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Architect Rem Koolhaas contemplates the future of cities - and the countryside

Architect Rem Koolhaas
Architect Rem Koolhaas 06:30

The star-studded opening at New York's Guggenheim Museum in February was a glitzy kickoff for a thought-provoking exhibition, one with a few twists.  It's a show at an art museum, with virtually no art, its subject – the countryside – being presented in the middle of a city.  Add to that, the man behind all this is not famous for designing exhibitions, but rather for buildings which define skylines.  

Just before the opening, as the final touches were being added, its designer, famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, showed "Sunday Morning" around. "You're just a nervous wreck because you want kind of things to work," he said.

His highly-anticipated show is aimed at bringing focus to life outside cities, which make up just two percent of the Earth's surface. The topics range from changing economies to climate. "We have kind of really neglected to look at the countryside and to understand the enormous changes that are taking place there," Koolhaas said.

A view of "Countryside: The Future," a Rem Koolhaas installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. CBS News

Correspondent Seth Doane first met Koolhaas in the Netherlands, at the headquarters of his firm, OMA, where he explained why, these days, he isn't thinking much about the urban landscapes that have dominated much of his career:

Koolhaas said, "The next phase of architecture will not be about building more skyscrapers or more apartment blocks or more museums, but that it will really be how do we kind of relate to an enormous amount of machinery?"

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.  CBS News

Koolhaas is fascinated by giant factories and distribution centers, in particular those in the Nevada desert – vast expanses where human workers are dwarfed by robots and machines.

Doane asked, "Rem Koolhaas is now thinking about the Walmart distribution facility?"

"Yes," he replied. "And particularly, what happens if there is a kind of Walmart next to an Amazon next to Apple next to Tesla next to Google next to, you know, what more can happen than simply an agglomeration of boxes?"

He rejects the label "starchitect," and thinks the notion of a "celebrity architect" contradicts the profession: "What inspires me is the need of others," he said. "An architect is a kind of very strange profession because you have an ability, but to be triggered, you need an impulse from another person or another party. We are waiting for a phone call."

Still, he's not exactly "waiting by the phone" at this stage of his career. When he received architecture's top honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2000, the committee noted Koolhaas "seems so in tune with the future." He certainly put a futuristic mark on Beijing's skyline with his CCTV Tower, home to China's central television.

Rem Koolhaas' CCTV headquarters building in Beijing. OMA

But for all the dazzle of his work, Koolhaas is content in his humble hometown of Rotterdam, which was destroyed in World War II and colorfully rebuilt.

He said, "We live in a kind of remarkable, attention-free environment."

"The people around here don't care that you are who you are, that you've done what you've done?" Doane asked.

"No. Absolutely not."

"And that helps your business?"

"Well, maybe not my business, but it helps me!"

The unassuming Koolhaas doesn't need to brag to stand out; his buildings do that for him. In the case of one on the Rotterdam waterfront, he knew many would see it from a passing car. ("The bridge was a given," he said.) So, Koolhaas designed it with that in mind. The structure appears to change shape as you drive by.

De Rotterdam, three mixed-used towers on the Rotterdam waterfront.  CBS News

The building sits between projects by two fellow design titans, Italian Renzo Piano and Brit Norman Foster, creating a showcase of modern architecture on this inlet of the Rhine River. 

Koolhaas said of the building, "It becomes an adult; as soon as I'm finished, it's no longer me, but it's the public domain."

"It becomes an adult?" asked Doane. "Like, it's your baby as you're designing it?"

"Yeah, exactly. And then I need to disconnect."

And one way he disconnects is by shifting his focus. "I find it really incredibly important to learn from fashion," he said.

He's designed stores for fashion giant Prada (in New York and Beverly Hills), and a museum for the Prada Foundation in Milan.

"The movement between different fields is really crucial, nourishing," he said.

Rem Koolhaas designs for a Prada store, and the setting for a fashion show. OMA

Koolhaas says, unlike architecture, which he says can be a painfully slow art, settings for fashion shows gives him instant gratification. 

At his headquarters in Rotterdam, he's created an in-house think tank which includes Harvard students who come to study questions he seems to constantly have in mind: what's next? What's ahead? One student told Doane, "It's very exciting. At first there was a sort of star power, but then Rem is very down-to-earth."

Correspondent Seth Doane with Rem Koolhaas at the architect's Rotterdam offices.  CBS News

Now, at the Guggenheim Museum, the 75-year-old Koolhaas is posing questions to visitors, too, said curator Troy Conrad Therrien: "He has been at the forefront of thinking about cities for 50 years, so he knows how to look at things, turn them upside-down and see in a way that nobody else can see them. And now he's doing that for a totally different territory."

So, it's no surprise that as he considers the future, Rem Koolhaas, master of the modern city, finds himself looking back beyond the skyline toward the countryside.

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Story produced by Jon Carras. 

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