Architect, thinker, provocateur Rem Koolhaas brings his talents to South Beach

The list of living architects who can cause a scrum at the door of a theater where they’re delivering a lecture is, depending on your view of modern urban design, depressingly sparse or fittingly short.

Either way, when the severe and provocative Dutch architect and author Rem Koolhaas packed them in earlier this year at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach, where his firm is part of a team vying for the chance to remake the city’s obsolete convention center, even some Miami luminaries couldn’t score a seat — including internationally known architect and planner Andres Duany.

Duany, whose tradition-steeped approach launched the New Urbanist movement, regarded in some quarters as anti-modern, might at first blush seem the antithesis of Koolhaas, whose stark, sometimes ungainly forms channel the chaotic complexity of the contemporary city.

But Duany is an admirer, style be damned, for the way Koolhaas rigorously thinks through the function of a building or a master plan, big ones in particular, and comes up with designs both pragmatic and original.

“I am very much an advocate of Rem. If you are going to design a proper city, he is one of the people you need to know. Rem is a genius of programming,” Duany said, referring to the integration of activities and uses in a building plan. “He takes any combination of programs and assembles it, compacts it, and arranges it into a very exciting outcome. Any building he does would be continually interesting.”

Lanky and balding at 68, often draped head-to-toe in what appears to be Prada, a client for whom his firm has designed several mold-breaking stores, Koolhaas is that rare animal in contemporary architecture, admirers say: both a great designer and a theoretician with big, influential ideas about how architecture can rebuild what he calls the modern city’s “landscape of disarray.” In his work, teaching and writing, Koolhaas has championed intense, large-scale architecture and planning as a means of augmenting urban life.

Not that his prescriptions go down easy. Possessed of a dry Dutch humor and little patience for pieties and sentimentality, Koolhaas is given to sardonic pronouncements that teeter on the edge of cynicism and a far-reaching ambition tinged by a Utopianism that some find off-putting. He is probably the only contemporary architect to provoke such extremes of admiration and dislike that he has inspired both the name of a Miami ice-cream truck (Cool Haus) and a maniacal villain (Kem Roomhaus) in a Batman graphic novel, Death by Design.

“Rem is not a charming guy in the traditional sense,” said University of Miami architecture professor Jean-Francois LeJeune, who moderated the Colony Theater discussion. “He’s a big-idea person. He doesn’t care about selling whatever. But he’s very committed.”

When it comes to Miami, Koolhaas is no parachuting starchitect.

He has been visiting every year for 40 years, shared ideas as an unknown designer with the young architects who would found Miami’s leading firm, Arquitectonica, and was later a finalist in a competition to design what is now the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts — a contest some still wish he had won.

Koolhaas has long felt an itch to work in Miami, whose potential as urban center he believes has been hindered by low-density, suburban-style development and auto dependency.

“It’s always unbelievably beautiful, so that is the biggest asset,” Koolhaas said in an interview. “I think there is another city which is unbelievably beautiful, which is Los Angeles. They both clearly have a lot more potential than they are currently realizing. But that also gives them an enormous charm.

“As an architect I always have mixed feelings. On the one hand, your fingers are itching. As a human being, you are happy to participate in the indolence.”

In the 13 years since he won architecture’s highest award, the Pritzker Prize, Koolhaas and the firm he leads, the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture, have been responsible for some of the best-praised, and most critically scrutinized, projects in the world.

In that span, OMA re-conceived the public library in Seattle, encasing the city’s new central library in an angular, bulbous mesh of glass and steel while winning praise for its welcoming, user-friendly interior; took concertgoers up a ramp into the irregularly shaped Casa da Musica in historic Porto, Portugal, as if they were ascending into a spaceship; and either delivered a big propaganda coup to the Chinese government, according to critics, or slyly subverted it, with their Beijing headquarters for state TV, a towering, disjointed, squared-off arch that locals liken to a colossal pair of trousers.

Recently OMA won what could be its biggest and most complex commission, a 30-year master plan for a sprawling new “airport city” for 200,000 residents centered around a new air terminal in Doha, Qatar.

The firm has also been a nurturer of architects who have achieved their own fame after leaving it, including Zaha Hadid and Koolhaas’ much-younger competitor for the Beach convention center project, Bjarke Ingels, whose fast-rising firm, BIG, did not adopt its acronym by accident.

Koolhaas took an unconventional path to the top of the star-architect heap.

A late starter, he worked briefly as a journalist known for satirical pieces, then joined an avant-garde group of Dutch filmmakers as a screenwriter before studying architecture in London and at Cornell. In his early years, when few of his designs had been built, Koolhaas became influential as a writer and theoretician, a parallel career he maintains to this day.

Two of his books, Delirious New York, which celebrated the city’s excess and “culture of congestion” when it was at its 1970s nadir, and the 1995 S,M,L,XL — a 1,300-page compendium of sometimes abstruse writings, musings and OMA’s built and unbuilt works until then, arranged by size, with a dollop of sex — are considered classics in the field.

OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu, who leads the New York office, says it’s a mistake to confuse Koolhaas the designer with Koolhaas the writer. Though his intensely analytic approach to both roles is also the foundation for the firm’s design work, building designs emerge as a team effort, he said.

“He has a different aim or personality when he is writing and when he is designing,” Shigematsu said. “In his writing, as in his recent writings on shopping, he’s very journalistic. He is describing what is happening in the world. It’s a reportage.

“That kind of analytical approach also forms the basis for creating a rational building. Our mandate is, we think before we do. Of course, we have aesthetic preferences. It’s not like designing a building is entirely rational and analytical. But that is the beauty in the process. What we take out of that information is unique.”

Koolhaas may have first taken to melding architectural theory and practice in Miami, which he first visited in 1972 on a fellowship that required him to do nothing more than travel in the United States for three months.

He was both collaborator with and influence on the Arquitectonica founders, who included Duany and his wife, University of Miami architecture dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. With Arquitectonica co-principal Laurinda Spear, he designed an early, award-winning version of what became the Pink House in Miami Shores, which under a later design gained the fledgling firm its first fame. Koolhaas’s ideas also informed the firm’s early signature Brickell Avenue condo towers.More than two decades later, OMA was picked as a finalist for the performing arts center in competition with a collaboration between Arquitectonica and Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s firm. OMA’s proposal would have joined both halls in one structure and run a highway right up to it, a scheme that proved too radical for the selection committee, but that some to this day prefer to winner Cesar Pelli’s comparatively staid design.

“That was Miami’s great, great missed opportunity,” Duany said. “If Rem had done our performing arts center, that area would be hopping today with the whole sheer glamour of it. Super intense.”

Last year, Koolhaas finally landed a Miami project, at Argentinian developer Alan Faena’s redevelopment of Miami Beach’s historic Saxony Hotel, 3201 Collins Ave. OMA has designed a compact urban district across Collins from the historic Miami Modern landmark, consisting of a sleek parking garage and a ballroom and cultural center, as well as the renovation of a smaller, adjacent hotel.

Like much of the firm’s recent work, the Faena project aims to create a unified place where there is none now by connecting the buildings with a plaza and a succession of atriums and entry lobbies, Shigematsu said.

On a bigger scale, it’s the goal of OMA’s convention center proposal, too.

Beach developer Robert Wennett, who hired the equally famed Herzog & de Meuron firm for his garage at 1111 Lincoln Road Mall, brought in Koolhaas when he joined Tishman Hotels and Realty, the New York builders now erecting the new tower on the site of the World Trade Center, to bid for the Beach convention center project.

The $1 billion redevelopment would revamp the convention center and add a hotel, apartments and new public spaces to the 52-acre site, which Koolhaas has called an urban “dead zone” defined by “a devastation” of parking lots and garages in the middle of a uniquely situated city.

“Miami Beach is a completely interesting hybrid because it is, on the one hand, a resort and, on the other hand, a real city,” Koolhaas said. “This condition of city and water on two sides I think is really amazing. And in the heart of that city, it has put an enormous convention center, an enormous physical presence.

“Unfortunately, its architecture is so harsh that instead of a positive effect it has a negative effect. So our mission is very clear. We have to undo that harshness, turn what is now a promising area with problems into a coherent new urban center. Because I think that’s what it can be.”

LeJeune, the UM architecture professor, says Koolhaas is the only contemporary architect who rivals the breadth and depth of the idiosyncratic vision of Le Corbusier.

The European architect is celebrated as the patron saint of modern architecture, as much for his radical, still-controversial schemes to remake cities — he proposed demolishing much of central Paris and replacing it with a succession of identical towers connected by highways —as his buildings.

“If you look back in a few years, I’m absolutely convinced Rem will be the guy about whom all the books will be written, the way it is with Le Corbusier,” LeJeune said.

Having to choose between Koolhaas and his precociously accomplished former associate puts Miami Beach in an enviable position, he said.

“We have to consider ourselves unbelievably lucky,” LeJeune said. “Both Ingels and Koolhaas? What other city has that?”

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