The Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts, is awarded for the fifth time this year. With the prize, the Dutch government intends to honour outstanding artistic talents and bring them to public attention. To arrive at an authoritative choice, every year it charges a jury with the task of surveying the current landscape of outstanding creative talent. In addition, the jury is asked to take account of the different areas and disciplines in which the Dutch art world is rich. In recent years, candidates have been nominated who have distinguished themselves in the fields of performing arts, media, photography and the visual arts. This year, the jury was again looking to honour an artist who is recognised as exceptional in not in one, but many fields. Quality of content and originality are the key factors. It is also important that the candidate is active in contributing ideas and a vision to the cultural debate. But above all, the jury is looking for the creator of a body of work that is unique and compelling: an oeuvre that makes a recognisably essential contribution to the development of the artistic landscape. An oeuvre, finally, that inspires the profession and enthuses its audience.
Despite the multitude of criteria, it soon became clear to the jury that there is one person who meets every required condition with passion. From the candidate list, one name was unanimously selected: that of the internationally respected architect and critical observer Rem Koolhaas. In Rem Koolhaas. The Netherlands has a world-class artist, and a hard worker who creates from a vision that is unequalled in its power. He has long been a leader in the international arena, thanks to his unfailing imagination, creative drive and ability to enter into the living situations of people around the world.
Life and career
Koolhaas does not allow himself to be constrained by academic or artistic ‘boxes’. He studied social sciences and was schooled in filmmaking. The variety of his training is reflected in the creative way in which he solves problems, both theoretically and practically, with an eye for detail, spatial coherence and long-term perspective.
As a thinker and doer, Koolhaas draws on a mix of intellectual and artistic disciplines: philosophy, sociology, art, literature and architecture. After his studies, he developed initially as a screenwriter and journalist, later becoming an essayist on architecture and a commentator on urban planning. He has supplemented and supported his role as an observer and critic over the years by acting as a publicist and teacher, always with an open mind to anything occurring in his field – and beyond. He communicates with his Harvard students just as seriously as he does with his colleagues or his clients. But it’s unlikely that he would ever renounce his principles during these open discussions.
From his considered position he has climbed ever higher as an architect and urban planner. The place he has carved out for himself in the global cultural community is based on the dual role of maker and commentator: a double achievement not reached at this level in architecture since Le Corbusier.
Koolhaas’ first designs immediately won competitions as virtual creations. But they were not realised. Although in his early days his landmark buildings were created mainly in The Netherlands (the Kunsthal in Rotterdam and the Danstheater in The Hague), he was a bigger name over the border, making an international breakthrough with his colleagues at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Since then, he has realised large-scale, iconic projects in many countries. These range from the headquarters of the Chinese state television company in Beijing to Prada stores around the world. With his vision and his work, he has gradually become an authority on the world stage. We find his name several times in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Koolhaas sets the parameters of his profession so wide that his architecture has taken a huge conceptual and spatial leap. Besides the design and realisation of individual buildings, he has increasingly come to develop concepts and strategies that connect different social functions with each other. Koolhaas thinks about the people who will have to live in the building to be constructed, the activities that will take place there and the organic connection of the building to public space.
His view of the world is realistic. He does not think it his duty to impose his ideas of how people should behave. He prefers to start from those actual, existing patterns of human behaviour which, as an acute observer, he finds easy to read. These patterns are not always rational or idealistic. Especially in the often-unfavourable conditions of the large metropolis, people themselves create economic innovation. On this irrational side of humanity, Koolhaas bases his new architecture. He says: “Architecture should not so much create order, but rather draw on the fertile lack of order around us — crowds, traffic jams, congestion, all those conflicting worlds that collide in cities.” He thus launches urban concepts that sometimes run against the prevailing sense of beauty, truth, or purity. They do not seek a single style or have a single identity, nor do they convey a single conviction, but they do connect with those things that we often fail to see as worthy pastimes in our world: shopping, hanging out, travelling.
He applies these kinds of concepts to all his creations: to individual houses and flats, to mega-buildings housing all the functions of a city, to a library building in which he precisely balances the core functions (information, lending, debate), to a concert hall which must be acoustically sound on the inside, while appearing inviting from the outside. By connecting all these dimensions, new ideas, fresh concepts of architecture, innovative structures and novel building designs arise. Koolhaas is continuing to work at the forefront of urban architecture with his ideas about planning a metropolis. Concrete examples are now widely available, in nearby Lille and further afield in Asia and Africa. In those parts of the world, there are immense problems caused by rapid population growth and rapidly changing economies. And there he applies himself with new energy to the task of creating a built environment that serves to shape the desired living conditions for the residents of tomorrow.
All this accumulated global experience and learning is now benefitting the city which is his base of operations, Rotterdam. A constant traffic of young architecture students arrives at OMA’s office from all over the world. Koolhaas sees it as a natural part of his work to teach and inspire them. In the city on the Maas, on the Kop van Zuid, he will soon complete his latest creation, De Rotterdam.
Grounds for the award
The jury members of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2013 have unanimously nominated Koolhaas as the laureate because of his global significance for architecture and urban planning. The jury considers that his buildings, created throughout the world over the course of several decades, are of exceptional expressiveness and allure. Applied to him, the term ‘original’ is no empty phrase: his work is uncompromising, but in his inimitable oeuvre, development and variation are also discernible. His creations are groundbreaking today in both their appearance and functionality. But they are simultaneously a prelude to a society that has yet to arrive.
The significance of Koolhaas is tightly bound to his creations, but also to his ideas about the built environment. His books question the accepted thinking on architecture and urbanism as a matter of principle. Thus he has encouraged his colleagues, and also himself, to build from a vision and to formulate that vision in commissioned work. So he makes accountable the choices he makes with his creations.
Finally, the jury commends Koolhaas for the boundless energy with which, at the front line of urban development, he continues to investigate new possibilities in shaping the built world. As a Dutch architect, he is helping to build the metropolises that are rapidly developing in many places across the globe. He has become an inescapable player on the world stage, which makes it all the more special to have him right here among us.
The prize jury consisted of Janine van den Ende (chair), Marie Hélène Cornips, Hans Goedkoop, Omar Munie and Erwin Olaf.