In an interview with The Guardian to coincide with the exhibition, Rem Koolhaas was asked how OMA had managed to maintain its critical position over the years. To which he answered: 'I am a criticism machine myself, and it is largely addressed at the office and myself.' The use of clever paradoxes is a feature of Koolhaas and his work. Here we have the apparent contrast of a critical attitude linked to a machine, an object that does not reflect but, rather, performs functions automatically. The image that has arisen over the years is that criticism is second nature to OMA, and that the office succeeds in combining theory with practice. But is that really the case? In an interview with Architecture Today, ex-OMA employee Philipp Oswalt recalled: 'Arriving in Rotterdam, however, I quickly found that I had been mistaken. Theory and discourse didn’t take place in the office; it was all about production.' Criticism, machine, production? What is OMA about exactly?
The title of the exhibition OMA/Progress offers a clue. The architecture of OMA is presented as ‘work in progress’, a process in which change is the only constant. Beyond that, the intention, according to Koolhaas, was to avoid turning this into a traditional retrospective, presumably because that would suggest a lifeless show lacking all creativity.
ROTOR, a young collective of architects and artists from Belgium, was brought on board to organise the exhibition and adopt the role of open-minded outsider. OMA first became familiar with the work of ROTOR at the Venice architecture biennale last year, where its contribution consisted of filling the walls of the Belgian pavilion with used table tops, amongst other items. The idea was that OMA would surrender itself totally to ROTOR during the preparations, offering full access to its server and even financial details. In reality, however, it meant that ROTOR moved in with OMA. After visiting all branches of OMA, ROTOR set to work like ‘embedded journalists’, so to speak. The question then, of course, is whether there was really sufficient critical distance between ROTOR and OMA, and how the curatorial task was performed. During a lecture ROTOR admitted that in the end it adopted the OMA work method, namely presenting concepts in the form of models.
As is often the case when confronted by the work of OMA, I can describe my visit to the exhibition as a pleasant afternoon sprinkled with elements of sublime irritation. The result of the collaboration is usually a success but occasionally a disappointment. Let me start with the good news. The dark exhibition space in the Barbican Centre is a tough nut to crack, but the ingenious introduction of a public street resulted in a ‘route architecturale’ with different atmospheres. The route starts with the Project Machine, something akin to a shower curtain appended to which are chronological descriptions of OMA projects from the late 1970s to today. Then comes the shop and the Research Room, where visitors can watch videos of the work of OMA and leaf through its many publications. After you’ve paid for your ticket you are guided through a number of thematically arranged cabinets.
This thematic arrangement makes for a playful confrontation between work from different periods of OMA and thus achieves the intended result: illuminating both the interests and obsessions of OMA, as well as the production process. Visitors are encouraged to think about the ‘dirty reality’ within which buildings are realised. The big disadvantage of this approach is that the quality of the exhibited items varies from nondescript rubbish to magical masterworks and everything in between. I for one have no interest whatsoever in a lump of clay or plaster from the model archive, a chair that can sink into the ground, or OMA’s irresponsible obsession with Zebra wood, which is threatened with extinction. Instead of the apparent playful randomness, a much more rigorous selection should have taken place. For me the pleasure lay in the many wonderful models, a sublime early silk-screen print of the building on De Boompjes, and one of the other inspiring objects that embody a world full of ideas.
In its exhibition design ROTOR presents the work of OMA as though it were found objects, giving visitors the feeling they are ‘zapping’ their way through forty years of production. They make use of shabby looking recycled materials, standard office tables transformed into pedestals for presenting models, and captions fixed to them with glue or staples. Irony, exaggeration and contrast are of course always deployed by OMA as critical tools but, without any message or reflection, ROTOR has made life just that little bit too easy for itself. At best you could call it ‘droll’, but a more critical and analytical framework to the retrospective would have been preferable. That impression was only confirmed on the evening that ROTOR presented itself in embarrassingly bungling fashion. While everyone in the audience was interested in finding out how the exhibition had been put together and what the underlying idea was, we were treated to a parade of earlier work by ROTOR. Scarcely a word about the design of OMA/Progress.
The exhibition could have been sharper if OMA had found an equal partner to play the role of curator. To hold a mirror up to the ‘critical machine’ you need to counter its paradoxes, you need to distinguish ‘spin’ from content. As I noted earlier, there’s a difference between the image that OMA presents to the world outside, and what the office actually is. The OMA of the 1980s in which the slogan ‘No budget, no detail’ was provocatively held up to clients with insufficient funding has made way for an internationally operating organisation with a portfolio of prominent clients. The most recent buildings by OMA are formally varied and exceptional achievements in the technical, structural and architectural sense. The office is now in a position in which voicing criticism is not always possible or easy. It would be to OMA’s credit if the office would come clean and admit that without fuss. The forced avoidance of the concept of the retrospective and absence of any story line deprives us of any glimpse into the future. The question where OMA wants to go, therefore, still hangs above the exhibition like the sword of Damocles.
But please do not let my criticism prevent you from visiting the exhibition. And that, dear readers, is a paradox.