Poor old architecture. it's a thinker's discipline, pursued for the betterment of the world. But it gets no respect. There's not even a Nobel Prize for it. Architects have to make do with the Pritzker, not a million bucks like the big Ns, but a mere $100,000. There's no Nobel for painting either, but people with no understanding of art don't write ad hominem attacks in newspapers when they don't like your painting. Rem Koolhaas, the winner of this year's Pritzker, had that honor this year when, on the unveiling of his plans for the new Seattle Public Library in the U.S., a local editorial writer intoned: "I have this fantasy that Rem Koolhaas will wake up one morning and realize -- oops! -- he designed for Seattle the ugliest library in the world." Koolhaas is used to such words, although he professes not to understand them. He enjoys a reputation in architectural circles as the prince of the perverse. And it's partly because of it that he will become $100,000 richer on May 29 when the prize is handed out in Jerusalem.
The Pritzker jury wanted to mark the year 2000 by choosing an architect who represented the future. Koolhaas, who rose to fame through his writing long before he had a built canon of any depth, represents exactly that. Two of his books, Delirious New York and S,M,L,XL, are talismans for young architects looking for a vision. "I think I'm a new typology for this prize," says Koolhaas. "I don't think they ever gave it to an architect who is also a writer and who also has a life next to architecture." He's talking partly about his intensive studies at Harvard University, aimed at watching cities change -- or, as he calls it, "the mutation of the urban condition." The resulting books -- one on the Pearl River Delta in China, which has the fastest growing population in the world, and The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, on the effect of shopping on cities -- will be out in November. He and his students are also looking at Lagos, the capital of Nigeria.
The Dutch-born Koolhaas is relentlessly global, with a home base at his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam and projects and activities around the world. He generally divides his time into two weeks there and one week of travel. He might be spending more time away soon, because he plans to open a blue sky office in the U.S., in collaboration with several other architects. He wants it to be a laboratory of pure architectural thought. "There's currently an enormous need for architectural thinking that doesn't result in a building," he says. "About the identities of companies, about organizations, about strategic operations -- almost architectural thinking in its pure form."
Koolhaas is vastly more media-savvy than most architects. He knows that the arcane architectural language and connect-the-dots academic ephemera that fill his books only go so far among the media, or their clients -- and his -- the public. So he has learned to be multilingual: he speaks to architects, to clients and to the press, even when they're shrill editorial writers.
And finally, while architects have a reputation for being control freaks, Koolhaas often collaborates. He worked with a number of architects on a set of buildings associated with the Channel Tunnel train station in Lille, France. He's currently working on a hotel in New York City with the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron.
Koolhaas has changed architecture in many ways, and the pluralism of these pursuits is one of his important legacies. Master builder is no longer an apt job description for architects; they're more like oracles, who can assess the present and address the future, with a design if necessary. The Pritzker, says Koolhaas, is an acknowledgment of that.
Of course, architects must build, and Koolhaas currently has many projects on the go. Besides the Seattle library and the New York hotel, there's a new student union at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin and Prada stores in the U.S. And although hype surrounds him, he has proved himself worthy. His Maison à Bordeaux, built for a newspaper editor in a wheelchair and his family, is a stunningly compassionate and ingenious building. Its signature feature is the slab of floor, flanked on one side by a bookshelf, that can be hydraulically lifted to any of the three stories of the house, thus completing that floor and making the editor's disability the cause of his mastery of the home. Had he done this building alone, said the Pritzker jury, "his niche in the history of architecture would have been secure." Add his other work, "and you have a talent of extraordinary dimensions revealed."
His work in Lille shows an acute understanding of circulation and scale: he can think about a grand plan for that city and he can bring finesse to a tiny detail on the stair of the Grand Palais he designed. And he's proud, in fact, of the library in Seattle. It's a series of suspended platforms each dedicated to a different function of the library, and all wrapped in a copper skin which is also load-bearing.
Architecture, in the end, is open to public criticism because it is a public service. The disparate strands of Koolhaas' practice of architecture -- the many worlds he visits in order to pursue ideas about how now to build the world -- all point that way. Perhaps it should have been a Nobel category after all.
With reporting by Daniel S. Levy/New York