The
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16
OMA re: OMU



Interview with Rem Koolhaas on Oswald Mathias Ungers

Rem Koolhaas heads the work of OMA, founded in 1975, and AMO, its conceptual branch focused on exploring territories beyond architectural and urban concerns. He is a professor at Harvard University where he conducts the Project on the City.

Oswald Mathias Ungers was a German architect, architectural theorist, and educator. He served as chair of the Department of Architecture at Cornell University from 1969 to 1975 and produced a number of built, theoretical, and text-based works before his death in 2007.
Hommage à OMU, Axonometric, 1967, for Posthumous Exhibition, Galerie Strecker, Berlin, 1967, by Rainer Jagals. Drawn by Rainer Jagals, a 27-year-old student of Ungers, in the last year of his life, the abstract Hommage à OMU embodies a number of architectural concepts central to the pedagogy of O.M. Ungers, including typological transformation, metamorphosis, and “Variety in Unity.” From the exhibition catalog: Rainer Jagals, Galerie Strecker, Berlin, 1967.
Hommage à OMU, Axonometric, 1967, for Posthumous Exhibition, Galerie Strecker, Berlin, 1967, by Rainer Jagals. Drawn by Rainer Jagals, a 27-year-old student of Ungers, in the last year of his life, the abstract Hommage à OMU embodies a number of architectural concepts central to the pedagogy of O.M. Ungers, including typological transformation, metamorphosis, and “Variety in Unity.” From the exhibition catalog: Rainer Jagals, Galerie Strecker, Berlin, 1967.


Interview by Jeremy Alain Siegel, Melissa Constantine, Matt Eshleman, and Steven Zambrano Cascante

Jeremy
As you know, we are developing issue eight of the Cornell Journal of Architecture, which is titled RE. Our aim in this is to call attention to the conversation, the response, the back-and-forth, as a means of providing a location for meaningful dialogue. For you, design seems to be something treated less topically, but actually as a form of research and criticism, so we are happy that you have agreed to have this conversation with us on the subject of your early teacher and a major figure at Cornell, O.M. Ungers. I’d like to emphasize that this should be seen as our attempt, as students, to understand our current moment and future trajectory through this history that we are only familiar with secondhand, so we will focus on certain resonances between the two careers—that of Ungers, and your own—with the aim of explicating both histories. I’d like to begin with the biographical moment just prior to your discovery of Ungers, at the Architectural Association in London. What was the initial attraction for you to Ungers, to the United States, and to Cornell?

Rem
It would have been 69 or 70 when I first came into contact with Ungers’ work in Berlin. I was a student at the AA doing my thesis on the Berlin Wall as architecture. It was in Berlin that I discovered the pamphlets that Ungers was producing, which I found incredibly exciting because at the AA there was simply no sympathy for interests in formal issues. But in these pamphlets

Architecture 1966–1969, TU Berlin. O.M. Ungers with Guido Ast, Heidede Becker, Claas Corte, Uwe Evers, Ulrich Flemming, Stephen Katz, Henner Oppermann, Horst Reichert, and Volker Sayn. Images courtesy of the Technical University of Berlin.
Architecture 1966–1969, TU Berlin. O.M. Ungers with Guido Ast, Heidede Becker, Claas Corte, Uwe Evers, Ulrich Flemming, Stephen Katz, Henner Oppermann, Horst Reichert, and Volker Sayn. Images courtesy of the Technical University of Berlin.

it was there in abundance. So my main attraction to America at that point was Ungers. But at the same time I was vaguely aware that I wanted to do something on the subject of New York City. I also knew that I wanted to take a more indirect movement toward the city in order to have a better sense of America before I actually got to New York, so the presence of Ungers was an added incentive to begin at Cornell.

Jeremy
What did it mean to come here to study America, when both Ungers and Colin Rowe spent a good deal of their energy studying Europe?

Rem
In the 70s, I think the interaction between America and Europe was much less fraught than it is now, and far more spontaneous. Particularly in the art world—Joseph Beuys was here, Andy Warhol was there—so there was really a perceptible symmetry, where both parties were enjoying each other’s energy. And although when I first knew him he was working very hard on his return to Europe as a professional, America was still a very strong part of Ungers’ interests, for instance in the projects he did on American communes.

Melissa
As you often defer to the language of popular culture, politics, or statistics to describe the city, how would you characterize your approach with respect to Ungers, for whom analysis was carried out in almost purely architectural terms?

