Still Delirious: Has Rem Koolhaas Abandoned City?

More than any architect in recent memory, Rem Koolhaas bet his career on New York City. But he didn’t do it by building; he did it by writing.

Visiting the city on a fellowship during the architecturally moribund mid-70′s, Mr. Koolhaas wrote Delirious New York , a self-styled “retroactive manifesto” that laid out what had made New York an architectural capital and what it would take to regain the title. It put him at the forefront of New York’s architectural elites before he had laid a single brick.

But lately, Mr. Koolhaas’ position in New York has been severely diminished. He has lost a slew of American contracts, and after landing a major deal in China he’s been building a harsh critique of architecture in New York, and in the West in general. He is, it would seem, delirious no more. As he mounts his critique, the new Koolhaas will have to prove he is still relevant-and not just picking sour grapes.

Mr. Koolhaas’ relationship to New York City is at the center of his conundrum. Shortly after writing Delirious New York , he left the city for the Netherlands, and he now lives in London. But the central argument in Delirious New York -that New York’s architectural greatness stemmed from a meeting of two opposing forces, the strictly maintained street grid and the unstoppable power of speculative building-made him the leading theorist of New York’s built environment. New York was the singular place, he wrote, where “creation and destruction [are] irrevocably interlocked.” And he declared, portentously, that his theory would “yield a formula for an architecture that is at once ambitious and popular.”

No one doubts whether Delirious New York matters: Today it is required reading at many architecture programs, even though its author didn’t complete a project until 1991. It’s gone through a number of printings, and original copies fetch hundreds of dollars on the used-book market. And it laid the foundation for an entire Koolhaas library, much of which built on the ideas first presented in Delirious . And though Mr. Koolhaas has recently begun to add actual buildings to his résumé, it was largely thanks to his written work that he received architecture’s Nobel, the Pritzker Prize, in 2000-the youngest recipient ever.

So when Mr. Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, finally won a series of high-profile contracts in New York during the late 1990′s-a new Prada store in Soho, a $200 million Whitney expansion and a new Ian Schrager hotel on Astor Place-architectural insiders wondered aloud whether the time had come for him to prove his mettle.

And, not surprisingly, when both the Whitney and the Schrager contracts collapsed-along with a new headquarters for Universal, a $400 million renovation at the L.A. County Museum of Art and a failed bid for a new Secretariat building at the United Nations-Mr. Koolhaas’ critics went on the attack.

Privately, they said that Mr. Koolhaas was too arrogant and uncompromising to work in a city like New York, where arcane regulations and the vicissitudes of high finance make architecture-by-committee a necessity. (Ironically, this was something Mr. Koolhaas praised in Delirious New York .)

And while many of his contracts fell apart because of the recession, it didn’t help that Mr. Koolhaas insisted on huge price tags for his projects and, in some cases, alienated clients with his insistent, expansive personality. (As if to prove his critics’ point, during a lecture at Columbia Mr. Koolhaas bragged that his design for Schrager had “inspired terror in the inventor of the boutique hotel.”)

Mr. Koolhaas’ critics even circulated rumors that O.M.A. was on the verge of bankruptcy. The New York Post reported that “the world’s hippest architect” would be “closing his New York office after several lucrative American commissions were canceled,” and one rumor even held that Mr. Koolhaas had been axed by his own firm. He soon added fuel to the fire during the Columbia speech, when he said, off the cuff, that he “admitted defeat in New York.”

But despite his losses stateside-as a result of which he has had to lay off about 40 people, or more than a third of his staff-Mr. Koolhaas is hardly laying down his epee. Instead, he is turning to a place that has quickly become a mecca for world-class architects: China.

Wagons East

O.M.A. partner Josh Ramus runs the firm’s offices on Varick Street. There, on a recent morning, he pulled out a sheet of paper and quickly drew a world map.

“He kind of went this way to America,” Mr. Ramus said, drawing an arrow from Europe to New York. “It didn’t work, so now he’s going to go around this way. If it didn’t work by going west, he’s going east.”

He’s not alone.

“Every architect in the world right now is looking at China, because it seems to offer limitless opportunity,” said Robert Ivey, editor of Architectural Record . “It’s a place of almost unstoppable optimism-despite this momentary setback from SARS-and immense building projects that are ideally suited for someone who positions himself right on the cusp of change, as [Mr. Koolhaas] does.”

