-height ceilings, movable walls, slender lighting and skylights. And in perhaps a nod to the name, the rear and side walls are sprayed with dark concrete studded with fragments of mirror.
On the day I am to meet Rem, an exhibition titled Syria: Into the Light’ portraying Syrian art from 1924 to 2016, is on, and a steady stream of art enthusiasts are trickling into Concrete.
Since I have a few minutes to spare, I walk around attempting to understand some pieces of modern art before an OMA staffer chaperones me to a small but brightly-lit office tucked away on the first floor to meet with the man who Time magazine said is one of 100 most influential people in the world.
Tall, lean, even athletic-looking, Rem has a purposeful air around him as he issues directions to his staff regarding his flight plans for the next day, before offering me a firm handshake.
After a quick comment about the local media’s coverage of the recently concluded Dutch elections – ‘Gulf News had a lovely in-depth piece’ – he dives straight into the topic that is so close to his heart and his first project that materialised in the UAE.
‘Concrete is a building you could never do in New York,’ says the master architect, who is also professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard. ‘Dubai is a new and growing city and one that has a very youthful profile. That means there is an appetite for experiment, and you see that in this building.’
At first glance, Concrete might not appear to be as radical or unusual as several of his other much-discussed and written-about works, such as the Casa da Música concert hall in Porto, Portugal, which the New York Times said was ‘…one of the most important concert halls built in the last 100 years’. Or the award-winning Embassy of the Netherlands building in Berlin that architecture critics said was structurally ‘obedient and... disobedient’. Or the Seattle Central Library, which was called ‘a masterpiece of public space design’ although a few critics also said was ‘cheesily detailed’.
Some of Rem’s works have also been termed as ‘threatening set ideals of architecture’ and ‘audacious’. Does he agree with these terms?
‘Audacious? I think we are not looking for audaciousness for its own sake,’ says the 72-year-old theorist leaning forward and resting his long arms on the table. ‘But my most audacious building could be the CCTV building in Beijing.’
Designed by his company OMA as a reinvention of the skyscraper as a loop, the 473,000sqm structure houses TV studios, offices, broadcasting and production facilities. Essentially a loop of six horizontal and vertical sections it appears as an irregular grid with an open centre. ‘The idea for the design,’ OMA said, ‘was to combine the entire process of TV-making, which was earlier scattered across various locations in the city, into a loop of interconnected activities.’
Rem explains further. ‘It was not audaciousness for its own sake. See, bigger buildings have different ambitions than smaller buildings. What we do if we are doing big buildings is [make it look] different from any angle, so that it contributes a certain sense of dynamism to the city, rather than adding something that is the same.’
The winner of the Pritzker prize – considered the Nobel for architecture – and author of half a dozen books including Delirious New York and S, M,L,XL, Rem pauses for a moment before adding: ‘Dynamism is important. Here in Concrete we are trying to offer something that is different on the inside. But the ambition in all buildings is to create a dynamic injection in a particular context.’
Dynamism and unorthodox perspectives are definitely a hallmark of the architectural firm OMA that he co-founded with Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis in 1975. Ready to take on just about any project that allows him to push the boundaries of design, Rem, who has designed master plans for suburban Paris, Hong Kong and even a museum city in Sharjah, among others, refuses to allow himself to be pigeonholed or be predictable.
For instance, when a Parisian client wanted a house with two separate apartments – one for the parents and one for the daughter – that offered panoramic views of Paris and the Eiffel Tower, Rem created the house as a glass pavilion containing living and dining areas with two hovering, perpendicular apartments on either ends. He also had a swimming pool placed on the roof.
Closer home, in Qatar, OMA designed a modern diamond-shaped library as part of the education city, in which the floor appears to tilt gently upwards from each side of the entry ports. A futuristic library dedicated for children and teenagers is the highlight of this structure.
Having designed buildings and created master plans for cities almost all over the globe – from China and Japan to Hong Kong, US and Europe – does he approach architecture differently in different parts of the world?
‘Oh yes, architecture is different in every one of these places. The client relationship is different, the government regulations may be different, the legal system is different, procedures for finding contractors is different... There are huge differences. But rather than trying to produce the same kind of results everywhere, we try to engage those differences and try to see what they mean and how we can participate with energy, integrity and precision in each different context,’ says Rem, who designed a residence in Bordeaux in 1998 that was declared a protected monument as soon it was finished. The designer of the highly acclaimed Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas admits that when it comes to planning a city, parameters could be different.
‘I think the most crucial part when planning a city is to consider how old the city is and how established it is. Next, you need to study its demographic profile.’
Using Dubai as an example, he says that while producing architecture here, designers need keep in mind that they are contributing to a city in the making ‘so in a way every building has an effect on the totality. ‘This is very different from intervening in a very limited way in an existing older place where the whole idea of newness is not even welcomed.’
Does he have a template or a plan for an ideal city?
‘I don’t think an ideal city would be interesting,’ says the Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale of Architecture. ‘I’m a specialist of un-ideal cities because only an unideal city has the kind of reality, authenticity, uniqueness and integrity that I respond to.’
A designer who believes that rather then architecture changing the world, the world should change architecture, Rem started off as a scriptwriter for films – he co-wrote The White Slave, a dark Dutch film – before becoming a journalist then moving on to study architecture in the UK and the US.
Quick to admit that his time in media came in handy when he began pursuing architecture, he says: ‘They [journalism and films] helped me to articulate my ideas simply because I think if you are able to write down something clearly then that is a big asset in architecture.
‘What I think movies are is actually a series of episodes which need to be put in a particular sequence so that a good story emerges.
‘Architecture too is very similar; you create meaningful episodes and put them in a sequence and then they come together as a completed project.’
Building on the same theme, he believes architecture is a continuation of journalism ‘in the sense that nothing allows you to enter a cultural situation better than architecture.
‘It means you are talking to the leadership but you are also talking to workers and talking to all the different layers in between. You are contributing your DNA to the DNA that exists; it’s a tool that enables you to intimately know about different cultures.’
With Dubai being such a melting point of cultures how does he foresee the emirate 50 years from now?
‘Very difficult for me to say,’ says Rem. ‘I don’t know to what extent the internet digital condition will really change life. That is a big question.
‘Internet will probably not change cities completely but the outcomes of the relationship between current reality and digital is really open-ended. So I don’t venture in prognosis. But I can say this,’ he says. ‘I think it will be very exciting.’
And his favourite buildings in Dubai?
Rem mulls the question for a couple of seconds. ‘I love the tallest building. But I also like John Harris’ tower [Dubai World Trade Centre]. That’s my kind of repertoire.’
Known for often looking at established conventions from a completely different perspective, Rem once said that his life story is one ‘of running against the current and running with the current’. At this age, is he tired of running against the current or does he find it fulfilling?
Rem leans back and laughs. ‘I admit that sometimes we occasionally challenge a lot of received wisdom but it’s not that we run always against the current.
‘Anyone who is working in architecture will know that it requires consensus from a large group and important group because the amount of money that we translate into architecture is always considerable. So I would put it that we more often challenge received wisdom than run against the currents.’ Then after a pause he says: ‘And no, it’s not tiring because it’s obviously stimulating.’
What else stimulates and inspires him?
‘I think the most important thing that inspires me is newness… to enter conditions you don’t know and in a relatively short period try to understand and decipher them. That’s stimulating and inspiring.’