The radical Dutch architect talks to Edwin Heathcote about neo-liberalism, China and why his future lies in the countryside
“Mmm . . . ” he murmurs. “So how do you, as an architect, address the cynicism — which you are probably also partly responsible for but which you have tried in every single operation to counteract? How do you find the terminology even to discuss it? When we set up OMA, we deliberately left our names out [of it]. Every other office had the names of their partners in it. I think the word ‘starchitect’ implies you’re an asshole who doesn’t care.”
Most architects get excited by the prospect of building. Koolhaas gets excited by change itself. He raves about the beauty of the cooling spaces above the Reno SuperNAP data centre, “an architecture which no one is prepared for — abstract and codified, uninflected by human need, distant from us and nevertheless produced and needed by us”. At the same time, agriculture is moving indoors. “They are growing tomato plants 14m high. They demand a new architecture,” he says. The new generation of agri-sheds “shuts out the light frequencies that are not necessary for the individual crops”, creating bright purple or glowing pink interiors. It is the sheer abstraction of these spaces that seems to energise him.
“I have an instinct that what the 21st century has to offer is this post-human architecture,” he says. “This is a new sublime. A landscape totally dictated by function, data and engineering. The scale alters, the human becomes almost irrelevant. The paraphernalia of human habitation can be reduced. We are in a moment of transition now, in a half-human, half-machine architecture. Is this a post-city? If we articulate it properly it could be insanely beautiful.”
“At this point,” he adds. “I barely feel like an architect, [more like] a journalist or an anthropologist. Journalism is, by definition, a sequence of interests rather than a commitment to a single project. You have to be [both] patient and impatient in a strategic way.” It’s then that I confess that niggling insecurity, and say he should probably be writing this article. “Sometimes,” he replies, “I think I should just shut up.”
The writing and research gives him an “independence”, he says. So is it a relief from the architecture? An escape? “It allows us to create a space,” he says, with what might be the hint of a smile, “to pre-empt our potential failures.”