The shape of things to come: Rem Koolhaas's striking designs

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

For years, Rem Koolhaas's striking designs went unbuilt. Now his creations are sprouting up everywhere. He tells Susie Rushton about his first London building, and why iconic towers are over

Rem Koolhaas puts his mobile phone in the middle of the wooden café table between us, picks up two teacups and a glass of melting ice cubes, and arranges them in a circle around it.

The phone is barely visible. "So, this is the entrance here," he says, pointing into a tiny crevice between the cups, "and as you can see it's completely surrounded by other buildings, so from any angle you can only see fragments of it." The teacups represent the historic streets of Bank, in the heart of the City; the glass is St Stephen Walbrook church, designed by Christopher Wren and built in 1672. The mobile phone is playing the role of Koolhaas's new HQ for Rothschild bank, due to open next year. "It's a very nice site," he explains, lightly, in perma-ironic, Dutch-inflected tones. "Because it's such a dense site, it has an incredibly radical relationship with the city." Even more incredibly, when it opens next year the Rothschild building will be Koolhaas's first in London – even though he's lived in the city, on and off, since the 1960s, when he studied at the Architectural Association, just around the corner from where we're sitting on a sunny afternoon in Bloomsbury.

Koolhaas surely understates the importance of this building, which began life back in 2006, at the height of the boom. In the current climate, famous architects haven't had much to boast about. The calamitous effects of the credit crisis have wrecked the real estate industry and the economic underpinning of mega-projects. Architecture is a notoriously cyclical industry, but the current bust has hit the profession particularly badly. Most firms have laid off hundreds of workers as the stream of commercial clients and the speculators who finance their buildings dried up. Libeskind, Gehry, Foster – name any gilded name specialising in "iconic" towers – all have had prestigious projects either binned or put on hold. And although for most of his career Rem Koolhaas was, famously, an "unbuilt" architect, in the last decade his avant-garde designs were actually coming to life. Most notable have been Porto's concert hall, Seattle's Public Library, stores for Prada in Seoul, New York and LA, the 9-storey Wyly Theatre in Dallas, with its transformable auditorium, and the 54-floor CCTV building in Beijing – a mammoth structure resembling a twisted bridge – finished just in time for the Olympics.

His buildings don't swirl or blob like a Gehry or a Hadid. A Koolhaas building is often block-shaped, unprepossessing from a distance, but fun to interact with. In common with his starchitect peers, his designs are inevitably called "iconic".

But Koolhaas thinks this is a term that has lost its currency in the recession. "We've been able to step away from the iconic domain," he says, apparently relieved. When I ask him about the effects of the crash on his firm, he acknowledges that many projects in Dubai "went up in smoke". But the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the firm Koolhaas founded in his native Rotterdam in 1975, has global tentacles. "Because we're in Europe, China and America, we can really see the inequality of different economic conditions. It simply moved its grip to regions less affected by the banking crisis, notably North Africa and Hong Kong, and we just opened a new office in Asia. We shifted rather than diminished." But besides shifting attention east and south, Koolhaas has also continued to move forward by diversifying his work – which isn't much of a stretch given that he, above all other architects, has always been engaged with work other than designing actual buildings.

Even after he won the Pritzker Prize 10 years ago, Koolhaas remained the maverick of architecture, a figure who refused to see his craft as a force for social improvement, but instead celebrated the chaos of urban life. His books were for a long time more famous than his buildings. His first, Delirious New York (1978), theorised on the subject of Manhattan's skyscrapers; an entire library of fat, frenetic and often very funny books followed, at least two of which have been counterfeited by fans in Iran and China.

Some years ago Koolhaas opened a separate think-tank company, AMO, (named as the mirror image of OMA) to focus exclusively on his non-bricks-and-mortar projects, from catwalk shows for Prada and Miu Miu to creating a plan for decarbonising Europe's power grid, a project for the EU.

So as other architects scrambled to diversify in order to keep their firms afloat in choppy economic waters, Koolhaas has simply continued the extracurricular work for which he's always been known. Yes, he tells me, there are surviving building projects, including an educational campus in Doha and a cultural centre on the West Kowloon campus in Hong Kong among others, but it can't hurt in the current atmosphere to be known as the guy who creates more than just vanity skyscrapers for ambitious city-states and corporations.

His latest mission is defending an unpopular cause: Dubai. "There is a massive sense of condescension towards the people there," he starts. More than any other place, to the Western media Dubai and the Gulf came to symbolise the hubris of the boom era. The schadenfreude response to Dubai's fall after 2008 is of a piece with anti-Arab sentiment, he believes, one that judges the Gulf to have been naïve in believing it could build world-class metropolises. "The speculation might have disappeared, but what remains there is nothing to be sneezed at. Fifteen years ago, Dubai was very modest. Now we have clear evidence of an Arab [version of] modernity. That in itself is a huge achievement."

