How Kool Is Rem

One night last month, just before Christmas, the Italian fashion house Prada threw a party to unveil its new Manhattan shop. But the scene that unfolded looked more like a movie premiere than the opening of a store, for heaven's sake: the velvet ropes, the flashbulbs, the crush of almost-famous faces. And suddenly, there was the star. Not Miuccia Prada, the Italian designer who turned her family business into a global fashion empire. Not the boldface names who wear her Prada clothes. No, it was unmistakably Rem Koolhaas, the avant-garde Dutch architect who'd pulled out every stop--at a cost of some $40 million--to create a vast new Prada showcase in SoHo. It's just a mile north of Ground Zero, and there was an undercurrent of anxiety in the face of all the extravagance. Yet as Koolhaas--his lanky 6-foot-5 frame hovering slightly above the crowd--watched the hundreds of partygoers, a bemused smile crossed his usually serious face. This was, after all, his American coming-out.

For years, Koolhaas was famous as an innovative architect who'd built almost nothing but had written the fabulous cult book "Delirious New York." When he won architecture's top prize, the Pritzker, in 2000, he still had almost no projects in the United States. But now, look out. Koolhaas's unorthodox architecture is invading America, starting with the launch last October of a Guggenheim branch in Las Vegas. At 57, he's just won two major competitions, a $200 million redesign of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and a $53 million theater in downtown Dallas. Several other projects are already underway: his radical scheme for the main public library in Seattle will soon start construction and a Prada store in Beverly Hills, Calif., will break ground this spring. He's designed an addition for the Whitney Museum in New York that's still under wraps. In Chicago, his student center for the Illinois Institute of Technology will finish next year.

Meanwhile, two books by Koolhaas and his team will hit U.S. stores in the coming weeks: "Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping" (that's right, shopping) and "Great Leap Forward," about the rapid urbanization of China--both products of research seminars Koolhaas runs at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Recently, the chairman of the board of a small American museum where Koolhaas lost a competition a few years back ran into the museum's director: "Remind me," said the man, "why we didn't hire Koolhaas? He's everywhere!"

Why Koolhaas is so sought after right now is a complicated question. He's the opposite of Frank Gehry, who designed the sumptuously curvy Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain: Koolhaas doesn't have a signature esthetic, his work's not easy to understand and, if a building turns out to be beautiful, it's almost by accident. "We always hope it will happen, but we are reticent to pursue it directly," said Koolhaas a bit cryptically, speaking in clipped tones as he sipped a cup of coffee at his New York hotel. The architect's passionate fans (and he has some equally passionate detractors) cite his dazzling intellect and his ability to zero in and solve problems as the keys to his success. Where other designers use sketches, Koolhaas uses words. "He's one of the most brilliant minds I've ever been in contact with," says Deedie Rose, who chaired the search committee for the Dallas theater. "He will make us rethink a lot of our preconceptions." Though Koolhaas's work has certain hallmarks--an inventive use of materials, a fondness for ramps or curving planes--his architecture is more about ideas than style. That the forms that emerge from those ideas can look a little alien isn't quite the obstacle it once was: there's a trend in the United States to see avant-garde design--and its celebrity practitioners--as cool. And Koolhaas has a powerful ability to explain how his ideas shape the architecture.

Despite his highbrow reputation, many notions he holds dear mirror mainstream culture: Koolhaas blurs the distinctions between high art and commercialism; he's beguiled by information technology; he's fascinated by notions of brand and image-making. (In the 1997 competition for the expansion of New York's Museum of Modern Art, he famously put "MoMA Inc." on his proposed design; he didn't get the job.) His serious interest in the subject of shopping, as the dominant force in civic life, made him a perfect candidate to design for Prada. "We had an important location in New York and we needed great architecture," says Miuccia Prada on the phone from Milan. She pooh-poohs reports that the astonishing $40 million cost, including millions for high tech, was a burden on an overextended company. "It's really ridiculous," she says.

The store itself is almost anti-store. The most stunning feature is "the Wave," a size-XL space that swoops down from the main floor to the floor below and back up again, covered in African zebrawood. (The use of the endangered wood sparked an ecoprotest, though Koolhaas insists they used a cultivated, not wild, variety.) One side of the Wave is stepped like a stadium, where high-heeled pumps are arrayed. Future plans call for performances or screenings there; at the moment, people come just to hang out. If you insist on actually shopping, there are clothes to buy--some displayed in metal cages that hang from the ceiling, but most in showrooms downstairs, by the state-of-the-art dressing rooms.

