The Godzilla of Architecture? Rem Koolhaas Builds His Own Delirious New York — in Rotterdam

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Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA rarely create a building without effect; and that is true of his latest, a “vertical city” called de Rotterdam in the old harbor district of his chosen city, Rotterdam. Bennett Stein describes the “effect” and asks if it offers anything more?


Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA rarely create a building without effect; and that is true of his latest, de Rotterdam, their “vertical city” of offices, apartments, hotel, restaurants and shops just completed in the old harbor district of Koolhaas’ chosen city, Rotterdam. DnA recently visited and Bennett Stein, aka TheGood4NothingConnoisseur, describes the “effect” — and asks what it reveals about Rem himself.

It’s decided then, Rem Koolhaas is the Godzilla of architecture. He literally fashions omnipotent beasts to stalk many a skyline of earth. I’m still recovering from his CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, that colossus of black metal and crack dealer-tinted glass with steroid thighs stomping the cityscape like a towering laser-spitting deathbot from ‘War Of The Worlds.’ Local Beijingites lovingly call it ‘the trousers.’


When I met that trick of an edifice (above) up close in September 2010 it looked like it had just incinerated its neighbor, nicknamed ‘The Boot’ (below right) as it mimics that with which said stormtrooper kicks your door down—except it’s a building, a 5-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel and TV production complex, to be exact, that caught fire on its official unveiling coincident with a Chinese New Year fireworks display run amok.

How fitting that both buildings are the spawn of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA (Office Of Metropolitan Architecture). And could he have felt a frisson of excitement at having his two scariest creations look as if they’d battled to the death, in the capital city of his client, the world’s alpha authoritarian regime?

Beijing THE BOOT BURNTI wonder if Rem is not just Le Corbusier redux but is vying to be the Stan Lee of architects. Though a renowned academic and stats nerd, he claims, in his treatise Delirious New York that he’s always, with his buildings, running the same trick (and “always in tan pants”), but really his creations could be the darker heavies of the Marvel Comics Most Wanted line-up, the WWF brutes like Ultron, Black Bolt and the Hulk.

Even Rem’s Seattle Public Library (below left, image courtesy Wikipedia), though invigorating and whimsical inside, has the façade of a predator harlequin.

Seattle_Central_Library,_Seattle,_Washington_-_20060418De Rotterdam — a “Mass-production State of Mind?”

All of this is a prelude to examining his latest creation, De Rotterdam, OMA’s three interconnected towers containing a mix of offices, apartments, hotel, conference facilities, shops and eateries that, according to the firm, “aims to reinstate the vibrant urban activity – trade, transport, leisure – once familiar to the neighbourhood” to the old harbor district of Wilhelminapier, next to the Erasmus Bridge.

So how is it and will it help invigorate the area?

You approach it from the giant harp-shaped Erasmus bridge. It comes at you, an eyeless big wow, all shape-shifting elegance on the skyline of the 2nd largest port city on the globe (view from bridge, below right).

De Rotterdam seen from carRem calls it a ‘vertical city.’ But if cities are variegated and hybrid, this is one monolithic, its shifting form clad uniformly in a metal and glass sheath; its relentlessness brings to mind Le Corbusier’s desired “mass-production state of mind” or some of the “delirious” towers in New York; like them, there are no visual cues to indicate which part is residential or hotel or conference center.

Ice Queen in Drag

But it is uniformity of an elegant sort. I’d call it more of an ice queen in drag sashaying down the runway, paparazzi flash bulbs apopping. Is it a super model or super freak? Either way, one feels a little had on the approach.

You see, De Rotterdam has a vanity to it. It is both shy and immodest, and a little sinister. It’s a diva of biomimetics–you swear it’s a living, sentient thing that watches you as you watch it. And it loves itself so much it’s looking in the mirror all the time—wait a minute, it is a mirror. The building has a reflective shiny exterior of glass and steel which is repeated on the interior in planes of reflective glass and steel.

Though a married man, I think I’m in love with her but she’s not a skyscraper so much as a knife held to the throat of the sky. She mugs your attention, splits your personality, and with its turning, shimmering blade matrix it may well poke you like the M.C. Esher (hmm, also Dutch) optical illusion that it is.

de rotterdam

In point of fact, it is a puzzle in six to eight stacked shafts, or slim silver acrobats (above, photo: They each appear to die and rebirth into and out of one another. You want to reach out and slide its Rubik’s Cubic rectilinear parts around. It’s a Steelhenge of shimmering, petrified steam in solid rectangular blocks. You get this building that dances as alluringly, as coldbloodedly, as Salome.

Yes she’s a skyline stripper all right—except it’s you that’s being stripped, of your sense of proportion, your sense of place. As a New York City boy I squirmed at its outer husk, which resembled the soulless corporate skin of the World Trade Towers brought low in 2001. Still, the thing knocks the aesthetic wind out of you while glinting in the sun, utterly self-possessed.