Indeed, thanks to a combination of the Olympics, a fast-growing economy and heavy amounts of overseas investment, high-profile architecture is all the rage in China. The team of Herzog and de Meuron, another Pritzker winner, is building the stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Norman Foster is designing an entire city district in Hong Kong. And the mega-firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has built a series of major projects, including Shanghai’s Jin Mao building, one of the world’s tallest.

Mr. Koolhaas himself has landed one of China’s largest architectural contracts to date, the $664 million China Cable Television headquarters in Beijing. The sort of building that architecture students dream of designing, it’s an anti-skyscraper straight out of Blade Runner , almost indescribable in its form-imagine a giant letter D, slightly torqued. At 5.5 million feet and 80 floors, it will be the largest building in Beijing.

“He’s chasing the dollars like any architect,” said Martin Pedersen, editor of Metropolis magazine. “They all want to build, and you go where there are clients willing to build and fund. China is one of those places. And they are mega-projects-they are huge . Architects love that sort of challenge, working on that size of scale. Especially Rem-Rem likes to build at a big scale. China is where he can do it.”

And it’s not just the CCTV project. Others are in the offing as well, said Mr. Ramus. “We’re getting a lot of interest. People are sending us maybe one or two projects a week, really major projects: a media center, we did a competition for a new national library, for sports facilities, and for a new [central business district] for Beijing.”

Not surprisingly, many of the things Mr. Koolhaas praises about China are exactly the things he blames for his failures in the United States. For one, he is quick to praise Chinese culture, especially China’s burgeoning entrepreneurial culture, as infused with a proclivity for daring experimentation.

“It’s a very young culture, and that implies a kind of energy and optimism,” he told The Observer in a recent telephone interview. “And a very bold culture.”

And then there’s the Chinese government’s enormous amount of cultural funding. “In the case of the Whitney,” Mr. Koolhaas said, “we were supported by the director and the staff, but you still feel the situation is much more vulnerable. One of the difficulties in America is that funding for cultural institutions is not a given; it is entirely dependent on fund-raising. In China, it is completely different.”

Mr. Koolhaas put it even more explicitly at his Columbia lecture. China, he said, has developed “communism in the form of a state that can still have a purpose,” while in the West, “there is not potential alignment for architecture to a project that could be for the public good.”

For a moment, it was as if the lecture-which drew so many people that more than 100 had to sit in an adjacent room and watch it over video-had been teleported to the Left Bank circa 1968. In the West, Mr. Koolhaas told his audience, “there is an increasing idolatry of the market as a concept, in which architecture was taken in a drastic manner from its base.” He even noted-with pride-that at the CCTV contract-signing, he’d read a quotation from Chairman Mao.

China also bears out, at least on one level, many of the ideas Mr. Koolhaas first proposed in Delirious New York . He says that architects working in America have been reduced to mere aestheticians, as he predicted in 1978, while corporate capital has taken over much of the building process.

As Exhibit A, he often cites the recent World Trade Center competition.

“[Daniel] Libeskind, with admirable efficiency, has succeeded in capturing the totalitarian moment,” Mr. Koolhaas said at the Columbia speech.

Out East, he continued, it’s different. China is “really experimenting with things,” he said. “It’s partly the youth, partly the economy. Modernization is really taking place.”

And though Mr. Koolhaas might not admit it, China is also appealing in that its well-funded command economy fits his own domineering personality. By providing him with what amounts to a blank check, China offers the flexibility and control that he demanded-and failed to receive-for his American projects. Not so New York City.

“There’s no public process in China,” said Mr. Pedersen. “There’s not those same sort of distractions.”

Clearly, Mr. Koolhaas wants to do for architecture in China what he did for architecture in New York-establish himself as its intellectual leader, though this time he’s hoping to be a major player on the ground as well.

And he’s already taking the offense, accusing other Western firms of violating China’s cultural sovereignty. He singles out Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for particular abuse; Skidmore, he claims, is little more than an architectural colonialist, addressing its projects in China as problems while treating the Chinese themselves as backward and incapable of good design. Skidmore’s work in China is “so infantile and so regressive that they should be sued,” he said.

