Dutch maverick wins architectural award

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands received the Pritzker Architectural Prize, architecture's highest honor, this week. He will be presented the award May 29, in the 2,000-year-old Archaeological Park in Jerusalem.

Among his peers, Mr. Koolhaas is regarded as a visionary, an implementer of new techniques, and a maverick. In an exclusive interview in Los Angeles bearing out this portrait of himself, he says, "In a way, some of the strength of my work is to resolve contradictions."

Thomas Pritzker, president of the Hyatt Foundation which makes the award, said, "In this new millennium, it's fitting the jury select an architect who seems so in tune with the future. Koolhaas has been called a prophet of a new modern architecture."

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The French government thought so when it commissioned him to do the master plan for the city of Lille. "The government knew the combination of Eurostar [trains connecting Britain and the Continent] and the superfast TGV, would drastically transform the fate of the city - 80 million [people] would live within an hour-and-a-half travel time from London, Belgium, and Paris."

For Koolhaas the project presents "another of these interesting new conditions where simple infrastructure suddenly changes the territorial quality of the region."

The Bordeaux House in France was "an incredibly interesting concept," he says. It won Time Magazine's "Best Design for '98" award. Koolhaas knew the couple and their children for a long time. When an accident forced the father into a wheelchair, the concept of building a house changed radically.

"Building the house was more important to him than before. He wanted a very complex house, so he could participate in the life of his family," Koolhaas says. "He wanted the house to help him transcend his handicap."

Contrary to what might be expected, the owner did not want a flat house. Koolhaas designed a large room in the center that was an elevator, enabling the owner to reach every level. As the elevator moves through the house, the quality of the residence changes. The first level is cave-like and carved out of the hill for family recreation, the middle level is the living area, while the top is bedrooms.

The Villa Dall'Ava in Paris had different challenges. The wife wanted a swimming pool on the roof to enjoy the view; the husband wanted all-glass. "Interesting in terms of resolving apparent contradictions," Koolhaas admits.

Whether it's the Educatorium at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, or the 2nd Stage Theater in New York, the Grand Palais in Lille, or the Dance Theatre in The Hague, Koolhaas weaves an original design.

As Koolhaas suggests, "The one thing I think is unique about this moment is for the first time, through the effects of globalization, we are able to work in many different contexts that will have an enormous effect on architecture. We are actually constructing an entirely new situation."

In 1995, Koolhaas became a professor at Harvard University. "On the condition," he adds, "that I would only do research. We are currently working on a project, 'Harvard Project on the City.' We have taken a single urban area, or a single subject in the development of the city, and studied it, then published it in a book. We've looked for the fastest growing region in China, which is the Pearl River Delta, near Hong Kong. In 20 years, its population will triple. This will produce architecture at a previously unimaginable speed."

Koolhaas's grandfather was an architect, his mother a painter, and his father a writer. He knew he wanted to be an architect from an early age. He says by accident he became a writer, even spent time in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He also authored such books as his first, "Delirious New York," and his most recent, "S, M, L, X," which describes the four sizes Koolhaas projects come in.

In his twenties, he decided it was time to study architecture, but he admits, "For me, there's not that much difference - writing and designing are both a form of creating. Today, I consider I have two professions."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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