Remmert Koolhaas was born in 1944 in Rotterdam, where bombing in World War II had erased, as in Berlin, the image of the historical city. With his family he moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1952 and staying until 1956, and then to Brazil, where he admired the works of Oscar Niemeyer. Back in Holland he would often spend time drawing in the architecture studio of his grandfather, Dirk Roosenburg. In 1963 he began to work for the weekly of the Dutch liberal right, “De Haagse Post”, doing layout and writing on cinema, literature, music, politics, sports, sexuality, art and architecture (including articles on Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld and Le Corbusier, as well as interviews with Constant Nieuwenhuys and Federico Fellini).
Like the rest of the editorial staff of the weekly, Koolhaas tried to purge his work of any comment other than description of the facts. Interviewees, for example, were asked no questions but simply shown a microphone, as if to comply with Surrealist tenets of automatic writing. “Not moralizing or interpreting (art-ificing) the reality, but intensifying it. Starting point: an uncompromising acceptance of reality”, the artist Armando advised, defining the approach of the journalists of “De Haagse Post”, outlined in greater depth in a guide written with the poet Hans Sleutelaar for the composition of articles.
In this same period Koolhaas joined the group of filmmakers “1,2,3, Groep”, with Rene Daalder, Jan de Bont, Kees Meyering and Frans Bromet, and the Nederlandse Filmacademie, directed from 1968 to 1978 by his father, Anton Koolhaas, a writer, journalist, draftsman, author of screenplays and fables with animals as characters. With the “1,2,3, Groep”, Koolhaas took part in the production of films, writing screenplays and occasionally acting.
His experience writing screenplays will later contribute to the development of his idea of the animated building, like actors on an urban stage, episodes organized in narrative sequences. “In a script – Koolhaas has said – you have to link various episodes together, you have to generate suspense and you have to assemble things – through editing, for example. It’s exactly the same in architecture. Architects also put together spatial episodes to make sequences.”
In 1966, at a seminar on cinema and architecture at the Technische Universiteit in Delft, Koolhaas met Gerrit Oorthuys, a professor of history and expert on constructivism who was working with Gerrit Rietveld. Koolhaas and Oorthuys then conducted research on Ivan Leonidov.
In 1968 Koolhaas registered at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, where the faculty boasted the likes of Peter Smithson, Cedric Price, Charles Jencks, Dalibor Veseley, Alvin Boyarsky and several members of Archigram, including Peter Cook.
The main orientation of the school’s teachings encouraged the design of environments made flexible by the possibilities of fantastic advanced technology. During these years of study Koolhaas nurtured a fundamental relationship of cultural collaboration with one of the professors, Elia Zenghelis.4 He also took part in several international competitions, visited Moscow for a first-hand look at constructivist works, and continued to write screenplays. Also in this period, he began to define the initial figures of his symbolic vocabulary, “obsessive images”5 he would transform, case by case, into always varying merveilles of architecture.
As a student, Koolhaas prepared a project for a swimming pool in London, a theme that was to meet with an extraordinary series of variations in his work (he loves swimming in pools, and has said, “when you work out, you can try to guess who else swam there before you”6). “The fluidity of water – Veseley writes – which is also the fluidity of desire opposing the solidity of matter, remains a permanent obsession of the Surrealists”.7 In the summer of 1970 Koolhaas visited Florence to meet the members of Superstudio and discuss the possibility of inviting them to lecture at the AA-School of Architecture – the lectures were held in February-March 1971 (followed by others over the next few years). “[...] how impressed I was by the work, optimistic about ‘easy’ architecture”, he wrote to his friends at Superstudio at the end of 1970.8 Thanks to Superstudio, Koolhaas also came into contact with Archizoom.
The first deep theoretical investigation conducted by Koolhaas was on a contemporary theme that expresses the meaning of separation to the fullest possible extent: the Berlin Wall. “The Berlin Wall as Architecture”, the subject of the Summer Study for 1971, selected against the backdrop of the cultural input of Superstudio and Archizoom, was interpreted by Koolhaas as a system composed of parallel bands, of various constituent parts, and endowed with extraordinary symbolic force.
