As cities grow in importance, so too does architecture. Architects are playing a leading role in thinking about the future of cities and building structures that will define urban life for hundreds of years to come. Rem Koolhaas is a leading urban theorist and a Pritzker Prize–winning architect who is engaged in building projects around the world. He co-founded OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which is receiving international attention for its recent completion of an enigmatic new headquarters for China Central Television in Beijing. In an interview with Paul Fraioli of the Journal of International Affairs for its latest issue “The Future of the City,” Koolhaas discusses how the economic and cultural changes of the 21st century are transforming world cities and also the practice of architecture.
Journal of International Affairs: Globalization is making it easier for corporations and developers to do business in cities around the globe. Is this having an effect on the practice of architecture in cities or on the kinds of projects that clients are demanding?
Koolhaas: The question is so pertinent that it is almost unanswerable. Things are changing enormously in almost every sense. The effects of globalization have been positive and negative. My generation of architects is the first that could work almost anywhere in the world. We had the option to repeat the same building everywhere or to push ourselves forward, to create an encounter between ourselves and the local culture. This has been incredible for OMA because we have had a deep encounter in China creating the CCTV building and another in Qatar. It is a three-dimensional anthropology lesson and I think our entire office has been transformed by these encounters. If you take architecture seriously and assume your responsibilities, exchange can be a very rich thing. The downside is that profit-driven repetition is so common.
Journal: How do major urban architectural projects impact the national and cultural identity?
Koolhaas: This repetition I just mentioned causes anxiety about identity. There is a natural reaction from citizens and from governments when their cultures are not reflected in urban building projects. This often comes up in the Middle East. So many international architects make it their business to be contextual. As a result, their projects will feature doves, camels, falcons and other first-degree symbols of local history.
This issue is fascinating because if you look back a hundred years, you find that there was still such a thing as Indian architecture, Thai architecture, Chinese architecture, African architecture, Dutch architecture, and Russian architecture. But now, almost all of these languages have disappeared, and are subsumed in a larger and seemingly universal style. The process has been like the disappearance of a spoken language.
Remnants of these differences still exist. For example, a high-rise in Singapore is inhabited in a very different way from a high-rise in the suburbs of Paris or a high-rise in China. Each of these cultures, which once had its own form of speaking, is not trying to resurrect its old language, but is interested in defining and asserting its uniqueness again.