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21 Feb, 2020 06:58

Rem Koolhaas: I’m the prototype of cognitive dissonance

Architect, urbanist and writer Rem Koolhaas is a true explorer; he likes to palpate the present to figure out the future. We travelled to his Office for Metropolitan Architecture to talk about how our cities will change and more.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Rem, it's so good to have you here on our program. I've been wanting to ask you all kinds of questions, big questions, existential ones. 

Rem Koolhaas: I'll try. 

SS: Yes, but I want to start with your exhibit at the Guggenheim that's opening. So it's called “Countryside. The Future”. And it's really funny you say that because most of the people I've spoken to, big thinkers, futurologists, most of them agree that the future is within big cities. There won’t even be countries, just big cities. So when you name it like that, is it just a concept or do you really believe the future is in the countryside?

RK: No, it's, of course, a provocation, but it's a very calculated provocation because in 2007, the UN said that half of mankind was living in cities and basically from that moment, cities are the only thing anyone has been looking at. And cities have been what people have been publishing about and doing studies about. And all our intellectual concentration has gone to cities. The prediction is that in the end, maybe 70 or 80 per cent of mankind will live in cities and I think that at that point we will be in a completely absurd situation that, kind of, basically, you know, all of us are concentrating on already very overcrowded kind of situations and that we leave the countryside with all its potential, all its beauty, all its history, all its nature alone. And so I think it's more of a statement that we should not let it happen and that we need to look at the countryside again, that we have to be prepared to live in the countryside again, but of course, in a totally new way and we're showing some evidence of that, but we’re also showing the need for that.

SS: But is it a statement that actually offers some solutions? I'll tell you, I'm saying because the country where I come from has a huge territory. And I see that 17 villages every year disappear from the map of Russia. And it's understandable: the weather, the money's in the cities, living conditions, all of that. But maybe something from your perspective, maybe a solution that you're offering could reverse this in my country?

RK: Well, I think that people can leave because there is a kind of real indoctrination that opportunity coincides with the city and that therefore, everywhere the city drains people away from the countryside, from villages - it happens in Russia, it happens in Africa, it happens in Europe. But I think that if you could reverse the indoctrination or reverse the propaganda… Well, actually, we are also making propaganda for it. And I can kind of show small evidence. For instance, in Africa, we were working with the University of Nairobi. We had a hundred architecture students and basically, you know, after spending a week in the countryside 60 per cent of them saw their future in the countryside, and, for instance, in Africa already people, you know, typically have one foot in the countryside and one foot in the city. So there are models of living in the countryside and particularly with new technologies, new ways of using media, new ways of using the Internet that enable people to live there.

SS: So, OK, we're talking about the concept now, which I understand. But if we talk architecture-wise, for instance, I was talking to your countrymen, Mark Post, I don't know if you know, who he is. He is this amazing guy, a vascular physiologist, who makes meat out of stem cell, you know? And so we're talking to him and he actually showed us the meat. And right now, it's hamburgers. But in the future, it's going to be steak, all kinds of great steaks and everything. And he's talking to me scientifically how in 30, 40 years farmers in the countryside (and your country is big in farming) aren't even going to have cattle anymore because the meat is going to be made out of, you know, bioreactors that you have in your house. So everything because of technology, like you're saying, if changing, including the landscape, including this space of how, you know, life in a countryside would look, have you imagined what it would look like?

RK: Of course. Basically, you cannot look at the countryside without knowing that there will be an enormous amount of change. But you also cannot look at the countryside and kind of realise that in terms of climate change, there's an enormous pressure to actually keep more and more and more of the countryside. There is a kind of plan to preserve, 60 per cent or more of the entire world, you know, in terms of protected areas or reservations or whatever. So, yes, everything will change. But part of the change will also be to live in the countryside in a new way if only to simply maintain it or to maintain the kind of presence there. Plus the fact that I think our cities are not that wonderful. Our cities are the kind of centres of inequality. You see whole generations that don't get a foothold in the city. It is actually really absurd that they don't live in the much more pleasant, much more relaxing, much more healthy environments, in much more affordable environments of the countryside.

