CULTURE

Rem Koolhaas keeps breaking new architectural ground

It was certainly a passionate crowd – hundreds of young people, primarily architecture students – gathered at the new Alexandra Trianti Hall of the Athens Concert Hall last Wednesday. At the podium was Rem Koolhaas, a looming man in stature and intellect, «the cutting-edge and insightful prophet of architecture,» as the Dutch man’s Greek colleague Memos Philippidis introduced him. Despite the fact that Koolhaas stood on a stage that has an absolutely «anti-Koolhaas» aesthetic, the new Athens venue served as an ark that embraced the public and was suitable for the projections of Koolhaas’s latest projects, though it was unable to operate as an amphitheater for a Q&A session that had been slated for the end of the lecture. Koolhaas is not an orator, but he does have a knack for leading anyone wishing to follow through the thread of his complex, crowded and politically inflected thinking. «The influence of the new international geopolitical regime on architecture has yet to be understood and analyzed,» he said at the onset. He then went on to examine six of his projects, the thought process behind which is based on a canvas of subversive cultural anthropology and political philosophy, so that even the presentation of the new Dutch Embassy building in Berlin touched upon a comparative history of Germany and the Netherlands as well as the conflict between newfangled peace versus past totalitarianism. From a journalistic point of view, the new China Central Television building in Beijing, designed in view of the 2008 Olympic Games, is stimulating in terms of size, symbolism and the idea of opening toward the East. When it comes to the use of new technology, the new Seattle Library is at the forefront, with its unruly form marrying both solid and fluid values in the city’s progressive environment. The renovation and extension – by some 800 halls – of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is deeply moving. Besides its value and sheer size (the Hermitage is the largest museum in the world in terms of exhibits), the museum stands outside the triangle formed by New York, London and Paris, distanced from the market economy. This was the bitterly real dimension analyzed by Koolhaas in a manner demonstrating that he likes to fight the system from within. «When you develop something new, you must, simultaneously, decide which part of the past you will give new life to. Great innovations such as the railway and electricity became milestones for maintaining the past. Safeguarding the past is the work of modernization and has to remain within these boundaries,» he said. A fan of pluralism and polyphony, Koolhaas keeps a calm stance toward metropolitan chaos. Drawn to a combination of the old and the new, he underlines the need for an ever-changing city. The Porto concert hall, in northern Portugal, is an irregular building overlooking the Atlantic, like a cut diamond laid on a square, displaying its romantic facets. In Chicago, the architect renovated and extended a classic modernist university complex originally designed by Mies van der Rohe, demonstrating that integral to the act of respecting the work of a great teacher is the realization that van der Rohe’s Chicago is a thing of the past and that the reality of the present calls for new practices. The arrival of Koolhaas in Beijing marks the quest to break new architectural ground, to create new things in an environment made fluid by interior conflicts and global markets. The new China Central Television building will serve as a symbol for the new China and a landmark for the new style of skyscraper, which is gradually adopting a transparent «introversion,» leaving behind compact extroversion.