Reinier de Graaf on ‘the creative tension between thinking and doing’

Reinier de Graaf, co-founder of OMA’s research arm AMO, discusses its investigations, the profession’s current interest in research and architecture’s cardinal sins, in an interview with Alex Brown.

Reinier de Graaf is a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and co-founder of the practice’s research arm, AMO. As an architect, an architectural and urban theorist, a writer and an educator, he regularly works well beyond a narrow definition of architectural practice. As evidenced most recently in his 2017 book Four Walls and a Roof: The complex nature of a simple profession , much of de Graaf’s writing is concerned with situating the architect and their work within a broader political and economic context.

Alex Brown interviewed de Graaf virtually, via a video call, in late February 2018. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Reinier de Graaf.

Reinier de Graaf.

Image: Adrienne Norman

Alex Brown: I want to start by asking you a little bit about a comment you made in a 2016 interview with Volume. 1 You began the discussion by expressing some uncertainty over whether the work you do within AMO really qualifies as research. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about this distinction?

Reinier de Graaf: I hesitate to call what we do research because, with research, traditionally you investigate a phenomenon and this leads to a conclusion. In many ways, our activity reverses that sequence. That’s not to say that we only investigate on the basis of foregone conclusions, but in most cases we start with a hunch developed through practice and from our own personal experience as architects.

We look into the missing links within a certain narrative. You might compare it to what fiction writers do, in that they investigate their characters and they draw up the plot summary to get from one chain in the story to the next, and that’s where they target their investigations. The research that we do is a vehicle that enables us to tell certain stories, certain narratives, and to have a certain discourse that is fairly consistent. But I have no other word for what we do, so let’s call it research for lack of a better word.

AB: In part, this distinction seems to come back to questions about the rigour or objectivity of the research method.

RdG: Yes. It’s also because, for an architect, everything you do has to be useful. It has to lead to matter, to form, so it’s very difficult to really look at things because there’s always the ulterior motive of the product. What we try to do is suspend that obligation or that immediacy – the haste of the rush and the superficiality of the obligation – for a while to get to the bottom of what we’re trying to address.

At the same time, we’re also attempting to look quite objectively at the position we have as architects. It’s something that I particularly address in my book. My work is my research subject: the value of the work and its position in the context of the world at large.

AB: This critical examination of the position of architects in relation to larger political and economic forces certainly emerges as an important theme in your writing. Within Four Walls and a Roof , for example, you articulate a series of persistent myths cultivated within architecture. How much of this is about generating productive discussions about the re-evaluation of what architects do and how we talk about it?

RdG: I don’t know about a productive discussion. In my book, I’m hoping to trigger an honest discussion. The book itself is an interesting hybrid. Half of the essays included were written earlier for various outlets and so I was perpetually looking for a structure that would allow the existing essays to be sequenced and structured in a meaningful way. From this the seven myths emerged. I like the number seven because it’s akin to the seven cardinal virtues in the Bible and how these are related to the seven cardinal sins.

The myths do the same thing, in a way. I talk about authority, inspiration, idealism, our professional control, our supposed independence, our fascination with scale and our unrelenting devotion to progress. Of course, by themselves, these are all very noble ambitions – the admirable ethos of a profession. But just like the cardinal virtues in the Bible – I’m not religious, by the way – it takes only a slight shift in circumstances for these virtues to become their counterpart, their sin. I think architecture is very much at the point where a lot of the things it tries to do, and which it wants to try to do for very good reasons, have actually become completely counterproductive.

For instance, building rationally: the ninety-degree angles, the absence of ornament, these are all ways to facilitate a more efficient, faster, cheaper form of construction. In a system where the state or the public sector presides over architecture, the cheapness of that architecture is directly applied to give people cheap housing – to give as many people as possible a home for an affordable price. In a market economy, though, building cheaply is not a way to supply as many people as possible with a good home; building cheaply is simply a means to maximize the profits of those who operate as property developers or private clients.

The same repertoire, the same formal language in architecture, can actually serve completely different and opposing purposes. This applies on a lot of fronts and very few architects are really aware of this shift. It’s one of the most nauseating aspects of architecture and it infects the current architectural elite.

Prada's women's fashion show, A/W 2015.

Prada’s women’s fashion show, A/W 2015.

Image: Agostino Osio, courtesy OMA and Prada

AB: In that respect, do you think that practices that tend to focus their research activities and interests more exclusively on construction and technology might risk missing this opportunity to look critically at the wider context for their work?

