25 years of Oase

Architecture journal Oase celebrated its 25th birthday with a special issue entitled 25 Years of Critical Reflection on Architecture and a debate of the same name on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in the NAi lecture theatre.

In the debate that followed Colomina’s lecture the editors, past and present, seemed divided on the question of where to go from here. The original motivation that prompted the launch of Oase 25 years ago is less urgent today. Every self-respecting university research unit now issues its own periodical. After all, the finance and publicity benefits that come with ‘academic’ publications are obvious, and then there are the websites and blogs too.

Should Oase set the agenda, as Grafe wishes? Should it become an e-zine? Should it publish in English only? Former editor Dirk van den Heuvel sighed that Oase had grown up; he even uttered the word ‘old’. And although the editors include some students as well as doctoral candidates and staff members, Van den Heuvel thought that students should start their own Oase.

Maarten Delbeke (University of Gent) argued that Oase was suffering from a midlife crisis. People suffer from a loss of memory in architecture, since the same subjects crop up every ten years, as is the case with Oase too. Delbeke's was proven right at the end of the afternoon with the presentation of the latest issue of Oase devoted to context, a truly 1990s subject.

The jubilee issue, Oase #75: 25 Years of Critical Reflection on Architecture is an extra thick publication (320 pages) exclusively in English. It features 15 articles from the past 25 years that offer an overview of the type of subjects that have made Oase what it is and, in the process, an overview of the academic discourse of the period. Moreover, many articles appear for the first time in English. For long-time subscribers there’s much more in it than lots of those ‘Oh, yes!’ moments.

The articles, which together form something of an Oase Top 15, are introduced by former editors and discussed in relation to the debates and research themes of their time. From the article on plan analysis by Miel Karthaus in the first issue of O to ‘On Domains’ by Kristiaan Borret in Oase 54. Included are some gems like Joost Meuwissen’s ‘Aldo in Wonderland’,  Jurjen Zeinstra’s  ‘Houses of the Future’ and a discussion between Meuwissen and Carel Weeber on architectural education. All of them are still highly readable pieces.

Just as enjoyable are the four essays that deal with different, definable periods in the Oase history. Each author does that differently. Alexander Tzonis (1981-84 period) offers a very personal ‘witness account’ of his arrival in Delft and the discussions he discovered there. It’s all the more personal given that he doesn’t mention his former history colleague Stanislaus Von Moos. Bernard Colenbrander takes another approach. He describes the period 1985-1989 much more as a history of architecture, debate and ideas in which the link with Oase isn’t always too clear, but the volume of information is all the greater as a result. As in every issue of Oase there’s one article that the average reader can’t make head nor tail of. Exactly what Gerard van Zeijl – who covers the 1990-1996 period in reference to the otherwise excellent design by Karel Martens – wants to say is anyone’s guess. His Eisenmannian title O, Oase, Oh is, for that matter, very 1990s. Finally, Maarten Delbeke discusses the most recent period in which Oase went bilingual and increasingly connected with international, academic subjects.

Looking back, we can ask whether Oase really ever was setting the agenda. For the periodical often responds too slowly to developments. The power of many of the articles gathered in this special issue lies precisely in their objectivity and even their sense of timelessness. Christoph Grafe’s wish to set the agenda is therefore somewhat odd. It is precisely that sluggishness, mixed with a certain academic objectivity, that is the strength of Oase. Perhaps not as exciting, and it will be increasingly difficult to appeal to a young audience and young editors, but that is Oase, and we’ll have to live with that for the next 25 years.

The party invitation stated that the afternoon would examine the potential influence of architecture journals on the architecture debate and climate. It would look for answers to questions about the relation between developments in practice and periodicals, and to the potential mutual influence between reflection, research, criticism and practice. Heavy topics, at first glance. But appearances can be deceiving – just like Oase itself, which often looks hermetic in terms of theme, design and article titles but, upon closer inspection, turns out to be quite accessible.

The main attraction of the party was Beatriz Colomina with her lecture Clip/Stamp/Fold, the radical architecture of little magazines 196X-197X. Together with her doctoral students at the faculty of architecture at Princeton University, she compiled an exhibition about independent architecture periodicals produced in university backrooms and on kitchen tables in the 1960s and 1970s.

In a cheerful presentation full of nostalgic pictures and amusing quotes, Colomina spoke about the rise and fall of many so-called little magazines. What these mags had in common was, in the first place, the fact that they were published out of discontentment with the fact that people couldn’t get their ideas and research published in existing magazines. So the obvious thing to do was start your own magazine. Sometimes it never got beyond the first, second or third issue – think of Archigram of Oppositions. Some, like Oase, gradually joined the ranks of established periodicals over time, but more on that later. The little magazines were, for that mater, not an invention of the 1960s, Colomina told her audience. In 1919 Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant started the magazine L'esprit Nouveau in which they publicised their ideas about art and architecture, Mies van der Rohe was involved in G-magazine to publish his ideas about architecture, and Wijdeveld published the first issue of Wendingen in 1918.

The little magazines made in the 1960s and 70s were also used to promote particular ideas on architecture. The fact that respected architecture magazines like l'Architecture Aujourd'hui, Casabella, Domus and AD began to copy the design and themes – they were often about everything besides hardcore architecture – proves just how well these ideas caught on.

Oase, too, started life 25 years ago as a little magazine. Unhappy with the quality of education at the architecture faculty in Delft, a number of students decided to conduct independent research and publish about those subjects that interested them at the time. It started with the name O Ontwerp, Onderzoek en Onderwijs but changed after ten issues to Oase. In a number of ways Oase is still unique today: it has no editor in chief, the editors claim it doesn’t have any editorial policy as such, and the themes handled are based simply on an editor’s personal fascination.

An issue of Oase often takes somewhere between 18 months and two years to make. Accordingly, Oase doesn’t follow the fashions of the moment but, rather, can observe them with a certain distance, according to editor Christoph Grafe in his foreword. The good thing about this slowness is that an issue of Oase is timeless; often it ends up unread on the bookshelf, only to be picked up many years later for that one interesting, relevant article. The downside of this sluggishness is that the periodical lacks all sense of urgency and actuality. So can one still speak of critical reflection?