Rem
I think that what is almost impossible for somebody who has not experienced it to understand is really what the essence of Ungers was. It was not a way of thinking or any kind of method, but an unbelievably exhilarating presentation of his own way of thinking. It was almost an ecstasy on his part, and in this ecstasy you would be made constantly aware of how a small beginning could be manipulated through an endless series of variations, transformations, or new ideas projected onto it. It was really about being in the presence of a virtuoso of thinking—or even a virtuoso of intuition—perhaps intuition is a better word than thinking in his case.

Photograph, 1971. From left: Werner Seligmann, Unknown, Fred Koetter, O.M. Ungers, Jerry Wells. Image courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.
Photograph, 1971. From left: Werner Seligmann, Unknown, Fred Koetter, O.M. Ungers, Jerry Wells. Image courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.

So more than being about a contrast between one way of looking at the city and another, it was really about the fact that you could be so intuitive about the city itself and the fact that we were sharing so many of these intuitions. Being together actually forced us to go further in what each was doing, as a kind of shared operation. I think this intense communication was really the whole value of the thing; in a way architectural issues were partly on the side. The other important thing to realize about the time is that although there were of course many archives at Cornell, many rare book collections, map collections, and so on, information about New York City was actually quite sketchy. So it was not necessarily a divergence between Ungers, who was really interested in looking at architectural issues, and me, who wanted to extend this “looking” into popular culture, but it was more that you had to look at popular culture in order to understand these specific phenomena, and to the extent that I shared our discoveries with Mathias, it was something he seemed to be interested in as well.

Matt
You have said that it is your ambition to practice architecture as a journalist. And even during your time as a journalist at De Haagse Post, which preceded your entry into architecture, you practiced an extreme form of journalism—abstention from “moralization or interpretation of real phenomena,” and instead “the intensification of reality; starting point: an uncompromising acceptance of reality.”

Rem
Ironically that’s what journalism was back then. It was not really extreme. “New Journalism” was largely an American invention. I was working for a newspaper that was acting as a workplace for almost a whole section of the Dutch literary avant-garde. It was a particular culture that was really related to Fluxus, an art movement that was interested in looking at facts, and rarely at glamour. Mathias was also a friend of many artists, so there was that affinity. But at that time, this objectivity was an inevitable phenomenon and not a form of radicality.

Melissa
There is a resonance between your ambition to practice architecture as a journalist, and Ungers’ interest in addressing reality, which of course is also echoed in the idea of the paranoiac, as you describe in Delirious New York.

Rem
It may be incredibly difficult to imagine, currently, how un-pompous culture was then. Right now many people have a sense that they have a position, a position to maintain, and that the result is an increased formalism in interactions. So perhaps it is not dialogue that is disappearing, but spontaneity that has really been drained from interaction. There are many reasons for this: it has to do with email and other phenomena, but basically at that time people didn’t take themselves seriously.

And this was not just true for Ungers, who was interested in everything, but for example, Michel Foucault was in Ithaca, and we would go picnicking. I cannot claim any kind of significant intellectual influence of course, because I only picnicked—but in many ways this kind of informality was everywhere, and it was just fun. Architecture was a small part of it, and probably an important part, and at certain moments a really dominating part, but it was really a seamless intellectual and nonintellectual situation. The absence of that in current academic and cultural situations is very noticeable.

Melissa
How did this situation play out in the relationship between Rowe and Ungers?

Rem
I should say that at that time Ungers was very tortured because he had to deal with a traumatic situation in which the person who invited him repudiated him the moment he arrived. That was real torture. He was somebody who was fundamentally so sensitive that this had made him extremely insecure. In his insecurity he looked for many different versions of and possibilities for architecture. It might be something that is hard to appreciate now, but it was very significant that I, as a Dutchman, befriended a German. Even in 72 that was a big deal. Germans were used to hostility; a kind of blanket hostility. Even in the context of Team X, which was very important for Mathias, he was never quite taken seriously. He was just tolerated, and in fact they would always whisper anti-Teutonic grumblings, and there was always an awful undercurrent of skepticism toward Germans, which I didn’t have any of. Actually, I had quite an opposite, almost recalcitrant attitude toward the skepticism.

Jeremy
We have a clipping from the Cornell Daily Sun, a letter to the editor which was titled “Formalist Pigs”—and you signed it. It really captures the intensity of this conflict.

Rem
I think that between Rowe and Ungers—and this is why I brought up the German thing—it really was about this allergy of the Anglo-Saxon temperament that could not deal with the energy and emotionalism with which Mathias would mobilize his argument.

Formalist Pigs. Letter to the Editor, Cornell Daily Sun, February 19, 1973, by Chas Alexander, Peter Allison, Gerardo Brown, Werner Goehner, Paul Hollenbeck, Rem Koolhaas, Ed Russel, Diego Suarez, and Larry Harmon. Image Courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun and Werner Goehner.
Formalist Pigs. Letter to the Editor, Cornell Daily Sun, February 19, 1973, by Chas Alexander, Peter Allison, Gerardo Brown, Werner Goehner, Paul Hollenbeck, Rem Koolhaas, Ed Russel, Diego Suarez, and Larry Harmon. Image Courtesy of the Cornell Daily Sun and Werner Goehner.


Jeremy
In looking at the works that epitomized the opposition between Rowe and Ungers, we could say that the answer to Rowe’s Collage City would have been Ungers’ Green Archipelago. Have these two understandings of the city impacted your understanding of the contemporary city in any way?

Rem
I think it is very difficult to appreciate how surprisingly ideology-free America was in 72, particularly American architectural education. Coming from a post-May 68 Europe that was completely obsessed with ideology, it was astonishing to see a figure like Colin Rowe, who really seemed to be like a kind of surgeon who had taken out entire sections of the collective American brain, and made sure that they would never again be able to think about ideology and only ever about form. And he was clearly doing it in a very efficient way, so that there were whole generations of American architects who, no matter how smart, were actually contemptuous of architecture as a social thing. He really succeeded in making the social the height of absurdity. So I always found Collage City interesting as a series of manipulations, but at the same time I was really allergic to the aesthetic it advocated, because I think that the essence of Colin Rowe is that he liked the aesthetics of historical accident but not the conditions that cause accident. In other words, he liked traces of a disaster or collision, but simply as an aesthetic, and not as evidence of a confrontation. So, in terms of my understanding of the city, I don’t think that Collage City had any particular impact, except perhaps in making me utterly skeptical of any architect’s thinking of the city. This was very different with Mathias exactly because we had some of the same experiences in common. Even though he was older, and had experienced the war firsthand, we had both experienced the postwar situation, when being in the ruined city was a typical thing. Rotterdam, and even Amsterdam in certain sections, was completely ruined. So for both of us, it was extremely easy to imagine not only a ruined European city, but the instability of and actual removal of significant parts.

(L) Die-Stadt-in-der-Stadt (Cities-Within-the-City, or The Green Archipelago). Axonometric, 1977, by O.M. Ungers, Hans Kolhoff, Rem Koolhaas, Arthur Ovaska, and Peter Riemann. Berlin as archipelago. Image Courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.<br />
<br />
(R) Ville Nouvelle Melun-Senart. Proposal to the City of Lille, 1987, by Rem Koolhaas, Yves Brunier, Xaveer de Geyter, Mike Guyer, and Luc Reuse. French suburbia as archipelago. Image courtesy of OMA.
(L) Die-Stadt-in-der-Stadt (Cities-Within-the-City, or The Green Archipelago). Axonometric, 1977, by O.M. Ungers, Hans Kolhoff, Rem Koolhaas, Arthur Ovaska, and Peter Riemann. Berlin as archipelago. Image Courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.

(R) Ville Nouvelle Melun-Senart. Proposal to the City of Lille, 1987, by Rem Koolhaas, Yves Brunier, Xaveer de Geyter, Mike Guyer, and Luc Reuse. French suburbia as archipelago. Image courtesy of OMA.


Die-Stadt-in-der-Stadt. Detail, 1977, by Peter Riemann. Image courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.
Die-Stadt-in-der-Stadt. Detail, 1977, by Peter Riemann. Image courtesy of Arthur Ovaska and the Cornell AAP Archives.


By the time we did the Green Archipelago in 77, Rotterdam had been rebuilt, Amsterdam had been restored, but Berlin, because of its East-West division, was still a city where the traces of the war were incredibly strong and where you could even say there was a unique aesthetic that was based as much on the presence as on the absence of certain things. And we both liked that, perhaps not for quite the same reasons, but the aesthetics of it were overwhelmingly attractive, and I think that from that point to a campaign of removal was actually a very small step. So in a certain way it may seem like a radical thing, but what we were actually saying was, “let’s just adopt the landscape of 15 years ago.

