Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)
This column is being written, if not quite in an airport lounge, then certainly in passage between two of the world's great cities of stories, St Petersburg and New York. There could be no better intermission during which to consider the career of Rem Koolhaas, who is that rare thing these days, an architectural visionary.
Some of Koolhaas's recent projects are on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The ICA says: "Rem Koolhaas is one of the world's most revered and provocative architects. Creating buildings which embody his vision of the 'terrible beauty' of the late 20th century and unfettered by historical architectural lineage, Koolhaas is acknowledged as one of the few engineers of a direct approach to architecture which is as unpredictable as it is intellectual, and whose rhetoric is actually reflected in his work." Phew! Read those warning signals.
It became clear that Koolhaas was more than just another jet-setting international architect more than 20 years ago, when he published Delirious New York, "a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan" that combined writing and drawings layering real and imagined cityscapes. His 1995 blockbuster, S, M, L, XL has been still more influential.
New York's delirium is very different in nature from, that of St Petersburg, and its architecture seems congruent with the city's writing. But St Petersburg's, already capably documented by Gogol and Dostoevsky, is in striking contrast to the place's classical beauty and spacious plan. Before and after the fact, cities may be imagined in ways that do not correspond with their physical appearance.
Koolhaas plays with the slack. Born in Rotterdam, he loves superficially unlovely cities. He has long lived in London. He has not built here, however. His major project has been the Euralille development around the Eurostar and TGV train station in Lille. The project includes his own grand palais, a conference and cultural centre that aims to make a virtue out of using the cheapest possible materials such as linoleum and corrugated plastic sheeting. He has done individual buildings for the Netherlands Dance Theatre, an arts centre in Rotterdam and housing here and there, but these days he tends to get jobs not to do mere buildings but masterplans - for Genoa, for Universal Studios in Los Angeles, for Hanoi new town. Individual building projects are laden with symbolic importance - the UN Human Rights building in Geneva, the Dutch embassy in the new German capital, Berlin.
Koolhaas works on a scale that suggests a fondness for utopian scheming that is somewhat unfashionable these days. People seldom state a wish to live in utopia, but there is a long tradition of architects designing them. Indeed, the attempt to realise utopia is the history of architecture.
Utopia means "no place", as John Carey reminds us in his forthcoming anthology of utopian literature. But the minute an architect begins to realise one, it becomes some place and gains the capacity to disappoint. The no-places in Carey's collection retain their ability to delight or horrify (as Carey also points out, the term "utopia" does not exclude unpleasant no-places, although he admits the usefulness of the 1950 coinage, dystopia), but today the garden city is merely ordinary and the ville radieuse is discredited. Even drawing the schemes diminishes them, whether it's the (significantly) depopulated citta ideale of Piero della Francesca's time, the cartoons of Albert Robida or Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
"If you do a project on the scale of a city," says Koolhaas, "it would be almost sinister if part of your intentions were not utopian, if utopian means to be connected to an ambition to realise some measure of an ideal condition. But everyone involved in large-scale projects knows this has been a mixed blessing in terms of history. Perhaps an architect has an obligation to have a utopian vision and at the same time an equal obligation to be realistic about the futility of these utopian ambitions. …