Unashamed curiosity compelled me to pay £20 for a ticket to attend what was billed as the OMA Show & Tell: XL Architecture Night, a joint appearance by all OMA partners in which they spoke in public about the organisation. Who, besides Koolhaas, are the others? Apart from the odd appearance in which one of the partners presents a particular project or talks about cultural entrepreneurship, they are invisible to the world outside, unless they quit after a row. Koolhaas is the one who gives the inspiring lectures that fuel thinking and provoke debate. OMA is Koolhaas, I thought. ‘It's a very difficult job, and the only way to get through it is if we all work together as a team. And that means you do everything I say’, to paraphrase Charlie Croker/Michael Caine. Would this evening change that impression?
This ‘rare opportunity to discover what makes OMA the force that it is’ amounted to an entertaining evening that offered the audience a number of enjoyable though not earth-shattering glimpses into the organisation.
Seated on the podium were Rem Koolhaas, Victor van der Chijs, Reinier de Graaf, Ellen van Loon, Shohei Shigematsu and David Gianotten (partner number seven Iyad Alsaka was unable to attend). The line-up underlined just how Dutch OMA is: five of the seven partners. The conversation was hosted by Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern and an acquaintance of Koolhaas. In the early 1990s he was a very frequent visitor to the office in Rotterdam and compared the organisation during that period to a pop group, a flat organisation. What makes OMA so exceptional, according to him, is that they pose the question: what should an architect do? What the history of successful bands teaches us is that they outgrow their garage ( OMA currently has four offices in different parts of the world and some 300 employees), performances cost a fortune, and band members sip coffee with world leaders. Or as Reinier de Graaf (AMO, Europe and Russia) described it: now and then he experiences a Forrest Gump moment.
Gropius or Frank Lloyd Wright?
Questioned about the organisation, Koolhaas said he modelled it on Andy Warhol’s Factory: participation on a voluntary basis, a different role for everybody, and a large measure of independence. That was a neat way of presenting the desired image, and so Dercon neglected to point out to Koolhaas that the Factory functioned as a meeting place, that people were not on employment contracts, and it was not presented as a collective, all of which is the case with OMA.
Questioned about which architecture office served as a model for OMA — ‘is it more Gropius or rather Frank Lloyd Wright?’ — Koolhaas answered Gropius. ‘He understood the potential of teamwork and modernity’. Van Loon (responsible for Casa da Musica in Porto and the new office for Rothschild in London): ‘Bauhaus represents the way in which the partnership functions at OMA. We are a process-driven office, not an office with a star architect who makes a sketch containing everything that is then elaborated by others’. Koolhaas: ‘We sketch concepts, not designs’. De Graaf: ‘The designs we work on have no authorship’.
Shigematsu, who has headed the New York office since 2006, admitted that the team concept sometimes proves frustrating when it is not picked up by outsiders. When for example the press mentions Koolhaas and not OMA as designer of a project that he, Shigematsu, has designed. ‘Nobody knows me’, and then added half jokingly that he had invited Bjarke Ingels (former OMA employee and now director of the successful BIG - ed.) as co-speaker for his forthcoming lecture at the Barbican because otherwise ‘the theatre will be so empty’.
Economy and artistic freedom
Victor van der Chijs, managing director of OMA since 2005, said he feels like a tightrope walker, balancing on a thin wire between economy and creativity, between long and short term, and between what OMA wants and the client wishes. Koolhaas: ‘My indifference to money has given me a lot of freedom, space for creativity’.
Van Loon: 'Because of the crisis we have gone back to the basis, to real architecture'. Asked by Dercon what real architecture is, Van Loon first offered an evasive answer: ‘That each project is a new assignment that you want to make the best of’. As the evening progressed it became clearer what real architecture was according to Van Loon when she observed that there is currently more attention within OMA for making and less for research.
When Dercon asked if there could be an OMA after Koolhaas, Shigematsu laughed as he answered that he was constantly thinking about that issue before he referred the question to Koolhaas. ‘Is OMA Dutch, or is it something you try to overcome?’. Examples of Dutchness he cited included the office culture of excessive candour and the lack of hypocrisy. Koolhaas: ‘We’re trying to overcome the Dutchness; it’s my ambition to have more non-Dutch partners’. De Graaf noted with candid humour: ‘Hypocrisy gives you space between what you think and what you say. That is fantastic. My lengthy stay in London allowed me to discover that’.
An image appeared with the portraits of Luther, Erasmus and Spinoza. Dercon asked Koolhaas which of them he most identified with. Koolhaas fumbled for a bit and tried to dodge the question. De Graaf helped him a little: ‘Calvin’.
How big can the difference be between how you see yourself, how you wish others to see you, and how others see you? Many people have attempted to define the OMA phenomenon in talks, articles and books, and to describe the power that makes the office so influential. The partners at OMA put it down to teamwork; that was the message they wanted to get across to the audience and what the partners had rehearsed earlier in the day. But what forges the team into a single entity? The most obvious and plausible answer is: Koolhaas. Not good according to OMA. What the right answer is we were not told. The stories from the partners didn’t offer a convincing impression that they were working as a team at present. Will they do just that in a post-Koolhaas OMA? Are they capable of doing that?
'Have you heard anything from or about your partners that you didn’t know already?’, Dercon asked Koolhaas at the end. Koolhaas hesitated as he searched for a diplomatic answer. ‘May I come back to that another time?’ But the people who had listened to the conversation between the OMA partners already knew the answer: no surprises for Koolhaas. Maybe Koolhaas is more like Charlie Croker than OMA would like him to be.
17 November 2011