Jeremy
This relates to your more recent focus on the contemporary city, that is, the preserved city. We see this in your proposal for Milstein Hall, but also oma has put a significant amount of attention into this in its work on Beijing and in the Hermitage project, for example. And while one can often point to the “sustainable” project to explain the interest in preservation, I think that for you it is about something else. Can you situate your interest in preservation within your concerns as a journalist, and how this might relate to Ungers’ fascination with the existing situation as such?

Rem
Are there actually any projects of preservation by Ungers, apart from the Green Archipelago? I’m trying to think why it didn’t extend to actual preservation at some point. Perhaps the advantage of having been a journalist, rather than someone with a journalistic curiosity or an interest in real situations, is that a journalist actually puts himself in situations of ignorance and rectifies that ignorance. When you start to do something about somebody and you know nothing about them, you start reading, you meet them, and then you know something about them. I think the difference between Ungers and myself is that he would never put himself in these situations

Rem Koolhaas conducting interview with ex-Mayor of New York John Lindsay.
Rem Koolhaas conducting interview with ex-Mayor of New York John Lindsay.

and that I was actually used to putting myself in them. That, in the end, was a huge advantage for me, in the sense that first of all, I can admit ignorance, but that I also know the procedures to undo ignorance. I think that was really the whole difference between what he was doing here and what I was doing at Harvard with the Project on the City, where we simply said, “I know nothing about this, you know nothing about this: let’s try to find something out.” That was based on intuitions, of course, but these versions of ignorance were actually important errors that ultimately had crucial things to contribute to an understanding of architecture. I have to admit that when we started preservation, it really felt like a completely crazy world; as if it had nothing to do with us, no possible connections. But when we started to look, we realized that actually it was a significant part of modernity. So it’s really about a kind of professional attitude toward the undoing of ignorance.

Steven
Within the informal city, an example of which you have been looking at in Nigeria with the Project on the City, we begin to see localized difference coalescing into larger systems from the bottom up. In Lagos, however, your interpretation has focused on the larger systems of Western infrastructure within which these processes unfold. How does Ungers’ idea of the accommodation of difference within larger systems differ with respect to what you have learned from Lagos?

Rem
My interest in Lagos was born of a moment set by my own enthusiasm for and confidence in the act of planning, at a time when even the whole idea that the city could be influenced was at a very low point. It was also maybe the first moment where we could sense that the contemporary city was something fundamentally different and uncontrollable, and therefore needed to be rethought completely because the existing architectural repertoire was no longer relevant. I started, in the spirit that you mentioned, to think of Lagos as a self-organizing system, but in the end I was able to reveal some of the radical steps of planning that had actually established a framework for that self-organization. So, what started as an effort to really plumb the depths of skepticism, in the end, ten years later, had become a position somewhere between total pessimism and, still, the discovery that some planning had gone into it, and that this planning could explain the outcome of the situation. Now that Lagos is actually in much better shape, you can see that this formal aspect of the city is reemerging and the city is becoming more conventional and less self-organized. So I think that self-organization was, in a way, an aspect of a crisis rather than a fundamental part of the whole thing. 

Steven
There is also a difference in the kind of system that you and Ungers seem to be interested in. For Ungers’ interests in physical systems—infrastructural and territorial scale projects, typological systems, unit agglomerations—there is your focus on what might be thought of as organizational or political systems—in your work with the European Union for example, or the three-part series on power done for Volume magazine. What are the implications for the role and function of the building within the larger system in each case?

Rem
When Mathias came back from America, I think he did a number of projects that were really radical, and that in my view, introduced a new way of doing buildings, and a new way of thinking about the relationship between idealism and the real. For instance, the big Messe-Torhaus in Frankfurt is a part of this engagement in very circumstantial and very bizarre situations. And of course there came this other period in his life where seemingly he completely closed off any connection with that past and only did perfect shapes in relatively perfect conditions.

Messe-Torhaus, Frankfurt-am-Main. Perspective, 1983–1984, by Buro O.M. Ungers. Image courtesy of Edition Lidiarte.<br />
Messe-Torhaus, Frankfurt-am-Main. Perspective, 1983–1984, by Buro O.M. Ungers. Image courtesy of Edition Lidiarte.

I’ve never taken that position very seriously, because I always was able to think, “that’s not really him,” but clearly it was totally him and he was wholly invested in it and took it very seriously. I kept thinking that it was just a phase, because Ungers was in a very important way a person of phases. I would say that perhaps one of the big differences between his work and our work is that, although ours looks very different, maybe you can really explain it as a very boring line of development, much more than his work, which is radically different at different times of his life.

