PRINT Summer 2010

Rem Koolhaas

Few individuals have so radically altered the vocabulary of architecture as REM KOOLHAAS, whose theoretical writings (Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan [1978]; S, M, L, XL [1995]) and groundbreaking structures (the IIT McCormick Tribune Campus Center in Chicago, 2003; CCTV headquarters in Beijing, 2010) largely gave form to our turn-of-the-millennium understanding of the metropolitan landscape and its cultures. As part of this nearly four-decade-long program, Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture have often engaged with questions of art, proposing buildings for institutions such as Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and, in fact, much of the analysis surrounding those projects was on display at the 2005 Venice Biennale, where the architect’s installation Expansion—Neglect presented vast amounts of information about the changing demands for contemporary art under the sign of globalization. Today, Koolhaas is immersed in his Hermitage 2014 Masterplan, a comprehensive reconsideration of the encyclopedic Saint Petersburg museum’s structure and function, slated for completion on the institution’s 250th anniversary. Artforum editor Tim Griffin sat down with Koolhaas this spring to discuss the architect’s plans for the site in light of his previous research.

Winter Palace galleries being used as a hospital during World War I, Nicholas Hall, Hermitage, ca. 1914.

TIM GRIFFIN: What’s been your relationship to the idea of the museum, and how do you see the status of the museum today?

REM KOOLHAAS: Well, I’m in the position of someone who, through competitions, has thought a lot about museums but has built relatively few. Through the late 1990s, museums started to expand in direct proportion to the rise of the stock market, and during this period we realized at a certain point that we had designed more than thirty-four soccer fields’ worth of museum space. The Hermitage, I should note, is an important counterpoint to both this trend and our participation in it, but collectively all this work enabled me to document the nature of the new, enlarged museum and its relationship to the art displayed in it.

Tate Modern—specifically, the Turbine Hall—is perhaps the ultimate example. I remember so well [Tate director] Nicholas Serota warning us architects at the beginning of the competition for it that, although he didn’t necessarily share this opinion (as he carefully pointed out), the “artists” did not care for strong forms and felt that former industrial space was more sympathetic to their work. Such space appealed to artists, one might suppose, for the reason that they could finally feel alone and triumphant in their own world, without interference.

But I think it has actually become a fantastically fascinating trap, this oversize incubator, in which nobody has ever said, “OK, I’m not going to be intimidated. I’ll just do a show there.” Rather, everyone has reached for the big statement. And if you look at these statements, they all seem to bear an apocalyptic message—Miroslaw Balka’s box of darkness, Doris Salcedo’s sinister crack, Carsten Höller’s existential leaps, Bruce Nauman’s alienated whispers, Anish Kapoor’s overstretched foreskin, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s postdisaster camp, and so on. From the cumulative Unilever Series, you would think the end is nigh—and maybe in a certain way it is. You really begin to wonder why the space is so susceptible to these apocalyptic kinds of projects, and I have a feeling that, like radioactive matter, there might be a half-life for the relevance of certain types of space and the art they promote. So here, the equating of industrial space, with its inherent nostalgia, with the contemporary sublime of Minimalism may be nearing exhaustion. Maybe we’re witnessing a moment where these massive nonspaces, once backed by Wall Street’s steep ascent, are actually reaching their ultimate impotence, sustaining and containing only the announcement of the end—a moment, interestingly, where it perhaps becomes relevant again for space to push back, to be more confrontational, more oppositional, more heretical, and more editorial.

TG: I have found it impossible not to think along these lines when looking at shows such as Marina Abramović’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—where there’s a different public aspect to her work, because the terms are so radically changed by the space. In her ongoing performance there, to what extent is she actually in the same space as yours? Is it really a performance, or is it a representation? That setting for The Artist Is Present [2010] is so incredible, because it’s staged—I mean, it takes place on a set. There are cameras everywhere, and she doesn’t account for the effects of that.

RK: This is exactly my point: It’s not a stage but an atrium. The museum is so big that its spatial conditions don’t allow intimacy; they’ve become just too monumental.

I saw an early performance of her Imponderabilia at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1977, and, unlike now, where basically the experience is of having to choose between turning your back to a man or to a woman, what was gripping in that original performance, which of course she did with Ulay, was that not only did you feel you were invading private space—and were forced to be brutal about it—but you also felt you were interrupting a relationship, literally standing between two lovers. It was a perfect thing, in a perfect space. The Stedelijk Museum was this nineteenth-century classical building that had been completely whitewashed by [Willem] Sandberg [director of the Stedelijk Museum, 1945–63]. Its walls had a thickness that allowed the performance to exist entirely within the threshold, and they were covered in whitewashed burlap, whose roughness stood in total contrast to the artists’ naked skin. It was a combination you would never achieve today: the advantages of classicism, symmetry, monumentality, etc., with the advantages of “white space” and experiment.

