rem in philly

Why Was Rem Koolhaas’ AIA Speech Not Widely Covered?

There was a time, not too long ago, when a Rem Koolhaas speech given to thousands of his fellow architects would constitute news. At least in the architecture press. Apparently, that time is not now. Koolhaas delivered the keynote speech at the AIA convention last month and something rather odd happened: the architecture press for the most part shrugged its collective shoulders. Apart from a couple of pieces—a quick summary in Dezeen and a good one in FastCoDesign by Diana Budds, ominously headlined, Architecture Has a Serious Problem Today—there was virtually no other coverage of the speech.


I didn’t attend the AIA, but I was looking forward to the critical chatter afterward, since, historically, Koolhaas has always been an entertaining intellectual provocateur. But the two architecture outlets ostensibly covering the event—Architectural Record and Architect Magazine, the official magazine of the AIA (and by extension the convention itself)—didn’t even mention Rem’s remarks. It was as if his appearance didn’t happen.


This seems like a strange omission. You could make a pretty good argument that Koolhaas, regardless of what you think of his buildings, is the most important architectural theorist of the past four decades. He built an internationally renowned practice pretty much out of his ideas: Delirious New York and S,M,L,XL are now important books that, at the time of their publication, helped jumpstart his career as building-architect. He has always been a compelling thinker, writer and speaker.


Yes, Rem has a tendency to deem, the Next Big Thing, whatever it is that he’s currently working on (shopping, anyone?), but a lot of architects do that, and he does it with a lot of flair and narrative rigor.


Yes, he has a tendency to deem, the Next Big Thing, whatever it is that he’s currently working on (shopping, anyone?), but a lot of architects do that, and he does it with a lot of flair and narrative rigor. He likes a good argument. And even if you don’t always buy those arguments, even if they seem a tad cynical and self-serving (CCTV tower will help democratize China), you’re almost always engaged by them.


Surely he would have at least one or two interesting things to say about the state of architecture?


As it turns out, according to FastCo Design’s Budds, he had a number of sharp takes on the profession. “Architecture has a serious problem today in that people who are not alike don’t communicate,” he told Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “I’m actually more interested in communicating with people I disagree with than people I agree with.” Later he went on to say: “If you want to be relevant, you need to be open to an enormous multiplicity of values, interpretations, and readings.”


He talked about historic preservation, and in a backhanded way took a took a swipe at a global design scene that he helped lead for the better part of twenty years: “We’ve tried to discover domains and areas in architecture which are not [my emphasis] a simple vulgar multiplication of uninspired global projects. Recently, we have looked at preservation.” (Preservation? You can practically hear the academy groan.) He talked about the role of engineers, the glacial pace of architecture, how social design could help solve Europe’s refugee crisis.


It was a somewhat circumscribed assessment of things. But not entirely so. There was a certain pathos to his remarks on architecture and time—” You could say that we’re the last profession that has a memory, or the last profession whose roots go back 3,000 years and still demonstrates the relevance of those long roads today. Initially, I thought we were actually misplaced to deal with the present, but what we offer the present is memory”—especially if you factored in the recent passing of his good friend Zaha Hadid.


For anyone steeped in Koolhaas history, the tenor of his remarks was certainly ironic. Here was the quintessential heroic 20th century architect sketching out a decidedly less heroic role for architects in the 21st century. I entirely understand the frustration of younger, ambitious, anxious-to-build architects, who might listen to Rem now and think he’s like the cranky houseguest who declares the party over once he decides it’s time to leave. But, again, these were not uninteresting remarks; they appeared to have great relevance to the profession, even if you didn’t agree with them. Why the radio silence from the architecture press?


At one point the internal editor in me kicked in and I thought: OK, this wasn’t a formal speech, these weren’t prepared remarks, it was basically a bull session with Mostafavi. But then I realized: the AIA’s Special Guest Star Julia Louis Dreyfus (a seminal figure in architecture) sat down with Terry Gross, in the same unscripted, bullshit session format—and Record posted it as convention news on their website the following day. They followed that with a post on the great Neri Oxman, but no Rem. What gives?


“At the 2016 AIA convention,” read Budds’ FastCoDesign subhead, “the legendary architect gave the profession an honest appraisal of its failures.” Indeed, he did. And rather than engage with these gnarly, uncomfortable ideas (agree, refute, condemn, or even just cover at face value), they choose a different response. Silence.


Rem is welcome to disagree with me, anytime.


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