There is no one-way to define democracy: An Interview with Rem Koolhaas

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 12:13

Posted by Gricelys Rosario

To read this post in Italian click here: Non c’è un unico modo per definire la democrazia: intervista a Rem Koolhaas

This entry is the first of a series of interviews conducted by Cluster in occasion of the second edition of the Democracy Biennial held in Turin from April 12 -17 2011, organized under the auspices of the City of Turin. In this context the Turin’s Architects Association Foundation (Fondazione OAT) organized a keynote speech by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas with ‘Architecture and Democracy’ as the proposed theme: How is the political system reflected in the build environment? What is the role of architecture in the design of public space?


© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

The conference – held in the prestigious Carignano Theatre – was introduced by Manfredo di Robilant, who emphasized the importance of Koolhaas’ intellectual work, starting from his first two publications Delirious New York (1978) and SMLXL (1995) to a series of urban and architectural studies then developed through AMO, a research studio founded in 2000 that operates as counterpart to his design office OMA, which serves to enrich architecture with knowledge garnered from multidisciplinary confrontation and to shape the architect’s vision by informing his approach to new realities.

To illustrate the complex relationship between democracy and architecture Koolhaas used a series of images and projects that have emerged mostly over the last ninety years, and which represent the evolution of the “people’s power” concept. “Not all systems are equally democratic”, argues Koolhaas: there is no one-way to define democracy, but the meaning of the concept must be articulated within the context from which this form of government was established. The architect also dedicated a part of his conference to discuss the market economy, and the increasingly large space it occupies in the field of architecture.

Gricelys Rosario: Earlier this week Gustavo Zagrebelsky, president of the Democracy Biennial, published an article as a prelude to his lecture yesterday, in which he basically states that society is structured around three main functions: politics, economics and symbolism. Obviously, architecture – as a practice – deals with the creation or interpretation of symbols, or rather, uses symbols to create identity. In your view are architects today free to build an architecture based on truly democratic symbols?

Rem Koolhaas: I don’t really understand what is meant by the word democratic in this context, what do you mean? Can you give me an example?

GR:I mean when you speak about ‘starchitects’ you mention Bilbao pointing out that it is a representation of its architect and itself as a private institution. This example of architecture maybe labelled undemocratic in the sense that it doesn’t represent the values of the people or the place where it is built.

RK: This is a good example. Let’s talk about it. It’s a completely alien constrict because it was an American architect and an American museum director who, in a hardcore Basque city, built a contemporary art museum. And yes, it’s a true expression of the market economy etc. Nevertheless the result is very, very complex. It wouldn’t be fair to say it’s not democratic because it doesn’t connect to the people.I think that people have hugely benefited from the museum. Firstly, because it has positively influenced the city’s economy and tourism. I think the Guggenheim also shows a lot of really interesting art that people wouldn’t have seen without the museum, and of course the building itself is exceptionally beautiful, so even though it is a symbol of the market economy, it is an exceptional work of genius. Who am I to say where this is wrong or right, I do feel in this particular case, it is fair to say that the outcome is positive, whether you can call that democratic or not I don’t know, but it has definitely benefited Bilbao and citizens alike.

GR: So even with the market economy financing projects there is still space to give something back.

RK: Yes, absolutely. My whole argument in this lecture is that you cannot be purist; you cannot stand outside the market economy when you’re involved in it – and everybody is. But, you can do good things within it, and you can do bad things within it. That is the beauty and the nightmare of the market economy.


© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

GR: The project you proposed for Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, has at its core a very democratic premise, based on the idea that countries within the EU union should be represented not by their singularities but by their capacity to contribute to a greater good through sharing their renewable resources. Was this a gesture to raise the bar, or alternatively a way of encouraging behaviour change in a shift towards a more environmentally conscious Europe?

RK: We are constantly looking for ways to exploit the condition of Europe positively. And looking at it from the point of energy seemed to be an exceptional fit in a way between a scenario: on the one hand of diversity, and on the other hand of connection. I think you’re right to see it as part of a general European preoccupation, we see the current situation as an utopia, but knowing it is an exaggeration, a polemic, I think it makes a lot of sense.

GR: One of the topics for your keynote on the programme was the influence of political systems on the urban form.

RK: Oh, was it. I see!


© Jana Sebestova, photo courtesy of Fondazione OAT

GR: I realise that you don’t like to draw a line to divide black from white on these issues, but regarding the recent events in North Africa it seems there is a new era of people empowerment; a newfound group consciousness. People seem to be aware that their personal values are worthy as long as they mirror the values of a group. How does this idea of citizen empowerment change the relationship of users and the city, or the organization of public space?

RK: I would be crazy to speculate on how these things works. I prefer to insist on this quote that I found which states that looking at the whole of the Middle East it is really noticeable that everywhere there was no thinking, even before the revolution broke out. It has been very invisible to us, just because we weren’t looking at it.
I have simply no idea of what is going on there, except that there were no ideas at all. I found it a very traumatic, but seemingly efficient way to break to the surface and given the fact that I had confidence that it would happen, I still have confidence it will yield results. But, whether this means there is a single movement, or that it will divide and fragment into different directions I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.

GR: Thank you for your time.
RK: Thank you!

See also the review of this lecture: Towards an informed democracy: doubt, think, choose

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6 Responses to “There is no one-way to define democracy: An Interview with Rem Koolhaas”

  1. Heather Fenyk says:

    April 27th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    Cluster | City – There is no one-way to define democracy: An Interview with Rem Koolhaas http://bit.ly/eyinbL

  2. Arquitexto says:

    April 28th, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    Rem Koolhas, entrevista realizada por la arquitecta dominicana Gricelys Rosario en el contexto de la Democracy… http://fb.me/10Y7Ym8uV

  3. Marcia Caines says:

    May 2nd, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    New blog Post | There is no one-way to define democracy: An Interview with Rem Koolhaas: http://t.co/EX2tfVE

  4. antonio scarponi says:

    May 2nd, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    Ask a famous architect an opinion about architecture and democracy. The answer? I do not know. #whatelse? http://t.co/bnYk5V8 /via @MCaines

  5. ✔ Hi I'm Tomas ... says:

    May 2nd, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    … arch + democracy … I don't know… http://t.co/bnYk5V8 | Koolhaas

  6. Wouter says:

    May 2nd, 2011 at %I:%M %p

    RT @endlessCities: … arch + democracy … I don't know… http://t.co/bnYk5V8 | Koolhaas

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