Biography of Rem Koolhaas, Dutch Architect

Rem Koolhaas

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Rem Koolhaas (born November 17, 1944) is a Dutch architect and urbanist known for his innovative, cerebral designs. He has been called a modernist, a deconstructivist, and a structuralist, yet many critics claim he leans toward humanism; his work searches for a link between technology and humanity. Koolhaas teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

Fast Facts: Rem Koolhaas

  • Known For: Koolhaas is an architect and urbanist known for his unusual designs.
  • Born: November 17, 1944 in Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • Parents: Anton Koolhaas and Selinde Pietertje Roosenburg
  • Spouse: Madelon Vriesendorp
  • Children: Charlie, Tomas
  • Notable Quote: "Architecture is a dangerous mixture of power and impotence."

Early Life

Remment Lucas Koolhaas was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on November 17, 1944. He spent four years of his youth in Indonesia, where his father, a novelist, served as cultural director. Following in the footsteps of his father, the young Koolhaas began his career as a writer. He was a journalist for the Haase Post in The Hague and later tried his hand at writing movie scripts.

Koolhaas's writings on architecture won him fame in the field before he had even completed a single building. After graduating in 1972 from the Architecture Association School in London, Koolhaas accepted a research fellowship in the United States. During his visit, he wrote the book "Delirious New York," which he described as a "retroactive manifesto for Manhattan" and which critics hailed as a classic text on modern architecture and society.


In 1975, Koolhaas founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in London with Madelon Vriesendorm and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis. Zaha Hadid—a future winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize—was one of their first interns. Focusing on contemporary design, the company won a competition for an addition to the Parliament in The Hague and a major commission to develop a master plan for a housing quarter in Amsterdam. The firm's early work included the 1987 Netherlands Dance Theater, also in The Hague; Nexus Housing in Fukuoka, Japan; and Kunsthal, a museum built in Rotterdam in 1992.

"Delirious New York" was reprinted in 1994 under the title "Rem Koolhaas and the Place of Modern Architecture." The same year, Koolhaas published "S,M,L,XL" in collaboration with the Canadian graphic designer Bruce Mau. Described as a novel about architecture, the book combines works produced by Koolhaas's architectural firm with photos, plans, fiction, and cartoons. The Euralille Master Plan and Lille Grand Palais on the France side of the Channel Tunnel were also completed in 1994. Koolhaas also contributed to the design for the Educatorium at the University of Utrecht.

Koolhaas's OMA completed Maison à Bordeaux—perhaps the most famous house built for a man in a wheelchair—in 1998. In 2000, when Koolhaas was in his mid-50s, he won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. In its citation, the prize jury described the Dutch architect as "that rare combination of visionary and implementer—philosopher and pragmatist—theorist and prophet." The New York Times declared him to be "one of architecture’s most influential thinkers."

Since winning the Pritzker Prize, Koolhaas's work has been iconic. Notable designs include the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, Germany (2001); the Seattle Public Library in Seattle, Washington (2004); the CCTV Building in Beijing, China (2008); the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas, Texas (2009); the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in Shenzhen, China (2013); the Bibliothèque Alexis de Tocqueville in Caen, France (2016); the Concrete at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2017); and his first residential building in New York City at 121 East 22nd Street.

A few decades after founding OMA, Rem Koolhaas reversed the letters and formed AMO, a research reflection of his architecture firm. "While OMA remains dedicated to the realization of buildings and masterplans," states the OMA website, "AMO operates in areas beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture, including media, politics, sociology, renewable energy, technology, fashion, curating, publishing, and graphic design." Koolhaas continued to do work for Prada and in the summer of 2006, he designed the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London.

Visionary Pragmatism

Koolhaas is known for his pragmatic approach to design. The McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago—completed in 2003—is a good example of his problem-solving. The 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) is more practical, though. The city train 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.

This was not the first time Koolhaas had played with trains. His Master Plan for Euralille (1989–1994) transformed the northern city of Lille, France, into a tourist destination. Koolhaas took advantage of the completion of the Channel Tunnel, using it as an opportunity to remake the city. Of the project, he said: "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." Most of the new buildings for the Euralille project were designed by French architects, except for Congrexpo, which Koolhaas himself designed. "Architecturally, Congrexpo is scandalously simple," it says on 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."

In 2008, Koolhaas designed the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing. The 51-story structure looks like an enormous 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 appears to be made up of unrelated, disharmonious abstract forms, having no visual logic. And yet the free-flowing arrangement of rooms is designed for basic functionality. That's what Koolhaas is famous for—thinking forward and backward at the same time.

Designs of the Mind

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, 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 was actually constructed. And some of his most celebrated designs remain on the drawing board.

Koolhaas has said 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."


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Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Rem Koolhaas, Dutch Architect." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 29). Biography of Rem Koolhaas, Dutch Architect. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Rem Koolhaas, Dutch Architect." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).