Mr. Ramus agreed.

“Americans see this as: ‘They are asking for our salvation,’” he said during a recent interview at O.M.A.’s Varick Street office, a hectic loft strewn with scale models and spec books. “Get off it. They know what the fuck they’re doing. They are taking the best we’ve got, at a good price. They’re manipulating us as much as we’re manipulating them.”

Command Architecture

But there is an irony here that New Yorkers will recognize. While, on one level, Mr. Koolhaas’ thoughts on China do draw on Delirious New York , on another level they run counter to it. When Mr. Koolhaas writes, for example, that “the essence and strength of Manhattan is that all its architecture is ‘by committee’ and that the committee is Manhattan’s inhabitants themselves,” it’s hard to think of a more direct antonym than China, with its command economy and enormous skyscrapers built with little consideration of who will fill them.

It was never easy to say kind things about the state of architecture in New York-which was part of Delirious New York ‘s iconoclastic appeal.

“Even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to get anything done,” said Mr. Pedersen. “It’s hard to name five really great buildings in New York that have been built since 1970 …. There are all sorts of social, political and mostly financial, economic factors that weigh against good buildings getting built.”

It’s also possible that what lies at the heart of anti-Koolhaas sentiment is a recognition of the large grain of truth in what he has to say. After all, who could watch Larry Silverstein muscle his way into the World Trade Center design-something that was supposedly a public endeavor-and not wish that some benevolent government agency couldn’t step in and take over?

But Mr. Koolhaas’ difficulty in selling his ideas about China may be less about their worth than his personality.

“He’s an uncompromising fellow,” said Mr. Pedersen. “I’ve had dealings with him, and he’s not an easy personality. He’s a prickly guy, and he’s kind of arrogant.”

Ultimately, Mr. Koolhaas’ biggest stumbling block to regaining credibility among architecture’s chattering class may be the simple fact that he hasn’t completed many projects, a problem he himself recognizes.

“Skepticism is totally justified,” he said. “But the terrible thing is that you can’t do anything about it until something is there. So I am seriously committed. Once these buildings are there, things will be different.”

Ironically, that credibility may come thanks not to the CCTV building, but to the completion of two of his remaining American projects, a student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the main branch of the Seattle Public Library.

“When we have two buildings on the ground, then we will see where we are,” he said. “And people will see what we have done. I hope their response will be enthusiastic and also surprised. Actually, I am quite optimistic.”

Indeed, two things become evident when talking to Mr. Koolhaas. One is that, despite his dour Euro-hipness, he is actually an unrepentant optimist, and one gets the impression that his prohibitively expensive plans have less to do with his own ego than with an honest, if ambitious, desire to use architecture to advance society: the bigger the project, the more society advances.

And, perhaps as a result, most of his supporters think he’ll work in New York again. “He’ll be back,” said Mr. Ivey of Architectural Record . “We’re at the nexus, still at the nexus of the communication and world events, and no one who’s a serious architect is not going to want to be here.”

Or, as Mr. Ivey put it, “One day we’ll wake up with a great project in New York, and his name will be associated with it.”

Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of resistance to the idea that Mr. Koolhaas can stake out an intellectual lead. Many of his critics are simply dismissive, claiming that his “critique” is little more than a smokescreen to cover his shortcomings in America. Skidmore, after all, may be a neocolonial carpetbagger, but one of its chief architects, David Childs, has seen his star rising in New York-he’s taken the lead on AOL Time Warner’s Columbus Circle and the new Penn Station, as well as a back-room role in the World Trade Center project-along the reverse arc that Mr. Koolhaas’ own star has fallen.

Even his supporters admit to a bit of truth in that accusation.

“Is there a degree of sour grapes to this, because a lot of the projects in New York didn’t work out? Yeah,” said Mr. Pedersen.

Mr. Ramus, a somewhat savvier, younger version of the master, who came to O.M.A. after Mr. Koolhaas sat on his thesis jury at Harvard, concurred.

“The one thing I didn’t like about Rem’s lecture at Columbia is, it sounded very self-pitying,” he said.

Yet despite his newfound interest in China and his harsh words for American architects, Mr. Koolhaas is ultimately still enamored with New York City. “I love New York. But part of love,” he said, “is criticism.”