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Architect Rem Koolhaas’s Protégés

United Kingdom Architecture News - Jan 25, 2014 - 19:39   8003 views

The Dutch architect has mentored dozens of talented designers at his Rotterdam studio, OMA. Here, a portfolio of seven of his protégés—who have grown to become his top competitors


Architect Rem Koolhaas’s Protégés

Joshua Prince-Ramus Photography by Bjarne Jonasson, Styling by Tasha Green


AMONG THE WORLD'S top architects, Rem Koolhaas may be the most influential. An energetic teacher—most often at Harvard's Graduate School of Design—and persuasive writer (his books include Delirious New York and S, M, L, XL), he has also mentored scores of young architects at his Rotterdam studio, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where pay is S and pressure XL. (American architect Joshua Prince-Ramus remembers that his first "day" on the job lasted 48 hours.) But Koolhaas's apprentices are rewarded with something more than money: Under his tutelage, designers learn to privilege approach over style. Rather than work with drawings, like most traditional architecture firms, OMA employees first "Diagram" a building—identify the structure's basic components and how they fit together—and then proceed to build it. It's an analytical method that results in buildings that are sometimes ungainly but never unexciting and reject the signature styles associated with many other renowned architects. "Rem is a magician in terms of the quality of work and thinking he is able to get out of people," says Amale Andraos, a young Lebanese-born architect who began working at OMA in 1999.


Architect Rem Koolhaas’s Protégés

Click to view slideshow. Photography by Bjarne Jonasson for WSJ. Magazine, Styling by Tasha Green

Matthias Hollwich, who arrived in Rotterdam in 1996, describes an environment in which no idea, no matter how outlandish, was discounted and where each key decision "would be postponed as long as possible, because it always meant the loss of other possibilities." At OMA, "the only certainty is that there is no certainty. And one cannot even be sure of that."

Prince-Ramus, Andraos and Hollwich apprenticed at OMA during a particularly fertile period, around the turn of the millennium, when the firm designed such buildings as the Casa da Música, in Porto, Portugal; the campus center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago; the Seattle Central Library; and two Prada stores. Then about 30, they are now in their forties—and have struck out on their own. At least eight young OMA architects from that same generation now head their own firms, in New York, Beijing, Mexico City and Copenhagen, with heavy workloads and bitter sweet memories of Rotterdam. As Bjarke Ingels, probably the most prolific and outspoken of the late 1990s alumni, says, "Spending time with your early role model is a major source of discovery—as well as disappointment." Both things, he says, were "crucial" in the decision to start his own practice. 


''Rem is a magician in terms of the quality of work and thinking he is able to get out of people.''

Amale Andraos


OMA is still thriving, with some of the biggest projects in its almost 40-year history now underway. But perhaps for the first time, Koolhaas, now 69, finds himself competing against his own former employees for commissions. Here, seven of the architects who are making the transition from protégé to peer.

Ole Scheeren

Büro Ole Scheeren

Working in Asia, "you become a scale junkie," says Scheeren, whose latest projects range from a large 600,000-square-foot complex to an even larger 2 million-square-foot mixed-use building. That's still small compared to the 5 million-square-foot headquarters of China Central Television, a two-legged glass tower that cantilevers over Beijing. When OMA (where Scheeren worked from 1995 to 2010) won the competition to design CCTV, the German-born architect opened an office in Beijing to oversee construction. "I didn't want to be imposing Western architecture on Asia, like some sort of colonial export," says Scheeren, 43, during lunch at Manhattan's Mercer Hotel. (He was also in a relationship with Chinese movie star Maggie Cheung. ) In 2010, Scheeren created his own firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, in Beijing and Hong Kong. His projects have included a tower in Bangkok with pixelated indentations that make the building look like it is crumbling. "You really have to understand the psychology of the place," he says. "It wouldn't work anywhere else."

Fernando Romero


When discussing Romero, it's difficult to avoid mentioning that his father-in-law, telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim Helú, is one of the richest men in the world, or that the architect hosted a book party for his monograph, You Are the Context, at New York's Guggenheim Museum, attended by la crema of Mexican society. Romero, 42, is a soft-spoken father of four who spent three years at OMA before founding FR-EE ( Fernando Romero Enterprise)—and his appeal as a designer goes beyond family ties. He commutes between the firm's two offices, in Mexico City (home to his wife and children) and Manhattan (where his office overlooks the High Line). His best-known project to date is Mexico's glittering, cinch-waist Museo Soumaya, named for his late mother-in-law. He's now at work on two more museums in Mexico and a number of office buildings. Romero likes to pay it forward: He sponsors a year-long travel fellowship for a young Mexican architect with a focus on affordable housing and oversees an archive of Mexican design, which he plans to turn into that country's first design museum.


