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.