Fred A. Bernstein

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Post Prada, A Design Star Slims Down

Rem Koolhaas's relationship with New York is on the rocks

Published in The New York Times, April 24, 2003


''MANHATTAN has consistently inspired in its beholders ecstasy about architecture,'' Rem Koolhaas, the Rotterdam-based architect, wrote in his 1978 book ''Delirious New York.'' Mr. Koolhaas hoped to ratchet up the ecstasy with a dramatic addition to the Whitney Museum's Madison Avenue building and a downtown hotel for Ian Schrager. But both projects have fizzled and now the love affair between Mr. Koolhaas and the city appears to be on the rocks.

Last week, after the Whitney Museum of American Art canceled plans for the addition, which experts said would have cost at least $200 million, Mr. Koolhaas grumbled in a telephone interview that the Whitney's benefactors were more interested in building the endowment than his architecture.

Economic problems combined with bad timing and perhaps a bit of hubris have brought the cancellation of several long-awaited projects by Mr. Koolhaas, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2000.

Last December, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced that it was indefinitely postponing a new complex, designed by Mr. Koolhaas, because it could not raise enough of the estimated $300 million cost. Also on the ropes is a 12-story Prada store in San Francisco, which would have been the most ambitious of three ''epicenters'' commissioned by Miuccia Prada. (The SoHo store opened in 2001, and another in Beverly Hills is under construction.)

While Daniel Libeskind, who won the World Trade Center commission, is busy opening an office in New York, Mr. Koolhaas, who says he opted not to participate in the final competition for the World Trade Center site, is reducing his New York office to a dozen employees. In a recent speech to architecture students at Columbia University, he said he ''admitted defeat in New York.''

''Though the firm is in good shape globally, '' a partner in his firm, Dan Wood, said, ''its focus has moved away from the U.S.'' Mr. Wood added that he would be leaving the firm, amicably, because of the lack of American projects.

Mr. Koolhaas is one of many architects who have seen large commissions evaporate or shrink with the economic downturn. ''There are layoffs at nearly every firm, small, large, famous, not famous,'' said Reed Kroloff, the former editor of Architecture Magazine, and a consultant to architecture competitions.

Frank Gehry, who like Mr. Koolhaas is a Pritzker Prize winner and whose Guggenheim museum planned for Lower Manhattan was canceled, said that potential clients ''have pulled in their horns a little bit.''

''There aren't as many inquiries,'' Mr. Gehry said. ''The mood is different.''

Richard Meier, also a Pritzker winner, said, ''The phone may not be ringing as often.''

In New York, post-9/11 budget cuts by the city have forced the cancellation of an addition to the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library at 40th Street designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. And Mr. Libeskind's planned $55 million Jewish Museum San Francisco has been scaled back for budgetary reasons.

A tough economy may be forcing a more conservative turn in architecture, and Mr. Koolhaas is no traditionalist. His firm, he said in an interview, ''is better at reinventing than reasserting.'' By that he means he is turning his attention to building a $650 million television broadcast center in Beijing, opening for the 2008 Olympics. The World Trade Center competition, he said in the speech at Columbia in February, was all about looking backward, while the Chinese government was looking forward.

Robert Ivy, editor in chief of Architectural Record, said: ''In China, people are basically saying, you can wave your hand and make this happen. You can understand Rem's enthusiasm for that kind of client.''

Mr. Ivy added, ''It's not surprising he might have sour grapes, given how many projects have evaporated.''

But few architects are inclined, as Mr. Koolhaas is, to see a morality tale in the economic downturn. In his Columbia speech, Mr. Koolhaas recounted his attempts to satisfy Mr. Schrager, the developer of a planned hotel on Astor Place, which ended with him being ''fired.'' Ultimately, Mr. Koolhaas said, ''It became very clear that America in its current mood would resist a certain kind of challenge as systematically as Ian Schrager.'' Mr. Schrager, responding through a publicist, said he would let his buildings speak for themselves.