In 2000, I was enlisted in Thomas Krens’s effort to create a fifth Guggenheim, in Las Vegas—the project that initiated our relationship with the Hermitage. He proposed inserting a large Guggenheim into the complex footprint of the Venetian resort, between the parking garage and the hotel, and, as part of the Venetian’s facade, a smaller entity dedicated to the Hermitage. I was aware I could not compete with Frank Gehry in terms of the spectacular, so I resurrected a model of the museum that had been imprinted on me by the experimental shows at the Stedelijk: the museum not as a holy place but as an accessible factory of the new. We produced a big, factory-like, almost theater-like space for the Guggenheim, and a more jewel-like condition for the Hermitage. We imagined a museum without form, but a museum that was able to perform.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Performance View, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Scott Rudd. © 2010 Marina Abramović/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

TG: To continue our thread about art in this context, I’ve wondered whether the real questions generated by the Abramović exhibition are less about the work than about its presentation—with curatorial decisions when it comes to how audiences circulate through the space, where the players are placed, what the lighting is. You know, Abramović is only one among many artists handling questions of performance and its historicization—or, better, its representation. What’s unique here is how these representations of previous works nevertheless interface with public behavior and expectation. They worm into social space. But again, she’s just one of many artists dealing with representations of historical work, and so I feel it’s important to consider whether this is part of a conversation best not confined only to the concerns of art.

RK: In Europe, she was always playing against history and trauma. I really wrestled with why she went to America. Maybe to escape the historical burden or to start a new chapter—or to start doing reenactments rather than submit herself to further suffering.

TG: But then the problem is really detachment from history.

RK: I think you could maybe relate this to the new scale of architecture as well. I was wondering, maybe if you try to reconnect with history then you lose any potency in the reenactment. Maybe reenactment can exist only in a context-free environment. It would be unbelievably exciting if you could actually perform Imponderabilia in a shopping mall. That would be interesting—maybe even approaching the authenticity it had at the Stedelijk.

TG: I was talking with Ann Goldstein, who is the new director there. As I understand it, the museum has a unique relationship to Amsterdam. People go there their whole lives. They have an attachment to it. It really is part of the city’s social infrastructure.

RK: Yes, and I am one of its products. My whole museum sensibility was greatly informed by the Stedelijk, particularly in Sandberg’s era.

But Amsterdam is now a really interesting case, because it’s kind of a reverse Bilbao. They’ve closed two of Amsterdam’s major museums for eight years—the Stedelijk and the Rijksmuseum—both to be enlarged and “prepared for the twenty-first century.” The Van Gogh Museum has remained open, and recently the Hermitage opened a very successful satellite, but the effects of those two closures on the city are devastating. It’s lost its mission and its culture, and the absence really made the entire city suffer. The whole artists’ “scene” withered, because there were no major outlets you could hope to show in, nor outlets for systematic inspiration or interaction with significant art. In fact, it’s a very serious political issue: Simply the closure of two museums has diminished the status of the city internationally in a way that has many people dismayed and pessimistic about whether it might ever recover. So in some cases, you wonder whether “Bilbao” might actually be a necessity. It’s certainly legitimate for cities that aren’t “major” and have no “major” histories to try to use architecture to enhance their reputation, but when it’s being applied to the self-image of major cities like Rome and Moscow, it becomes counterproductive. It’s as if these cities are losing their confidence and self-respect.

I remember when starting the competition for the MAXXI museum in Rome, the director told us, “We want the museum to do for Rome what Gehry did for Bilbao.” The city with Saint Peter’s and the Pantheon needs a Bilbao? I think that this is really the danger of Bilbao: It works in a city that had nothing, less in one that has everything. It threatens to provincialize major cities with massive histories, because by seemingly answering the need for an identity in cities that already have an abundance of identity, you in fact diminish it all. And the effect of this is really quite sinister, because it’s also become the basis of an anti-Bilbao discourse that is now so strong—for instance, I have people telling me that the CCTV [China Central Television] building, this new icon, has ruined the entire city of Beijing. But Beijing’s a city that already has thousands of icons, and this is only one of them. CCTV is therefore much more modest than this kind of critique acknowledges.

