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Interview with Rem Koolhaas: OMA’s contribution to Dubai’s architecture

Following a tour of Concrete, we sat down with Rem Koolhaas to talk about the significance of the building’s opening, OMA’s investment in the region and the changing face of Dubai.

One of the interesting elements about Concrete being OMA’s first completed building is Dubai is the fact that the project is a continuation of the firm’s – and Koolhaas’ – work in the preservation and repurposing of existing buildings.

He admitted that although this was not a planned occurrence, it definitely shows a lot of things about Dubai itself.

“Dubai now has a history and there are things you can begin to think about in terms of preservation,” Koolhaas told designMENA. “For the last six years, we have been deliberately looking for opportunities to do preservation projects. It became a very active part of what we do.”

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ ITP Images.

During his public lecture, the day after the building was officially unveiled, Koolhaas spoke about taking a new approach to saving buildings from the past.

“There was a concern for Dubai and it’s constant transformation where the danger was and still is, that every part of old Dubai or authentic Dubai or poor Dubai, could eventually be replaced by modern architecture, and that would not be good for the full spectrum of experiences the city needs,” he explained.

READ MOREDubai forced OMA to reinvent ideas on urbanism says Rem Koolhaas

He, however, explained during our interview that although preserving the past is important, it doesn’t have to be applied to everything.

“There is one very important part of architecture that is not mentioned very often which is that you can take buildings down and you can create new areas. I think particularly today, buildings do not always have the same ambitions to last for eternity as they did in the past. I think it should be more part of the repertoire, maybe not in cities like Dubai but certainly in European cities.”

Going back to Concrete, Koolhaas spoke about the use of polycarbonate and how it has become an almost signature material choice for OMA.

“I personally love polycarbonate,” he said. “It’s almost part of my DNA. It’s one of my favourite materials because it is plastic, therefore contemporary and therefore not expensive and it’s very simple to apply. It allows you to look through and allows light to pass through it but it also allows everything behind it to become a mystery, a beautiful suggestion.”

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ ITP Images.

Although citing polycarbonate as OMA’s signature material choice, Koolhaas explained that he does not like to be associated with signature architecture.

“’Signature architecture’ is a phrase I intensely dislike. Our whole effort has been to try to read different situations, looking at buildings affiliated with local situations that use local techniques. If we try to concentrate on an experimental dimension or ambition, our hope is that the intelligence or the ambitions might be recognizable as ‘signature’ but not the shapes.”

It is then almost fitting that OMA’s first built project is created around an existing shape, and Koolhaas describes Concrete as an “extreme example” of this.

“When we first came to [Dubai], it was a place of architecture with extreme forms. So it made us very aware that we needed to be careful in terms of adding new shapes. That was the moment we decided to focus more on performance rather than shapes and form. And I think Concrete is an extreme example of this. The building only acts, and the shape is predetermined.”

Photo by Ajith Narendra/ ITP Images.

OMA opened its Dubai office in 2015, and were previously in Qatar, however the firm has been active in the region over the past 14 years. So comes as a surprise that only in 2017 did it inaugurate its first completed project in Dubai.

“We are also surprised [by this],” Koolhaas said. “But what a fair few people realise is that a career of an architect is totally random because we cannot decide what we can build.

“We are in an incredibly vulnerable position. We have no power. Our power is only existent when we succeed, but 90 per cent of our overall effort doesn’t succeed. For instance, one of the ways we get work is through competitions. And the client tells you: ‘We really admire you’, but there is a 90% chance that what you produce, which may be your masterpiece, will end up in the garbage can.

“There is not a single profession that can tolerate this kind of insanity,” he added.

Iyad Alsaka (left) and Rem Koolhaas (right) outside Concrete in Alserkal Avenue. Photo by Ajith Narendra/ ITP Images.

OMA will soon be inaugurating two more buildings in Qatar: the Qatar Foundation headquarters as well as the Qatar National Library. The firm’s portfolio of work in the region is beginning to fall under the category of arts and culture buildings which are often associated with the architecture firm. But that is an assumption Koolhaas is eager to challenge.

READ MOREQatar has a more guided development plan than Dubai, says Rem Koolhaas

“We have been working with a number of developers are we are interested in creating different kinds of architecture. Recently, we are succeeding in doing that but it has been taking a long time,” he said.

“There is an assumption that, because we write, because we have a research arm, AMO, that we are more suitable for cultural institutions. Of course I like working on such projects but the challenge is for us also to find other clients who are willing to work with us on other types of projects.”

Regardless of the various difficulties and challenges OMA has faced in the region, Iyad Alsaka, who heads OMA Dubai office, said the company is still committed to the region.

“I think the Middle East is part of OMA’s DNA,” he said. “So our commitment is never ending and we will focus on expanding opportunities anywhere we can.”

Read our interview with Kaveh Dabiri, who led the design for Concrete, here.