Architectural practice requires a degree of intimacy and insight into complex sets of forces. While building is architecture’s bread and butter, it’s not always the best format to make a statement. It’s sometimes not even the most appropriate language to respond to a brief. Volume spoke with Reinier de Graaf of OMA/AMO about how research and media can become a vessel for political agendas.
Nick Axel: You’ve been overseeing the work of AMO since 2002. Can you describe the nature of AMO within OMA? How does it sit?
To start, I find it interesting that this interview takes place in the context of research because I’m not sure whether we do research, whether what we do qualifies as research. I don’t think it actually is. As an architecture office that’s focused on building, any project that doesn’t get continued all the way to the end is regarded as an aborted effort or failure. Those efforts can be highly productive in generating a particular type of knowledge that you can only get by doing a project. Yet if you don’t autonomize that knowledge, you can never capitalize on it. So AMO started because we wanted to find a way to, first of all, autonomize that knowledge, and see whether that knowledge could see the light of day in a form other than a building.
To give the intellectual dimension of the office an economic dimension was a very important consideration. Way back, we had this Stichting Groszstadt in the Netherlands, which was a non-profit foundation that deliberately cultivated an intellectual dimension of architecture almost exclusively through public sector funding. These subsidies dried up throughout the 1990s and onto the 2000s in the context of the market economy. So we knew we would have to fend for ourselves, that we would have to properly market our knowledge as an economic entity in order to continuously fund that dimension of the office. Each project became a kind of continuous fundraising project for itself. Secondly, a lot of clients came to us, particularly at the turn of the millennium, with questions rather than briefs for a building. Even when they did come with a brief for a building, it was not necessarily the building that was an answer to their problems.
NA: Like the Universal Studios project?
Right. Like Universal Studios, like Prada, like Schiphol. Once you get to talk to them what you realize is that the building is largely a symptom treatment for the larger problems. Yet as an architect, you always have the ulterior motive to recommend a building, because recommending a building is good for your business. Most motives are banal. This means that all your advice is always clouded by an ulterior motive, and therefore never pure, never fully sincere. So the interesting thing is that, in a way, we’ve been successfully able to eliminate the ulterior motive as architects. That’s not to say that our research is free of ulterior motives though.
I think that’s where the difference of ‘research’ comes in. Where a proper scientist goes into research maybe with a hypothesis, sometimes without, and they go where the research leads them, our research is still in many ways a rhetorical tool to substantiate hunches. The first form of research we do is simply to practice architecture all over the world. This lets us function as thermometers of seismographs of a mood that leads to particular thoughts which we then deepen with the ‘research’. But the research often follows feelings, whereas I think if you were 100% pure about research, feelings would follow research. In that sense there is something deliberately unscientific about what we do.
NA: Was there a point in the history of AMO where the ‘research’ projects undertaken were self-initiated?
No, I don’t think so. What was the case in particular instances was that we gave a twist to particular commissions, whereby we changed the product. For example this European Flag and all the iconography stuff from the European project; they came to us thinking we would make a masterplan of Brussels. That was the official title of the exercise: ‘Brussels, Capital of Europe’. I’m sure they came and expected us to look at the European Quarter, that we would do things to it like propose some kind of big renovation or big change of the urban fabric. And of course we did something completely different. We said it’s inherently problematic if you do that, because most capitals are the capitals of countries. Brussels is the capital of a country, but in this capacity it’s the capital of a political system, which you first need to establish the exact nature of before you can ever express it in any symbolic way. So rather than symbols in a city in the form of statues, monuments, axes or whatever, we chose to look at symbols in much wider terms, harking back to Soviet propaganda and earlier instances where political systems had a visual presence – which democracy never has, by the way.
NA: This project is an interesting case because it seems, at least from the outside, that the project’s agenda was advanced by AMO and OMA much further than the clients might have intended.
