Koolhaas connects with Rice audience

World-famous architect weaves pros and cons of preservation through Centennial Lecture

Architect Rem Koolhaas covered past, present and future in his Centennial Lecture at Rice University, all with an eye to his particular view of preservation.

“History happens, history leave its traces, and I have to say, I prefer history without preservation,” Koolhaas told the audience at Rice’s Tudor Fieldhouse Oct. 11.

Winner of the Pritzker Prize as one of the world’s most esteemed architects and architectural theorists, Koolhaas expressed his concern that what should be conserved often is not, and vice versa.

Koolhaas said his view of preservation is to “let certain conditions continue to exist,” much as the ruins at Pompeii and archeological sites in the African desert have been protected to provide a window into the past. “Architecture is always tampering with evidence,” he said.

Through his work with OMA, a leading international partnership practicing architecture, urbanism and cultural analysis, and his more recent think tank, AMO, Koolhaas has become acutely aware of the global politics of preservation and how it affects not only his lifework but also mankind. “There are an enormous amount of organizations committed to preservation and an enormous amount of stuff on Earth to be preserved,” he said, noting these groups have marked out a “stunning” 12 percent of the planet for preservation. “What it means is mankind faces a future in which part of the world is … constantly celebrating change, and the other part is undergoing artificial stasis,” he said.

Equally alarming, he said (while showing a dramatic graph), is “the constantly increasing curve of Wall Street and the driving of the world economy (and) the number of UNESCO Heritage Sites. There is a complete parallel between the two.” A third line in the graph showed an increase in tourism, which has been, by implication, entirely intertwined.

Preservation, he said, is a recent invention, an element of modernism that coincided with, first, the French Revolution and, second, the Industrial Revolution that transformed England. “There is a connection between preservation and revolution: Basically, revolution changes everything, so it makes an impression of what you want to keep,” he said. “Preservation is an artificial effort to stop time in its tracks.”

Koolhaas prefers observation to preservation, a different approach in which his works often provide a literal window on sites he does not wish to renovate, encapsulate or destroy.

As master planner in the modernization of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, Koolhaas is committed to neither adding to nor renovating the existing structure, but to using the space in the best possible way with minimal disruption. “We found it has 2,000 rooms, and still no room for Western art,” he said, “because Western art is big.

“We became master planner on the condition that we would not change a single architectural relic; neither were we allowed to add anything,” Koolhaas said. “All we could do was eliminate things.” So the plan going forward is to eliminate walls and floors where possible “to create bigger spaces, and to create an additional sense of history.”

He applied the same sort of logic in Moscow, where OMA was asked to help define a new arts space in an abandoned, heavily vandalized, Stalin-era restaurant in Gorky Park. It was a decrepit space that to other eyes cried out for demolition. But “the practical generosity of Russian architecture with wide open spaces” appealed to Koolhaas, who decided to clad the building in a layer of translucent polycarbonate while using the inside architecture to as great a degree as possible “to give a double-exposure to, first, the art, but also to the history of the building.”

Koolhaas also discussed grand structures that reveal his populist ideals in different ways. The 2008 China Central Television headquarters in Beijing, completed in time for the Summer Olympics, is an angular tower that plays a unique role in the landscape from every vantage. The intent, he said, was to “articulate a space in the city that the city itself didn’t consume or absorb.”

The odd-shaped tower presents a different profile from every point of view. It is “unstable in its identity,” Koolhaas said, “with almost as many identities as there are movements in the city.” Inside, the five-million-square-foot building is just as dramatic; Koolhaas gave a quick tour through slides that showed the “enormous amount of structure” that keeps the jutting point of the building afloat while affording incredible views of the surrounding metropolis.

A current project in Taipei is nearly as dramatic, but also pays respect to its neighborhood. Embedded in the central marketplace in the Republic of China’s capital, the Taipai Performing Arts Center, now under construction, puts an industrial-sized three-theater complex over the city’s central marketplace and even shares some of the qualities of an industrial facility.

“I love markets,” he said, describing them as “the most ancient and modern way of interaction.” Koolhaas said his inspiration for the “supertheater” came from a three-way pot for cooking, a functional, energy-saving unit made possible via shared infrastructure. He noted multitheater buildings generally follow a 19th-century model with multiples of everything: each has its own stage, technical facilities, seating and backstage complex. “There’s no interaction or interference between them,” he said.

Koolhaas’ idea combines the technical components of three theaters that can be morphed in a number of ways, including conversion into a “super theater” with a 300-foot stage with views from every seat in every house.

And in a generous architectural gesture, the building will have public spaces for visitors to the market who may never buy a ticket. “We thought it would be a real pity to remove the market,” he said, describing a way to “seamlessly go from the market into the building.” A soundproofed path from street level will let visitors “see the sheer amount of hard work that goes into the process (of theater). A separate entrance will take them past performances that are ongoing, through archives, to technical spaces” on their way to a roof plaza.

Later in the day, Koolhaas engaged architecture students and faculty in a two-hour seminar, with students’ questions fueled by advance readings, his Centennial Lecture and participation in the series’ “Four Short Talks” held Oct. 10.

The Centennial Lecture Series concludes with a talk by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. Oct. 17 at Tudor Fieldhouse.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.