SS: So now you're talking to me as a thinker, as a man of theory, which you also are, but at the same time, you're a man who thinks in forms, right? So when we think your buildings, it's like the farthest thing from the landscape of the countryside. Can you maybe in a few simple words, explain how it would look in forms - the future of the countryside, architecture-wise or space-wise?

RK: Well, I think I'm part of a generation, a generation of 1968 that, you know, already in the 60s and already in the 70s — I've never been a hippie but, of course, hippies were perfectly able to imagine what it would be like to live in a countryside. They were having theories on how you could live in communes. Of course, in the Soviets there have been incredible communes, kind of occupying and living in the countryside, operating in the countryside. I think it will not be a kind of situation very soon. Everything looks different. But I think what would need to happen is that the psychological negativity about the countryside is reversed, in the first instance, also on the psychological level. So I don't think it's new forms that will happen, although, of course, new technologies will imply new forms or new-ish forms. But I see it more as a kind of basically a campaign, almost independent of architecture. And that has been for me also one of the great revelations that in every profession you are always a prisoner of all the parameters of the profession, and that actually if you want to think of a real solution, maybe you should not look at a solution that is defined by the architectural field, but just look outside.

SS: But talking about professions, I am observing right now how so many professions are becoming slowly obsolete. And you're wondering which one of that is going to be obsolete tomorrow. So you're saying in your essay “Junkspace”, architecture per se disappeared in the 20th century. What does it mean? 

RK: Well, that was kind of actually a political comment. I think that architecture, strong and good architecture is related to the public sector. I think that architecture is a public profession, a profession that works for the public. And when I say “architecture disappeared”, I think that the public client largely disappeared in the kind of period of neoliberalism and more and more went from public to private. And I think that therefore, you know, the nobility of architecture or the kind of good intentions of architecture that were unquestioned maybe even 40 years ago have simply evaporated under that kind of pressure of the private.

SS: But that's also evolution, you know.

RK: Yeah.

SS: It’s part of evolution.

RK: Of course, it's evolution. And I'm still an architect within that system and I'm not saying you can't do architecture, but it's a fundamentally different kind of role that you're playing in the current culture than you could play 40 years ago. And I lived long enough to realise that things that seemingly changed forever may be able to change again in a different direction or even to the way it was.

SS: The things that are changing so drastically in my lifetime are the things that globalisation has changed. And I mean, whether you like globalisation or not, it's here, it's irreversible. And then what you have as a given is that problems have become global, art has become global. Is there such a thing as global architecture?

RK: I think it's a very crucial question because, yes, we had an apotheosis of globalisation and now we have almost a reverse, kind of vast critique on globalisation and disappointment with globalisation. And I would say yes, there is a global architecture and it's not an architecture that looks the same everywhere, but it is an architecture that engages different conditions everywhere in a different way. For instance, I did the library in the city of Seattle in the first part of the 21st century. Maybe ten years later, I did the Qatar National Library and the value, the relative value, the aura, the ambition and the quality of each of the buildings is completely different. Even though I was the author and it's completely different because you have a different form of interaction with a different culture, with a different form of know-how, with the different technologies, with different environments. So I think that it's extremely important right now to look at, you know, good globalisation and to maintain enthusiasm for it because I think it would be too simple to say, OK, it was a mistake. We go back and let's forget about it.

SS: It's so funny that you bring Seattle and Qatar and you saying, even though I'm the same architect, that those buildings are so different because one of the downfalls of the globalisation for many is the loss of identity. For instance, when you look at the buildings, especially in Europe, like you can say, this is an Haussmannian building, this is a Bavarian tavern, Italian palazzo. But when you look at modern buildings, all skyscrapers look the same. Everyone wants to do something like you or Zaha Hadid and they don’t have a national identity.