Mr. Koolhaas's office has three projects under construction in this country: the Prada store on Rodeo Drive, a student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology and the Seattle Public Library. As recently as December, Mr. Koolhaas was optimistic enough to predict that the Whitney project would move forward, and that the cancellation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ''would galvanize'' donors to come through with the funds needed for his plan.

Neither has happened. And that may be due in part to the ambition of Mr. Koolhaas's work. ''People come to Rem for dramatic solutions to their problems,'' Mr. Kroloff said. ''And those solutions tend to be terribly expensive.''

Mr. Koolhaas, 58, famously began his career not by building but by writing. His first book, ''Delirious New York,'' described how New York came to represent the ''culture of congestion.'' His 2000 manifesto, the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, featured his dazzling essay on the mall-style developments that he calls ''junkspace.''

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art would have been his biggest American project. Rather than preserve the museum's existing buildings, Mr. Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture proposed creating a new gallery complex under a vast curving roof. Mr. Koolhaas said his plan was nothing less than ''a moral imperative'' for the museum.

But morality and money are rarely drawn on the same account. The plan, according to the museum's president, Andrea Rich, meant that the museum had to build ''all or nothing.'' Another kind of design, she said, might have been buildable in stages, allowing her to break ground before she had raised the entire cost.

Mr. Koolhaas won the competition without deciding what the giant canopy over the museum would be made of. As recently as last May, employees of his firm were still considering everything from glass to plastic to fabric. ''Maybe he should cover it in chintz,'' Paige Rense, the editor of Architectural Digest, suggested.

Ms. Rich said, ''That was a problem, and if we return to the project, it will have to be addressed.'' Mr. Koolhaas's initial plan for the Whitney, in which a giant, fist-shaped addition would have cantilevered over the museum's existing Marcel Breuer building, was bound to be controversial.

The architect's unusual combinations of materials and sometimes-unsettling shapes are visible at his art museum in Rotterdam and the concert hall nearing completion in Porto, Portugal, built from the ground up. (His 70,000-square-foot Guggenheim Las Vegas closed in January after less than two years of operation.)

But in New York, his projects, the Prada store, the Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Chelsea and the Second Stage Theater in Midtown, have been interior renovations.

And time has not been kind to the Prada store, which opened in December 2001. ''We've had some maintenance problems,'' Mr. Wood said, citing zebrawood floors that had to be refinished, aluminum polish that damaged marble and electronic systems that failed after tourists pushed the buttons ''a few hundred times more than we expected.''

The store, he noted, ''gets an extraordinary amount of traffic.''

Worst of all, a hatch had to be added to the glass elevator after several shoppers became trapped in it last fall.

At the same time, Mr. Koolhaas's 2001 deal to serve as an editorial consultant to Condé Nast magazines has produced more rumors than magazine pages. James Truman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, could cite no other Koolhaas projects besides the new Wired magazine, for which Mr. Koolhaas served as a guest editor of one section. An essay by Mr. Koolhaas, which he described as a postscript to ''Delirious New York,'' is the centerpiece of a section of the magazine on ''space.'' Condé Nast will give a party for Mr. Koolhaas on May 7 in SoHo.

Mr. Koolhaas, for his part, has said he will attend. ''I remain committed to New York,'' he said. ''It is an extremely critical part of my mental map.''

Mr. Kroloff said that as bad as Mr. Koolhaas's situation in the United States is, ''most architects would trade places with him in a second.''

Perhaps Mr. Koolhaas can take comfort in the lessons of architectural history, in which many influential ''buildings'' have never existed except on paper. Even Mr. Koolhaas's hero, Mies van der Rohe, was subject to the vicissitudes of the economy and the whims of clients. Mr. Koolhaas likes to tell students the story of a residential commission that Mies lost after creating a full-size canvas model for the client. ''The building's cancellation,'' Mr. Koolhaas wrote, ''was more dramatic, more important almost, than its realization.''