TG: So basically what you’re saying is that you see CCTV fitting with the syntax of the city?

RK: It’s not only a syntactical thing but a statistical thing. A city with the history and urban richness of Beijing just cannot be ruined by one building. The new critical discourse about the irresponsibility of Bilbao—the icon—when applied to bigger cities has no relevance. And I think that it is actually coloring a lot of anti-architect discourse, as if we are all irresponsibly transforming every city. You just cannot transform a city like Beijing. When working in such a city, you’re entering a very complex condition that makes you inevitably contextual, because the context is, in fact, almost overpowering.

May Day demonstrations in Palace Square, ca. 1920.

TG: So in the case of the Hermitage, which is rife with its own context and history, is your act as an architect of a similar nature?

RK: I think we much more rapidly and much more routinely erase and eliminate history from our museums than from our cities. I just went to see the Whitney Biennial, and for me, the most striking and interesting room was the one about the history of the Biennial itself. Maybe it’s there in part due to the financial crisis—as a way to produce something on the cheap—but I found it ten times more vivid than the actual show. What’s really staggering is that you realize how completely erratic shifts in culture have been. You suddenly see figures who have been totally absent and others who have been too present. But somehow by reintroducing history into the format of the Biennial, the works and the show become more sympathetic in their vulnerability—to, for instance, these erratic shifts or, more generally, to history itself.

In the case of the Hermitage, we started with the conviction that we wanted to abstain from any architectural work and act more as imaginative intellectuals, historians, or maybe archaeologists, to see whether the museum could be enhanced by simply using its existing stock of architecture, artifacts, and history under a more authorial regime. And what I realized is that to some extent it has been a therapeutic effort, enabling us to develop a retroactive and a prospective approach to both a number of previous experiences with museums and also a number of issues we confronted in those earlier efforts. We retroactively see how several things have evolved and now could be resolved, and prospectively we are in fact able to respond to them using preservation and history rather than construction and the new.

TG: Could you give an example?

RK: Well, many of our museum projects have been informed by an early awareness that the rapid increase in museum-visitor numbers (say, from two hundred thousand to two million) was introducing radically new conditions, and that in order to deal with those conditions, large sections of the museum had to be surrendered to new infrastructural needs—circulation, certainly, but also food courts, restaurants, museum stores, design stores, bookstores, etc. So as long as those two conditions—the exhibition of works and the need for new infrastructures—were not really being thought out concertedly, the original mission of the museum, to enable a degree of contemplation and a degree of direct relationship with art, was suffering.

So I think that in every museum project we worked on, to a greater or lesser extent, we tried to reinvent these two, so-far-conflicting components and to find new ways to negotiate their coexistence. Interestingly, when we worked on the Whitney competition in 2001, there were artists on the committee—Chuck Close but also some younger artists. In our project, we proposed two kinds of museum space: what you might call slow space and fast space, with fast space being that of circulation, commercialism, business, etc. All the young artists on the committee were completely uninterested in the slow space, preferring to be exhibited in the fast space.

TG: What are the differences between the two types of space? Is it a question of meditative versus commercial space? I know you’ve spoken elsewhere of the two as one.

RK: Well, it’s not so much a contrast between the contemplative and the commercial as between contemplative space and infrastructural space, which is demanded by the shift from a relatively small audience to a massive one—along with mass media, mass movement, and mass expectations. At some point, the visitor numbers begin to interfere with everything a museum is supposed to do.

TG: So what were some of the solutions you proposed in different projects?

RK: In the case of our MoMA proposal, there was the courtyard, the main building, and a more rarefied space we had designed, and to connect them we proposed an interesting invention that relates back to this idea of infrastructure, or fast space. We developed with Otis, the elevator company, a device that could carry people horizontally, diagonally, and vertically. It was almost like an internal train, but it was big enough to act also as a display entity, containing, for instance, information on works of art. It went through the museum proper, as well as to a series of private cubicles and viewing rooms—perhaps true slow spaces—where, by appointment only, individual visitors could view selections of works prearranged according to their own preferences, free from curatorial involvement. The idea was to create an almost catalogue, wherein any works of art could be summoned at any point, except the ones that were on display in a particular exhibition, of course.

So the meditative spaces and the infrastructural spaces were very clear, and the infrastructure was in a way so concentrated and so powerful that it allowed the rest of the museum to preserve its mandate and presence.

