His buildings are instantly recognizable design icons. From the “twisted pretzel” CCTV headquarters in Beijing to the “melting iceberg” Casa da Música theatre in Porto, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is synonymous with his out of the box buildings around the world.
But this man stands out differently in the streets of a city.
His architecture is complex. His fashion is simple. His designs are asymmetrical. His self-styling is typical. His buildings are unconventional in shape and form. His clothing is uniform and austere.
A long-sleeve round-collared shirt and dress pants — only available in monochromatic black, gray, white, green or blue. Accessorize with jet black leather shoes and a classic white-faced watch with black straps. There you have it: the formula to dress up any lanky bald man as avant-garde Koolhaas.
It’s a shockingly basic fashion construction — a way for one of the world’s most famous architect to deflect attention? Koolhaas once lamented that celebrity architects like him are taken less seriously, and journalists seem mostly interested in what brand of shoes he wears.
While it’s unclear if he ever revealed his footwear choice, they are certainly not just any pair. This former journalist is not anti-fashion. He has designed runways and showrooms for high-end fashion brands including Prada and Coach. A typical Koolhaas architecture is derived from rethinking how a building is used, and that includes its function as a symbol too.
The twist and turns of his CCTV headquarters not only aid television production for the Chinese state broadcaster, they also defy the stereotypical skyscraper. While it was groundbreaking to restructure the Seattle Central Library after the Dewey Decimal System, which is used to organize books, it was equally radical to shrink-wrap this public institution with the gloss of a commercial building.
Koolhaas is keenly aware of how architecture has turned into a spectacle in today’s market-driven society. At the same time, he has also astutely observed how globalization has led to generic cities around the world.
Such contradictions abound in the Koolhaas universe. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly plain dressing of this man who once told Spiegel magazine, “I like fashion, whether or not it’s overpriced, because it creates a sense of the sublime with relatively few means.”
The effortless and minimalism of Koolhaas’ fashion is a foil to inspire awe too. Think of the creative uniforms — black, bland, and brand — of other modern design monks such as Steve Jobs and Massimo Vignelli. Like them, Koolhaas wears his body of clothes less as form but as a frame for his intellect, that white Zen-like genius of a head that sits above it all.
When all dressed up, Koolhaas evokes a mash-up between Auguste Rodin’s nude “Thinking Man” and Captain Jean-Luc Picard in his Star Trek uniform. His attire is at once nothing and the futuristic everything. In true Koolhaas’ fashion, the architect becomes a contradiction of the generic and spectacle all rolled into one.
Written for Andrea Codrington Lippke’s Criticism Lab at D-Crit on the fashion construction of a designer.