Skip to content

Sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse | Rem Koolhaas

November 9, 2009


Recently we found that OMA’s website has a great record of some of Koolhaas’ lectures. From the four lectures that are reviewed now,  Sustainability: advancement vs. apocalypse, which was part of the Ecological Urbanism Conference in Harvard University on April, 2009 is the one we’d like to review here. Since we weren’t there, we’re going to quote the parts that we found most interesting. So, here we go!

Remember, all words by Rem Koolhaas:

“Because you invited me here, we did some research. We looked first at antiquity and realized that 25 years before Christ there was already a profound knowledge about ecology and how people should build to be economical, logical, and beautiful. Vitruvius, for instance, was completely aware that the sun would cast shadows at different inclinations depending on the orientation of the site, and that his architecture should address these conditions. Since the sun was shining from the south, the hottest parts of Roman baths should also be in the south. This knowledge was not limited to individual buildings, but extended to the planning of cities that were effortless and logical, based on engagements with and an understanding of nature.”


“During the Renaissance, this knowledge was cultivated and further amplified. A century later, the so-called Enlightenment broke out, and with Enlightenment came a formal launch of modernity. What we see is that the Enlightenment had a phenomenal effect on reason, in terms of triggering the apparatus of modernity in a surprisingly short time. Also inscribed in Enlightenment were people like Goethe, who effortlessly combined art and science, and people like Caspar David Friedrich. His paintings show highly sophisticated and cultivated people in search of and interacting with nature in a way that doesn’t show any tension or alienation; the interaction actually seems to work for both sides. Perhaps the very final outcome of this highly reasonable streak of our civilization is the nuclear power plant.”


“To introduce a slightly more autobiographical moment, when I studied in London in 1968, I was taught in a school where tropical architecture was still on the curriculum. Although I didn’t take it entirely seriously, I was fascinated by its teachers, who taught us an incredible respect for the landscape. They taught us to look at other cities to see how they work, and to look at seemingly completely non-architectural environments. For them, no issue was too humble or lowly. Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry made drawings of open sewers and ways to clean them. That kind of humility in architectural education has practically disappeared.”


“There is a subtlety to this kind of engineering that is not visible at first sight. But if you look over time as the infrastructure decays, you see that it has a certain depth.”


“That depth came not from the capitalist West, but from the Communist world, which influenced Africa in the 1960s and 70s. It was so frugal, so efficient, so methodical and so coherent that it could actually realize complex and subtle entities. In the period between 1965 and 75 there was an incredible ability to take difficult conditions seriously, to take different climates seriously, to take the question of energy use seriously and to try and combine the words “design” and “science”. Unfortunately, 30 years later, these words are further apart than ever before.”

“Perhaps Buckminster Fuller’s contribution to the field was the apotheosis of this combination of nature and network. He did the most with the least, producing on the one hand diagrams of ponderous simplicity. On the other hand, he worked on radical inventories of the world, both of cultural and natural elements, documenting the neck-and-neck race between them in a very forward-looking way […] Fuller also made a diagram of energy in the world running in certain kinds of streaks or vents, therefore enhancing the entire efficiency of the system. There’s more about it later. Now, if you put everything that’s happening in the late 1960s and early 70s in a cloud or cluster, it seems that there is a very confusing mixture of good and bad. But if you put the events into different zones or categories, a pattern emerges.”


“We have all of these images of buildings that do not perform correctly, but our answers are not necessarily very deep. I don’t exclude myself from any of these comments, as I hope you realize. Embarrassingly, we have been equating responsibility with literal greening. The boutique of Ann Demeulemeester in Seoul, for example, covered entirely in green. Even significant buildings by serious architects, such as the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, for me almost fall into the same category.”



“We [OMA] are working on an analysis of what Europe could do with power harvested from the North Sea. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and England all have large territories on the North Sea. We have divided them into sections, which means that Holland could be conceived as having a new shape, extending into the North Sea.”

“The project imagines that wind energy could be combined, and that supply and demand could be regulated. A single ring of integrated wind turbines would not only generate energy, but would also have additional benefits like the reuse of some of the redundant oil-extraction apparatus, and potentially even generate its own tourism. A single ring could generate more energy than the Middle East currently produces each year. Looking even further, there would be a potential North-South connection to try to exploit the specific potentials in each area: wind, tidal, and solar.”



The complete lecture can be followed here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2009 6:47 pm

    Me he leido el artículo completo también. Pero me pierdo algo:

    La parte de “There is a subtlety to this kind of engineering that is not visible at first sight. But if you look over time as the infrastructure decays, you see that it has a certain depth.”

    Me deja un poco extraño, no acabo de entenderla en su concepto. ¿Alguién puede ayudarme?

  2. November 9, 2009 8:08 pm

    Hello LPD!
    Bueno, pienso que Koolhaas hace referencia a una cierta y casi imperceptible “delicadeza” de este tipo de obras de ingeniería que surgen con el crecimiento de las grandes metrópolis (foto 5: autopista). Según sus propias palabras, aunque son sistemas caóticos, conviven con perfecta independencia en el contexto mencionado y de ahí viene la segunda parte, en la que menciona que estas intervenciones poseen un grado de profundidad pese a su decadencia.

    Si estamos de acuerdo o no, es otro tema ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: