My Thursday night arty activities as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival started with another architectural opportunity. Todd Architects practice, responsible for the Black Box’s design, was sponsoring a showing of Rem Koolhaas - A Kind of Architect. Such was the interest that the event outgrew the Black Box café and spilled over into the main performance area.
A lifestyle journalist who started to write screenplays, Rem Koolhaas helped made the most expensive film (at that time) in the Netherlands. It closed two weeks after its release! A fairly erotic art house film noire if the clips were representative of the while thing. But architecture ran in the family.
In the early 1970s as a student at architecture school in London, Koolhaas had to make a documentary about a building. He chose the Berlin wall. And the theme of walls dividing continued later when he investigated the potential effect of building an enormous enclosed area in the middle of a city. A walled garden that would become the cramped central space where people would flock to live in the fashionable place, emptying the no-longer fashionable suburbs and opening up their possible regeneration ... or “regurgitation” as Tuesday‘s Waiting for Ikea play might have put it!
As usual, sitting in the audience as an IT architect, my mind wanders to the parallels between built-environment and computer-based architecture.
The film brought out the idea of architecture being teamwork. Never alone in his OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) practice. Never quite clear where ideas came from or how options were refined. A multi-disciplinary pursuit, architects, graphic designers, technicians, all collaborating. No surprise that the best moments of IT architecture mirror this kind of group effort.
Koolhaas also viewed his architectural solutions as interventions to “fix the programming” of existing spaces: in other words, to improve their use and usability beyond baseline measurements and metrics taken before the start of the project. Sounds familiar too.
By spinning off AMO (OMA spelt backwards) as a think tank to inform their architecture, Koolhaas found a way to build in the thinking that is necessary for proper design.
Koolhaas aims to understand the client in their totality. It’s not just about the fancy HQ that they want designed and built, but for him it requires a wider appreciation of a client’s factories, stores, product lines, business, culture and processes.
A Koolhaas trait is that he favours multi-level constructions. Rarely skyscrapers - though circumference (2H+2W) of the Central China Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing does equal the height of New York’s old Twin Towers.
But getting away from isolated homes on flat streets to form covered communities, maximising the urban spaces and their usefulness. But fitting in with the surroundings, matching the existing architectural style of the area, isn’t a prime constraint.
From what I saw during the film, Koolhaas likes floating buildings, raised structures, rooms that stick out into the air several floors up the side of buildings, and ramps which can sometimes double as drawbridges.
“You rarely leave a building by Koolhaas without bruises”
said one commentator in the film, pointing to Koolhaas’ tendency to make floor lines disappear from under your feet, placing unexpected views and conceiving surprising revelations about the layout.
As well as “normal” building projects, Koolhaas has taken on less traditional creative missions. One such venture was the development of a visual language to better unite member EU countries than the EU flag with its fixed number of ten stars.
In its place he envisioned a barcode pattern - sometimes compared to pyjamas. It starts with the colours of the Irish flag (far west), and originally finished with those of the Greek flag (far east). It was later extended when the EU expanded.
On reflection, I found Sketches of Frank Gehry a much better film profiling another prolific architect, using the cinematic media to better effect to showcase the subject, his process and the built designs. And while there were moments of invention in Thursday night’s Rem Koolhaas film, personally, I felt it was more like a TV documentary. Though I’m still very glad I went along and learnt more.