"Extreme Beauty and Extreme Vulgarity": Rem Koolhaas Shares His Thoughts on Japanese Metabolist Architecture

"Extreme Beauty and Extreme Vulgarity": Rem Koolhaas Shares His Thoughts on Japanese Metabolist Architecture
Rem Koolhaas
(Photo © Dominik Gigler)

NEW YORK — “Some of my best friends in architecture are Japanese,” OMA mastermind Rem Koolhaas said last night, addressing an audience largely composed of Japanese architecture students. “Actually, all my best friends in architecture are Japanese.” The giggling, reverent crowd filled the auditorium of New York’s Japan Society, which Koolhaas visited last night to discuss the process of writing last year’s landmark tome, “Project Japan: Metabolism Talks.”

The sprawling, dynamic encyclopedia is the fruit of seven years of labor during which he and Swiss architecture critic Hans-Ulrich Obrist tracked down and interviewed the surviving members of the Metabolists, the Japanese, postwar-era pioneers of the non-western avant-garde. He expressed his admiration and love for them as innovators of a bygone era: the purity of their celebrity, long before the word “starchitect” took a negative turn; the simplicity of their models in an age of limited technology; and above all the closeness of the group, the constant communication and contact they shared in sharp contrast to the isolating climate that exists among architects today. These are the highlights ARTINFO gleaned from his talk, including details of the rise of the Asian avant-garde, and secrets about Koolhaas himself.


“I was friends already with some of them and therefore there was an issue of accessibility,” Koolhaas said. “I was particularly interested to look at the first non-western avant-garde. We are currently living in a situation where a lot of initiatives are no longer ours... I’ve written on Singapore and found that there, a city that we as Westerners can only see as mediocre, can also be interpreted as a city generated under the influence of Metabolist aesthetics. I was particularly interested in Metabolism because it represents the first time in which an avant-garde which isn’t ours is in charge of an aesthetic and an ideology.”


“One of the questions we pose ourselves is why does it still mean something to say someone is a Japanese architect, while it’s become completely meaningless to say someone is a Dutch architect, or an American architect or a French architect?” he said. “Maybe the Japanese are a group of modernists that never entirely cut connections with the past. That is probably still something one intuitively senses when they look at Japanese architecture.”


“Maybe it’s particularly a phenomenon of Tokyo, but I find if you work in Japan, part of your day is spent in interminable meetings with unusually large amounts of partners that are all extremely serious and kind of focused on minutiae of building,” Koolhaas said, “but the nights are spent in the most drunken, radical entertainment you could possibly imagine. Basically those two worlds, you really get a sense that they are really close and really necessary — the extreme sobriety of one and the intensity of surrender to its opposite... the proximity of extreme beauty and extreme vulgarity, and sometimes the collapse of the two in a single image, in my view, is uniquely Japanese. It’s a nostalgic way of looking at it.”


When asked what we could glean from the Metabolists in response to the toll last year’s earthquake and tsunami took on the nation’s infrastructure, Koolhaas responded, “I don’t want to go there. In a way, it’s slightly abusive to now use this history for the future, and I think that everyone should draw their own conclusion from the work we did. The only thing that we note is that the book kind of has a new resonance in Japan. There are, in the work itself, prototypes that can be recycled where the main inspiration is drawn from the importance of organizing certain things collectively. Of course the current state of the state in Japan compared to then is not particularly inspiring in itself, so I think it's really more the awareness of the difference in governance of its people rather than an eagerness to use things from their history.”


“Of course, any architecture is going to be a totally collaborative process,” Koolhaas said. “We collaborate in the office constantly between many different cultures, many different sensibilities. We also have a culture in the office of working with other disciplines... What is completely lacking at this moment is the technical adjustment of different architectural careers and different architectural ideas in order to achieve a more comprehensive or more coherent plan. I think that’s largely driven by the state. The state has become so weak that it cannot take coordinated initiatives anymore, and it’s really the private sector that initiates, typically, what happens now in city building. In the private sector, there is an automatic and inevitable element of competition that is introduced and imposed on the architects that simply erodes, in many cases, the basis of sympathy and friendship that could exist. I’m talking from experience.”