As part of ‘The Persistence of Questioning’, Archined asked various experts how they think architecture should now develop. Saskia van Stein (curator, moderator and director of IABR) and Reinier de Graaf (architect and partner at OMA) discuss developments in the profession through the lens of De Graaf’s eventful career at OMA. Architects often fail to sufficiently realize that they are caught up in economic and social forces. In a globalized world, can designers escape the complexities and perverse mechanisms of the market, power and politics?
As an architect, urbanist, OMA partner, thinker, curator, educator and writer, De Graaf is an active and usually provocative contributor to architectural discourse, as illustrated by his two recent publications: Four Walls and a Roof (2017) and The Masterplan (2021).
Saskia van Stein: Let’s go back to the 1990s. Under the policies of the Lubbers III and Kok I cabinets in the Netherlands, social services as well as social property were being privatized and subjected to the neoliberal market economy. The excuse given was that it would improve government finances. Yet 1991 also saw the publication of Space for Architecture. This policy document presented the government’s integral vision on the relevance of architecture. This was around the time you graduated and entered the field of practice. What architectural climate did you encounter and how do you look back on it now?
Reinier de Graaf: To start with, the 1990s wasn’t one single period. After graduating from the Berlage Institute in 1992, I won, together with Don Murphy, the Europan 3 competition for a site in Den Bosch. That seemed to be an excellent opportunity to start my own office, which didn’t work out unfortunately. Unemployment was high among architects at the time. After writing a hundred application letters and receiving as many rejections, I heard there was work at OMA, but that it would mean the end of any private life. After being insulted for a full twenty minutes, they hired me. We were working with about 35 people at Heer Bokelweg in Rotterdam. The financial situation at the office was fragile. After almost going bankrupt in 1995, everything was done on credit. Then we were taken over by an engineering firm called De Weger, which was in turn bought by Haskoning. These firms hadn’t a clue what they’d gotten into with us. And partly because of that, we developed a curious sort of freedom.
In the second half of the 1990s, OMA was mostly active in the United States, and the office made a transition to the market economy. We got paid in dollars, which we converted into guilders at favourable rates. Our fortunes improved, enabling us to buy ourselves out. We also made a transition to partnerships with a number of individuals who’d been at the office from the start. If you look at the OMA portfolio from the 1980s and early 1990s, you see that public commissions accounted for 80% and private commissions 20%. Over time, those figures reversed, and the focus came to lie on private clients.
SvS: What do we see when we look at that period through the lens of today? To me, society at the time had a deep appreciation of architecture. A generation of Dutch architecture firms was grouped under the label ‘SuperDutch’. It enjoyed national and international fame and stature for its conceptual designs, its optimism and its faith in feasibility, as expressed through architecture. If you were to take the temperature of Dutch architecture today, what would you read on the thermometer?
RdG: The world has changed of course – that’s unavoidable. But trying to keep up with the times can be counterproductive. I think that time does works linearly; it’s often curiously cyclical. In the 1990s we could do nothing wrong – the sky was the limit. But now we find ourselves in a period in which earlier success has almost become a source of suspicion, some kind of implicit guilt, though that probably comes with a generational change.
In my opinion we should count our blessings in Dutch architecture. Our profession is not generous or inclusive. Architects are always trying to outdo one another. As soon as one style comes in for criticism, another senses a fantastic opportunity. Architects rarely realize that they are trapped in the same boat. But if you zoom out and look at the social forces and the motives of clients, then a different world appears. No matter whether you design modern, post-modern, pre-modern or whatever, we’re all part of the same form of manipulation, the same form of conservative forces. People don’t realize that enough because of a peculiar form of hubris.
SvS: Let’s jump to the early twenty-first century: the emergence of AMO (OMA written backwards). You could argue that technology, just like ideology, has abandoned us. The 9/11 attacks, the image of the Twin Towers collapsing, and a year earlier the crashing of Concorde, that ultimate symbol of acceleration and progress. There was a growing awareness that the West was no longer the undisputed frontrunner and world leader. That became clear when the United States undermined its position by adopting military methods to implement democracy in other countries, as a way to safeguard its own economic interests. That was around the time that AMO emerged as the research and publications division of OMA. Why did you choose for this distinction between design and research?
