“The modern city is a mixture of density and emptiness”

The Dutchman Rem Koolhaas is one of the most influential contemporary architects. He researches and teaches as a professor at Harvard University. Koolhaas was a jury member of the Potsdamer Platz competition – and left the jury under protest in 1991 because he considered their decisions to be a “conscious massacre of architectural intelligence”. The plans of the Senate would create a “petty-bourgeois, old-fashioned, reactionary, banal and, above all, amateurish image of the city”.

In his protest note, Koolhaas wrote that Berlin “had become the capital at the very moment when it was least politically, ideologically and artistically able to assume this responsibility.”
A well-known and often quoted statement by Rem Koolhaas is “fuck context”. In other words, if houses in an area have a certain height so far, this is no reason to continue building at this height. Instead, as an architect and city planner, you should be guided by what serves the people most and offers the population well-being and development opportunities. Koolhaas, however, revises his statement: In a historic city like Berlin, one has to pay attention to the context.

Hubertus Siegert met with Rem Koolhaas for an interview on March 16, 1999 at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam.

Hubertus Siegert:
How did you experience Berlin, Potsdamer Platz, the Mitte district and Mauertrasse?

Rem Koolhaas: 
Shortly after the demolition of the wall, it became clear that the existing Berlin was not taken as the starting point for the discussion, but that everything was only used as a pretext for erasing the wall routes – and thus the history of the wall and the history of Berlin. I was actually appalled that this quality of the city had been shamelessly destroyed.

Hubertus Siegert:
Since the beginning of the 1990s, attempts have been made to build everything back to full in Berlin as quickly as possible, to quickly close all gaps. Is this hurry an expression of fear of the empty city? 

Rem Koolhaas: 
If you observe the process of urban development worldwide, in Asia or Africa or even here in Europe, you can see, that there is nowhere a homogeneous situation, with a city center and a periphery around it. Instead, a mixture of density and emptiness is created – and the modern city is a field of this change. The nice thing about Berlin was that in the 1960s and 1970s, it was already a prototype of this city of the future. I think it’s a shame that Berlin didn’t take on the role it could have played.
Perhaps you know the project that I did as an Ungers employee: Berlin, the green archipelago. This is a project that Ungers introduced around 1977, in which he took Berlin as it was as a model for the city of the future, in which the alternation of concentration and emptiness was systematized and interpreted all parts of the city like islands that are floating in a sea of emptiness. Berlin had this quality. That was not played out.

With the manifesto “The city within the city – Berlin: a green archipelago” Oswald Mathias Ungers and his colleagues – among others Rem Koolhaas – brought up the first concepts and models in 1977 of thinking about the shrinking city. They developed the figure of a polycentric urban landscape. Koolhaas was concerned with a radically new relationship between architecture and society. This vision is considered to be one of the great urban designs of recent architectural history.

Hubertus Siegert:
At the beginning of the 1990s, during the competitions for Potsdamer Platz, you were in strong conflict with the then Senate Building Director, Hans Stimmann. Do you feel confirmed or refuted by the history of the last years of building in Berlin?

Rem Koolhaas: 
I disagreed but I was also impressed by that kind of incredible vigour and effort that they made, in itself. And so, I have been following it not with a kind of hope that it would fail, but actually with a very cute interest, occasionally impressed and occasionally distressed. I think that also now I was talking to Stimmann kind of recently it is also clear, that all the positions have changed somewhat. The Sony-Centre in itself represents a provisional end to that and inevitably the beginning of something new. I don’t feel that it was a bad or useless effort at all. I think it was also heroic and partly successful and partly unsuccessful. And I think that that in itself has been an important episode.

Hubertus Siegert:
In Berlin, the transitional forms of construction sites, construction pits and Building shells are often more stimulating and hopeful than the buildings that have already been completed. As if the construction sites were utopia stores that empty themselves the more they go towards completion. Can this be observed in the rest of the world as well?

Rem Koolhaas: 
I believe that everything in process and becoming has something inspiring and optimistic. It’s the same everywhere. It is the embarrassment of this kind of bourgeois and final architecture, of which there is now a lot in Berlin, that it is so enormously clearly stated as the end point. In OMA projects, we try to avoid or break endpoints so that something remains open.

Hubertus Siegert:
Which need is stronger for you: to build or to understand?

Rem Koolhaas:
I think it’s really understanding. For me, building is also a form of understanding.



OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) is the Rotterdam-based architecture firm of Dutch architect and Pritzker award winner Rem Koolhaas. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture operates further architecture offices in Hong Kong, New York, Beijing, Doha, Dubai and Sydney. OMA buildings are among the most important examples of avant-garde contemporary architecture.