Called Al Manakh (meaning both "market" and "climate"), the book is a collection of 140 articles and interviews about the situation on the ground. "Many [Western] people went there for the first time [after the 2008 crash] and saw it as something that happened in one go, and therefore representative of a contemporary absurdity. It was a patchwork of outrageous convictions, aesthetics, labour, religion... everything. But if you looked more carefully at each of those aspects, there's more to say." It's not the first time he has said the unsayable about Dubai: an earlier publication attempted to challenge criticism of a migrant underclass exploited by construction firms. In the latest book, one article examines how migrant workers from Kerala have transformed entire villages back home from pay earned in the labour camps. "Westerners don't really want to understand [Dubai]. But I think it's also part of a bigger Western trauma, which is that we are no longer in charge. We still try to maintain our status, but we've basically lost it."

Koolhaas believes his affinity with the Gulf region comes from a period of childhood spent in another Muslim nation, Indonesia. "It felt very familiar to me," he says. Although every architect you'd care to name went there to build unfettered symbols of wealth over the last decade, most producing work routinely described as highly vulgar, OMA's interest in the Gulf has not been purely commercially driven, he insists. "It wasn't just about [looking for] a situation to exploit, but as a form of engagement."

Beyond the Arabian Gulf, he argues, the crash of Western markets might have actually been a good thing for architecture in general, grown plump as it had with speculation and globalised aesthetics.

"We're very glad that what I call the "YES" regime – which means the Yen, the Euro and the US dollar – which began in the 1980s and that dictated every value in every country, has finally come to an end. And I think it's a very good thing that the state is becoming responsible again after a long time of deregulation.

"In architecture certain things have become possible again. I was giving a lecture the other day and I showed a really unglamorous picture of an architect in the 1980s, holding a blueprint, really badly dressed, and behind him there is housing being built, disappearing into the horizon. That kind of architect is almost unthinkable until recently, but maybe that is coming back. Now we're expected only to design "the exceptional" and, to me, that's very uncomfortable. In a serious climate, [people are] more susceptible to serious ideas."

Koolhaas glides easily between the construction site, the fashion catwalk, publishing and consulting on the development potential of entire nations. An unlikely new client is Libya, specifically "a subtle group of people around the [Gaddafi] son there who want to pull the country toward Europe." Koolhaas has been engaged not to build but to develop the Libyan Sahara for tourism: "It's preservation," he explains, if one begins to imagine mechanized buildings rising from the sands, "We don't always want to build. We've found ways other than building to address situations."

If his apparent omnipotence makes him the ideal consultant for ambitious leaders of developing countries, established Europe also wants Rem's opinion. This year he was engaged by the EU to join a think tank of 11 wise Europeans to propose "ideas for the Union by 2030," the results of which are to be presented to Herman Van Rompuy this month. ("I am pro a European army. Without it, Europe accepts a diminishing of its role.") Taking the EU in hand isn't new to Koolhaas; in 2002, AMO created a new flag for the community, a brightly coloured "bar code" that was a composite of the colours of every member state; Austria used it as a logo during its 2006 Presidency. As a longstanding consultant to the EU brand, what does he make of the forces that currently threaten to bring down the ideal of a rainbow superstate?

"The problem of Europe is that it has a structure that was initiated but never completed. It has been receded by stealth; originally, it was driven by very intelligent people who put something in place that worked on their terms. But now there is a new generation of leaders who are more involved in running their own countries. Europe became an alibi for what was a problem in those individual countries. The current situation is an outcome of that – there are no defenders, only critics. So it can no longer evolve. It's crystal clear to me."

It's easy to fall into wide-ranging conversation with Koolhaas, who at 64 works a disarmingly stylish look, in head-to-toe Prada, and a slender figure honed by a rigorous daily swimming schedule. He so obviously enjoys his role as intellectual-for-hire that often one can entirely forget about the buildings.

Seeded in the boom years, they are continuing to sprout up. Next year his design for a Maggie's cancer care centre in Glasgow will open, to be followed by a revamp of the Commonwealth Institute in west London. But curious pedestrians can already view his first British major building.

Intrigued by the design for Rothschild, as represented by teacups and a mobile phone, the day after our interview I take the short journey to Bank to see if there are any obvious signs of his new creation. Armed only with the name of a nearby lane, I'm concerned I might not be able to locate the site. I needn't have worried. When I emerge from the Tube at Bank, the roads are closed to traffic, enormous yellow low-loaders blocking the way as cranes are winched up into the sky, starting the final effortful months of "topping out" the tower.

Just as Koolhaas described, its position in the midst of the ancient city means it is only visible in glimpses. It's a building that doesn't so much alter London's skyline as colour in the gaps: a flash of pale greenish-silver glass seen down narrow Georgian streets. One of the greatest architects of his generation is finally about to make his mark in Britain. Just don't call it "iconic".

For further reading:

'S, M, L, XL' by Rem Koolhaas (Monacelli Press)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own