RdG: AMO is actually a product of the 1990s, which acquired a more public profile in 2002. A part of OMA, and precursor to AMO, was the Großstadt Foundation, with which we acquired funding. The construction with Großstadt enabled us to carry out work that clients did not commission, but that we as an office still felt was important — everything influenced by globalization and the transition to a market economy. Issues such as design research and the analysis of social trends gave our work an academic, intellectual and cultural dimension. AMO arose in part because the influence of the government began to seriously decline at the time. More and more services and organizations were privatized, and cutbacks reduced countless cultural subsidies. We shifted from state patronage to a sort of private patronage. AMO was a vehicle to continue that intellectual dimension of the company, albeit within a different context. Architects by nature think associatively, three-dimensionally and not always linearly. It was also a commercial wing; it earned money to carry out research that expanded the commission. For instance, we used the design of the Prada store in New York to study the multiple use of space as a knock-on effect of the 24/7 economy. We translated a commission for Schiphol into a study of the future of area development and various forms of mobility. An increasing number of clients turned out to be interested in various issues that arose around commissions, for which buildings were not necessarily the best solution. In short, the ‘birth’ of AMO coincided with a period of huge change and a higher turnover rate, with major clients increasingly coming to us for non-linear strategies. We worked globally, so we had lots of international references for comparable problems. So when we formally registered AMO as a limited company in the Netherlands, this research division within the office already existed. AMO had its genesis in an awareness that if the world commercializes completely, you have to carve out space in which to think.
SvS: That intellectual line in the office is maybe also about storytelling, a form of immaterial production of content. Can you say something about the interplay between the building and the research into the surrounding world, and how that context can be analysed? That condition intrigues me.
RdG: Me less so, because does that type of research result in totally different buildings to those you would design without conducting any research? That’s true to a certain extent only. For me personally, the most interesting projects are precisely those projects that have absolutely nothing to do with buildings. For example, the EU study, a product of which was the alternative flag for Europe, and the circus tent we erected on Place Schumann in Brussels, in front of the headquarters of the European Commission and the headquarters of the Council of Ministers.
The clients, the European Commission, originally approached us with a different question. It had set up a think-tank to consider the possible symbolic implications of the EU for a city such as Brussels, given the fact that it’s the capital not only of a country and a region but also a transnational political system. People came to OMA/AMO to investigate the urban dimension. In the end we pointed out to them that it wasn’t the symbolic implication for Brussels that needed to be studied but the way in which the transnational political system itself was represented. That transnational political system suffered from what we termed an iconographic deficit. This assertion afforded us an opportunity to design flags and symbols with complete freedom, and in fact to come up with a design for the whole political arena. The flag was front-page news: ‘New symbol of Europe: approval pending’. Totally fake news, but there was no stopping it. The European Commission could do nothing but become embroiled in the ensuing storm. To me that demonstrates the great power of design. An architect has to operate in many different fields where people are not accustomed to applying design.
Design has two definitions in English: To give material shape to something and To make a plan of action. So it’s important both to shape material and to deploy architecture as a purely conceptual medium. The most fascinating projects emerge in this combination of object and strategy.
SvS: From broadening the scope of the commission to building on another continent. The design competition for the Twin Towers memorial in New York almost coincided with the design assignment for the CCTV tower in Beijing. Why did you go for the CCTV? And how do you make such a choice?
RdG: I didn’t draw a single line for the CCTV tower, but it’s a project I get asked about to this day. Although many of the choices made within the office are the result of a series of coincidences and split second decisions, which can be interpreted retrospectively as brilliantly timed actions, the decision to take part in the CCTV competition was not all down to chance. We’d been working for quite some time in the US. When George Bush Jr. was elected president, the country started to move in a direction that we disliked. That prompted us to consider China and design the CCTV. But we were also driven by curiosity for another continent. We suspected that the whole issue of the Twin Towers would turn into an endless talk show dominated by American smugness. Our timing was largely born out of a big succession of possibilities that we gladly embraced. Precisely because we often take a leap into the dark, into uncharted waters, we create a sort of intensive, high-tempo, lived reality, a form of acceleration that yields insights. That curiosity and optimism win out, because architecture is a profession that condemns you to optimism.