“The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, motorways, like parallels and meridians, are the tangible signs of our comprehension of the earth”, Superstudio writes in 1969, regarding the project Monumento Continuo10 – a thick glass wall that crosses even deserts, as in the works of Walter De Maria and Land Art. That same year Archizoom designed thick, transparent walls that would divide Berlin into “parallel quarters”, and a colossal Miesian curtain wall to cut across Red Square in Moscow.11 Philip Johnson also proposed an ideal city whose growth was limited by an enclosure wall, a project known to Koolhaas.12 In 1971 Robin Evans, who had recently graduated from the AASchool of Architecture, wrote an article on the meaning of “wall” in the history of architecture, starting it with a drawing of the Great Wall of China (“It will deal with a strange way in which human beings render their world inhabitable by circumscribing and forgetting about those parts of it that offend them”, he wrote13), while Peter Allison proposed “A Wall for London” as a project in his fifth year of studies at the same school, “a wafer thin reflective wall as a screen for alienated reflection.”14 “My inclination to use a wall or walls for this purpose – Allison wrote – was confirmed by a close look at the Berlin Wall: it clearly combined efficiency with beauty in a most relaxed way”.15 The Berlin Wall became the fundamental element of the project entitled Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, which Koolhaas prepared with Zenghelis for the competition La città come ambiente significante, held in the autumn of 1971 by the Associazione per il Disegno Industriale of Milan, organized with the magazine “Casabella”.16 Some of the project panels were done in collaboration with Madelon Vriesendorp, Rem’s girlfriend, and Zoe Zenghelis, Elia’s wife, both painters. So the competition became an opportunity to found an initial group of artists, the embryo of the groups created later by Koolhaas, the “Dr. Caligari Cabinet of Metropolitan Architecture” – a name that combines the titles of two films, Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari by Robert Wiene and Metropolis by Fritz Lang, made respectively in 1920 and 1926, and the title of an essay by Ludwig Hilberseimer, Groszstadtarchitektur, published in 1927.
Beginning the architectural romance written by Koolhaas beyond any compositional logic or typological scheme, Exodus is an ideal city structure conceived to be inserted in the center of London with the aim of facilitating an intense cycle of metropolitan life, as described by Baudelaire, marked by moments of almost mystical retreat and other moments of participation in forms of social life inspired by the youth counter-culture, the Workers’ Clubs of the Constructivists and the visionary programs of Archigram like Instant City. All this would be enclosed by one of the original structures of architecture – the wall – giving it the character of a Continuous Monument.17 To accentuate its symbolic value, the wall of Exodus – “a masterpiece” – would be made with blocks of concrete inspired from the Berlin Wall, whose “psychological and symbolic effects”, as Koolhaas and Zenghelis wrote, “were infinitely more powerful than its physical appearance”. This symbolic figure, which precisely with Exodus becomes his first merveille, continued its presence among Koolhaas’s concerns until the 1990s.
In Exodus, Koolhaas and Zenghelis use, for “positive intentions”, a “force as definitive, intense and devastating” as that of the Berlin Wall, transforming it into two parallel, hollow walls that protect a “Strip”. In this “Strip” vital activities take place, marked by an “intense metropolitan desirability” and therefore capable, in the aims of the authors, of generating an exodus away from the historical city, which would thus be progressively reduced to a “pack of ruins”. The “Strip” is divided into eight Squares, each set aside for one activity. This form bears a certain similarity to the project by Leonidov for an ideal linear urban structure – the Palace of Culture – to be inserted in Moscow and subdivided into four square sectors devoted to scientific research, physical culture, mass demonstrations and expositions.
The description prepared by Koolhaas and Zenghelis is a fundamental part of Exodus, explaining its functioning and offering a glimpse of how the sequence of the Squares is roughly based on the idea of a screenplay. The “voluntary prisoners” who decide to leave London are welcomed at the “Reception Area”.18 From its roof terrace they can see the activities of the “Strip” and, at the same time, the “exhilarating decay of the old London”.Then they are accompanied to the “Ceremonial Square”, a vast, empty place, like a parade ground, where they are informed about the rituals and rules of the “Strip”. Their next stop is at the temporary lodgings that have been created inside London residences (“Area of London”, redefined in 1977 as “Temporary Housing”19), preserved in the “Strip” for the purpose of favoring gradual adaptation to the new system. From the roof of the “Reception Area” the “prisoners” reach the residences by means of a pair of escalators. These lodgings are located in the quarters of John Nash, indicated by Koolhaas and Zenghelis as their “conceptual predecessor”, probably due to the symbolic form of his works that are wedged into the urban fabric of London, just like the “Strip”.
