The Master of Bigness


an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, October 6, 2011–February 19, 2012
A rendering of the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm, OMA, in partnership with the engineering firm Arup. Begun in 2004, the building is now largely completed but has yet to be occupied.


With his prodigious gift for invention, shrewd understanding of communication techniques, and contagiously optimistic conviction that modern architecture and urban design still possess enormous untapped potential for the transformation of modern life, no master builder since Le Corbusier has offered a more impressive vision for a brighter future than the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. To be sure, there are other present-day architects also at the very apex of the profession who do certain things better than he does. Robert Venturi is a finer draftsman and a more elegant writer; Denise Scott Brown has a more empathetic feel for the social interactions that inform good planning; and Frank Gehry displays a sharper eye for sculptural assemblage and a keener instinct for popular taste. But when it comes to sheer conceptual audacity and original thinking about the latent possibilities of the building art, Koolhaas today stands unrivaled.

Kenji Ekuan
A collage rendering of the Metabolist Kenji Ekuan’s Dwelling City, 1964; from Project Japan

Through his Rotterdam-based practice, the Office for Metropolitan Archi- tecture—OMA—and its research-and- development division, AMO, Koolhaas has conceived some of the most daring schemes of the past four decades, ranging in scale from mammoth undertakings like Euralille of 1987–1994 (the reconfiguration of the northern French city of Lille with a new high-speed railway hub, commercial center, and convention hall) and De Rotterdam of 1997–2013 (three interconnected mixed-use towers that will be the biggest building in Holland) to exquisite smaller structures including the Casa da Música of 2001–2005 in Porto, Portugal (an ark-like concert hall), and the Netherlands Embassy of 1997–2003 in Berlin (the finest work to rise in the German capital since reunification).

The full range of Koolhaas’s building career was on view at London’s Barbican Art Gallery this year in a sprawling and exhilarating exhibition entitled “OMA/Progress.” Designed by the Brussels firm Rotor, the installation conveyed the messy vitality of the OMA aesthetic through staccato text and vibrantly overloaded visual effects. The retrospective featured a nonstop, random projection of all 3.5 million images stored in OMA’s database, which made it impossible for any one person to see its contents in toto, a characteristically Koolhaasian conundrum.

The Barbican show—which included colored printouts casually pinned to wallboards or taped to the floor, huge unframed floorplans suspended from the ceiling, and rough-looking models strewn about—had the pleasantly disheveled air of an architectural office the morning after an all-night charrette to meet a competition deadline. Unlike some firms of its stature, OMA continues to participate in such contests, which…

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