For the Whitney, we proposed something similar. The museum comprised the Breuer building and the brownstones, and we proposed this kind of looming structure above them. So in terms of the slow space, we used, for instance, the small scale of the brownstones to create small spaces, which could only accommodate small numbers. The circulation, similar to the MoMA design, was a concentrated channel for movement, equipped with art and information.

The Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s China Central Television (CCTV) tower under construction, Beijing, March 23, 2008. Photo: Associated Press.

TG: In both cases, you’re concentrating the circulation, as opposed to allowing the circulation to actually move through the entirety of the structure. I mean, you’re trying to preserve the meditative space.

RK: Yes and no. The idea is that by distilling fast circulation out of the exhibition spaces, you can reintroduce slow circulation that doesn’t interfere with the experience of works.

The beauty of the Hermitage is that it really encapsulates the argument. We produced this incredible diagram of the way visitor paths actually operate within the complex currently—according to language and geography—the “Russian-visitors tour,” the “Asian-visitors tour,” etc. Presumably, the logic is that if everyone were to be on the same tour, you’d face perpetual congestion, so it’s a way of spacing and enabling particular sites to be visited as part of every tour. But when you see it as a whole, you realize it is a system of fast tracks through the entire territory, determining the vast majority of experiences of the museum.

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark [2002] inevitably came to mind as we considered this. Commentary on the film invariably said that it was this amazing confrontation with the richness of Russian culture, the nuances of historical events, and so on, and then acknowledged Sokurov’s claim to fame, which was that the film was shot in a single take. But analyzing these reviews carefully, you realize that everyone was describing a very generic impression—that is, a confrontation with Russian culture within which not a single detail stood out, only a blur of art and architecture and history. And the single take was not really an achievement. It was, to some extent, just a further erasure of difference and ultimately a simulation of the degraded experience of the visitor who keeps to the prescribed pathway. So it was in fact precisely the enthusiasm for the movie that enabled us to identify what was wrong within the Hermitage.

As a first gesture, we proposed reintroducing the individuality of the five buildings of the complex as a way to reintroduce slowness and an obligation to take seriously each one of the components and its relationship to the exhibitions and displays within it.

TG: How did you propose to achieve this?

RK: The buildings of the complex—the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre, the General Staff Building—were all originally built as individual buildings within the imperial palace complex, and each for its own unique purpose. So our proposals are primarily based on using and amplifying the already-individual architectural and historical identities they possess.

We imagined, for instance, that the curatorial regime of each building could be more explicitly tethered to its individual history. The Small Hermitage, for example, was built by Catherine the Great as a private gallery for her unbelievable collection of mostly very contemporary works (for the time). So what we’ve proposed for that building is the introduction of a kunsthalle that could accommodate more experimental exhibitions and more contemporary works and exist independently, or more privately, maybe, from the larger mandates of the Hermitage. So on one hand we proposed it to create a more animated curatorial regime for the Hermitage, but on the other to reconstitute a tradition of the Hermitage and use that tradition to reassert the identity of the building once built precisely for it.

Also, the buildings of the Hermitage, with the exception of the General Staff Building (separated from the others by the Palace Square), currently operate as a single composite with a single entrance—all the outdoor spaces between the buildings have been blocked for public access and are barely perceptible from within the museum. So we’ve proposed to reintroduce some of the individual entrances for the buildings and to reopen the streets by which they’re surrounded so as to further assert their individuality through a more urban conception of the complex.

TG: Could you elaborate on this “urban conception” of the Hermitage? In the back of my mind is this idea of the flaneur moving through a complex like this, walking and seeing the architecture and displays in a meandering continuous take. Do you see your proposal to create more individuated experiences of the buildings as counter to this possibility?

RK: On the contrary, actually. The whole mentality is to diminish the obligations of a directed path and to pronounce the freedoms that exist within the system—to introduce individual intelligence as a greater force and allow information to be a guiding principle rather than a form of manipulation.

But this is also the beauty of the project: It is really a series of hypotheses and conversations—a series of experiments with how the museum can perform. And we have the possibility to test them and consider the results and, if they don’t work, the possibility to address and adapt them.

Aerial view of the Hermitage complex, Saint Petersburg, ca. 2010.

TG: It is unique, actually. We were talking earlier about how a kind of curatorial role is being handed over to you—because as soon as you determine circulation, much of the meaning and the context of the work are in play.