Yes, it’s partially our own agenda. But the nice thing is that it was not an agenda we had before the project; it was an agenda that emerged through the project as a discovery. And in that sense what we do is still very close to design, where the building is never a reflection of a foregone conclusion or intention, but the product of something discovered while working on it. The fact that the output of the European Flag project is largely visual also allows you to cloud that agenda as much as you want, so you can keep a client on board. If that project would have been text, there would have been all sorts of people from the European side swarming over it, correcting its words into oblivion. So in a way we inhabit a space that is somewhere between design and an agenda – design being our own profession, and an agenda meaning the territory of the client – which allows us to take things further because we’re not hampered by either of the traditional limitations. These projects are very ambiguous. The Roadmap 2050 project on European energy, for example, was also a very aggressive political agenda that harked back to the earlier work we had done on Europe. Yet because it’s ultimately an illustration, we can under- or over-state that agenda almost at will depending on the situation in which we talk about it.
NA: How has the fact that both of these projects use images to speak altered the course of the project as a whole?
It’s interesting because both clients have embraced these images, yet at the same time rejected the embedded conclusions in them. It’s not like this image has been adopted as a single flag for Europe, but there were a lot of other ideas that were taken. The entire idea of energy regions that specialize is of course an idea that, if it’s been adopted in spirit, has not been adopted in practice, which is clearly very difficult. The image is an announcement of an almost utopian dream, which you can do precisely because it is an image. We’re well aware of that. If these projects would have been publicly funded, the rhetoric might have been a lot more direct; more would have been stated and less implied. I think the very economic nature of the beast also means that a lot of the agenda is there implicitly rather than explicitly. This is the only way to do it, though. I mean, had we operated differently and acted in a very nagging way and insisted on that agenda, none of these projects would have been done.
NA: You have to occlude your intentions.
You have to be able to deny them when questioned, or at least put them in perspective. That map, for instance, in the roadmap, if you take it at face value, redraws Europe’s borders into a number of energy regions and makes energy the single source of European integration. It’s the calling card of the project that deliberately applies a very old cartographic style of denoting national borders, which have been fought over for centuries, to something completely new, flippantly redrawing them. In the unfairness of doing that is its comical dimension.
Arjen Oosterman: You must have also been aware of the hopeless of this proposition.
I don’t think the proposition is hopeless, it’s just that its execution might take a lot longer than drawing the image. Even if you’re lucky, most of the time to go from start to finish in an average architectural project takes longer than any single political cycle. The timescale of a more ambitious large-scale urban effort or even an infrastructural effort will have around four or five governments in them. So if you don’t announce the ambition unrealistically, within the context of a single political cycle, you’ll never get there. The image can also function as a contract that binds people over a longer period of time than the standard political contract, which is only four or so years. In that sense these visionary images play a role in formulating ambitions which are by definition longer than political cycles, and are therefore by definition unrealistic, but necessarily so.
It’s interesting because we did that roadmap in 2009, 2010, and then the whole Ukraine dispute emerged with the threat from Russia to turn off the tap, and people started asking about the project again. One of its aspects was energy independence, not the main aspect but it was one of the things in the conclusion, and that became highly relevant. So all of a sudden a project that seemed to have been shelved gained relevance again.
AO: Are there more examples of that?
Currently in the whole discussion around immigration, we did this project that we called ‘Hollow Core’ or ‘Euro Core’, in which we identified a metropolis on European soil that exists but nobody sees it. We looked at the Randstad, which is officially a collection of forty-seven Dutch cities, Belgians have something similar with the Vlaamse Ruit, and Germany is looking in a similar way to the Ruhr valley. So there are three simultaneous initiatives where multiple cities are trying to be caught under a single nomer, which doesn’t exist administratively but exists as a planning concept. So we introduced a planning concept that didn’t stop at the borders. We identified and conceptualized a city of forty million people straddling parts of the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany; the largest metropolis on European soil whose largest official city within, Brussels, didn’t even have one million people. So you have the most radically large metropolis with the most provincial governments. It has no center. It should never have a center. It’s a kind of porous urban substance, which we said at the time, might interestingly be a texture to absorb immigration. First of all there’s no center that can be threatened, and there is also no dominant identity that people are forced to adhere to. It’s a contested territory between countries, so it’s not under threat of being contested by more. We looked at the yellow pages of pizzerias in Germany, where not a single Italian name featured anymore. So being Italian, particularly in Germany, is a sort of Ersatz identity for Turkish and Moroccan people to become European. Rem is currently looking at the countryside with Harvard students, so this research into an urban area that is both countryside and city at the same time becomes relevant again.
