As cities grow in importance, so too does architecture. Architects are playing leading role in thinking about the future of cities and building structures that will define urban life for hundreds of years to come. They are pushing the boundaries of engineering and, with their most monumental structures, provoking the public's imagination. Rem Koolhaas is a leading urban theorist and a Pritzker Prize-winning architect who is engaged in building projects around the world. He cofounded OMA, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, which is receiving international attention for its recent completion of an enigmatic new headquarters for China Central Television in Beijing. The architecture critic for the New York Times has written that the CCTV building may be "the greatest work of architecture built in this century." (1) In an interview with Paul Fraioli of the Journal of International Affairs, Koolhaas discusses how the economic and cultural changes of the twenty-first century are transforming world cities and also the practice of architecture. (2)
Journal of International Affairs: Do cities around the world, whether they are well established or just emerging, share common challenges? Are they finding common solutions?
Rem Koolhaas: What I see more than anything is the inability of almost every political system to anticipate, mobilize and take precautions for the future, even when it is obvious that cities will grow or shrink rapidly. It doesn't take particular expertise to deal with these challenges. However, this inability to plan ahead is widespread and it is always shocking when it happens in individual cases. It seems as if our ability to respond to advance warnings has eroded. In Europe there used to be politicians who were able to think twenty years or fifty years ahead, bur now the political horizon is four years, if that. This is a global phenomenon, and as the issues become bigger, perspectives become shorter.
Journal: Many architects are designing and building "green" structures around the world. What impact will this have on the sustainability of cities?
Koolhaas: What is now called "green architecture" is an opportunistic caricature of a much deeper consideration of the issues related to sustainability that architecture has been engaged with for many years. It was one of the first professions that was deeply concerned with these issues and that had an intellectual response to them. The "Spaceship Earth" concept that emerged in the 1960s had a visionary awareness of the interdependency of things, and also of the need to be systematically frugal. (3) I have more affinity with this tradition than with the current "greenness." At the same time, there is now strong pressure on buildings to function better, and there are finally clients willing to pay for it and the engineering needed to realize it. The exciting thing is not green buildings, it is that buildings everywhere are built better.
Journal: Has the future, so to speak, already arrived in today's modern cities? Will the biggest change in the coming century be the diffusion of modernity to new places in the world rather than the reinvention of modernity?
Koolhaas: I am incredibly bad...