RK: OK. There's a lot of that and it's true. And I think that I have two opinions about it. If there is so much similarity, it means that people like similarity and that therefore the loss of identity is not necessarily a problem but is actually something that people like because maybe that gives you the kind of familiarity everywhere or a kind of repetition of the same expectation, the same environment. So I wrote an article about that, “Generic City”, which is going to simply say, OK, we can continue to complain about it, but we can also ask the question maybe people like it and why would they like it. On the other hand, I did a biennale in 2014 in Venice and asked every single country to describe the history of the last hundred years, and those last hundred years are, of course, the period that each country had to become modern in some way. And what it really showed is the incredible diversity, the incredible eccentricity of every kind of story, the incredible expression of modernity in Yugoslavia, how different it was from modernity in Kenya, how different it is from modernity in Finland. So I think that if you look carefully, this whole story about disappearing identity is actually a fake story.

SS: Your term “bigness” in architecture, from what I understand, it's the fact that everything is sort of anonymous in a way that it can be a library or a hospital or a building where people live, apartment building and you wouldn't know the difference looking at it. And I just, because I was a political journalist in the past, we had this parallel, where until recently all the politicians and leaders looked alike like you would not make a difference. They were all like gray. And then all of a sudden people started voting for the most unexpected people, like Trump or Johnson or like Marine Le Pen almost became president France. I mean, you can like them or hate them, but they're certainly not average. So I was thinking that this was the need of people to have something that is not… 

RK: ...to go beyond anonymity and beyond a single typology?

SS: Exactly. Do you think something like that could happen in architecture where we go back to some extravagant things?

RK: There are many extravagant things in architecture...

SS: Maybe “extravagant” is not like quite the right word for it... 

RK: You could even say that architecture kind of went through that exact return already in the last 20 years. And you could even think that exactly, because we became so dominated by economic incentives that there is not a single developer who tells you, “please do something really boring and really neutral and rich people don't notice”. It's all about “please make an icon, please be noticeable, please be exceptional, please be hysterical”. So in architecture, we've had that kind of period towards more extreme typologies. And I’ll leave to you to judge how satisfying it was.

SS: But what about the whole bigness thing? Because I see it too. I see what you see. I don't like it.

RK: You know, bigness was just a way of maybe both exploring but also reassuring people. And, you know, I've been a writer as part of my activity, I simply sometimes see that certain issues are becoming kind of big or inflated or critical or tragic simply because nobody can really interpret them in a kind of very precise way. And so I looked at bigness simply to say, OK, since the early 20th century, the typical expectation of architecture that when you see something, you immediately understand it and you understand what it is for and you understand how it works, is no longer valid. And so it is no longer valid because of certain reasons. And those reasons have mostly to do with new technologies that enable buildings to be kind of taller, bigger and etc. And so it's not that I take a position, but I try to give the most precise explanation so that, you know, certain unhappiness can be avoided simply through understanding things.

SS: But you know how before an artist, any artist, including an architect, could just be and do whatever he wanted to do without really thinking? I mean, that's the feeling we got.

RK: The beauty of architecture is that no architect could ever do what they wanted. And no architecture would ever be able to do carte blanche. If you look at the history of Michelangelo you see that the popes told him that he had to kind of defend himself, that he had to kind of change his design five different times because somebody didn't like it. Architecture is a kind of incredible profession. It's like you want something, it's always somebody wants something. You say, I can do it. But then a dialogue begins, and in a way the better the architecture, the more intense the dialogue. And it's all about responding to what you need to do, what you have to do. It's about exploring within the lack of freedom where the freedoms still are.

SS: You must be experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance in your profession.

RK: Yes, I made you laugh. But I'm maybe the prototype of cognitive dissonance, a perfect term.

SS: But with all due respect, it's good that you say this because if you are a writer and you write a book that I don't like, I can put it away half-way. If you build something, I mean, I'm stuck with it for at least my lifetime. I have to look at it every day. 

RK: Actually even that is not true. There is a number of buildings that I did that are terrible.

SS: How do you feel about that?

RK: It's the situation. 

SS: You know Ivo Andric, he's like one of my favorite Serbian writers. He says that an artist dies twice, first physically and then second one when his oeuvre is no more. Do you feel the same way? Like if you're building is teared down do you feel like it’s a little death?

