New York

Rem Koolhaas

Max Protetch

The move from theory to practice is often awkward. There are countless examples of architects whose speculations are far more exciting than their constructed projects. While some of this may be accounted for by the constraints of external circumstances (budget, site, client requirements, etc.), much of the difference seems to be due to the architect-practitioner’s more limited approach, a limitation that is wholly self-imposed. As the authors of brave new visions for cities and urban sites, Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture have created an important niche for themselves in architectural theory and research. Since Koolhaas’ graduation in 1972 from the Architectural Association School in London, which has long been considered a center for ferment and bold investigation, he has produced both stretches of fantasy and serious propositions, represented in magnificent and lively drawings by him and his associates.

This exhibition featured examples of Koolhaas’ theoretical work as well as projects and proposals that signified his move toward an architecture of the built world, including some already completed and some intended for or awaiting construction. It was thus a rare opportunity to see how Koolhaas the idealist and Koolhaas the realist shared paths and parted ways. Shown here were 16 drawings from his 1972 thesis project, Exodus, or Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, in which he proposed a free zone to be sliced through the city of London. Using drawing and collage, he developed this brazen idea through images from popular culture intersected with vast architectural perspectives. All of these had a Pop vitality and sensibility, with titles such as Park of Aggression, Culture!, and “ . . . a small palace for everyone . . . ” The approach that he took here became the “control” of the Koolhaas experiment—the given that can be used to measure where he has gone in the past 15 years.

In his most recent project, a proposal for an overall site plan for Expo 1989 in Paris, Koolhaas overlaid the exposition site on the Seine with a regular grid, each square either designated for the pavilion of a participating nation or left as open space. This deceptively simple idea was enriched, as so much of Koolhaas’ work is, by an intensity of detail and the dynamic spatial qualities of each pavilion, keeping stasis and movement, order and chaos in equilibrium. The proposal was represented here by several drawings and a simple model completed in one day, a beautiful and somewhat crude but communicative three-dimensional “sketch.” Another project for a site in Paris, this one a residential commission on the outskirts of the city, is currently under construction. The Villa dall’Ava, located on a hill near the Bois de Boulogne with spectacular views of the city, is based on a binuclear design: two separate pavilions appear to slide together in what Koolhaas refers to as a “pretzel pyramid.” The west pavilion (the parents’ living quarters) is copper-clad and placed above a ground-floor living area. The east pavilion (for their daughter) is made of aluminum and raised above the site on colorful pilotis. On the south elevation, the structure looks like a free collage of variegated surfaces and materials, while on the north a glass wall reveals a dramatic cutout in an interior concrete wall. The south is about surface and edge; the north is about depth and space. In fact, all four elevations have unique configurations, creating a study of the multiple characters of one small building. Also shown in the exhibition were Koolhaas’ recent designs for the Netherlands Dance Theater, two office buildings, and the drawings and model for the Hague City Hall competition, 1986. Koolhaas’ office won this major international competition but was not awarded the building commission (which went to Richard Meier).

The exhibition showed a clear development of Koolhaas’ esthetic interests and his enduring commitment to an architecture that is modern, questioning, and committed to the future more than to the past. Throughout his career, Koolhaas has mediated precedent with prognostication, and has used historical research to serve his personal vision. The more recent projects intended for construction have a certain slickness and refinement, though without compromising the intrinsic vitality of his thought. But he is at a juncture. In the move from theory to construction Koolhaas must make sure that his fundamental ideas are not lost in the process, or else his great and still young architectural legacy will seem sadly aberrant. The Villa dall’Ava sits on a precipice in more ways than one. Koolhaas’ esthetic, emphasizing a provocative assemblage of assorted elements, has with this project reached a high level of refinement and produced an object of special beauty. However, it proposes no expansive visions of architecture—and the opening of vistas is what Koolhaas has always done best.

Patricia C. Phillips