Skip to content ↓

Controversial architect Koolhaas discusses future of cities

Rem Koolhaas, designer of the Seattle Public Library, among other works.
Rem Koolhaas, designer of the Seattle Public Library, among other works.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Necessity can be the mother of innovation even at an institute of technology: When a PowerPoint presentation by world-renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas failed to work for his scheduled lecture on Nov. 14, staff of the Department of Architecture quickly switched gears on Koolhaas' behalf and transformed the event from a lecture into a "conversation" with faculty and students.

That suited many in the audience. There was a near-capacity turnout in Room 10-250 to hear Koolhaas, an influential yet controversial figure in the architecture world.

A Dutch graduate of the Architecture Association School in London, Koolhaas cofounded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in 1975 and won the Pritzker Prize in 2000. Yet his style defies categorization; he was a writer and a social critic before he became a working architect, and his 1978 book, "Delirious New York," examines urban development. A professor at Harvard, he conducts the Project on the City, a research program investigating changing urban conditions.

"The architecture of Rem Koolhaas has been called Structuralist, post-Structuralist Humanist, post-Humanist, Neo-Modernist influenced by (Gilles) Deleuze or just plain old delusional," said Mark Jarzombek, professor of the history of architecture and director of the History, Theory and Criticism Program, in his introduction.

More recently, Koolhaas was mentioned, in a not particularly flattering way, in an article in the New Yorker magazine on the sprawling growth of the Nigerian city Lagos. Koolhaas has been studying conditions in Lagos for 11 years and has written articles and an upcoming book that see the African megacity as a harbinger of future urban development. The New Yorker article sniped at researchers who view Lagos as a "hip icon of the latest global trends."

Koolhaas' MIT lecture was intended to focus on Lagos. But shorn of his slides, he answered questions about his work there. In response to a question by Alexander d'Hooghe, assistant professor of architecture and urban design, Koolhaas detailed his approach.

To avoid "tourism," he matched Harvard students with local students for research. He sought evidence of inhabitants' resiliency, finding that, for example, the huge slowdowns of traffic on highway cloverleafs fostered the creation of markets catering to bus passengers. While at first sight, the extreme poverty seems to show that Lagos is a "city in crisis," Koolhaas sees "self-regulating chaos" at work. Yet, he noted ruefully, as a result "we are accused of being completely free of human feeling."

Koolhaas remains concerned with the forces of globalization, even though, he acknowledged, architecture is not an "ideal tool for politics." Globalization has entered a new stage, he said, as the United States has increasingly become "more detached" after Sept. 11.

There is, he said, a "noticeable lack of fear--which is perhaps the best word--of American power and American culture." This will create the chance for Russia and Europe to more fully define themselves.

Koolhaas said he was considering moving his business to Brussels as part of his commitment to the new European Union. Among Koolhaas' achievements is the design of a multicolored "barcode" symbol that unites the flags of European countries into a single image.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 22, 2006 (download PDF).

Related Topics

More MIT News