AO: For most architecture firms, research is a notion that relates to a creative process, that is feeding the design process. Does this description fit you?
That is part of our work, for example the Seattle Public Library wouldn’t have been that library if there hadn’t been an investigation into what a library is in the age when everything is becoming digital. G-Star wouldn’t have been G-Star if we hadn’t have hung out with them for months. But that’s something we always did; back when we used to do more competitions, we did a lot more than the financial envelope of a competition warranted in terms of trying to familiarize ourselves with the nature of a project in an extreme way. But for me the most interesting aspect of AMO has simply been the efforts where things didn’t end up in buildings anymore, where it gave us an authority in a completely different domain.
AO: What is it that has allowed AMO to survive then, if you compare it with other firms that haven’t been able to create such a playground?
The fact that we’re big, as a firm, helps. We can absorb a lot of shocks. We do a lot of projects and we’re present in a lot of countries, which means it’s always going well somewhere. Robustness has partially to do with size, but the robustness is also, and I still maintain that, due to the early recognition of the fact that if you want to continue ‘research’, you need to define it as an economic activity. And in a way, the economy of that activity was the first subject of research; its viability beyond being a subsidized entity. That effort, although with varying degrees of success, has created an awareness of that necessity, which I think is what made it survive.
I very much like what we did at the Biennale in 2014, but for me the most interesting project relating to it was fundraising. It was phenomenally interesting because initially we had a scenario where we would broker a deal between Venice and our Qatar client to get them a pavilion, which would make them so thankful and grateful that they would sponsor the whole effort. That fell through, and in its wake of we really had to grasp at straws. We had to go in all sorts of directions, talk to all kinds of people. From a networking point of view, seeing how this whole world of sponsorship works, how people expect something back, how in a way asking someone for money is the first step into declaring them a client at a later stage, a process of early acquisition… For me that was very interesting. And I had never done that, not in that way. Normally you go to clients and you ask to get paid for work you are doing or are about to do. But here you go to somebody and you are basically asking them to give money for a leap of faith, almost like a beggar, without a sense of entitlement like ‘we’re going to work very hard for you’. The whole logic was different. It takes a certain overcoming of shyness and sense of duty, but that’s how I’ve discovered the whole economy works, in a way. It’s about asking, it’s about promises, it’s about favors, and also having something very immaterial as compensation further down the line. The art world works a lot like that, how exposure, how being associated with certain cultural phenomenon, is a product. This type of economy exists to a much greater extent than I thought.
NA: It’s the economy of debt relations.
AO: It’s an economy that requires an insane amount of energy and time.
Yeah, and that’s why it’s a project. I didn’t work at all on the content of the Biennale. First of all it was a personal commission to Rem – the Biennale doesn’t commission offices, it commissions people. But make no mistake, the expenses are incurred by the office. We were aware of that and so it was partially my task to protect the office. Of course the office also benefits, because it’s still the office that is associated with the whole thing. It’s quid pro quo.
NA: But it’s a risk.
It’s a certain risk, but risks I think we should always take.
NA: If you were to be a bit speculative, what do you see in the future of AMO? How do you see it progressing?
I think we’ve broached a lot of subjects in the past. I see part of its future in the future of those past subjects.
NA: Not necessarily invention.
Yeah but invention is a very tricky word. I’ve done this for twenty years and I don’t think I’ve ever come across an invention. And if we did, we ourselves would be the ones least aware. Invention is more-or-less the byproduct of working on something, the casual insight that always appears along the way. It’s also important to note that the territories we work in still cross our path, like in the case of Europe and the case of energy. New domains are the products of reinterpreting existing issues. So in that sense our future is simply in the headlines, but with a different take because there is a different type of knowledge relating things underneath.
You can almost predict our trajectory. Precisely at the moments when everybody talks about more than half of the people live in city, the very office in whose name the urban is embedded, starts to look at the opposite. That’s our method. The counter-intuitive, the contrariness, is part of us, and also part of the fun. That’s something you can never openly state, but the fun of going against the grain is of course a very powerful motivation. AMO is the part of our office composed of the people who share that same mental disposition, that sense of naughtiness.