Make no mistake she is a lady who does not particularly give a fig what you think of her. She is impervious to disapproval. She is both naked yet clothed in silver lame. I keep saying she, but it’s probably a he.

de Rotterdam interior, escalatorYou try to figure him out. You don’t want to be duped. Is it a conman or a savior? An empty vessel masquerading as a “vertical city”? Even Rem himself said the arrival and exterior is “all you need to see. The rest is just a cheap office building” (interior atrium, left).

Then it struck me: is Rem the Miles Davis of architects because he, too, seems to play with his back to the audience? And like Miles he infuriates, mystifies and offends in equal measure. I whipped like a yoyo between love and hate, disgust and awe at this facile structure. All I knew is I was in no hurry to leave the premises.

Rem Koolhaas Recreates Manhattan 

I wanted to understand this architect’s philosophy of life and mission. Turns out he may well be trying to recreate Manhattan. You decide. In Koolhaas’ most coherent and nakedly confessional book, “Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto For Manhattan” (Monicelli Press, 1994), he says things like “Manhattan is a theatre of progress;” it is “the 20th century’s Rosetta Stone;” “Manhattan’s architecture is a paradigm for the exploitation of congestion;” “Manhattan has generated a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self hatred;” “it is creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked, endlessly reenacted.”

He delves into an exhaustive study of a great many of Manhattan’s classic concrete, glass and steel behemoths from their pinnacles down their elevator shafts and below to the deepest inch of their penetrative foundations drilled into the Manhattan schist.

Rem Koolhaas photo in de rotterdamHe studies Manhattans boldest architects and unearths their builder secrets. Rem (shown, right, in photo in exhibit in the lobby of de Rotterdam, December 2013) makes “The Fountainhead” look like a Norman Rockwell cartoon. And last but not least he crowns himself with the raison d’etre of his “Delirious New York” thesis by stating: “Movie stars who have led adventure-packed lives are often too egocentric to discover patterns, too inarticulate to express intentions, too restless to record or remember events. Ghostwriters do it for them. (And the clincher:) In the same way I was Manhattan’s ghostwriter” (italics his).

A Cynical and Brutal Monument

Yes he is magnificently haunted, one might argue, and with this structure has taken the first shot at demonstrating exactly how he is Manhattan’s ghostwriter. Whether he has hit the mark with De Rotterdam is yet to be determined, since the building when we saw it was unoccupied. And some say it will stay that way. “The building is a cynical and brutal monument to the city’s delusions of grandeur,” Wouter Vanstiphout, professor of design and politics at Delft university told The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. “While Amsterdam is trying to fill its empty offices, Rotterdam is building more and more, but there’s no one to go in them. It is madness when there is 30% vacancy across the city.”

Fewer people love Rem than fear him, but he is the most flirtatious of all the working architects. He is the dapper cad we all whisper about, the Great Gatsby of the profession, for unlike most of us who dream privately, vengefully, to our pent up little inner selves, Gatsby, on the other hand, like Rem, dreams out loud, with the volume on 11. He’s the guy about whom we like to say, there goes the neighborhood. He lacks the inhibition to do otherwise. He fits the psychopath’s profile: no impulse control, no contrition. Expect to hear the complaints and condemnations pile on, for we are supposed to punish the libertines who wantonly flaunt rules of propriety.

escalator down in de RotterdamHis new building may be offensive and wrong or plagiaristic in many ways–but it is spectacular. You will think many things about it and may even wonder how many CIA Hellfire missiles it would take to topple it, yet you will want to go inside. You will think to rush and buy it flowers, as a romantic gesture for its bravura performance and chilly beauty, before you set foot onto her doorstep or push into one of her revolving doors. It’s like asking Marilyn Monroe to dance and she accepts. You’ll have the selfie to prove she led you around the dance floor, and you’ll dine out on your brush with destiny for years to come.

The Fool Stops at Nothing

I’d been reading The Memoirs of Chateaubriand the night before and was struck by the line the soon to be worldly aristocrat’s stern dad had said when coaxing his prodigal son from childish ways to manhood; “Chevalier, it is time to renounce your follies.” And it hit me, most of Rem’s built creations strut like follies, just on a grand scale. Ironic in the case of de Rotterdam, given its proximity to Erasmus Bridge (seen from de Rotterdam, below) — a bridge named after Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, the Dutch Renaissance humanist-priest-social critic, believed to have been born in Rotterdam and notorious for penning the most scathing satire in the Western cannon in 1509, “The Praise Of Folly.” May (Rem and) I recommend it as the only self-help book you’ll ever need?

It is full of pronouncements, including: “The wise man, full of timidity and modesty, attempts nothing; the fool, void of modesty and unmindful of danger, stops at nothing.”

View of erasmus bridge from de rotterdam