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Rem Koolhaas, recently awarded the 2003 Praemium Imperiale for architecture, is prolific to the point of relentlessness. Looking at the stream of bold, innovative and aggressively hip buildings Koolhaas’ Rotterdam-based office has produced, one well-known Japanese architect was prompted to liken him to a baseball pitching machine. Intended as a compliment, the analogy reflects the intensity and perfect control that are characteristic of Koolhaas’ work.

Based on a clear-sighted and ruthlessly unsentimental assessment of the current state of architecture, the city and the architectural profession, Koolhaas’ rapidly expanding oeuvre of buildings and urban designs sizzles with innovative ideas. His influence derives not only from his design work but also from research, writing and publishing. The thick, image-laden books he regularly produces have altered the way architects generate and present their ideas. Reflecting his analytical approach, Koolhaas’ 1995 compendium of designs and essays, titled “S, M, L, XL,” sorted the projects not by the conventional means of date or building type but by size. On taking up a professorship at Harvard University, Koolhaas chose not to teach design but set up a research unit to study the contemporary city. The findings of this work are being published as a series of books on shopping, current urban conditions in both China and Nigeria, and on the “global” urban design methods of the ancient Romans.

In Tokyo to receive the Praemium Imperiale award, and on his way to China to work on his most ambitious project to date, a 500,000-sq.-meter office tower in Beijing, Koolhaas spoke with The Japan Times.

You’re now working in Beijing, and several years ago did a project in Fukuoka. How do you deal with the chaotic environments that typify Asian cities.

Compared with other Asian cities, Beijing is not at all chaotic, probably because it’s the seat of Chinese power. It’s a highly organized city, much more so than we thought before we started the project. This has made it much more interesting because we’ve been able to relate to a number of the features of Beijing in a very precise way. I hate the abstractness of contemporary architecture, so what we’ve tried to do in Beijing was not to work just on one building but on a number of parallel projects, so that we have a real engagement with the city as a whole. For instance, we’re currently working on a plan for preservation in Beijing, and on a department store for books. In this way we can give ourselves time to understand the city in a more profound way.

You think of yourself as a researcher, and at Harvard you studied shopping. What did you discover? As an architect, how do you express or deal with the question of greed?

The main ambition we had for the research at Harvard was to understand the effects of the market economy on architecture. It was only 20 or 25 years ago that architects always worked for the public, whether the state, a city or an organization that represented the public. At that time, architects were always working for the greater good and that defined their status. With the rise of the market economy and privatization, there has been a drastic shift toward private clients. Instead of representing the greater good, the architect now represents an individual or a private organization. I think this shift has not been sufficiently recognized, because it means that in many cases you are working for “greed.” The architect changed from someone who was basically doing good work to someone involved to a greater or lesser degree in the exploitation of others.

This was not an abstract shift, but something that has completely altered the role of architecture. There’s a fundamental difference between a building which is free, for which you don’t have to pay, and one for which sooner or later you have to pay. It goes from very simple things — a building which is free is usually empty, and you can enjoy space in it. It doesn’t want anything from you. Buildings in the private sector, simply because they have to earn their keep, make claims on your attention. Where once architecture could be an emblem of serenity, it has now become an instrument of business. I call this new condition “junkspace.”

You have designed stores for Prada, and you mentioned a bookstore in China. Are those projects “junkspace”?

One of the interesting things about working in China is that it’s not a capitalist economy, and therefore the public is still represented in certain areas. The office building we are doing for China Television (CCTV) — the nearest analogy would be a Chinese BBC — is one example of a public client. But whether or not you produce “junkspace” is now no longer dependent on whether the client is private, or if you are doing a shop. It’s become the pervasive condition. What is interesting is that in a market economy other demands are made of architecture, whatever the program is.

So does the term “junkspace” have a negative meaning?

What we always try to do is move beyond positive and negative and try first to understand things. Of course, the longer we worked in the private sphere, the more we felt an interest in, and perhaps even a nostalgia for, conceiving architecture as a public art. That’s why, for instance, when we were invited at the same time to participate in the competitions for Ground Zero in New York and CCTV in China, we went for the competition in China because that was ultimately not a private client and seemed to provoke an architecture that was more serious than any architecture that could be built in America at this moment.

Even before you won the CCTV competition, you had been doing research on urban development in China. Why focus on China?

I think it’s completely inevitable that anyone who is working at this moment in a profession which is so much a part of the process of modernization as architecture should be interested in China, because that’s where modernization is taking place at its most intense.

What are your impressions of China?

The most revealing and for me personally the most exciting thing has been that during all of our involvement in China we have never met and talked about architecture with a decision-maker older than 45. Perhaps the most important aspect of China is that it is growing, and the decisions are being made by very young people, certainly compared to America where decisions are very often taken by boards of people who are very often 60, 70 or near 80.

You’ve spoken today about creating freedom. What kinds of freedom do you want for your architecture, or for the people who use your buildings?

Maybe it’s a bit premature to think about what should be put on my grave, but I have a theory that there are two kinds of architects: architects who create freedom that they use themselves, and architects who create freedom for others, including other architects. I would like to be part of the second group.

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