One of the most distinguished architects in the world, Rem Koolhaas — who also designed the College of Art, Architecture and Planning’s Milstein Hall — gave a lecture about America’s contributions to architecture on Wednesday. Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall was packed with Cornell architecture students as well as visitors from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Syracuse University for the lecture.
Koolhaas arrived in Ithaca in 1972 as an architecture student, after graduating from the Architectural Association in London. He went on to found the famed Office for Metropolitan Architecture with some partners in 1975.
OMA designed buildings such as the Rotterdam Kunsthal, the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, the Seattle Central Library and the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing.
Along with the Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious international architectural award, Koolhaus and OMA have also won several international awards, including Japan’s Praemium Imperiale in 2003, the United Kingdom’s RIBA Gold Medal in 2004 and the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture — the Mies van der Rohe — in 2005. Koolhaas has also been an architecture professor at Harvard since 1990.
“His work has blanketed the intellectual landscape of architecture, urbanization and design,” Kent Kleinman, dean of the Architecture School said. “He has a design ethic with no contemporary equal.”
The lecture gave a chronological account of OMA’s work in the American Office over the past two decades.
“It’s interesting to focus on the work, on America and the influence of American architecture on the outside world,” said Koolhaas, who is also known for his publication Delirious New York, which sets forth his ideas about architecture and urban design.
While architecture used to present a statement civilizations made about themselves for the public, this has been eroded by the idolatry of the marketplace, Koolhaas said. Now, architecture is not the work of a civilization, but of a person; it is not trying to show values, but the celebrity of architect, he said.
According to Koolhaas, architecture 40 years ago was the unglamorous execution of a blueprint and the resutl of labor at the construction site. But now, one of the inevitable effects of the architect as a celebrity, he said, is that architects do not design housing projects, but skyscrapers.
Koolhaas described the architecture that developed in America and attributed it to inventions. For example, the elevator made all floors accessible and steel construction meant that parts could be reproduced infinitely. Both were invented between 1880 and 1920 and since then the question has been, “What can we do with these inventions?” Koolhaas said.
The discovery of a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan that contained unrelated combinations of rooms on the same floor, such as a wrestling ring and an oyster bar, was the driving force and theme for his work, according to Koolhaas.
“The box is the final form of architecture,” Koolhaas said. “It’s generic and copyright-free.”
Koolhaas spent much of the lecture explaining plans for American buildings that featured innovative designs, including the headquarters for Universal Studios in Hollywood, the Whitney Museum, the Las Vegas Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art.
“We tried to make inventions, not new designs,” Koolhaas said. In reference to the Whitney Museum Extension, he said, “We wanted to develop a vision of what the museum could be, not outwit the situation through design.”
Koolhaas briefly described the design for Milstein Hall, which is still under construction. “It’s a box. Boxes are always autonomous, but this one is not.”
As a floating plane, the new Milstein Hall will connect to neighboring Rand and Sibley Halls and include a domed area underneath.
“Milstein Hall will be an extraordinary addition to an extraordinary school,” Kleinman said.
Seth Hepler, a second year architecture student from RPI said, “This linear approach is almost so simple that what he presented became Koolhaas’ architectural history. Through the years he applied one approach to different venues.”
“There was a lot to gain from his approach,” Richard Jolta, a second year masters student at Cornell, said. “He was very honest. He likes to nail down and diagram his ideas.”
Mark Cruvellier, associate professor of architecture said, “[Koolhaas’] conceptual idea and basis for the lecture linked the disparate parts. The constant thread in his work tied all the things together.”
In a question and answer session following the lecture, Koolhaas said that the future of architecture is completely at the mercy of forces no architect can know at the moment.
An audience member asked what can be done about the inefficiency of architecture as a profession, in that architects go through a tremendous amount of schooling and are trained to address issues such as function and culture, but only design 2 percent of the built world.
Koolhaus replied that architects are interested in this idea. “For example, there is the notion of generics, it’s not just a little elite world. We want to recapture this but it implies the abdication of what is now considered the art of architecture.”