Rem Koolhaas is more known for his ideas about architecture, than his actual buildings. Now, however, the mammoth Waterfront City in Dubai is finally under way - and at the Sharjah Biennial the Dutch architect will reveal how he puts his theories into practice in the Gulf. John Henzell reports. Was it genius or madness to choose Rem Koolhaas to help design the development that is projected to nearly double the population of Dubai?
After all, the Dutch architect made his name eulogising the sprawling and unplanned metropolises of the developing world, praising their congestion and irrationality as the model for how cities should be organised. And his yet-unbuilt designs for the UAE include not one but two separate massive spherical structures, each one having already been dubbed "Koolhaas's desert death star", after Darth Vader's spherical headquarters in the Star Wars films.
The audience at the Sharjah Biennial will get the chance this week, on 16 March, to judge whether genius or madman is the appropriate moniker when he delivers a lecture about his five years working in the Gulf. Koolhaas's most famous edifice is the gravity-defying CCTV building in Beijing, described as "a backflip in glass and steel", "a twisted doughnut" and even "a skyscraper that got lost on its way to the sky".
Other, more reverential observers are asking if the mammoth 230-metre structure is the world's most important new building, with it helping earn Koolhaas a place among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2008. The Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne called it the "most significant piece of architecture of our young century", outshining nearby examples built for the Olympics, like the "bird's nest" stadium and Water Cube swimming centre.
Koolhaas also designed the TVCC building, the far dowdier fraternal twin of the CCTV building next door, but it was gutted by errant fireworks last month during Chinese new year celebrations. The timing of the fire was deemed particularly unpropitious by the Chinese, coinciding with what is traditionally seen as a fresh start for the year of the ox. Until then, fire was not a major danger to the body of work from Koolhaas's 40-year professional career because he was far better known for talking and thinking about architecture than creating designs that were actually built.
The big commissions in China, the UAE and elsewhere came decades after his essays, books and prototypes gained him his international reputation and a position as "professor in practice" at Harvard's graduate school of design. Among them is Waterfront City in Dubai, announced a year ago as one of the key pieces of the mammoth Nakheel Properties development, located on the Abu Dhabi side of Jebel Ali port and designed to become home to 1.5 million people.
The part designed by Koolhaas, together with his design partner Reinier de Graaf, is based around a 1.3km-square artificial island divided into 25 identical blocks and filled with conventionally shaped buildings. This unexpected uniformity is offset on the corner facing the Gulf with a huge spherical structure, complete with craterlike indentations - the first "desert death star". The design draws on the theories Koolhaas postulated more than 10 years earlier about the generic city, where the occupants are a tribe of global wanderers with little loyalty to the location in which they find themselves and where the buildings are repetitively uninteresting.
Besides Waterfront City, which includes the precincts surrounding the island, almost all the other designs in the UAE attributed to Koolhaas and his multinational practice, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), remain unrealised. These include an ambitious mountain resort for Jebel Jais, the nation's highest peak (a "concept design", according to the OMA website), the Dubai Renaissance tower ("competition entry"), the Porsche Towers in Dubai ("construction drawings"), a structure plan for Ras al Khaimah ("concept design") and a fully sustainable eco-city in Ras al Khaimah that would supposedly be bigger and better than Abu Dhabi's Masdar ("prototype").
It was is outside the boundaries of this latter resolutely rectangular eco-city that a colossal orb is intended to serve as the Ras al Khaimah Convention and Exhibition Centre, featuring the meeting hall, hotel, apartments and retail space all in one structure. Also featuring craterlike Boolean divots packing the exterior curves, this was the second to be dubbed "Koolhaas's desert death star", although the Australian architectural blog writer Marcus Trimble claimed it bore a more striking resemblance to a circa-1972 Panasonic transistor radio (except it was to be made of steel and glass rather than bright orange plastic).
As for Koolhaas and his design partner de Graaf, they seem to have had a "road to Damascus" experience since the CCTV building. The architecture of the 21st century, they wrote in their explanation for the design on the OMA website, had been "a desperate effort to differentiate one building from the next... by a manic production of extravagant shapes". Faced with a choice to "join so many others in this mad, futile race," they chose instead to return to pure forms that predated humanity.
Koolhaas ought to be able to explain that this week. Rem Koolhaas will speak from 3.30-4pm on Monday 16 March in the Heritage Area in Sharjah.