Rem Koolhaas Essay

Our chosen strip is bordered in the North by Stad van de Zon, a new sustainable suburban expansion; in the South by a fort in the Amsterdam Defence Line, a Unesco World Heritage site; in the east by the Beemster Polder, also a Unesco World Heritage site; and in the west by farmland. Inside these coordinates we started to uncover Intermedi-stan, a land of the in-between.

The strip is undergoing two simultaneous and contradictory mutations. On the one hand, farmers are diversifying.

The second mutation is the influx of urbanites wanting to sample life in the countryside, attracted by the aura of authenticity. These two wrenching trends create the landscape of the intermediate.

Husbandry of the land is now a digital practice. For example the tractor, which revolutionised the farm in the 19th century, has become a computerised work station. It is a series of devices and sensors that create a seamless, yet detached digital interface between the driver and the earth.

The countryside in terms of how we work is becoming very similar to the city. The farmer is like us – a flex worker, operating on a laptop from any possible location.

Dairy farming and animal husbandry are also increasingly automated – milking, feeding, barn cleaning and dung removal are digitalised and taken care of by robots.

This is not to say that it is all bad. It is only ironic that such drastic transformations are barely on the radar in our education and thinking.

Based on these observations, we began realising that there is a totally new condition taking place in the countryside.

Yet practically all our attention goes to the red (urbanised) areas which physically constitute a very small part of the world.

In architecture books we are bombarded with statistics confirming the ubiquity of the urban condition, while the symmetrical question is ignored – what are those moving to the city leaving behind?

The rest, a significantly larger section of the world, falls under neglect and lack of knowledge.

However, it is subject to the same market forces encountered in cities.

You could therefore see the countryside as a place where people are disappearing from. In this void new processes are taking place and new experiments and developments are being made.

At this scale, agriculture is being increasingly submitted to the market economy and now this is the new state, a more digitalised landscape.

This new digital frontier is changing the way we understand even the most far removed environments and they are becoming better known than many parts of the city. There is a software, Helveta, that enables people in the Amazon to identify and track every single tree. Swathes of forest are now carefully inventorised environments and tribesmen are turned into digital infomers.

A colossal new order of rigour is appearing everywhere. A feed lot for cows is organised like the most rigid city and server farms are being hidden in remote forests and deserts – the countryside being the ideal situation for these types of conditions.

Today, a hyper-Cartesian order is being imposed on the countryside, enabling the poeticism and arbitrariness, once associated with it, to now be reserved for cities.

The countryside is now the frontline of transformation. A world formerly dictated by the seasons and the organisation of agriculture is now a toxic mix of genetic experiment, science, industrial nostalgia, seasonal immigration, territorial buying sprees, massive subsidies, incidental inhabitation, tax incentives, investment, political turmoil, in other words more volatile than the most accelerated city.

The countryside is an amalgamation of tendencies that are outside our overview and outside our awareness. Our current obsession with only the city is highly irresponsible because you cannot understand the city without understanding the countryside.

We are now only beginning to increase our understanding of conditions that were previously unexplored – a process to continue further.

This article was first published in Icon's September 2014 issue: Countryside, under the headline "Koolhaas in the country". Buy back issues or subscribe to the magazine for more like this

Rem Koolhaas, (born Nov. 17, 1944, Rotterdam, Netherlands), Dutch architect known for buildings and writings that embrace the energy of modernity.

Koolhaas worked as a journalist before becoming an architect. Changing his focus to architecture, from 1968 to 1972 he studied at the Architectural Association in London, and from 1972 to 1975 he studied at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. In 1975 he formed the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Elia and Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp, his wife, with offices in Rotterdam and London.

Koolhaas first achieved recognition not as an architect but as an urban theorist when his book Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan was published in 1978. The book suggested that the architectural development of Manhattan was an organic process created through a variety of cultural forces. In this way, New York and other major cities functioned as a metaphor for contemporary experience. During this period Koolhaas and OMA frequently operated at a theoretical and conceptual level, conceiving of varied works that remained unbuilt, including the Parc de La Villette (1982–83) and Très Grande Bibliothèque (1989), both in Paris. One major work that was realized was the National Dance Theatre (1984–87) at The Hague, which was notable for its wavy roof and clearly divided series of spaces.

In the 1990s Koolhaas and OMA saw several important works to fruition, including the Nexus Housing project (1989–91) in Fukuoka, Japan; the Kunsthal (1992) in Rotterdam; a private residence (1994–98) in Bordeaux, France; and the Educatorium (1993–97), a multipurpose building at the University of Utrecht, Netherlands. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who developed a distinctive aesthetic, Koolhaas did not establish a constant look from project to project. Instead, he created architecture that, utilizing the best of modern technology and materials, spoke to the needs of a particular site and client. For instance, the Bordeaux house, made for a client in a wheelchair, utilized a dramatic glass room that acted as an elevator between the levels of the house. In these commissions, Koolhaas refused to refer to past styles (he called for an “end to sentimentality”), choosing instead to engage directly with the true gritty character of the modern world. For example, his Kunsthal dramatically engages with urban modernity through its electronic billboard and orange steel components.

The combination of Koolhaas’s theoretical writings with his fondness for asymmetry, challenging spatial explorations, and unexpected uses of colour led many to classify him as a deconstructivist. However, his work, unlike that of other deconstructivists, does not rely heavily on theory, and it is imbued with a strong sense of humanity and a concern for the role that architecture plays in everyday life, particularly in an urban context. This grounding in reality was reflected in Koolhaas’s keen interest in urban planning, most notably in a master plan for a new city centre in Lille, France (1985–95), through which he transformed Lille into a business, entertainment, and residential centre. His celebrated Grand Palais, an elliptical structure utilizing plastic and aluminum, was at the centre of this plan.

Koolhaas’s second book, S, M, L, XL (1995), chronicles the accomplishments of OMA and architecture at the end of the 20th century. At the turn of the 21st century, Koolhaas and OMA received numerous commissions. Among the most noteworthy were a series of international stores for the Prada fashion house, the Netherlands embassy (1997–2003) in Berlin, a student centre at the Illinois Institute of Technology (1997–2003) in Chicago, the Seattle (Washington) Public Library (1999–2004), and the headquarters for Beijing’s state-owned China Central Television (CCTV; 2004–08). The CCTV building, noted for its angular-loop shape, is the centrepiece of a complex including the Koolhaas-designed Mandarin Oriental hotel, which was under construction when it was severely damaged by fire in 2009.

Beginning in 1995, Koolhaas taught graduate seminars at Harvard University. Among his many honours was the Pritzker Prize in 2000; the foundation’s president, Thomas J. Pritzker, described him as “a prophet of a new modern architecture.” In 2003 Koolhaas was awarded the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture, and in 2004 he was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Royal Gold Medal.

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