Architecture confronts you in an extreme way with reality. You couldn’t practice this profession without optimism and a certain form of naiveness, and that’s true at every scale. The more you do, the more you discover that there are no good or bad professions. Nor are there any good or bad countries, at least not in the sense that the media would have us believe. Every image has been artificially created by the media. Much of our thinking and conditioning turns out to be different in reality. Architecture is just the tip of the iceberg. You can have nothing to do with it, but I’m curious about that complexity and the perverse mechanisms of those types of things. Every project is a neck and neck race between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ intentions. Your moral obligation as an architect is to make that assessment to the best of your ability and to be sincere in doing it. Things can of course turn out differently to how you imagined or anticipated. The Chinese state, and the state media, did not develop as we thought they would when he decided to make that building. The US also developed in way we hadn’t anticipated. You always run that risk. If you take part and make money through the knowledge economy, then you’re scarcely in a position to really make a totally unconditional decision. At OMA we’ve never had a policy of only working for ‘that particular client’ or in ‘that particular place’ because the rest of the world is too murky. Even so, political considerations do play a role in accepting or declining commissions. Where to work and where not to, and at what moment and under what conditions? We always look and decide when the moment arises. If a project to make Orban appear more respectable presented itself, I would turn it down now.
SvS: In 2008 the Western world was hit badly by a financial recession, symbolized by the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers investment bank. Our profession was also hit badly, with lots of layoffs, high unemployment among designers, offices that went bust, and a huge increase in the number of self-employed architects. How did you experience that upheaval? And what are the effects of that period today?
RdG: We’ve undergone an evolution recently that has led to increasing accountability; everything has to be quantifiable. We’ve started to use checklists, though you can never distil a good building from them. Moreover, to me a checklist is an excuse to really think or design something. I increasingly come across juries without a single architect. Instead, they consist of accountants and financial advisors. That hardly leads to better projects. Usually the opposite.
One of the great things about architecture is that it knows how to deal with the unmeasurable, with the unpredictable. It’s a profession that feels at ease when it comes to making a leap of faith, in a society obsessed by risk analysis. For instance, the young offices that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s could start with a limited professional liability insurance. They received a bank loan and could take part in tenders for big buildings. That’s not possible any more. For European contracts you have to have done something five times already or else you’re not eligible. You have to have a big bank balance so that, if legal action is taken against you, you have the resources to pay. Insurance premiums are exorbitant. All of this keeps many architecture offices small. Being activist, or working on small commissions, is now sold as a form of ideology against the evils of big money. I see it more as a necessity, comparable to the situation that prevents young people from buying a home today, or even from renting one. We should realize that many of the changes in architectural culture that are now presented as conscious choices are in fact a consequence of a reality dictated by the market economy and regulations.
During that period I chronicled my experiences in a diary that resulted in the book Four Walls and Roof: The Simple Nature of a Complex Profession. The publication documents experiences working on projects in the United Kingdom, Russia, the Middle East and one in Iraq. By the way, none of them were built. It was a period in which some strong forces, some turbulent troublemakers, thwarted those plans. The project in the United Kingdom: just before the Lehman Brothers crisis. The Iraq project: just before ISIS. The designs in Russia: just before Putin. Schemes in the Middle East: just before the collapse of the oil market. You can consider those projects as a form of failure, but they also taught us a lot. Those projects reveal much about the world in which we’re active.
SvS: Is this making failure productive the result of marketing or economizing? Or is it about something else?
RdG: When all sorts of large urban plans within our office were cancelled because of the financial crisis, I turned the question of failure in 2011 into something productive with an exhibition. The plans were not officially cancelled, but all put ‘on hold’. That was also the title of the exhibition, and it’s perhaps the best metaphor that the market economy has ever produced: a universe of permanent promise. It’s vital that those promises always remain promises, since that’s the force that keeps the whole show running.
