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Pritzker Star Koolhaas Frets Over EU, Tops Giant Beijing Tower

Rem Koolhaas
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas on Bedford Square in London. The Barbican Centre in London has an exhibition on Koolhaas's Rotterdam practice, OMA. Photographer: Dominik Gigler/OMA/Barbican Art Gallery via Bloomberg

Rem Koolhaas has watched many a building project fall through in the course of his career. One he’d hate to see die is the construction of Europe.

The Dutch architect is no stranger to European integration. He designed a flag for the European Union in 2001 -- a bar code with a colored strip per country -- and was one of a dozen figures mapping the EU’s future in a 2010 report. With leaders battling to solve the sovereign debt crisis, the Continent, he says, is experiencing “a very scary moment.”

Europe “is simply an incomplete machine: It’s limping,” Koolhaas says in a London interview. “Unless the machine is constructed the way it’s intended, it won’t work.”

The EU’s founders “left that model to the next generation of leaders, but the next generation forgot to finish it,” he says. Without tighter union, Europe “will disintegrate.”

Koolhaas, 66, is valued as much for his views as for his designs. Winner of the 2000 Pritzker Architecture Prize, he just completed a headquarters for NM Rothschild & Sons Ltd., and is finishing his biggest building: the China Central Television tower in Beijing. He also teaches at Harvard University, and is pondering the future of the countryside.

He is at the Barbican Centre for an exhibition on his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Koolhaas has outsourced the curating to the Belgian group Rotor, and likes the result: a mishmash of maquettes, embedded video screens and papers, some sifted out of trash cans.

Pointy Shoes

“The typical architect is a control freak,” says the lanky Dutchman, seated on a stool’s edge as if he were the interviewer. “In this case, we surrendered control.”

Koolhaas wears a sharp metal-gray suit and long, pointy shoes. Part of his outfit, he confirms, is by Prada -- whose stores and catwalks he designs. He won’t say which part.

On the wall is a poster listing museum competitions he lost, including London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “This is not a whiny room,” he says. It shows museums are “getting bigger and bigger” and soon will be “more like small cities than individual buildings.” There are museums in China, he says, that are eight times the size of Tate Modern.

Of his first London project, the Rothschild bank, he says it’s “not a one-liner” but a building that “tries to embed itself carefully in the intricacies of the city.”

He doesn’t mind the British habit of nicknaming buildings, though that makes them one-liners. “It’s actually quite nice if things are appropriated by the population at large,” Koolhaas says.

Film Noir

He was born in bombed-out Rotterdam, son of a writer-critic who “gave me a respect for the word,” and grandson of a modernist architect. He lived as a boy in Jakarta. A screenwriter at first, he co-wrote a film noir and penned an unproduced script for soft-porn director Russ Meyer. After dabbling in journalism, he switched to architecture in 1968.

OMA opened in London in 1975, with Koolhaas’s ex-student Zaha Hadid an early recruit. Hadid was “a very independent and massively talented person from the beginning,” he says of the 2004 Pritzker winner.

Koolhaas’s masterwork, the CCTV tower in Beijing -- which he co-designed with Ole Scheeren -- is an arched, bowlegged edifice whose legs are joined at the base. Started in 2004, it is set to open fully in two years after fire ruined the second building.

Work in China

How does he deal with a country where democracy is a work in progress? “I’m happy you use the term ‘work in progress,’ because I think that is the essence of China,” he says. “It’s not a perfect situation, but what is important is that CCTV is not directly an element of the state.”

The Western capitalist model is showing its own signs of strain. “We put our confidence in a system which is irrational, if not crazy and totally emotional,” he says. “It’s clear that was an absurd and misplaced confidence.”

Koolhaas plans to spend the next year writing about the countryside, which today is “not inhabited by the same people: It’s based on hard labor, on imported labor, maintained by a global cast.” In a Swiss field today, he says, you’ll see “three Thai women in jeans.”

“OMA/Progress” is at the Barbican, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS, through Feb. 19, 2012. Information:

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