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Rice at 100

World-famous architect dismisses preservation in Houston, offers an alternative approach

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Rem Koolhaus, Rice University, lecture, screen, October 2012
Architect Rem Koolhaas spoke to more than 1,000 attendees for a talk on globalism, architectural history and the future of the built environment. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Rem Koolhaus, The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow
Koolhaas discussed his new design for Moscow's Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. OMA/Facebook
Garage Gorky Park, Russia, Rem Koolhaus, detail
Housed in a ruined Soviet-era restaurant, the renovation will retain as much its current crumbling state as possible. OMA.eu
Rem Koolhaus, lecture, Rice University, October 2012
"For me, this is a beautiful condition," he said, motioning to an image of plaster casts of Romans who perished during the Mt. Vesuvius eruption. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Garage Gorky Park, Russia, Rem Koolhaus
Garage Gorky Park is slated to open in 2014. OMA.eu
Rem Koolhaus, Rice University, lecture, crowd, October 2012
Koolhaas detailed his ongoing master plan work for St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum. Photo by Tyler Rudick
Rem Koolhaas, Rice University, Taipei Performing Arts Center
Construction on the innovative Taipei Performing Arts Center started in spring 2012. Photo courtesy of OMA
Rem Koolhaus, Rice University, lecture, screen, October 2012
Rem Koolhaus, The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow
Garage Gorky Park, Russia, Rem Koolhaus, detail
Rem Koolhaus, lecture, Rice University, October 2012
Garage Gorky Park, Russia, Rem Koolhaus
Rem Koolhaus, Rice University, lecture, crowd, October 2012
Rem Koolhaas, Rice University, Taipei Performing Arts Center

The Houston design scene basked in the presence of starchitectural greatness as Rem Koolhaas took to the podium at Rice University's Tudor Fieldhouse Thursday for an hour-long talk titled "Architecture as a Global Practice."

During a brief introduction, Rice architecture dean Sarah Whiting described the Dutch designer's background as a "condensed version" of contemporary global society — born in Rotterdam during World War II, raised in Jakarta, lived in Paris during the 1968 riots before moving to London, relocated to Manhattan in the '70s, during which he penned his influential urban manifesto Delirious New York.

"Preservation is a highly artificial term," Koolhaas explained. "History happens and leaves its traces . . . I have to say, I prefer history without preservation." 

Building upon a short Wednesday evening presentation he gave at Rice, Koolhaas opened with discussion of historical preservation, a topic that elicited mixed emotions for the architect while, at the same time, offered a window into his approach to the built environment.

"Preservation is a highly artificial term," he explained. "History happens and leaves its traces . . . I have to say, I prefer history without preservation."

Koolhaas showed an image of the famous 19th-century plaster casts made of Roman victims who perished during Mt. Vesuvius eruption of 79 C.E. "For me, this is a beautiful condition," he said, motioning to the large screen behind him. "It's not so much about preserving history, but about revealing history."

This notion of "revealing" a specific time and place proves a central theme in recent work by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the multi-national firm Koolhaas launched in 1975.

After detailing a current master plan project for the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the architect turned to his design for the new home of Moscow's Garage Center — the ultra-hip contemporary arts organization which played a major role in the recent Russia-themed FotoFest Biennial.

The architect hopes to leave much of the current ruin in place, including everything from the faded '60s decoration to the graffiti painted last week. 

Known as Garage Gorky Park, the project will convert a Soviet-era restaurant into a two-story gallery space. But rather than stripping it to a concrete shell and dousing the walls in white paint, Koolhaas hopes to leave much of the current ruins in place, including everything from the faded '60s decoration to the graffiti painted last week.

To do so, the design calls for only the most basic of renovations and a skin of translucent acrylic to replace the exterior walls.

Since the rise of architectural preservation in the mid 1700s, Koolhaas noted the manner in which conservationists have focused more and more on projects closer to their own era. Architects working today consider the preservation of their buildings, not as an afterthought, but as a part of the design process. The Gorky Park gallery offers a perfect example.

Koolhaas closed with a discussion of the Taipei Performing Arts Center, an innovative complex of three theaters in which all backstage areas are shared, before opening the floor to questions from ecstatic architecture students.

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