The Koolhaas Conundrum
The news that Ole Scheeren has split off from the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) highlights again the difficulty our culture has in understanding the notion of teamwork, focusing instead on stars and studs who get things done. Rem Koolhaas is such an alpha male, but he has been trying for years to obtain public recognition for the designers in his office. When I was living in the Netherlands, he even tried to enlist me to make sure projects were credited to different members of the OMA team. Yet his very outsized personality, his charisma, and his way with sound bites makes the spotlight always return to him. Koolhaas seems ambivalent on the issue: on the one hand, he has worked assiduously to get credit in print for the likes of Scheeren, Joshua Prince-Ramus, and Dan Woods, all of whom have left to start their own firms; on the other hand, he has had rather public disagreements with his "golden boys" and continues to perform with great effect at lectures around the world. When Rem Koolhaas walks in the room, he is very much The Man.
OMA was set up as a collective, with early partners including Koolhaas’ wife, Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia Zenghelis, and, later, his student, Zaha Hadid. One by one, the friends dropped away until Koolhaas and OMA became, at least in the public’s eye, indistinguishable. The same happened at the Dutch firm Mecanoo, which is now Francine Houben’s vehicle, for instance, or with Wolf Prix’s Coop Himme(l)blau. To a certain extent, this is a problem of the generation of 1968: having emerged in a period when the collective and a lack of hierarchy became important again, they matured into leadership positions in which their revolutionary zeal fed into strong positions that they worded with more verve than anyone else. It is not just true in architecture, either; this is the rock 'n' roll generation, filled with former band members who have become stars.
Rock stars, however, are by their very nature figureheads. The question is what the architect is or should be. Is she or he the artistic genius who, like Howard Roark, invents form that transforms the world? Or is she the member of the team who is best able to articulate solutions collectively arrived at to a client and the world? Or is she a critic, selecting from many alternatives like a teacher? Or is she a conductor leading a band of talents with a perfect sense of rhythm, proportion, and balance? None of these models seem adequate for the production of architecture today. All of them, however, contain elements of what an architect has to do to be effective. I think it is as naive to believe architecture is a collective or even a rational activity, as it is to believe in the myth of genius. What matters more is that the architect understand her role not as the imposition of either her own or her firm’s will on the world, as it is the ability to figure out, articulate, interpret, and give form to the many realities latent in any designed artifact, and thus to add something of both beauty and social, economic, and environmental importance to our reality. It turns out that Rem Koolhaas is pretty darn good at that, and for that reason we should be grateful that he continues to lead OMA and wish Scheeren Godspeed in developing his own architecture.