Constructed by the human mind or not, our built environments define us as much as we define them. It matters who designs our buildings, who pays for them, and who inhabits them generations later.
The cycle of invention and reinvention of the city is not simply an aesthetic quandary - these aggregated acts of cultural expression are married to our distinct identities. That is, if you believe we still have any.
Renowned urban theorist and Pritzker Prize–winning architect Rem Koolhaas offers the fierce perspective of a man with enough international clout to make his creative visions a reality.
Basically, what Herzog is to film, Koolhaas is to architecture.
In a recent interview with the Journal for International Affairs he addresses the impact of globalization on world cities head on:
“My generation of architects is the first that could work almost anywhere in the world. We had the option to repeat the same building everywhere or to push ourselves forward, to create an encounter between ourselves and the local culture.
If you take architecture seriously and assume your responsibilities, exchange can be a very rich thing. The downside is that profit-driven repetition is so common,” Koolhaas says.
JIA: How do major urban architectural projects impact the national and cultural identity?
Koolhaas: This repetition I just mentioned causes anxiety about identity. There is a natural reaction from citizens and from governments when their cultures are not reflected in urban building projects. This often comes up in the Middle East. So many international architects make it their business to be contextual. As a result, their projects will feature doves, camels, falcons and other first-degree symbols of local history.
This issue is fascinating because if you look back a hundred years, you find that there was still such a thing as Indian architecture, Thai architecture, Chinese architecture, African architecture, Dutch architecture and Russian architecture. But now, almost all of these languages have disappeared, and are subsumed in a larger and seemingly universal style. The process has been like the disappearance of a spoken language.
On the other hand, some cultures have managed to maintain their distinctiveness. It still is meaningful to say that someone is a Japanese architect, but relatively meaningless to say that someone is an American or a Dutch architect.
24-Hour Museum, Paris, France:
JIA: In your first book, Delirious New York, you write that, “Manhattan is the 20th century’s Rosetta Stone.” What city is playing this role for the 21st century? Is it a city in the Middle East or in Asia?
Koolhaas: It is too early to tell. During its rise in the 20th century, Manhattan was incredibly preoccupied with its own uniqueness, and very few cities right now are focusing on that. I am not even sure that the 21st century will have an equally pertinent or key city. I don’t think anything is happening in Lagos or China that rivals the importance of Manhattan’s rise in the last century.
The reinvention and the re-imagining of cities is taking place all over the world. The energy that inspires reinvention either comes from pressure — when negative forces lead to a breakthrough, which is what I noticed in Lagos — or cities get their energy from striving. Cities are machines for emancipation. When the striving for emancipation is at its most intense, when there is the clearest promise of success, change is at its most intense. That is why cities in the West are so morose. We can strive until we’re blue in the face, but we have nothing to change, at least not in the way that other parts of the world will change. In these places — particularly in the Middle East and Africa — real change is happening now.
Binhai Mansion, Shenzhen, China (Competition):