Koolhaas Builds the Next World Wonder

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

When the Olympics hits the airwaves, Beijing will be broadcasting them from this new $900 million architectural masterpiece.

When Rem Koolhaas was born in the Dutch port of Rotterdam in November 1944, very little of the city center was still standing. The Second World War was ending but it wasn't over, and the Nazis had cut off food to the urban areas of the Netherlands, starving tens of thousands of people to death. The Dutch still remember that time as "the Hunger Winter."

"My parents needed to find extreme ways of getting food," says Koolhaas as we talk at his firm, OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), overlooking the resurrected city. "My father succeeded to buy a number of laboratory rats," he says, "and so at some point they were delivered at home, but there was no electricity anymore, so when my parents entered the apartment they felt that there was something there, and they lit a match and there was a heap, a kind of pyramid, of dead rats."

Such was the early life of one of the world's most influential urban theorists and renowned architects. In a career dense with history--his own and that of the projects he has undertaken--Koolhaas has won many prizes, including the ultimate accolade by his peers, the Pritzker, but he still comes off as modest, perhaps because Koolhaas, at 6 feet 6, has that peculiar shyness that some very tall people have.

He has designed iconic, eye-catching structures from Seattle to Moscow. And although he speaks with a Dutch accent and syntax, his written English is a torrent of brilliant staccato aphorisms. Several of his intellectual triumphs are essays on architectural trends with titles that are succinct provocations: "Delirious New York," "Bigness," "Junkspace," "The Generic City." But future generations will almost certainly think of Koolhaas in the context of one massive, monumental, contrarian, and controversial building: the China Central Television headquarters. Around his Rotterdam office, they don't call it a tower; they call it a "loop." Formally opened in May, it is built on almost 50 acres in Beijing's central business district, and its 10,000 workers are just now settling in, ready to start broadcasting the London Olympic Games, where China expects to be a major power.

The building has two colossal, uneven leaning towers (the highest rises 768 feet) that are conjoined at the top by an enormous angular bridge. Conservative estimates put the cost at nearly $900 million; Koolhaas, for his part, says he has "no idea" of the price. What is certain is that the CCTV building now dominates the skyline of Beijing, just as it dominates the airwaves of the country.

It is clear that his background gives him a particular sense of affinity with the Chinese. He has a deep understanding of history, of war and pain, of complexity, of "ambiguity" (a favorite Koolhaas word), of order from chaos--and order in chaos--and always the ambitious vision for the future.

Koolhaas spent his kindergarten years playing amid rubble in postwar Amsterdam. His father was a busy journalist and fiction writer who turned out a new novel every year for 30 years. His grandfather was one of the city's most prominent architects. But when Koolhaas was a little boy the building that fascinated him most was the old municipal archive, which had been blown up by resistance fighters during the war. "We always played in the ruins," he recalls. "My mother always had to come and get us."

When Koolhaas was 8, his family moved to Indonesia, a place that gave him a lifelong taste for densely populated places and overlapping cultures. "I really thrived there, and my parents didn't," he says, "so it created a kind of premature emancipation, which really made me very decisive. I did the family shopping in the Chinese market. I had a fantastic time."

"It made me at an early age aware of very many different peoples, many different ways of living, many different ways of being happy--probably also many different ways of being religious. …