RK: I’m not thinking about dying, and for the time being, I'm postponing the first death without thinking about the second.

SS: Ok, but there's something that I keep thinking about all the time, because we have so many problems now, along with global warming and overpopulation, first of all. So it's only obvious that in the future we're going to have to build more buildings, more compact buildings, need to tear down more buildings because we need to house these people somewhere. Do you feel like we're going to have this problem of heritage versus putting people in buildings?

RK: Absolutely. Two things. I think that the issue of global warming is very important in our show. We actually have a very detailed look at Siberia, looking at the melting of permafrost, how people survive there, and we have focused on Irkutsk and seeing all kinds of incredible phenomena happening there, you know, in terms of how you survive and how you can flourish in those extremely difficult conditions. And also in order to deal with global warming, the revaluing of the countryside is extremely important here because it is clear that, you know, maybe certain technologies will help us, but simply nature itself also has to help us and we have to restore nature to a much more important role than it has now and a much more demanding client in a certain way. So that is another crucial message of this exhibition that what we’re doing now is almost like lemmings who are walking to the city. We can simply not afford, even for our own survival, to abandon the countryside.

SS: So it's not exactly what you're saying, but could it be also that if we take the countryside and start living there, we won't have to tear down Arc de Triomphe in order to build a high-rise so that people can be housed?

RK: I think that nobody... If you look at statistics and if you look at quantities, I think one of the difficulties is that so many discussions have become extremely emotional and basically based on slogans. But if you look statistically, there is actually, you know, the numbers that we are accommodating now are... we can really handle them. We don't need to kind of break half of the city. The only good reason would be to replace dysfunctional entities with things that can work much better and more discretely. And I think there's no problem. There will never be a situation that anyone is forced to eliminate beautiful things of the earth.

SS: Thank God you're saying that. But still, a job of an architect is, no matter how great he is, to transform space, to create new space, new things, right? So it's only inevitable that your buildings will pop up next to 18th-century buildings...

RK: Well, I thought so too. But maybe 50 years ago I became really interested in preservation for a diversity of reasons. And that's why I did the Garage. And that's why I'm currently working on the Tretyakov Gallery basically, you know, without any ambition to take, to destroy, but with the ambition simply to improve, but also to maintain what was good about those buildings. And I think that, you know, both in the Garage and the Tretyakov there is an incredible generosity of scale, enormous spaces that would be very expensive to convert today. And so I think even the model of the architect, as somebody who's only doing new things and therefore competing with what is there is a bit old-fashioned.

SS: What does the future of the form? Because what you're talking about transforming the countryside, but look, we're like on this unheard-of, unseen epochal break with this artificial intelligence, robotisation. I mean, it's certainly going to transform the forms of architecture. So what is it going to look like?

RK: I don't think it will necessarily look... Once you get used to things, maybe they don't look like chaos anymore. I think that there is also a kind of reason to believe that we need to operate with much greater discipline. And whether we want it or not, but that will... And so we need to embrace that. And once we embrace that, I think that cacophony is not necessarily kind of something that we are forced to produce in the future. I really think that the kind of pressures we are under are more likely to end in a more sober landscape, more sober cities and more obviously more intelligent. But neutrality or modesty can also be a form of intelligence.

SS: I'm just trying to figure out... I don't have kids, I'm thinking about having them now. So I'm really trying to figure out in what kind of space they will be living in. When you're talking about your generic city of the future, it could be any city, any place. But for me, that is like the notion of “my home, my castle” disappears, privacy disappears. Describe it. Where are my kids going to live in the future?

RK: I think your kids will still live in Moscow and they will still be able to live in Moscow. And if they want to they can go to Dubai or they can go to Delhi. So I think that that will not be radically different. And I think it's a very beautiful question, of course, - what life will my kids have? But it may be also kind of tragic that we are now forced to ask that question instead of being able to kind of simply reproduce without too many worries. I suggest you can reproduce without too many worries.

SS: Okay. I'll take this advice. Thank you so much for this wonderful interview and I hope I'll see you in Moscow again. 

RK: OK, very good. Thank you.