For that matter, I also recognize the role of failing in teaching. Over the years I’ve noticed that teaching is something you really have to learn. We shouldn’t forget that the culture of teaching has changed. When I started teaching my attitude was fairly opportunistic. I saw students as extra staff. It was an operational exercise, similar to that at the office, an extension of the labour supply for current research. But I’ve come to understand that you have to thread carefully, because if you do that explicitly, you’ll disappoint both them and yourself. Now I try and adopt a more open attitude, a mixture of influences, an environment in which you learn that failing can also be interpreted as a form of progress. Education can then become a means of shaping your intentions, instead of a process of instrumentalizing or reproducing. But finding a good balance remains a challenge.
Teaching has also changed my understanding of knowledge. I was taught on the basis of the idea of specialization, and later I became multidisciplinary. That’s how I would describe my attitude today. I’m a complete omnivore: I like to read about architecture just as much as literature, or tabloid news. At present I’m particularly interested in the anti-disciplinary. The core value of an anti-discipline is the ability to escape from the normative criteria of the discipline. Anti-disciplinary thinking offers more freedom of movement, because collaboration occurs on condition that everybody comes out of their comfort zone. That brings you closer to genuinely meaningful decisions.
SvS: What, in your opinion, are the social trends that architects, especially younger ones, should engage with? What instruments do designers have at their disposal? And in what fields of influence do they operate?
RdG: One of the biggest problems of our time, apart from the issues of housing, climate and sustainability, is the loss of freedom. Democracy is under threat around the world and is giving way to an increasingly repressive reality. On the one hand that’s being driven by authoritarian male leaders, for their time is not nearly up. Now that their power is waning, they impose more tyranny on population groups. On the other hand the loss of freedom is caused by a sort of out-of-control political correctness, implemented more subtly, which finds expression in – unconscious – self-censorship.
A second aspect of concern is the current economic trend of bailing out private entities with public funds. This reveals a system error, which results in a hard division between the haves and the have-nots. Piketty shows that we have income from labour and from capital, but something is now going wrong in the relationship between the two. At present, architecture serves that repertoire – the huge profit margins of the market economy for those who earn money with real estate. I don’t think that we in architecture are capable of creating a different economic system, but I’m amazed at the extent to which architects are deaf and blind to this whole subject. We should at the very least be having a discussion about this.
SvS: Let’s close by taking about the world stage. China is on track to becoming the most influential power in the world as the global cards are reshuffled. In your novel The Masterplan you describe this aptly: “The construction site of Bilunga exemplified the perfect microcosm of globalization – Asians and Africans doing the actual work with Westerners passing judgement in the form of a running commentary.” How do you view those developments and why do they form the basis of your novel?
RdG: Rising economies, as we see in certain countries in Africa, need money for all sorts of investment. They then come knocking on the door of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or other Western agencies. Those bodies set a number of conditions before issuing a loan, covering issues such as transparency, democracy and anti-corruption. It’s a long list that actually presupposes an ideal situation, one that doesn’t exist at all. China does not impose any moral conditions when it issues a loan. It only sets conditions concerning how the money may be spent. For it wants the money borrowed to be spent on Chinese materials, transport and companies. In short, China loans the money exclusively on paper; it’s a sort of rapid barter in which capital and labour actually remain in China, circulate within China, and accumulate in value. Valuable natural resources such as oil, gold and diamonds are offered as security on the loans. Those resources move from Africa to China, and concrete panels and labourers move in the opposite direction. If the price of oil drops, something strange happens, because then the loan taken, just like that on a house, will incur debt. The security offered for the loan is no longer worth the loan. New agreements are then reached on the basis of the resulting inequality. A form of economic colonization results, on a continent that has only very recently decolonized. I studied that mechanism and wanted to write a book about it. Since so many macro-economic forces and political motives come together, I thought there couldn’t be anything better than a story where an innocent architect falls into the trap of that complexity.
This conversation took place in Rotterdam on May 28th, 2021.