Who Is Rem Koolhaas? Predictably Unpredictable

The 2000 Pritzker Laureate Amazes and Baffles

Concrete and stainless steel tube for commuter rail line, McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois
McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo of 2003 McCormick Tribune Campus Center by Bruce Leighty courtesy Getty Images

In their Citation, the Pritzker Prize Jury in 2000 described the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944) as "that rare combination of visionary and implementer—philosopher and pragmatist—theorist and prophet." Critics have argued that Koolhaas ignores all consideration for beauty and taste. The New York Times declares him to be "one of architecture’s most influential thinkers."  The man on the street describes Koolhaas designs as "the result of architecture that wants to be different, only different."

Visionary Pragmatism:

The McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago is a good example of Koolhaas problem-solving.  The 2003 student center is not the first structure to hug a rail—Frank Gehry's 2000 Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle has a monorail that goes directly through that museum, like a Disney extravaganza. The Koolhaas "Tube"  (made of corrugated stainless steel in homage to Gehry?) is the real deal—the city train that connects Chicago with the 1940s campus designed by Mies van der Rohe. Not only was koolhaas thinking about urbanist theory with the exterior design, but before designing the interior he set out to document student patterns of behavior to create practical pathways and spaces inside the student center.

Rem Koolhaas is so different that scholars have hard time classifying him. Is Koolhaas's work:

Does Koolhaas Have a Style?

A concrete and stainless steel tube encloses the commuter rail over the 2003 McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology (see larger image), raising an underground system to visual heights.

That's not the first time Koolhaas played with trains. His Master Plan for Euralille (1989-1994) has made the northern city of Lille, France into a tourist destination. Taking advantage of the "Chunnel" completion, Koolhaas took the challenge to remake the city. Says Koolhaas, "Paradoxically, at the end of the 20th century, the frank admission of the Promethean ambition - for example, to change the destiny of an entire city - is taboo." Say, what?

Most of the new buildings for the Euralille project were designed by French architects, except for Congrexpo, which the Dutch Koolhaas designed. "Architecturally, Congrexpo is scandalously simple," describes the architect's website. "It is not a building that defines a clear architectural identity but a building that creates and triggers potential, almost in an urbanistic sense."  No style?

The 2008 headquarters of China Central Television is a Beijing robot. Yet The New York Times writes that it "may be the greatest work of architecture built in this century."

These designs, like the 2004 Seattle Public Library, defy labels. The Library (see larger image) appears to be made up of unrelated, disharmonious abstract forms, having no visual logic. And yet the free-flowing arrangement of rooms is founded in logic and functionality.

Designs of the Mind:

But never mind the theoretical mumbo-jumbo. How are we to respond to structures with glass floors or erratically zigzagging stairs or shimmering translucent walls? Has Koolhaas ignored the needs and aesthetics of the people who will occupy his buildings? Or, is he using technology to show us better ways to live?

According to the Pritzker Prize Jury in 2000, Koolhaas's work is as much about ideas as it is buildings.

He became famous for his writings and social commentary before any of his designs were constructed. And, some of his most celebrated designs are still only on the drawing board.

Koolhaas has said on many occasion that only 5% of his designs ever get built. "That's our dirty secret," he told Der Spiegel. "The biggest part of our work for competitions and bid invitations disappears automatically. No other profession would accept such conditions. But you can't look at these designs as waste. They're ideas; they will survive in books."

Answering the question "Who is Rem Koolhaas?" is like answering the question What is architecture? Definitive solutions only pose more thorny questions. Like this one: Is Rem for real?

Learn More:

  • Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, documentary film by Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch, 2008
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: Jury Citation, Pritzker Architecture Prize, The Hyatt Foundation; Euralille and Congrexpo, Projects, OMA; Koolhaas, Delirious in Beijing by Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times, July 11, 2011 [accessed September 16, 2015]; Interview with Star Architect Rem Koolhaas, Der Spiegel, December 16, 2011; IIT McCormick Tribune Campus Center, OMA Projects [accessed June 24, 2016]