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Evil Can also Be Beautiful

SPIEGEL Interview with Dutch Architect Rem Koolhaas

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koolhaas, you plan to enter politics as a socialist. Doesn't being a working top architect keep you busy enough?

Koolhaas: I'm not interested in going into politics in the classic sense, but why shouldn't I, if I can do something useful? There are so many unresolved questions, and in my view politicians are not up to the challenge. I don't intend to help out as an individual, but rather with my entire firm, OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and my think tank, AMO.

SPIEGEL: What is a socialist like you doing designing shops for fashion house Prada and its world of luxury?

Koolhaas: Do the old-fashioned socialists you are apparently referring to even exist anymore? I'm pleased to have Prada as a client that is moving today's culture forward. I like fashion, whether or not it's overpriced, because it creates a sense of the sublime with relatively few means. Where else do you find that?

SPIEGEL: What connects architecture with politics?

Koolhaas: All important architecture of the last century was strongly influenced by political systems. Look at the Soviet system, with its constructivism and Stalinism, Weimer with its Modern style, Mussolini and, of course, the Nazis and Albert Speer's colossal structures.

SPIEGEL: And the present?

Koolhaas: Today's architecture is subservient to the market and its terms. The market has supplanted ideology. Architecture has turned into a spectacle. It has to package itself and no longer has significance as anything but a landmark.

SPIEGEL: You also criticize yourself with statements like those. Your television center in Beijing, the CCTV Tower for the Central Chinese Television network, will change the city and give it a new face.

Koolhaas: One cannot completely avoid this landmark character with large buildings such as these. But the city itself is also gigantic. Working on this project at this location and for these people gives the building a powerful sense of content and, as a result, a great deal of seriousness.

SPIEGEL: Do national peculiarities still play a role in architecture these days?

Koolhaas: There are essentially two possibilities. One is to be, shall we say, an average architect and do the same thing everywhere. The other is to let yourself be inspired and even changed by the unique qualities of the place where you're building. We always try to take the second approach. As far as I'm concerned, our CCTV in China is inconceivable in another location and, of course, cannot be duplicated.

SPIEGEL: You often criticize fellow architects like Frank Gehry, with his stacked metal designs, and purist I.M. Pei for not being serious enough. Why?

Koolhaas: I don't criticize them. I merely try to put as much distance as possible between them and me. I find their approach unsatisfying. I don't believe that every ambition has to be expressed in steel, glass or concrete.

SPIEGEL: These architects are very successful.

Koolhaas: That's fine. But Gehry, to focus on him for a moment, would never be asked about his political views. On the other hand, our firm AMO has worked for the European Union in Brussels. We tried to make the EU's political message clearer, more attractive and easier to communicate.

SPIEGEL: So architects should have a social and political conscience?

Koolhaas: It certainly doesn't do any good, but I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that that's true and to look for this conscience.

SPIEGEL: Sociologists have assigned part of the blame for the recent riots in the French suburbs to failed architectural concepts. Are they right?

Koolhaas: The architecture per se isn't at fault. The more important factor, in my view, is the political neglect of these areas, which have essentially been cut off from other neighborhoods.

SPIEGEL: Berlin painter Heinrich Zille, whose work often portrayed the poor, said that one can kill a person with an apartment as effectively as with an ax.

Koolhaas: Let's put it this way: One can be happy or unhappy in a building. But some buildings make us more depressed than others.

SPIEGEL: One of the goals of the Bauhaus movement was to design an antidote to the gloom of tenement housing. Does the motto "form follows function" still apply today?

Koolhaas: It was always more of a slogan than a program. I don't think anyone believes in it anymore. I see many superfluous things in design today. It may be that the pendulum will swing back and the austere esthetic will return.

SPIEGEL: You are also an author. Can architecture be compared to a story, a novel or even a poem?

Koolhaas: Yes. I used to write screenplays for Russ Meyer?

SPIEGEL: ... who became famous for his sex films starring large-breasted women.

Koolhaas: In a script, you have to link various episodes together, you have to generate suspense and you have to assemble things -- through editing, for example. It's exactly the same in architecture. Architects also put together spatial episodes to make sequences.

SPIEGEL: Tell us about "Hollywood Tower," the script you wrote for Russ Meyer.

Koolhaas: I wrote it in 1974 with Rene Daalder, and it consists of three levels. At the first level, wealthy Arabs buy up the Hollywood film archive and build a computer with which any star can be put back on the screen. The second level deals with the Nixon administration, which spends a fortune helping out-of-work actors -- including Lassie -- get jobs in the movies again. Finally, the third level is about Russ Meyer, of course, who is shooting a porn film -- the last form of humanism.

SPIEGEL: This potential masterpiece was never finished.

Koolhaas: Fassbinder and other directors were our influences at the time. Unfortunately, Meyer didn't think it was the right material for him.

SPIEGEL: Architecture seems easier in this respect.

Koolhaas: That's what you think! It comes with similar frustrations.

SPIEGEL: What are some of the things that have happened to you?

Koolhaas: EuroDisney, near Paris, is a case in point. In the early 1990s, we, together with other leading architecture firms, such as Peter Eisenman and Jean Nouvel, were invited to take part in a competition. The whole thing turned out to be a tragic experience of what architecture means today and how creativity is dealt with. One day, during the vacation period, we were all summoned to the Hotel Georg V in Paris to meet with Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman at the time. It turned out that several different architects had been scheduled to appear at the same building on the hotel grounds. It was awkward. Once we had all presented our proposals, Eisner met privately with his two American senior architects. After long consideration, the two architects told their boss: "Michael, we believe that the Europeans out there are harming the idea of Disney." We were all promptly fired. That's capitalism in a democracy.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't it trouble you to be working in countries like China and Dubai, which are not democratic, but autocratic?