RdG: Well, I think it’s all good and fair but of course it’s very technologically focused and technology is essentially agnostic. When you don’t really investigate the power structure that architecture operates in, much of your research might be used for purposes with which you don’t necessarily agree.

AB: Is this how you thought about AMO at the time of its inception – as a way of peeling back or examining architecture in relation to larger contextual forces?

RdG: Looking back at it now, it was largely an attempt at coherence, which may sound strange. But if, in the context of the market economy and as an architect, on about 80 percent of your commissions you work for private interests, this means that you essentially have to build up a loyalty every time to a cause that is not your own – that of the private client who’s paying you. So AMO, as the investigative arm, was a way to create a type of labour in the office that aimed to escape that mechanism. At the same time, it allowed us to get paid for this work.

It was a vehicle that was in some respects faster and in others slower. Slower in the sense that it was a smaller entity that took its time to pick the subjects in which it was interested. Faster because, of course, a building takes five to ten years, whereas the results of these projects emerged much more quickly. Fundamentally, it was a vehicle that allowed us to retain a certain agenda.

AB: Something that can be really difficult within an architectural practice.

RdG: A lot of architecture tries to overcome its scattered loyalties by developing a kind of signature architecture. A stylistic coherence then takes the place of ideological coherence. Even if each building represents different interests, at least they all look the same. For example, Frank Gehry’s buildings all have the curves with the cracks, etc., but I see that as a symptom of a kind of intellectual vacuousness or ideological bankruptcy. The only coherence you’re left with is style. Style becomes a brand and brands are by definition a phenomenon of the market economy: an imposed coherence that allows you to be recognized so you can compete effectively in the market.

AB: That makes me think about OMA’s willingness to embrace a level of discontinuity as a kind of provocation. Do you think that the success of AMO has had much to do with OMA’s status as a disruptive practice in its own right?

RdG: I think a lot of that is true – it was the formalization of an already present latent element within the work in general. Of course, it’s interesting that our office originated not from a building but from a book – from Delirious New York – and that was a reflective book, a retroactive manifesto on a given subject that created the office. So in a way, the creative tension between thinking and doing was present from the start, but we formalized it. And at a certain moment our practice also reached a certain size that made AMO possible, but what you’re saying is very true.

AB: There is obviously a lot of interest in formalizing research in large architecture practices at the moment, but also it seems like a very different landscape now.

RdG: The term “research,” even though we dissociate ourselves from it now, nearly twenty years later, is prolific in the world of architecture, but much of it seems a different proposition from AMO in a lot of ways.

We’re seeing two trends. Firstly, you have very large firms who develop a research arm around technology. This generally comes with all the problems I just mentioned: many of these research arms are essentially uncritical in that their work can be used for very diverging aims and serve almost any kind of ideological purpose.

Then there are the very critical practices that look for ways of practising outside the liberal market economy. These are, almost by definition, small practices. What I find very dispiriting in all of this is that a critical element and the mainstream can almost never go together anymore. So you can either be big and limit your research to technology or you can research more critical phenomena, but then you remain small.

Prada's fashion show, S/S 2016.

Prada’s fashion show, S/S 2016.

Image: Alberto Moncada

AB: It’s interesting that you are now in a position where you’ve built and maintained long-term relationships with clients such as Prada, which appears to engage with a wide spectrum of “ideas projects” across both AMO and OMA – is that the case?

RdG: Prada’s a good example of the full spectrum of our work. The work for Prada includes hardcore, traditional architectural elements and it’s a relationship we’ve retained for twenty years now. We’ve designed their fashion shows, we looked at their IT at some point, we looked at the brand and we did their shops and, of course, the Fondazione Prada in Milan. Our relationship spans the whole spectrum from very abstract kinds of research and theorizations to buildings.

AB: What’s particularly interesting about this, to me, is that the structure of the practice seems to allow you to play an important role in both AMO and OMA and to work on a wide range of projects.

RdG: Yes, that is true and, as I said earlier, it also allows me to look at our own profession. Because of that specific connection between OMA and AMO, our own profession becomes the subject of constant research. That means, almost by definition, that you have to be part of both.

I’ve never given up my traditional architectural work and I’ve never wanted to because I always felt that without that hardcore experience as an architect, the research would become very lofty very quickly.



Published online: 27 Feb 2019
Words: Alexandra Brown
Images: Agostino Osio, courtesy OMA and Prada, Alberto Moncada, Bas Princen, courtesy of Prada


Architecture Australia, July 2018

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