The founder of OMA sits down with the veteran Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner for an extensive interview about the legacy of Soviet modernism, the city of the future, and post-human architecture.
Last week, Rem Koolhaas attended the Moscow Urban Forum, which brought leading urbanists, architects, officials, and activists to the Russian capital. Entitled “Megacity of the Future: New Space for Living,” the forum focused on the results of large-scale urban transformations, trends, and challenges that are currently facing the world’s major cities.
VP: I’ve read most of the interviews you've given and also some of the things you’ve written and one thing that comes up pretty often is “city of the future.” What is that? Do we know what it’s like? Is Moscow going to be a city of the future?
RK: I think that first of all I don’t know what the city of the future is and I’ve also allowed myself to be really incompetent about the future and I try to be a specialist about the present – and I think that’s already quite complex. In that sense I have a really journalistic drive to understand the present and I think a typical journalist doesn’t speculate about the future. But of course I have some instincts.
VP: You’ve called Moscow the only megacity of Europe. First of all, what's a megacity? And what makes it the only megacity in Europe, with cities like London and Paris?
RK: I think the unique thing about Moscow is that it is a single spot in an unbelievably vast territory. And although it has relationships with this vast territory, it’s not quite explicit. So it’s relatively isolated as a city and there’s very few big cities next to it. But of course if you look at the whole region between Holland, Belgium, Germany, that is all urban… but it has less identity and it is less historically defined and therefore it’s a more open-ended condition. I think that Moscow is the only megacity in Europe because it’s the only isolated city of that scale.
VP: Nikita Khrushchev – the man who denounced Stalin – was also the man who changed urban architecture in this country. Maybe that wasn’t his goal, but he did. On November 30, 1954, at the All Union Congress of Builders, Architects and Workers of the Building Industry, so-called socialist architecture was put to bed. Khrushchev criticized the Stalinist architecture with what he called unneeded curly q's and what have you, and began putting up these five story box-like buildings for housing obviously, and now the plan is to knock a lot of them down. And first of all how do you feel about that?
RK: Basically of course I’m incredibly interested in the relationship between politics and architecture and particularly Khrushchev I think he is really a key figure in that whole situation because I’m deeply admiring of what he did – the amount of housing he created in a very short time, the simplicity of that housing, and actually the quality of that housing, and open spaces next to them is for me a really important paradigm particularly because it was an articulation of accommodation of intelligence, beauty, simplicity, and equality, and I think that culmination of activities, of values, is very difficult to discover today. But I also see that a lot of the substance is that you can no longer maintain it and that something needs to happen about it. I’ve been for that reason involved in the idea of preservation which is not typical for architects, but simply to see whether through preservation you could achieve other aims or maintain qualities that you cannot recreate today. And as part of the Strelka effort that we launched, I worked with one of the students to declare one of the Khrushchev apartments where the poet [Dmitri] Prigov worked, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So it was the most normal architecture with the least architectural quality, the most banal view and we wanted to get recognition for those values.
VP: Do you think the idea of simply knocking them down and then putting in a denser kind of architecture is a positive thing?
RK: I think that to some extent it is inevitable, I think it could also be done in the right way. I’m not saying it cannot be done, and I’m also not saying it’s not an intelligent effort, but I do hope that the city doesn’t erase any evidence of that past. Because for instance I think the city of Berlin made a mistake after the unification to erase everything that was part of the kind of communist aesthetic and I think that has been really a historical mistake so Moscow shouldn't make the same mistake.
VP: I’d like to quote you, you said the following: “You can say so many things about the Soviet system that were bad, but in terms of pubic architecture it was generous.” Generous meaning...?