“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.”