Oedipus gesublimeerd. OMA’s voetsporen. Volgen of ontwijken? / Oedipus sublimated. OMA’s footsteps. Follow or avoid?

Recent buildings and projects by sixteen architects of five nationalities will be on show in the Balcony Room of the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) until 5 November. The architects all have two things in common. Firstly, they each worked for a period at Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam – in some instances for a few months, in one for nine years. Secondly, they all went on to start a firm of their own.

The formula of ‘Reference: OMA’ is one the editors of an architecture magazine like Archis might be forgiven for envying. Brand new work is exposed. Established reputations and embryonic ones are brought together in a joint context. The work is thematically structured and intelligently discussed. The catalogue essays by Jos Bosman and curator Bernard Colenbrander supply fresh food for contemporary historians.
In short, ‘Reference: OMA’ is a meticulously composed blend of up-to-the-minute information, analytical acuity and bold taking of stands: a brilliant ‘special number’. Sticking to the magazine metaphor, Colenbrander’s opening speech (Saturday 5 August) filled the place of a post-deadline editorial in which he candidly explained his motives. He confessed the uncertainty and adventurousness of the undertaking (‘It’s the most incomplete project I have ever worked on’), and like a true historian did his best to keep his material in perspective (‘We have something new again. And, thank goodness, it looks in every respect like what we already know from the past’). But he also honed an extra sharp point on his polemic arrows (‘I see the ”sublime” as the first and only really convincing successor to the ideas of Van Eyck’). Well, well. A statement like a concrete pile. It’ll take a smart lad to pull that out, as they say in Rotterdam. And that is a fairly accurate indication of the problem facing this reviewer.
The solid bedrock of history on which this pile presumably rests is something I shall return to shortly. But first we must devote some attention to the relatively mushy layers of recent past through which it has been so ruthlessly driven.
The thematic structure of the exhibition’s subject matter led the curator to his initial conclusions. In the ‘nomadic space’ section, has grouped schemes and projects that celebrate the disappearance of the clear-cut city form and the liberation of the peripheral regions: Willem Jan Neutelings’s carpet metropolis and Rient Dijkstra’s urban design for the Leidse Rijn district near Utrecht. The headings ‘shifting standards’ and ‘the new living’ refer to the renewed interest being taken in typological inventions. In Colenbrander’s analysis, apart from the rediscovery of the town villa little has happened in this area since Team Ten. The slab and the perimeter block have dominated almost totally. The ex-OMA architects are now cheerfully resuming experiments with linked towers and slabs, with manipulated and partly hollowed-out volumes, and with external ‘envelopes’ within which anything is possible. Indeed, the work of Kees Christiaanse, Aart Zaaijer, Kingma and Roorda and the MVRDV group (Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries) goes even further than Koolhaas and brings to mind the inventive élan of Alison and Peter Smithson. The same applies to the ’emblems’ category. In this area, we are shown how architecture can once more become an allegorical medium proffering solutions to societal problems. Neutelings’s ‘School of the Future’ is not simply an educational building dressed up as a supermarket. It is leavened through and through with architectonic intelligence and ideas about the role of education in society. Education does not restrict itself merely to bringing up the young and preparing them for a career, but becomes a permanent part of life.
A reassuring feature of ‘Reference: OMA’ is the way it confirms once again that there are always precedents for the ‘new’ to be fished out the rich reservoir of history. The re-emergence of Team Ten concepts like ‘mat-building’ and the ‘street in the air’ makes it clear that innovation is always accompanied by the recycling or transformation of things we already knew or have unwisely forgotten. The scrapheap of history is the most fertile soil of all. As a historian Colenbrander takes solace from these references to Team Ten. He doesn’t pretend to construct a family tree.
Something he had to wrestle with in particular was the ambiguous relationship between the post-OMA architects and Rem Koolhaas, the only true ‘Roark’ of our day, the genius who astonishingly combines a triumphant arrogance with personal self-effacement and a synthetic collectivism. In this respect the comparisons to both Wright and Gropius are highly instructive.
‘Reference: OMA’ was a risky enterprise from the very start. The architects to be presented inevitably felt themselves threatened with being portrayed as acolytes of Koolhaas, purveyors of second-hand goods or even mere epigones. The subject of the exhibition was of course actually those who had courageously torn themselves free from the master.
Colenbrander had to tread carefully nonetheless in this Oedipal minefield full of easily detonated young egos. Some ex-OMA workers simply refused to get involved; the cooperation of others was obtained only at great effort.
