Sabine von Fischer speaks to Reinier de Graaf on OMA’s intentions behind the hospital of the future. In this first part she discusses the unlikeliness of the desert, when things quickly turns to money, morals and de Graaf’s latest novel, The Masterplan… Stay tuned for part two…
OMA has been commissioned by Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) to develop the Al Daayan Health District in Doha, Qatar’s capital. You call it also The Hospital of the Future. I will start with a universal question: How can architecture contribute to the survival of the human species?
That sounds very dramatic! If you replace the word survive by living, I feel a lot more comfortable. People live in architecture. So I guess architecture, by definition, reflects the will of people to live. Building is dwelling, dwelling is living, Heidegger used to say. So I think it’s an everyday business. Of course, when you talk about architecture in the context of healthcare, then living becomes surviving. The hospital is reserved for moments of crisis. But I’m cautious to talk about architecture as a matter of survival.
The reason why I come to the topic of survival is the combination of the hospital program and the location. Historically, one would say the desert was not necessarily a place where people would want to live.
You’re very right. In a way, the combination of a hospital and a site that apparently is an unlikely condition for humans to live is ein Sonderfall. In the context of the hospital, living is indeed surviving. If you compare the desert to a more benign environment, living also becomes a form of surviving. It’s precisely the combination of these two – the typology and a condition – that raises the stakes, that makes this particular project extremely interesting for us.
What is at stake when cities are built in the desert? Yours is not the only masterplan situated in the desert, there have been many during the last decade.
People sometimes create cities in very obvious and likely places; but of course, people create cities in unlikely places too. Architecture is a function of the economy. In a world which for the past century has been strongly reliant on fossil fuels, a place where fossil fuels are found creates an economic condition for a city to emerge. Therefore, cities may occur in the most unlikely places because essentially the origin of most cities is economical. Oil and gas are still, and have been for the past century, a very important part of our economy.
Are you saying that the founding of cities has always been related to economy, more than to geography?
Probably a bit of both. I think as technological means progress, that as soon as we can build buildings, and I guess even before that, architecture, even vernacular architecture has a wonderful repertoire of making the most inhabitable conditions livable if you do it well. But I think the prime source of cities is economical. And of course, economy and geography are related to each other. And of course, also what is under the earth, namely oil wealth and gas belts, are equally part of geography. Geography isn’t limited to what’s on the surface.
What is the architect’s stance then? Do you go where the money is?
All architects go where the money is, even the most idealistic architects. There is an undeniable relation between architecture and money. Buildings are the world’s largest asset class, bigger than financial instruments, oil reserves, gold, cryptocurrencies. Buildings can sometimes even be a factor that topples the whole economic system, as we’ve seen in 2008. So I think it would be utterly naive and hypocritical to pretend that as an architect, you are above money or even in a position to be aloof to money, or even in a position to be overly moralistic towards money. And I don’t believe anybody does. I don’t frankly believe anybody who takes that position. Which is not to say that you simply do everything the money tells you to do – but to deny the relation is pointless.
If we step away from morale, what are the ethics of an architect? How can they deal with the lack of transparency when working for an authoritarian government?
Well, we haven’t worked for an authoritarian government. We’ve worked for a hospital, a semi-independent hospital provider, and our client, the hospital provider, was as transparent as they come. We work for clients, we seldom work for governments. An increasing amount of our work is in the private sector. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the volume of jobs done by architects have shifted from 70 % public jobs to 70 % private jobs. So the ethics are that you assess your client and that you judge on a case by case basis whether you want to work for a client, whether you think your client improves matters in a particular place, or whether your client is an agent for the forces in the place who make matter worse. There are abundant people in Qatar from all over the world. And ironically, the hospital is one of the very few public spaces left in the world where people from all walks of life meet. And as far as I’ve seen it, HMC caters to the expats, both rich and poor, as well as they do to the Qataris. That is kind of omnivoric health care provider and quite a diligent and professional one.
Do you see a difference working for a private health care provider in the Netherlands and working for a semi-private health care provider in Qatar?
Mostly when I speak and mostly when I pass judgments, ethical or moral, I like to speak from experience. I’ve never worked for a health care provider in the Netherlands. We generally make an assessment as to whom we work for and whom we don’t work for. And precisely because of that, we don’t have a blanket policy that we will only work in Denmark, or we will only work in the in the West, we will not work in the East, because there is a bit of good and bad everywhere. I think we’ve come to a point: We say no to projects in America. We say no to projects in Europe, we say no to projects in the Middle East, we say yes to projects in all of those regions as well. But we try to sort of take things seriously on their own terms and then do a lot of due diligence and decide on a case-by-case basis. I think that comes with being a global office and that comes with the express ambition to be a global office, which is also driven by a fair amount of curiosity.
You have articulated a fierce critique of corruption in the construction business yourself in your novel The Masterplan. How much of this is from your own experience?
As a fiction writer, I would answer “No comment,” and I’d be guarded about what is fact and what is fiction, but I think you can put two and two together. You can’t write about what you don’t know. In other words, this is a fictionalized account of things I’ve seen happen, partly in the context of my own work. In the office, we keep a pretty broad view of the world; therefore we don’t only look at what happens in the context of our project, but also what happens in the world at large. The book is set in a fictitious African country. Me and Alex [Retegan] have made a number of extensive study trips to Africa in the context of the universities where we have been teaching, and we have encountered some of the things that appear in the book in anonymized and fictionalized form. When Philip Roth writes about Jewish life in America, I’m sure he can only do that because he knows that Jewish life. That doesn’t mean that every single personage is a real person.
Your novel is set in Africa and is based on research trips. Would you be able to write something equivalent in an Arab country or would you get into conflict with your clients?
My earlier book Four Walls and a Roof, which is a collection of essays, includes a diary, which is one step closer to reality than a novel. That diary talks about the absurdity of the UK, it talks about the absurdity of Russia, and it talks about the absurdity of the Arab world. In a wonderfully homogenous way, the point of that diary is that, if there is one thing truly global, it is the absurdity of globalization.
Would you publish the same sort of writing again?
I’m currently working on another book. Which is also indiscriminately vicious to anything and anybody. And we’ll see what happens. You know, I think that when you are right, you cannot be guided by fear. It’s an act that consumes so much energy that it can only be driven by an overboiling enthusiasm for what you write about, even if what you write about are flawed processes, but you need that energy. As soon as fear enters your head and as soon as you start to second-guess what other people might say, I think you lose your pen.
Buy Reinier de Graaf’s novel, The Masterplan, published by Archis, here.