Joshua Prince-Ramus


For a time, Prince-Ramus was, as even his name seems to suggest, an OMA heir apparent. The founding partner of the firm's New York office, he was hard to ignore. A Yale philosophy major and rower with a tattooed arm and ice-blue eyes, he helped OMA land one of its most important projects: the Seattle Central Library, completed to acclaim in 2004. Prince-Ramus was only 29 when he dove into "the deep end," as partner in charge of the project—a Seattle native, he had heard about it from his mother and flew home from Rotterdam the next morning to successfully complete it. In 2006, he dove in even deeper, buying out Koolhaas's portion of the New York office and turning it into a separate firm called REX. REX designed the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, which opened in 2009. The next year, Prince-Ramus completed the Vakko Fashion Center, an innovative headquarters for a clothing company in Istanbul, built over an abandoned concrete frame. These days, projects like a tower in Kuala Lumpur, a museum in Germany and a house for a billionaire in New York City keep Prince-Ramus, 44, and his Brooklyn office humming.


Matthias Hollwich


With Marc Kushner, his partner in the Manhattan firm HWKN, Hollwich is committed to creating "socially charged architecture." Being gay is helpful, he says, in that it gives him an outsider's perspective on design. In 2011, the Pavilion, a legendary discotheque in Fire Island Pines, was destroyed by fire. HWKN designed its replacement, with wooden trusses that appear to strut—giving the resort town a potent architectural symbol. The firm's other projects range in size from residential interiors and a restaurant prototype to a 2.2 million-square-foot mixed-use development in New Jersey that's expected to include that state's tallest building. Hollwich spent six years at OMA before he moved to New York in 2006. After renting a rare Bauhaus-style apartment in Midtown, he recently moved to a new high-rise in order to learn about the building type from the inside, like an architect's version of method acting. Hollwich, 42, continues the OMA tradition of open-ended inquiry while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he leads a seminar on architecture for the aging.


Bjarke Ingels


Danish-born enfant terrible Ingels spent just two years at OMA (1998–2000) before founding his own firm, PLOT, with fellow alumnus Julien De Smedt. Six years later, he founded Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and began attracting serious attention as much for his provocative wordplay as for his architecture. (He called his design philosophy BIGamy—the rejection of "conceptual monogamy.") He competed against Koolhaas for the chance to develop the 52-acre Miami Beach Convention Center site, a competition he described as "oedipal." OMA won that round. But Ingels, 39, who divides his time between New York and Copenhagen—bicycling in both cities—has plenty to keep him busy, including a nearly full-block residential development on Manhattan's West 57th Street and another apartment building in Harlem; a viewing platform that will become a major feature of the already architecture-rich Brooklyn Bridge Park; condo developments in Miami and Fort Lauderdale; another residential tower in Vancouver; and museums in Park City, Utah, and Copenhagen. A self-promoter with a soft touch, Ingels represented Denmark with a bicycle-ramp pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, on which he collaborated with the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.


Amale Andraos & Dan Wood


"I don't think I really thought like an architect, or was even certain I wanted to become one, until I worked with Rem," says Andraos, 40. She met Wood, a Rhode Islander six years her senior, while studying at Harvard's Graduate School of Design; both did time at OMA in Rotterdam before helping to launch the firm's New York office in 2002. But when that outpost downsized in 2003, they opened their own firm, Work Architecture Company—known as WORKac—on the Lower East Side. At the time, their only projects were a bathroom renovation and a doghouse. Now married with two children, they are completing work on a vast conference center in Libreville, Gabon, for a forthcoming meeting of the Summit of the African Union. The building, a 320-foot-diameter disk with a sharply angled roof, is as complex as anything ever conceived by Koolhaas. It is also environmentally conscious, with gardens based on Gabon's natural ecosystems and a roof that functions as a rainwater collection system. Sustainability is a mantra for WORKac, which attracted attention in 2008 with Public Farm 1, an agricultural installation at MoMA PS1. Last fall, Andraos and Wood unveiled a 5,000-square-foot Edible Schoolyard in Brooklyn, part of a program created by Alice Waters to teach school children to eat organic, locally grown produce.

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