After a short stay in the “Area of London”, the “voluntary prisoners” are moved to “The Allotments”, an area developed with “small palaces” and designed to purify their awareness, precluding any access to news and engaging them in everyday tasks of ploughing, clearing and beautifying the lots (“The houses [...] are built from the most beautiful and expensive materials – marble, chromium steel [...]”). “The Allotments” are a surreal place capable of acting on the “subconscious” and of stimulating “sentiments of ‘gratitude’ and ‘satisfaction’”, so the place is similar to certain residential cells imagined by the Metabolists, like the “capsule” of Kisho Kurokawa, conceived as a “retroactive mechanism”, “a device that permits rejection of unwanted information”.
The “voluntary prisoners” devote their days to a range of cultural and recreational activities in the various areas (“The University”; “The Complex of Scientific Research”; “Park of Four Elements”; “The Baths”; “The Square of Culture (British Museum)”).
In the “Park of Four Elements”, subdivided into four square areas for air, fire, water and earth, they learn about the qualities of the primordial elements. In the air zone, for example, their moods are stimulated by emissions of hallucinogenic gases, as happened at Radio City Music Hall in New York, which Koolhaas would describe in 1978.21 In the three pools of the area called “The Baths”, the “voluntary prisoners” get acquainted with one another and then move off, in couples or groups, into cells inserted in the hollow wall and specifically designed to “facilitate the indulgence and materialisation of their intentions”, as in the fantasy project of Oikéma by Ledoux.22 The “Square of Culture (British Museum)” is for their artistic education, and has three buildings: one is in the form of a neoclassical temple and contains artworks, starting with those of prehistoric times; another, in the form of a greenhouse, contains contemporary works; the third is below ground and utilized for the creation of art.
In “The University” – the area that was redesignated, in 1977, as the “Park of Aggression”24 – we find two tall Leonidovian towers. The one composed only of a series of slabs is a stack of arenas where the “voluntary prisoners” become gladiators to resolve, through combat, “all the ideological conflicts generated by the coexistence of so many people in such a restricted area”.25 The winner reaches the top, and returns to the ground through the spiral tower, in “a liberating fall that removes the last traces of resentment”.26 In “The Complex of Scientific Research” the “voluntary prisoners” conduct scientific studies.27 Finally, at the two ends of the “Strip” there are new Squares under construction, 11 which day by day demolish London in a phenomenon of cannibalism.
Other, secondary “Strips”, like thick rectilinear walls, branch out from the main Strip to reach the poorer areas of London, as in Archigram’s Instant City: “They lead to the enclave and provide all the private accommodation the settlers have dreamt for themselves. Their magnificent presence forces these slums to turn into ghost towns and picturesque ruins”.
The drawings that illustrate the life in the Squares of Exodus were made with collages inspired by the works of Richard Hamilton, Archigram, Superstudio. The groups of exhausted refugees leaving London on their way to the “Reception Area” depicted beyond a barrier – actually the Berlin Wall in a photograph taken by Koolhaas in 1971 – are the forlorn workers filmed by Lang in Metropolis; they abandon a black-and-white city to enter a screen of sparkling colors (in the fashion of art videos in the early 1970s). The images set into the cells of the “Baths” are from De blanke Slavin. In the area where the new arrivals are received stands a forest of skyscrapers obtained by reproducing the Empire State Building, made into an icon of New York in keeping with a procedure based on the works of Warhol. The globe, in blue like the works of Yves Klein and like the view of the earth discovered by Russian and American astronauts, appears in the views of the “Baths” and “Allotments” in a sky whose symbolic force is comparable to that of the photomontages of Superstudio.
The fundamental theoretical and artistic stance of Exodus is exemplified by the drawing that depicts a scene of life in the “Allotments”. The two “voluntary prisoners” absorbed in prayer beside a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork, on an abstract surface like those of Superstudio, are a tribute to the painting L’Angélus made by Jean-François Millet in 1858-59. Precisely this painting had become an icon for Salvador Dalí, who after making a long series of variations used it as a pretext-basis for the “paranoid-critical” method illustrated in the book Le Mythe Tragique de l’Angélus de Millet, published in 1963. It was from this book that Koolhaas took the “‘paranoid-critical interpretation” he was to apply to the study of New York and the invention of other merveilles of architecture.
“I have had a longstanding interest in surrealism – he would say later – but more for its analytical powers than for its exploitation of the subconscious or for its aesthetics. [...]. I was most impressed by its ‘paranoid’ methods, which I consider one of the genuine inventions of this century, a rational method which does not pretend to be objective, through which analysis becomes identical to creation”….