RK: I don’t really see the role as curatorial; to me, curatorial means to impose a vision through an arrangement. We are not trying to impose a single vision here nor to impose any particular sequence or color codes or other traditional manipulations from the architectural palette. We are trying to bring back some of the authentic qualities that the buildings initially possessed and then see how this could perpetuate new interactions within the museum.

This was one of the earliest theses of the project. At the time of our first encounter with the museum, I was particularly interested in the degree of “neglect” or “purity of the ruin” and the qualities it could allow. In a way, this has somewhat dissipated, as the emphasis on neglect at some point becomes really counterproductive because it risks being condescending; also, in the past few years, the Hermitage has become slightly richer and slightly better maintained—so now maintaining things as they were is generally the rule. It’s a subtle difference but an interesting one, because beyond slow space, it allows for almost “rural” space—the kind of space that doesn’t have the full paraphernalia to produce what a museum space is now supposed to be: highly conditioned, highly illuminated, etc. There’s still the possibility of very low light or controlled dimming, for example. This simple absence of conventions reveals, on the one hand, how unconsciously we have accepted all those new conditions and, on the other, how exhilarating it is that things still somehow manage to escape from them.

In certain cases, we’re actually proposing to reassert authenticity. We have been working on the redesign of the permanent exhibition of the Islamic collection, located in the Winter Palace. In the current exhibition, in order to make the coexistence between the historic spaces and the art possible, almost all evidence of the history of those rooms has been erased. So we’ve been trying to experiment with methods by which to restore the historical part and in fact further densify the exhibition of works as a kind of linear, almost miniature city that runs through the space. The idea being to investigate the potential for new interactions not only on the part of visitors but also between the art and the architecture and the history of the museum.

TG: You mentioned the Hermitage being a kind of therapeutic project. Does this relate, and, if so, in what ways?

RK: Well, what’s been incredibly exciting for me is that through working essentially with history and preservation, we’ve been able to address a number of issues that became more and more vivid, difficult, problematic, and urgent in our contemporary architectural work.

Issues like, let’s say, the Turbine Hall question, or the infrastructure question and the question of managing the masses. We wrestled with these in a number of contemporary projects, but here we can address them in a more pure and fundamentally undesigned way. So in this way, I think therapeutic might be the right word in that it’s been a discovery at the end or whatever you want to call this point—the culmination of a career or the end of a career, or let’s say late in a career—of the luxury of nondesign as a method for dealing with issues rather than the always serious effort of intelligent invention or insertion. It’s just so amazingly malleable; you can develop it in many different directions, much more than with a building designed from scratch.

But also polemically, of course, it’s a very interesting moment to mobilize and deploy the Hermitage project as a different kind of paradigm, or as a box of paradigms, against a number of failings and problems of other cultural institutions. For instance, museum extension has become a major contemporary phenomenon, and the Hermitage is, in a way, the extended museum par excellence—extended so far that it begs for the reintroduction of the autonomy of its parts. Go and tell that to the Whitney or to MoMA.

Ultimately, what’s exciting is that the project and its relevance exist by the vivid coincidence of a unique institution, history, director, and contemporary moment—in terms of Russia after the Soviet Union and within the museum world and the larger cultural/economic context.

TG: What is the current museum-world context as you see it?

RK: I think there is a new, maybe even oblivious, confidence in the burgeoning cultural territories like Asia, whose potential we should really theorize, as opposed to exporting our own hand-wringing. Across Asia, there is currently incredible museum activity. But as soon as you introduce European or American curators into the discussion, they all say the museum is in crisis. So in terms of globalization, what’s so interesting right now is perhaps the very fact that the discourse is not globalized: Part of the world can be pessimistic and stuck, and another part can be optimistic, perhaps even silly at times, but still thrusting forward in an interesting way.

I think we have to be very careful not to export our anxieties or export our impasses. We are now working on a cultural master plan for Kowloon[in Hong Kong], and we are developing ideas with a very select and interesting group of cultural figures. But it’s astonishing to what extent all their arguments are based on warnings, rather than “A museum for so many thousands of people . . . Wow! Fantastic. Perhaps this is what you could do . . . ”

We are facing a very important moment within globalization: The West is a railway car that can disconnect itself or simply be happy to hobble at the end of the train, but we’re definitely not the engine. And I think that also demands a change in the outlook on culture. In a certain way, we have to relearn optimism, because in the face of such evidence of it, at such a scale, to refuse it becomes slightly ridiculous.