Rem Koolhaas has been causing trouble in the world of architecture since his student days in London in the early 1970s. Architects want to build, and as they age most are willing to tone down their work if it will land them a juicy commission. But Koolhaas, 67, has remained a first-rate provocateur who, even in our conservative times, just can’t seem to behave. His China Central Television headquarters building, completed this past May, was described by some critics as a cynical work of propaganda and by others (including this one) as a masterpiece. Earlier projects have alternately awed and infuriated those who have followed his career, including a proposal to transform part of the Museum of Modern Art into a kind of ministry of self-promotion called MoMA Inc. (rejected) and an addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art that would loom over the existing landmark building like a cat pawing a ball of yarn (dropped).
Koolhaas’ habit of shaking up established conventions has made him one of the most influential architects of his generation. A disproportionate number of the profession’s rising stars, including Winy Maas of the Dutch firm MVRDV and Bjarke Ingels of the Copenhagen-based BIG, did stints in his office. Architects dig through his books looking for ideas; students all over the world emulate him. The attraction lies, in part, in his ability to keep us off balance. Unlike other architects of his stature, such as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, who have continued to refine their singular aesthetic visions over long careers, Koolhaas works like a conceptual artist—able to draw on a seemingly endless reservoir of ideas.
Yet Koolhaas’ most provocative—and in many ways least understood—contribution to the cultural landscape is as an urban thinker. Not since Le Corbusier mapped his vision of the Modernist city in the 1920s and ’30s has an architect covered so much territory. Koolhaas has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in search of commissions. Along the way, he has written half a dozen books on the evolution of the contemporary metropolis and designed master plans for, among other places, suburban Paris, the Libyan desert and Hong Kong.