Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus steps out of Rem Koolhaas' shadow

Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX,
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX, is one of the five finalists for a Kuala Lumpur project. It comprises a 380m-tall, 80-storey structure made up of offices and amenities such as restaurants as well as prayer halls, and has a retractable sunshade around the building. The Yongsan International Business District Project R6 (right) in Seoul, South Korea, is a 115,500 sq m building which has luxury housing options as well as retail spots. It is expected to be completed in 2016.PHOTO: ALI BEKMAN PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, LUXIGON
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX,
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX, is one of the five finalists for a Kuala Lumpur project. It comprises a 380m-tall, 80-storey structure made up of offices and amenities such as restaurants as well as prayer halls, and has a retractable sunshade around the building. The Yongsan International Business District Project R6 (right) in Seoul, South Korea, is a 115,500 sq m building which has luxury housing options as well as retail spots. It is expected to be completed in 2016.PHOTO: ALI BEKMAN PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, LUXIGON
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX,
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX, is one of the five finalists for a Kuala Lumpur project. It comprises a 380m-tall, 80-storey structure made up of offices and amenities such as restaurants as well as prayer halls, and has a retractable sunshade around the building. The Yongsan International Business District Project R6 (right) in Seoul, South Korea, is a 115,500 sq m building which has luxury housing options as well as retail spots. It is expected to be completed in 2016.PHOTO: ALI BEKMAN PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, LUXIGON
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX,
Istanbul's Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center (above) was formed out of an abandoned shell of an unfinished hotel project and was completed in 2010. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus (above) in Singapore recently. Equator Tower by his firm, REX, is one of the five finalists for a Kuala Lumpur project. It comprises a 380m-tall, 80-storey structure made up of offices and amenities such as restaurants as well as prayer halls, and has a retractable sunshade around the building. The Yongsan International Business District Project R6 (right) in Seoul, South Korea, is a 115,500 sq m building which has luxury housing options as well as retail spots. It is expected to be completed in 2016.PHOTO: ALI BEKMAN PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN, LUXIGON

He started out at the star architect's firm but Joshua Prince-Ramus is now calling his own shots

It has been eight years since New York-based architect Joshua Prince- Ramus cut the apron strings from his mentor Rem Koolhaas, but he has never quite shaken off the association with the Dutch starchitect.

After working in Mr Koolhaas' OMA studio for 10 years since 1996, during which he helped set up the New York arm of the Rotterdam firm, Mr Prince-Ramus thought it was time to strike out on his own. He founded REX in the Big Apple with Mr Erez Ella, another OMA alumnus, in 2006.

Given Mr Prince-Ramus' protege status under Mr Koolhaas, their split then shocked the architecture fraternity.

To add fuel to fire, Mr Prince-Ramus also bought out Mr Koolhaas' share of the New York arm, kept the 35-member team and renamed the office REX.

But Mr Prince-Ramus, 44, who was in town for a Calvin Klein event last week, laughs off any suggestion of sour ties between them. While they hardly meet these days, he says they mostly bump into each other when they fly the same New York-Paris route.

"I think a lot of people want to claim that we're in an Oedipal kind of relationship, where you've got to kill your father," he adds.

"We're focused on what we're each doing. Rem's not looking backwards and we're not looking backwards. He's such an important and mercurial figure that people want to believe there's controversy.

"I owe him an enormous debt because he gave me opportunities that were unreal and taught me that anything is possible. But we're doing our own thing now."

With REX, Mr Prince-Ramus has gained recognition for his adventurous, forward- thinking work. He has snagged big projects such as the Vakko Fashion Center and Power Media Center in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Yongsan International Business District Project R6 in Seoul in South Korea.

But the Koolhaas connection still dogs him. And much like the other "Koolhaas kids" - as the media has dubbed the handful of young upstarts to emerge from the OMA studio - Mr Prince-Ramus is cool about the constant reminder of his start.

In January, The Wall Street Journal featured a line-up of seven of Mr Koolhaas' star proteges, including Lebanese-born architect Amale Andraos, who started Work Architecture Company with her husband Dan Wood, who also worked at OMA; and German-born Ole Scheeren, who designed DUO, a twin-tower project here in Beach Road, among other notable projects.

Mr Prince-Ramus says: "As a group, we were a little hesitant to do the interview. Would it perpetuate the notion that we would never be able to cut the umbilical cord from Rem?

"But we realised it didn't really matter. It's certainly not keeping us from getting amazing commissions and developing our own voices. The reality is, as a group, we debated things in an amazing way and we still do. And we owe that to Rem because he put us together. We're still debating. We're just not in his office any more."

While the 69-year-old Koolhaas might have kickstarted his career, Mr Prince- Ramus is holding his own. The accolades, which come fast and furious, are an indication of his star power.

Esquire magazine dubbed him "the young saviour of American architecture" in 2008. Three years later, Huffington Post named him one of "Five Greatest Architects Under 50", while well-respected interiors magazine Wallpaper* described him as one of the world's most influential young architects.

The praise by the media means "nothing", he says. The architect behind much lauded projects such as the Seattle Public Library and the Wyly Theater in Dallas says: "If you worry about things like that, you will fail. There's great satisfaction when you open a building and the client says, 'Damn, it works and it's more than everything we hoped for'.

"I wouldn't trade that for a great review in a journal. The building will speak for itself over time."

To stir discussion in his studio, Mr Prince-Ramus runs his office on the Socratic method. Using the well-known teaching method named after the Greek philosopher, he encourages his employees to tear down one another's proposals and debate - often hotly - about the pros and cons of everyone's ideas.

The single father of an eight-year-old daughter, who graduated from Yale University in 1991 with a distinction in philosophy, says: "The method is an intellectual attack. When people first get introduced to our office, they freak out. There're a lot of tears. As designers, we're taught that when you make something, it's you. So if your ideas get attacked, some think it's personal.

"In our office, you should cry when you bring an idea to the table and don't incite any reaction. Designers don't really understand that a bad reaction can be as good as a positive reaction because you learn not only what works, but also what doesn't."

While he has attempted to push the firm forward as a team, it is he who often gets the bulk of attention. So being in the limelight is something he has learnt to adapt to.

Musing, he says: "Over time, I've to admit, any enterprise needs an advocate. It's never going to be a pure democracy... But it doesn't mean a collaborative process can't be nurtured.

"Any group still needs a leader. I'm not sure I would have recognised that or even been aware of that five years ago."

He is trying to effect change in the way architects, as an industry, design too.

In a 2009 TED talk - the online lecture series comprises videos from speakers around the world - he called his peers "smart cowards".

Five years on, he says nothing has changed. Architects are still "abdicating liability" for their work. He explains:

"Architects are letting go of control of design. Often, they are brought in just to pretty up the concept. But architecture, with clever design, can actually solve problems such as financing and social issues. It would be a pity if all we were doing is creating experiences with our buildings."

As REX continues to grow, Mr Prince- Ramus does not rule out bidding for a project in Singapore in the future.

You ask if it means becoming just another architectural coup in a city decorated with - and dominated by - big names such as Iraqi-British Zaha Hadid and American-Polish Daniel Libeskind.

Mr Prince-Ramus, who was last in Singapore in 2000, says it has changed so much since thenthat he almost did not recognise it. But he likes the updated look.

"There's always the danger of creating an architectural zoo, with all the pretty animals. But Singapore isn't there.

"It doesn't mean you can't have tonnes of exceptional architecture. It just has to be planned in a way where it doesn't look like you're trying to pick one of everything.

"A zoo won't be great."

natashaz@sph.com.sg

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