Melissa
Along those lines, can you speak about the design and development of Milstein Hall with respect to this more typological evolution within the office?

Rem
If you look at our work in America, and if you look at the basic incentive of looking at America, it was of course not to study New York, it was fundamentally to understand how architecture has changed. Both Delirious New York and also the Harvard Guide to Shopping ask: What is the effect of steel? What is the effect of air conditioning? What is the effect of multiplication? In that effort, there is a very puritanical hope that style and even form can be transcended and superseded, and for everyone remotely interested in that direction, there is the box.

The box is a very important part of our work—Milstein is one of many—and I think that, in retrospect, that is what America taught us. America gave us the tools to extend the illusion that you could go beyond form for a very long time. Then there is the further pleasure of showing that the box can be incredibly contextual, that the box is not necessarily a stand-alone, but on the contrary can be the connection between a number of different worlds; that a box can have a section, et cetera. So in that sense you could say that in the case of Milstein there are a series of Ungers-like paradoxes that are projected onto the box.

Paul Milstein Hall. Construction, May, 2010. Photograph by William Staffield. Image courtesy of Cornell AAP.
Paul Milstein Hall. Construction, May, 2010. Photograph by William Staffield. Image courtesy of Cornell AAP.


Paul Milstein Hall. “Ungers-like paradoxes.” Milstein Hall as sectional building. Image courtesy of OMA.<br />
Paul Milstein Hall. “Ungers-like paradoxes.” Milstein Hall as sectional building. Image courtesy of OMA.


Jeremy
This relates to our discussion about approaches to difference. You’ve said that a course on wines was the most valuable you took at Cornell; wine also seems to be an apt metaphor for architecture—there is typology, or species, there is site, or terroir, variation across locale, a desired end form. Ungers, too, was interested in the accommodation of difference, but in difference that was always contained within a certain consistency of language, i.e., “variety in unity.” OMA’s work is, on the one hand, interested in that, as in its interest in the box, but at the same time it is interested at times in the emergence of certain formal and material languages. The box itself is something you explain as an emergence from a specifically American context. Can you talk about your divergence from Ungers in this respect?

Rem
I’m not a materialist, but I think that maybe the 18-year difference in age between Mathias and I really explains everything for me, because it was just the kind of difference between the possibility of being a humanist and not being a humanist. From that there is a whole chain of consequences. Mathias could still believe that he was part of a tradition, part of a line, and a whole genealogy of relationships. Even though I am also related, I am part of many lines, this 18 years makes all the difference in terms of what your world is. At that time Europe and America were the world. The non-West existed, of course, but it was not a particularly compelling or urgent part of our considerations. Now we ourselves are becoming almost secondary and the action is somewhere else and that means a radically different relationship with language and place. That tiny shift of barely even a generation is enough to explain vast differences.

Jeremy
Postmodernity or globalization as the kind of hinge …

Rem
I would say so, yes. And also of course the plethora of other cultures that then become relevant in your work. I don’t think that at any point anything non-Western was important for Mathias. In Mathias’s time, you could have a particular body of education that took you from the beginning to the end. I think that is now much more fragile because you literally have to learn all other cultures and all other languages, all the time. This alone creates an instability.

Melissa
To return to the reading of Milstein as a box and as a connector, you are saying something through this project about how our college will function. What do you envision for the future of architectural education and in what trajectory do you see it heading?

Rem
Initially we were interested in using a box as a place where very specific things could be organized, which is also not a typical way of looking at a box; there was a library, there were very particular subdivisions … But if you look at the development of the project, I think more and more it has simply become a place of interaction and a place of work. That probably testifies to a situation where the stability of specificity in education has been abandoned in favor of process, more than formal organizations or predictable configurations. And that is the beauty of a box: that this kind of flux moment can at some point become rooted again.

Melissa
Do you think that this better accommodates the architect who will then be working in a globalized mode?

Rem
I’m not cynical about education, but when I was being educated myself, I was aware that you learn only so much in an education, but most of what you learn you learn from your context, you learn from the city or the environment that you are in, you learn from reading the paper. I think that education is certainly a kind of a freeze-frame that collects a number of well-meaning people in a well-meaning process, but whether it is actually equipping you to act in a certain way? I’m dubious.

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