The art of being Rem

People can talk all they want about culture-changing inventions like the microchip and the transistor, but my favorite technological marvel is that little button on the television remote that allows you to switch back and forth between two different shows.

Just the other night, I spent some quality time switching between a public access cable forum starring Seattle Library architect Rem Koolhaas and the cinematic classic Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice. After an hour of switching, I still couldn't decide which made less sense.

But I knew I was viewing a pair of cultural icons: A few laughably inept American slasher films ("There's something out there—it's evil!") should definitely be placed in the millennial time capsule. And can somebody please stuff that little Prada loafer-wearing, gibberish-spouting architect in there, too?

When Koolhaas first showed up in town for his finalist's presentation in the library design competition, I disparaged him as a "professional European." Although the description was spot-on; my mistake was thinking that I was being snide. Rem is the classic mumbling genius—you don't understand a word he's saying, yet you feel it's somehow a reflection of your comparatively pitiful brain power, rather than his inability to string words together coherently.

It's pointless to pull individual phrases out of a Koolhaas presentation (although I am particularly fond of this one: "The entire skin of the building will be charged with a maximum of roles"), but the overall effect is powerful. The man's got great comic timing, he projects an almost puppylike sense of desire for his audience's approval, and he works that accent like a champ. He's probably not a bad architect, either. Photographs of his few creations display an eccentric, ultramodern flair. However, it's not a good sign that his two most celebrated creations are a pair of private homes designed for patient guys with bottomless wallets.

His preliminary design for the Seattle Library is a trip. He's separated library functions into five boxes, then skewed the five sections, with a web of copper and glass enclosing the building. The building's outer "skin" is actually a structural element: All those copper rods will hopefully keep Rem's stacked blocks from tipping over in an earthquake or high winds. Koolhaas does have a few low-level critics. An architect friend grumbles that Rem's design first creates structural problems, then solves them. Some genius.

Of course, my friend has every reason to be a sorehead. He devotes much of his time to designing low-income housing and his clients aren't seeking to indulge the wild man of architecture. They want a practical structure they can build on a budget and maintain as cheaply as possible. Koolhaas isn't likely to get any such commissions.

But that's just another facet of the Koolhaas appeal—curiously enough, he's an architect who owes much of his fame to his failure to get things built. His best-known book, S, M, L, XL, spotlights many of his designs that didn't win competitions. Cobbled together around a heaping helping of Rem's rambling ruminations, the book immediately gave Koolhaas a reputation as a cutting-edge kind of guy.

It's not hard to figure why young architects flock to Rem's speeches like teenage girls to a Britney Spears concert. Just like Britney's midriff-baring hordes, the young designers want desperately to be the person on the stage. They want to write books and win design awards, they want a wife in Rotterdam and a mistress in London. A friend of mine once described the toughest lesson of life after college as the realization that nobody is going to pay you a handsome salary simply for being a genius. Rem provides hope that such a job exists.

Granted, the man is a font of ideas, but even Rem's most ardent boosters have a hard time explaining just what makes his ideas compelling. Local developer David Sucher talks about scouring the Internet in search of serious discussion of Rem's work and finding only page after page of excessive flattery. His final conclusion: "The real tip off that [Koolhaas] doesn't have anything to say is that he's not criticized."

Even Arthur Lubow's sprawling New York Times Magazine profile proved unable to do more than state and restate the obvious conclusion that Koolhaas is one interesting fellow. At least readers got to revel in the bizarre details. When asked about her husband's live-in mistress in London, his wife delivered this memorable statement: "I always feel that he is a plug and the whole world is full of sockets. He has chosen different sockets in different worlds." And how about this awesome Lubow interlude: "When Koolhaas walks through the office, you can feel the young architects (typically, men with shaven heads and black sweaters) shift slightly in response to his presence, like flowers to the sun." Quips Seattle activist Linda Jordan, "Rem not only plugs sockets, he also facilitates photosynthesis."

But Koolhaas is no con man. He is simply the perfect complement to Seattle's near-pathetic desire to appear cosmopolitan, European, world-class. Rem has artfully detected our inner rube and he plays to it masterfully. Sure, this guy is going to spend every cent in the budget and probably quite a few more. But what we want most of all is a building people will talk about—and the evidence indicates that Koolhaas can do the job. Seattle deserves this guy.

 
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