Koolhaas: It's controversial, of course. But what's the alternative? Hospitals and kindergartens are OK, but a building for Chinese television is a bad thing? I see it differently. If we get involved with a country like this, we should be involved in the important matters, not the unimportant ones. Before we take on a project, we take a close look at the situation in the country. As a professor at Harvard, I have spent more than ten years carefully studying the direction in which China is developing. I'm convinced that it'll be positive in the end.

SPIEGEL: Is it easier to work in these types of countries than in excessively bureaucratic democracies?

Koolhaas: That's what I thought at the beginning. But precisely the opposite is the case. Working in these countries is unbelievably methodical, slow and by the book.

SPIEGEL: In methodical Germany, a major debate is currently underway in Berlin over whether to rebuild or start from scratch. Is tearing down the Palace of the Republic the right thing to do, and should the reconstructed Hohenzollern palace (which East German authorities demolished in 1950) really be erected in its place?

Koolhaas: I think tearing down the palace is a crime, simply because it was a special, recognizable artifact of a past political system. In my view, Berlin is nothing but a collection of overlapping regimes. It's unhealthy in a historical sense to eradicate this characteristic building.

SPIEGEL: But the palace was ugly.

Koolhaas: Ugliness also has a right to exist. Our society can no longer tolerate ugliness. You see that in cars, sofas and women. But seriously, if something like this building is ugly but nevertheless important, we must preserve it.

SPIEGEL: And if it had been beautiful and important? Shouldn't architects be the prophets of beauty?

Koolhaas: Beauty isn't what I'm primarily interested in. I think appropriateness is more important.

SPIEGEL: What do you think is the world's most beautiful building?

Koolhaas: Very conventionally, the Pantheon in Rome, for example. Isn't it remarkable? Talk about beauty and you get boring answers, but talk about ugliness and things get interesting.

SPIEGEL: What are the greatest architectural sins?

Koolhaas: Evil has many faces. It can also arise both from inability or from malicious intentions.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that evil and ugliness are the same thing?

Koolhaas: Not necessarily. Evil can also be beautiful. The Coliseum in Rome, for example, a wonderful structure with an awful past. Just think about the bloody gladiator fights there.

SPIEGEL: You were born in 1944 in Rotterdam, a city the Germans almost completely destroyed.

Koolhaas: Only the downtown area. We were lucky, because we lived in a modern glass building on the outskirts, and the 1944/45 winter was incredibly cold, but sunny. We had no heat, so my parents put me on the balcony, where I was almost burned to a crisp by the sun, but I survived. In my opinion, Rotterdam is one of the capitals of European architecture, and that's certainly only the case because it was destroyed. Destruction can be very stimulating.

SPIEGEL: When did you first dream of becoming an architect?

Koolhaas: I never really dreamed of it. But when I was 24, I was walking down the street one day and had a kind of vision that I should become an architect.

SPIEGEL: Some people say that if architects had to live in their own buildings, cities would be more attractive today.

Koolhaas: Oh, come on now, that's really trivial.

SPIEGEL: Where do you live?

Koolhaas: That's unimportant. It's less a question of architecture than of finances.

SPIEGEL: You're avoiding the question. Where do you live?

Koolhaas: OK, I live in a Victorian apartment building in London.

SPIEGEL: And you're asking Berliners to put up with their view of the Palace of the Republic.

Koolhaas: My generation is the first to experience its professional life colliding with globalization. We're accustomed to seeing everything within a global context. That's another reason why I believe it's a bad idea to eliminate the palace from Berlin. They could just as well have removed the Reichstag.

SPIEGEL: Another argument that has prevailed in Berlin is that the historical downtown area must be revived. What will cities look like in the future? Do we even need such downtown areas?

Koolhaas: The old contrast between downtown and suburban areas is outdated.

SPIEGEL: Wait a minute, isn't the current trend moving away from suburbia and back to the city?

Koolhaas: Yes, for now. And do you know what's so ironic about that? The people from the suburbs are bringing along their suburban values: cleanliness, orderliness, safety -- dullness, in other words. As a result, urban areas are being hollowed out. Just look at Times Square in New York. No more sex shops, no drugs, no homeless people. The area is clinically clean and incredibly dull.

SPIEGEL: Demographers predict that the world's population will continue growing until 2050 and begin shrinking after that. What does this mean?

Koolhaas: Architect Oswald Mathias Ungers and I have already come up with the theory that it will be just as important to plan for the decline of cities as for new construction in them. Look at Berlin. There have been all kinds of construction there, but many of its buildings are vacant.

SPIEGEL: What do you learn from that?

Koolhaas: I'm currently working on an expansion of the famous Hermitage in St. Petersburg, scheduled for completion in 2014. In that case, we are using existing old buildings for the museum. There will be no new construction. That's unheard of for an architect, don't you think?

SPIEGEL: Is there a building that you still want to build?

Koolhaas: No. The beauty of my profession lies in its randomness and surprise. And don't think I can choose my projects. I have to build what's offered to me.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koolhaas, thank you for this interview.

Koolhaas, 61, is one of the most influential architects of our day. His buildings, including the Dutch embassy in Berlin and the concert house in the northern Portuguese city of Porto, are characterized by an idiosyncratic, stern language of shapes and by rooms cleverly nested within one another. Koolhaas, also a theoretician and author, recently published his book "Content," available through Taschen Publishing. He lives in London and has offices in Rotterdam, New York and Beijing.

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