Literal references to the work of OMA abound in the work presented. They have not been mapped out systematically, perhaps for tactical reasons. ‘Hair splitting about the origin of an idea,’ writes Colenbrander, ‘seldom serves any useful purpose’ Luckily he says ‘seldom’ rather than ‘never’, for elsewhere in the catalogue such sensible assertions are in fact linked to genealogical observations. In those cases it is not a matter of the relationship between the comet and its tail, but of the way the stardust has disposed itself in the Newtonian force field between Koolhaas and other heavenly bodies such as Kollhoff, Ungers and Eisenmann. We also find out a great deal about the backgrounds of the Dutch ex-OMA employees: how awful things were in the architecture faculty at Delft, for example, how Van Eyck’s charisma declined through his tendency to cultivate nothing but clones, and how the foundations were laid there for ‘schoolteachers’ modernism’ (‘haut couture [draped] over a content of standardized sizes and comfort norms’).
Colenbrander is apparently only prepared to commit himself to the classical art-historical handiwork of drawing up a genealogy when allowed to leapfrog one generation. He is not willing to venture a solution to the equally classical question of the master/pupil relationship, but only to discuss its problematic nature in essayistic fashion.
How did one go about winning a much-coveted job with Koolhaas? Naturally, you had to be considered good enough. There was no need to be brilliant, but you had to make yourself useful – as a ‘dummy’ poised over drawing board (Neutelings), or supplying some ‘extra noise’ to order when a client looked in (Herman de Kovel). What was it like working at OMA? No picnic, apparently. ‘A chaos, more likely’ (Frank Roodbeen); ‘the system wears you down’ (Ron Steiner).
How, for Christ’s sake, do you break away from something like that? Apparently you start making things that ‘Rem would have disapproved of’ (Kingma and Roorda); you take up drawing on graph paper, studying problems of building technology and ‘even expressing a liking for Quist’s work’ (De Kovel). If there is one feature that the most brilliant of Koolhaas’s pupils have had in common, it was allowing themselves to be tied hand and foot and then ostentatiously breaking out of the shackles. Koolhaas is himself the very Houdini of architecture. He is forever trying to escape from self-imposed conventions and forever dodging his own theses as soon as others start projecting them onto him in the form of expectations. Therefore anyone who hangs around OMA longer than necessary has either failed to understand the truth about Koolhaas or is cursed with a potentially tragic blend of navety and masochism. Fostering structural chaos, balancing on the dynamic equilibrium of paradox, leaving contradictions oxymoronically unresolved, refusing to document anything (let alone yourself or your own career): these are the lessons Koolhaas has instilled into his faithless pupils.
Finally: the polemic sting has not yet been extracted from the flesh. The prick has in fact proved less painful than expected. What does Colenbrander mean by his annunciation of the sublime? Evidently the polemicist was put onto this particular track by a statement of Koolhaas’s in an interview in El Croquis (1992, no. 53) later incorporated by Colenbrander in Style. Standard and signature in Dutch architecture, the catalogue of the NAi’s opening exhibition, which he also curated. In it Koolhaas called for concepts ‘through which the worthless turns into something, where even the sublime is not unthinkable’. Quoting from Nicholas le Camus de Mézères (1780) Colenbrander points out that since the Enlightenment the dark side has existed alongside the transparent, and that the human spirit not merely strives for redemption but contains remote corners where fear and melancholy lurk. That OMA and the post-OMA generation have brought back the sublime, which had been glossed over since the beginning of the previous century, should, he claims, be evident from OMA’s ‘Piranesian space’ in Lille and the rugged skin of Neutelings’s Minnaert building for Utrecht University.
I for my part am not convinced. Isozaki comes sooner to mind when looking for a latterday revival of the sublime, given his fascination with ‘dark space’ and destruction. The work presented in ‘Reference: OMA’ radiates optimism and conviviality above all else. It speaks to us of a regained self-confidence within architecture that uses its own means to present apposite solutions to the intricacies of life today.    

Exhibition: ‘Reference: OMA’, until 5th November 1995 in the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Museumpark 25, Rotterdam. (See ‘Events’ for opening times).
Catalogue: B. Colenbrander (ed.), Reference: OMA. The sublime start of an architectural generation, Rotterdam, NAi Publishers, 1995, 128 pp., Dfl. 65.=, ISBN 90-72469-95-X.
– Netherlands Architecture Institute, Museumpark 25, Rotterdam, Sundays starting at 2.30 p.m.: Alex Wall (3 September); Mathias Sauerbruch (10 September); Rients Dijkstra (17 September); Winy Maas and Jacob van Rijs (24 September);
– Faculty of Architecture, Delft Technical University, Room B, Berlageweg 1, Delft, Thursdays starting at 8.00 p.m.: Christian Rapp (14 September); Willem Jan Neutelings (21 September).

Ik wil en lees ze allemaal! Over architectuurtijdschriften / I love and read them one and all. On architecture magazines