Rem Koolhaas on OMA’s Rotterdam beginnings, Boompjes and Amex

Rem Koolhaas on OMA’s Rotterdam beginnings, Boompjes and Amex

We caught up with Rem Koolhaas to discuss OMA’s beginnings, setting up shop in Rotterdam, and his new design for the Amex Centurion ‘Art Card’, which was inspired by Boompjes, OMA’s very first commission in the Dutch port city in the early 1980s

Rotterdam and OMA have long been intertwined. The Dutch port city has been home to the celebrated architecture practice for over four decades now, and it is also co-founder Rem Koolhaas’ birthplace. Still, the architect didn’t spend a lot of time there until the 1980s. Instead, he followed a more international trajectory in his early years. His childhood was mostly divided between Amsterdam and Jakarta, and after graduating from the Architectural Association in London, he moved to New York to attend Cornell. His book, Delirious New York, published in 1978 to much acclaim, was a kind of love letter to the great American city, exploring its development as well as notions of urbanity and congestion that came to define his career.

OMA was established in 1975 between New York and London (by Koolhaas together with Elia Zenghelis, Zoe Zenghelis and Madelon Vriesendorp) and by the time of the book’s publication, the architect was heading back to Europe. ‘I was in a strange position, as the book made me relatively well known, but I had never built anything,’ he admits. He decided to return to the Netherlands to pursue work; and if New York played a landmark role in making Koolhaas architecture’s favourite theorist, Rotterdam allowed him to build, to turn theory into practice.

Portrait of Rem Koolhaas
Rem Koolhaas, captured by his daughter, artist and photographer Charlie Koolhaas, in Amsterdam in February 2021

Landing in Amsterdam in 1979, a meeting with a Rotterdam city councillor soon resulted in a ‘dream’ assignment – and one of the first big commission wins for OMA. ‘He was sitting in front of a map of Rotterdam and asked, “So, where do you want to build?” It was very generous. I saw a site on the river and the interesting thing about it was that it was very constrained on one side by water, on the other by a bridge, on a third side by a road and on the fourth by a building,’ says Koolhaas. He picked the site and started designing. The scheme was named Boompjes (‘little trees’ in Dutch) and mixed housing and workspace along the Maasboulevard. It marked the start of a long relationship between the port city and the architecture firm.

Rotterdam, devastated by bombing from both sides during the Second World War, presented a challenge and an opportunity for architects and planners in the second half of the 20th century – large parts of it had to be entirely rebuilt. This was also the reason Koolhaas chose it as his Dutch base in 1980, shortly after the Boompjes commission (two more schemes, the IJ-plein housing and a commissioned study for the possible renovation of the Koepel Panopticon Prison were also in the works in different parts of the country). ‘It made the city very fertile ground for architecture. I had more affinity and interest in Rotterdam. I started an office there almost on a hunch,’ he says. So, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the OMA headquarters was next door to the Boompjes’ plot and the water (a London office had opened in 1975, and Koolhaas and colleagues travelled back and forth as needed). 

Delirious new york magazine cover by Rem Koolhaas
The cover of Delirious New York, published in 1978

Due to its geographical constraints, the Boompjes site could only be experienced in two ways: either passing by the road running parallel to the plot on ground level, or approaching it from across the River Maas via a bridge. These ‘unusually controlled’ views stimulated Koolhaas’ imagination and informed the design. This, combined with the fact that the city authorities allowed him great flexibility, meant the site was ripe for experimentation. ‘We made the design so that it was like an accordion. It could be spread wide or if you approached it from a single angle, you only saw a very narrow side,’ he says. 

The formal response reflects Koolhaas’ architectural preoccupations at the time. The design incorporates a series of five tall, lean highrises set against a horizontal slab placed at the top. Some vertical elements are perpendicular to the slab, others sit at an angle, while one is just slightly apart. The formation became a kind of urban screen, filtering light and framing views from the river to the city and the other way round. ‘Of course, I had written a book about New York, but I was actually much more interested in another typology, the slab,’ the architect points out. ‘Towers are the expression of capitalism and slabs are the main expression of socialism. In the 1980s, it was very interesting to try and create a hybrid shape. Boompjes is a hybrid.’  

boompjes drawing street view
A drawing for the Boompjes project, as seen from street level

The main artwork for the design, produced in 1982, is a silk-screen rendering created by Koolhaas with Italian architect Stefano de Martino, and can still be found in the practice’s archives. It is a triptych – a colourful, geometric composition that brings to mind abstract or constructivist art, and the work of Piet Mondrian or László Moholy-Nagy. A print run of a couple of hundred editions was produced and now many of these sit in museum collections – at MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, CCA and The New Institute, for example. ‘We wanted to explain everything you need to say about this project in a single representation,’ says Koolhaas. The buildings’ colours nod to the passing ships’ bright hues; as port activity was ever-present in the office views, it provided constant inspiration. 

Beyond formal considerations, Koolhaas’ vision for the long and narrow site explored new models for housing development and the future of living. ‘In the 1980s, housing in the Netherlands meant social housing,’ he says. ‘I had just come from America and I was interested in less defined spaces, open spaces. So the building had an industrial quality.’ The design, including a range of private apartments from studios to larger duplexes and loft-style spaces, with its river views, ‘was about flexibility, openness, an uncluttered space’. It also contained a gym and a library on site – a particularly forward-thinking move at a time when amenities in larger-scale residential schemes were anything but the norm. 

American Express Centurion card designed by architect Rem Koolhaas
The Amex Centurion card, in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas, features artwork from an old OMA project, the Boompjes in Rotterdam

Boompjes was sadly never built (‘We presented it to the city a number of times; in the end they sold the site to a developer, but nothing came out of it,’ Koolhaas concludes) but its ideas were pioneering, and live on. In the late 1990s, OMA was commissioned to work on another site by the river in Rotterdam, which faced a similar situation – again, approached by a bridge and its perception controlled by limited viewpoints. That project, just across the water from the Boompjes site, eventually became De Rotterdam, a mixed-use, ‘vertical city’ completed in 2013 beside the city’s Wilhelmina Pier. 

Now, Boompjes is about to get one more incarnation. In 2019, American Express approached OMA for an artistic collaboration with Rem Koolhaas on a new design for Amex’s exclusive Centurion Card. The practice had been working with the card’s signature Roman references, when the client came across the Boompjes project. It became a starting point for the new design, with Rem and his team adapting the triptych visual to the card’s specifications. The result launches from this month. Blending graphic design with thought-provoking architecture that was truly ahead of its time, the product is the smallest item ever designed by Koolhaas. ‘I see graphic design as a crucial domain to project ideas in,’ says Koolhaas, who regularly explores two-dimensional design through OMA’s research and design arm, AMO. ‘Architecture is also a domain to project ideas in. The similarity [between the disciplines] is about ideas, and these can take any form.’ §

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