What with programming the Prada store's ubiquitous video screens and even creating an ad campaign, Koolhaas continues to stretch the boundaries of ar-chitectural practice. He's a polymath, vastly curious, "like a sponge," says one colleague. Byhis own description, he's a voracious reader--of everything from contemporary French fiction to the National Enquirer. The son of a journalist, Koolhaas spent part of his childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. Later, he worked for an Amsterdam weekly and wrote screenplays before going to architecture school in London. (Fluent in four languages, he thinks and writes about architecture in English.) Naturally his past feeds his present: he once presented a building design to the brass of Universal Studios in the form of a scenario with five characters.

His chief laboratory, besides the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), as his practice is called, is his ongoing Harvard seminar, termed the Project for the City, where he and his students tackle global urban issues. The China and shopping books are the initial results--each is a fat, fascinating compendium of images, maps, charts, articles and factoids. They're both fun to browse and important in what they say. Next up in the series are books on ancient Roman cities and the urban chaos of Lagos, Nigeria.

Each architecture project begins with research, too--Koolhaas gets ideas not just for designing the container but for what the container should contain. "Rem is much more fascinated with program [a building's various functions] than Frank Gehry is," says an architect who's observed them both. "He wants to get hold of the program before the client dictates it." For the $156 million Seattle library, he and two of his staff architects started by visiting a dozen libraries, each time trying to check out a particular book (Koolhaas regularly searched for "S,M,L,XL," his 1995 best seller about his practice). By the end of the research, they'd solved the main dilemma of libraries today: creating enough space so the book collection can grow, while embracing new technology. The design came out of their concept for each of the library's functions. The weird form it took, with chunks cantilevering out, horrified some of the locals at first but, declares Deborah Jacobs, the city librarian, "it reflects the building's program. It also happens to be incredibly cool."

For the L.A. County Museum of Art, research led to an even more radical solution. Instead of trying to knit together the hodgepodge of structures built over the years--as the competition called for--Koolhaas concluded it was better to tear it down and start over. It would be cheaper, too. "His analysis was utterly compelling," says the museum's director, Andrea Rich. His study of the collections also suggested a major reorganization: departments would be installed chronologically along parallel tracks so a visitor looking at art of the Americas could readily cross a bridge and see what the art was like at the same period in Asia. "Rem's stuff was so smart," says Rich, "not because it was complicated but because it was simple."

Koolhaas's Rotterdam firm is buzzing these days, back from near bankruptcy in 1995. There are nearly 100 staffers, most of them young and dedicated to long hours in front of the computer or cutting foam-core models. ("It's like Microsoft without the stock options," said a visiting Seattle reporter.) The burnout rate is high, but the collaborative design process has its rewards. "He likes taking people right after architecture school because they don't say, 'Oh, you can't do that'," says one. "He's open. The best idea can come from the newest person."

Koolhaas swears he's in his office two weeks out of three, but face it, his frequent-flier miles must be in the gazillions. On weekends he flies to London, where he lives with his wife, Madelon Vriesendorp, whose witty illustrations graced "Delirious New York." The couple have two grown children. (A rule-breaker in every sense, Koolhaas also has a long-term relationship with Petra Blaisse, an Amsterdam-based designer.) Besides visiting far-flung project sites in the United States, he's also building in Portugal (a concert hall), Berlin (the Netherlands Embassy) and Spain (a conference center).

On the morning of September 11, he happened to be on an airplane, this time to Chicago, to check up on the Institute of Technology project. He drove the 14 hours back to New York, where he'd lived in the '70s and first tested his theories for "Delirious New York," and where OMA has an office just blocks from the Twin Towers site. In the aftermath of the attack, Koolhaas said, he hoped that there would be "less bulls--t," that people would be "willing to entertain more serious, more radical ideas." And September 11 led him and his team to redesign a project--the hard-edged roof on his proposal for the L.A. museum competition. It became lighter, softer. "We felt that conditions in America had changed, and somehow we needed to make it more..." Koolhaas fumbles for the right word, "uh, embracing." What it became--dare we say it--is beautiful. And with that design, he got the job.