Design Trust Director Marisa Yiu In Conversation With OMA's Rem Koolhaas And David Gianotten

By Oliver Giles

Rem Koolhaas is often thought of as intimidatingly intellectual, but is there another side to the Dutch 'starchitect'? Design Trust co-founder and Generation T honouree Marisa Yiu talks to the Pritzker Prize winner and his OMA colleague David Gianotten to find out

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Articles about Rem Koolhaas tend to have a certain rhythm. They generally begin with a description of the man himself. Six foot five inches tall (or 195.5cm), rake thin, normally dressed head to toe in Prada and often unsmiling, the 73-year-old Dutchman looms physically large in profiles.

Then there are the details of his awe-inspiring career: how he established his design studio, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), in 1975, founded his own think tank in the 1990s and has since gone on to design some of the most daring buildings of the past few decades, among them the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, the Seattle Central Library in the US and Fondazione Prada in Milan, all while writing a series of industry-shaking books that propose radical new ways of thinking about architecture. His powerful presence and string of achievements leave the impression that Koolhaas is as much a philosopher as an architect, someone who is preoccupied with the big ideas—and doesn’t have time for anything else.

But speaking on a late summer day from his office in Amsterdam, Koolhaas wants to add something new to that conversation. “I think it’s important to celebrate that we at OMA are not always serious,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of our work is directly related to pleasure.” 

To underline this point, OMA unveiled one of its most playful projects yet on October 27. The studio took on the role of creative director for the Ambassadors Ball in Hong Kong, an annual gala dinner to benefit Design Trust, a grant-funding platform that supports creatives working in the Pearl River Delta. The project was led by OMA director David Gianotten, who themed the event around a “hyperenvironment,” a word that hints at a hyper-connected, hyper-dense city packed with the latest technology. Gianotten developed this theme while contributing to research currently being undertaken by OMA’s think tank, AMO, into how the rapid development of cities is affecting the countryside around the globe.

Koolhaas and Gianotten spoke to Generation T honouree Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of Design Trust, about their designs for the ball, the importance of fun and how Hong Kong is a constant source of inspiration.

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Above  David Gianotten (left) and Rem Koolhaas have worked with Marisa Yiu on multiple projects since 2009 (Photo: Fred Ernst)

Marisa Yiu: Can we start by discussing the theme you chose for the ball. Why did you decide to theme the gala around a “hyperenvironment?”

Rem Koolhaas: Architecture is a very ancient profession and therefore as an architect you’re not necessarily always engaging with the most recent technical developments and technical potentials, but this kind of event enables us to explore an entirely different group of technologies—like 3D-printing food.

David Gianotten: What we tried to do was come up with a theme that's connected to research that the office is doing into the countryside but also related to Hong Kong, where there is this extreme condition of a very dense city that is within five minutes’ walk of untouched nature.

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Above  Marisa Yiu is co-founder of Design Trust (Photo: Moses Ng/Hong Kong Tatler)

Yiu: I understand that the countryside is one of the main interests of OMA at the moment and that you will be unveiling your research into the countryside at a major exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York next year. Can you tell me how OMA’s interest in the countryside developed?

Koolhaas: I think it actually started from two sources. Firstly, I happen to be very often in the Swiss countryside and the little village that I visit was dominated by agriculture. Then, suddenly, after 10 years of going there, the cows were gone, the smell was gone and everything was gone. Without really paying attention to it, there had been a really drastic change. And as David was suggesting earlier, the schizophrenia of Hong Kong—of being at the centre of a metropolis but being close to really rugged countryside—was also an alert to us of the importance of the countryside. When we worked on the masterplan of the West Kowloon Cultural District, David lived in Hong Kong and I was there a lot. We explored the countryside together and realised how incredibly exciting it could be. So, yes, the countryside is a longstanding interest, but it’s now being channelled and concluded in the form of an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in October next year.

“The dialectic between creativity and finance remains the defining point of Hong Kong”

Yiu: This really rigorous and intense research is such a key aspect of OMA to me—and you’re constantly embarking on new research with your think tank, AMO. AMO really resonates with what we do at the Design Trust, as we’re always investing in research and education. Why did you decide to launch AMO in the 1990s?

Koolhaas: In 1995 it was very clear that the world was changing very radically, that there was the enormous influence of the market economy and that politically the situation was far from stable. So we realised that in order to do architecture that was appropriate in many different countries and many different cultures, it was important to develop our own form of information gathering.

See also: Video: Highlights From The Ambassadors Ball 2018

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Above  The Ambassadors Ball's "hyperenvironment" theme saw the ballroom split into two distinct halves. (Photo: Still from video by Gary Li)

Gianotten: We do a lot of work with AMO for clients, but we also invest part of our returns from OMA into our own thinking and development. Research is extremely important—it’s the basis of architecture. You can’t just do architecture without looking ahead.

Yiu: Another link between OMA and the Design Trust is our relationship with Prada. You have worked with Prada for many years and we were thrilled to have Prada as the lead sponsor of this year’s Ambassadors Ball. Earlier this year you unveiled Fondazione Prada in Milan. Can you tell us a little bit about how you combined restored buildings and new buildings to create that cultural foundation?

Koolhaas: I think the use of rehabilitated or preserved industrial buildings for art has become a cliché and there was no appetite on our part or on the part of Prada to add another cliché to the world. They were interested in a kind of hybrid where we could create an almost unnoticeable transition between old and new architecture continuously, so one continues to inspire and expand the possibilities of the other. That was an interesting experiment for them. In a certain way fashion is very similar because fashion also works with very strong traditions that need to be challenged to produce something new.

Yiu: You have had an OMA office in Hong Kong since 2009, which was opened by David. How have things changed in the city since then?

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Above  The CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, which was designed by OMA (Photo: Shutterstock)

Koolhaas: I think Hong Kong is a very promising territory for displaying and cultivating real creativity, but it is also a territory where perhaps the pressure of money is not particularly stimulating for creativity. So I think that this dialectic between creativity and finance remains the defining point of Hong Kong.

Gianotten: From my side, what I think is really interesting is the political spectrum in Hong Kong. There is this unclarity about the future and what it will bring and at the same time there is this very strong history and base for the city and its success. That tension creates a breeding ground for development and that development can go in every direction, from extremely commercial to really low grass-roots culture. In Hong Kong, you can work on an extremely commercial project and at the same time be part of grass-roots culture. There is no other place in the world where that is possible and people don’t realise it.

See also: In Pictures: The Ambassadors Ball 2018

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Above  A tower that forms part of the new Fondazione Prada in Milan (Photo: Jacopo Milanesi)

Yiu: I really like that sense of optimism. We are thrilled you [were both a part of] the Ambassadors Ball.

Koolhaas: It's like spontaneous combustion, this whole event. I think it’s important to celebrate that we’re not always serious. A lot of our work is directly related to pleasure and to trying to bring pleasure to other people but also for ourselves. That tends to be forgotten and [the Ambassadors Ball] is really an occasion to celebrate it.

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