The Koolhaas Formula

Before becoming an “archistar” everybody around the world knows about, Rem Koolhaas did many things.
He was born in Rotterdam the 17th November 1944, so he grew up in the period of the big post-World War II reconstructions, in a new society in which all the traditional values were ripped off, through death, fear, starvation and exploitation.
It is probably due to this unique and critical context the fact that Rem Koolhaas developed a polyhedric personality with incredible views of the future. His father, Anton Koolhaas, was a notorious novelist, critic and screenwriter, while his maternal grandfather, Dirk Roosemburg, was a modernist architect who worked for Hendrik Petrus Berlage, before opening his own practice.
In 1969, with the 1,2,3 group, he co-wrote the film “The White Slave“, a dutch noir described as “a provocative allegory about the decline of European civilization, riffing on B-movie genre films and Buñuelesque rhetoric”, with his childhood friend Rene Daalden.
In the same period, he also became a journalist for the Haagste Post, and started his studies at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Then he continued his academic career with Oswald Mathias Ungers at Cornell University in Ithaca and finally at the  Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City.
In the earliest period of his career as an architect Rem Koolhaas is  “a person with a cannibalistic attitude with informations, always in need of something new and better than before, and he starts to point out his thoughts about how he considers the world of architecture and its purposes. According to him, architecture has to be accessible to everyone, understood by people in all of its aspects and involves connections with morality, ethics and, most of all, citizenship.
But at the same time, the architect, as a professional figure, faces the reality of things: architecture is a highly unstable field, in which the architect hasn’t much of control on the objects he designs, due to the fact that there are too many people going through the process of design and construction, from the paper to reality, and unfortunately there is no solution to that: just the understanding of the tangible limits in which architecture takes place.
One of the most interesting questions Rem Koolhaas tried to find an answer is: if we consider that architecture has always been thought as a box, in which a person seeks repair and feels secure, is it possible to deconstruct and reconstruct that box, without changing the results, to reach something new?
Let’s take Mies Van der Rohe as an example. In the eternal research of progress, he comes up with the Farnsworth House, starting from the intention to design a perfect, hermetically sealed box that clearly divides inside and outside, but at the same time cancels the distinctions between private and public, by using glass. The house is simultaneously directed towards two sides and offers closeness as well as openness as intrinsic contemporary values.

Farnsworth House – Mies van der Rohe, 1945-1951 

According to the contemporary architecture critique, the first houses designed by Koolhaas can be considered a variation of the Farnsworth  House motifs.
In the Patio Villa-House for two friends, designed and built in 1985-88, the box is both the centre of the house and the design theme itself. It’s the “anti-individual thing” as Frank Lloyd Wright calls it, which makes an individual house possible. In other words, the house is generated by aggregation around an impersonal core of empty space, to allow the surrounding to host life in a new unexpected way.


In the Patio Villa Rem Koolhaas removes the box’s core and designs the building around it and that’s precisely the presence of this absence that creates space, the architecture of the void. The building becomes the surrounding of the empty box.

Patio Villa-House for two friends (1984-88) – Photo: Hans Werlemann
Patio Villa-House for two friends (1984-88) – Photo: Hans Werlemann
Patio Villa-House for two friends (1984-88) – Photo: Hans Werlemann
Patio Villa-House for two friends (1984-88) – Photo: Hans Werlemann

What Koolhaas does with this house is reversing the conventional design process of his time and finding new solutions. There is no particular secret for the “Koolhaas Formula“, just the intention of a man (or of his team) to put himself into situations that require a variation on traditional solutions.
In this specific case for example, it is obvious that the glass walls cannot protect the inhabitants of the house from the neighbourhood’s view. To solve the issue Koolhaas thinks to put a constellation of closed boxes with specific functions around the central glass box, generating new innovative interstitial spaces, in which life can develop.
He does it here by duplicating the model of the Farnsworth House and provoking a transition with a ramp functioning as a hinge, putting the boxes into each other, next to each other and one above the other at the same time.
As he said: “I did in the section what usually has been done in a plan“. In this little quote, we can find the experimentation, a new way to approach design and to respond to critical issues, like privacy.

This is the key of the “Koolhaas formula“: to discover the “situation” that makes you think to an unconventional variation, in response to a specific problem, in order to achieve a better and new solution once more.


– Cecil Balmond, Informal, Prestel Publications, 2007, pp.400
– Film-documentary, Rem Koolhaas: a kind of architect
– OMA Archives, El Croquis no.53

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