Rem Koolhaas, one of the world’s most influential architects, is also a leading author on urbanism with such books as “Delirious New York” and “S,M,L,XL.” He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2000. He spoke recently with The WorldPost editor in chief Nathan Gardels about globalization, identity and the future of cities in the digital age.
Koolhaas: If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step.
WorldPost: Back in the 1990s, you often spoke about the “generic city” that was emerging out of homogenizing globalization. In one of our conversations, you said: “Convergence is possible only at the price of shedding identity. That is usually seen as a loss. But at the scale at which it occurs, it must mean something. What are the disadvantages of identity, and conversely, what are the advantages of blankness? What is left after identity is stripped? The generic?”
How do you see it all now with the backlash against globalization and the reassertion of identity, whether Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nostalgic turn, for example with his plan to rebuild the old Ottoman barracks in Gezi Park?
Rem Koolhaas: To the extent there was a global aesthetic developing in architecture, which would have been an international style, already in the 1980s people were critical of its inability to establish distinct identities. That is the reason postmodernism emerged. It both embraced a global aesthetic yet resisted it by mixing it with vernacular styles.
That is why I said postmodernism would be the style of the generic city. We can see that this sensibility anticipated and preceded today’s fuller reassertion of identity but still in the global context. Xi, as you mention, represents this discrepancy. He remains more open to globalization than President Trump but at the same time is emphasizing “Chinese characteristics” in all things, from socialism to architecture.
WorldPost: When Xi came to power, he criticized the “weird architecture” he saw around Beijing. With your iconic CCTV building apparently in mind, he said buildings in China ought instead to “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.”
Would you have been able to build your CCTV building today?
Koolhaas: Probably not. There are regulations now in Beijing that would limit new buildings to a third of the height of the CCTV tower. So I couldn’t build it in Beijing but could elsewhere in China — perhaps Shenzhen.
For the record, by the way, Xi never explicitly tied his criticism to CCTV. Also for the record, I agree with him: there are many weird buildings in Beijing.