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Interview with Rem Koolhaas: Does Culture Matter? “The Similarities are More Obvious, Differences are a Defensive Action”

The editor in chief of ARCHINESIA Bookgazine, Imelda Akmal, interviewed Rem Koolhaas, the founder of Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in his office in Rotterdam.

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IMELDA AKMAL: You are working on projects in Asia, and now it has become more common for Western architects to work on architectural projects in Asia, and vice versa. My question is: are there different approaches when you are dealing with Asian clients compared to Western clients?

REM KOOLHAAS: No. Basically our clients are foreign. None of them are Dutch. By definition we work with other cultures and we are used to making critical efforts to communicate in different ways to people with different backgrounds and, of course, to also address different cultures, to operate inside different cultures. We do that with Americans and Indonesians. For that reason, I am saying, we do not treat them differently because we always treat them as representatives of a different culture and it always has to happen with a kind of certain refinement of knowledge, a kind of mutual sympathy and affinity. In Asia, in general, we have always made really strong efforts to know the particular country where we are working before we start working there.

So you research before you start?

Yes. We knew China really well before we started to work in there. We knew Indonesia really well before we work in there, but we try to do that as a principle. So that we are never in a situation that we operate in a country that we do not know. We also always try to let the country influence the work, so that there is a specific aspect to they work which would not exist anywhere else.

How do you proceed when your client approaches you?

There is no single way, because every client is completely different. Of course there are huge differences if the client represents the public sector or if they come from the private sector, and if they represent themselves or if they are representatives of something larger. So you cannot really generalize.

So you have to learn specifically for each client?

Yes, we try to develop a logical approach, and it is actually an important question, because the circumstances in which an architecture projects have to be developed are so completely different. Not only between different countries, but also within the countries. I think architecture critics have never focused on that or do not even know about it or do not do any kind of research into it, but I think that is an absolutely fascinating research. Why do projects become good, mediocre, and bad? I would say it almost always related to the way the client approaches the architect and vice versa.

Since architecture is having a continuous problem with a constant solution, how much do you let your client tell you what to do?

There is no simple solution. If you put it like this, there is always the matter of are you obedient to the client. I would say yes and no. For instance, we always take the problem of the client—how many square meters they have, what they want, and whatever—seriously. Actually the communication with the client is the most important part of the project. But of course we are also taking our own professional responsibilities in turning these demands of the client into the best proposition for the client. So, it is not a matter of letting them to tell you what to do, it is doing what they want you to do, and sometimes showing that there are better options than what they think they want. And we always deliver it to discuss these options.

If you say in general there are no different design approaches between Asia and the West, are there any significant differences between Asia and the Netherlands?

I do not think so. I mean, more and more we think that every project is totally different. And more and more I do not see any similarity even between clients from specific country. Therefore, I am unable—also unwilling—to generalize. But I also see that each country thinks they are very different from other country, but actually there are many more similarities than the differences.

For instance, with this architect, although he is Indonesian and although he produces Indonesian work, there is a kind of immediate and perfect understanding, and if you step in his buildings, or even in his office you will completely understand what kind of person he is, what kind of architecture, what his ambitions are, into what extends you share the ambitions, and you can do the affinity. So these differences are very often a kind of defensive action of specific cultures that may be a bit worried about entering the big blender of globalization. But I think the similarities are more obvious, exactly for that reason we now need to treat every project as a unique project, with unique circumstances and unique culture.

So the differences are not between countries, but within each project. On the other hand, you have been in Jakarta, met some architects, gave lecture, and you even lived here years ago. What is your opinion on the development of Indonesian architecture, especially the contemporary ones?

I do not know enough to give an opinion. But I saw some really nice works, so it was clear that there was architecture intelligence here and there. Because, if you work to Malaysia, China, or the Arab countries, what astonishes me—because I come basically from a country which has a bad climate where it is always cold—is that the outside is an almost completely alien and kind of hostile environment and that they all would rely on air conditioning.

But I thought what is particularly exciting in Indonesia is that almost every architect I spoke to produces an architecture that relates to the open air, an interesting hybrid between enclosed and open areas between architecture and landscape. So I think that is one way in which Indonesia could really be smarter than other countries, if it really maintains and develops an awareness and openness to the open-air condition. Because I think that it is a very crucial step in terms of sustainability and in lowering the demands of technology. In development, that could be a very interesting way of being unique in Indonesia.

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This interview was published in ARCHINESIA Volume 4. Click here to purchase the issue.

 

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