Sabine von Fischer speaks to Reinier de Graaf on OMA’s intentions behind the hospital of the future. In part two of this conversation we pick up talking about what writing means to de Graaf, to then return to the approach for the Hospital of the Future which takes an unexpected medicinal turn… Stay tuned for the season finale part 3!
The journalistic past of Rem Koolhaas, the founding partner of your firm OMA, is well-known. Do you see yourself in the tradition of the architect that is also a journalist?
I enjoyed writing before I chose to become an architect. I’ve written at school quite a lot and I was always putting forward arguments. And largely because of that, I’ve come to work for a firm where the real foundation was a book [Delirious New York] and not a building. So I don’t think that is a coincidence, but I don’t see myself as a journalist per se. I see myself as an architect who writes. And the more I write, the more I discover the wonderful similarities embedded in the two disciplines. You know, the act of composition, of creating a reality that the better you construct, the more objectively true it seems. It is a construction nevertheless. That is something that fascinates me, and that’s something that intrigues me also about media – the extent to which all our truths are constructions.
Architecture however, more than text, is subject to technical planning, it is full of technicalities.
Writing a novel is also subject to a lot of technical planning, as I found out. I worked with an editor in the context of producing the novel, all the way from the very first draft on. The first advice he gave me is that: Reinier, in order to write a novel one first has to know what a novel is, followed by a lot of technical advice. At that moment I recognized how much technique is dominant, just as it is in architecture.
Surely all compositions require technique, but the hospital is probably the most technical program to tackle in architecture.
Yeah, it’s brutal. It’s brutal because it’s so unforgiving, and it makes you so aware of how incredibly subjective and arbitrary our preoccupations as an architect are. The hospital doesn’t care about cantilevers, the hospital doesn’t care about expression. You make a corridor that is slightly too long and people die. You choose the wrong type of finishes and infections proliferate. In most buildings you can treat function with a certain amount of disdain. But in the context of a hospital that would be a crime.
And the irony is that probably the hospital is the last truly modern program where form has to follow function. But then the irony is that in the context of a hospital, function changes all the time because medical innovation and the development of medical technology is so much faster than the development of architecture. Architecture almost becomes a form of infrastructure in the context of a hospital and nothing more. It’s forced to be extremely accommodating. I found that designing a hospital can be a very helpful therapy, first for myself but maybe for the profession at large, which is so dominated by unchecked preoccupations, internal debates and constructed truths. People may complain about your buildings and you may develop a thick skin. But if people die because of your design choices, that is a completely different story.
You are running a firm of over 350 employees together with seven other partners, which has practically no experience in healthcare design, and you’re now designing a masterplan for an entire medical district. At the same time, you are also saying that you’re changing the rules of how hospitals are planned. That is a big leap.
Probably you can only change the rules when you’re not overly aware of them. Hamad Medical Corporation, our client, visited our office and a lot of other offices, also architects who have previously designed hospitals. We openly admitted that apart from the Maggie’s Center in Glasgow we had no experience whatsoever in healthcare design. And the fact that we had no experience was largely the content of our pitch. They chose us, and when I asked them why, they said, we chose you precisely because you don’t have experience. That means you are unburdened by a whole tradition, a whole range of automated decisions that we are keen to get rid of because they are in our way. They are rigid. They are counterproductive in the face of a field that is changing so fast. Better no experience than outdated experience. So, we said yes, if you want us that desperately, we will go along for the ride. And that’s what we did.
What are the new rules you came up with?
It is an interesting debate in architecture in general: To what extent is architecture an ergonomic activity that has to fit like a glove around the functions it has to accommodate and to what extent is architecture a container that actually facilitates processes that unfold within. For example a highway doesn’t shape a car; a highway facilitates a particular flow of cars. It can facilitate peaks. The expressed purpose of a highway is to facilitate or regulate driving but not to shape driving. That is the kind of shift.
What we have designed is a weird mix: It’s a piece of large architecture and it’s a piece of small urbanism. At the threshold of architecture and urbanism, there’s the pivotal point where a building can no longer rely on predicting what unfolds inside the city. The hospital is such a complex and rapidly changing, speculative typology to the extent that it is impossible to predict how it will function. We’ve designed a kind of a system where anything can change into anything else and back, a system that can expand or contract. At least that’s what we’ve tried.
In this highly technical and changing structure, where do aesthetics come into the design?
It comes in embracing precisely those things: You drive neutrality to an extreme, and you celebrate the beauty that comes with it. I mean, what is beauty? Is beauty the perfect approximation of a pre-established ideal? Or is beauty a surrender to the inevitable, sportingly accepting everything that ensues in its wake? To what extent is there beauty in our graceful admission of defeat?
In the second case: How can we speak of beauty, if we leave everything to chance?
You don’t leave everything to chance. That’s the whole point. You don’t project a pre-established vision, only to find that vision compromised. You embrace the inevitable. Earlier, you had asked about role models: I was and I still am a massive fan of Mies van der Rohe, precisely because his buildings are both a projection of the classical ideal, as well as an unconditional embrace of the reality of the steel industry. There’s this famous story that he emigrated to America, and that’s when his architecture changed to these generic containers, to these neutral expressions. And that happened when he saw the steel mills in the Midwest and the high beams running off the wall systems. That was a pivotal moment: the embrace of what is given and at the same time, through the embrace of what is given, a blatant classical ideal survives. This threshold I find interesting, because if you look at what we’ve designed, it is both a piece of neutral modernism as well as a very classical, symmetrical composition. And in being symmetrical and being so repetitive, it even bypasses the kind of modern romanticism of asymmetry, composition, et cetera. It just is. And I think it’s very beautiful. That may be just me.
Do you think this Miesian level of perfection will be possible in the overly determined world of hospital logic?
I think that the brick is the perfection he went for. It was coupled to an embrace of neutrality. He didn’t perfect hundreds of details. He perfected one, to roll it out infinitely. So there is a strange correlation: By embracing neutrality and surrendering control of what goes on inside, you can actually approach a greater degree of perfection in architecture because it isn’t held to the test in the same way, so it’s both expanding and focusing. And that’s what fascinates me about his work. In no way I want to compare what we do to what he did, of course.
Mies’ minimalism seems a bit out of our time.
We’re not into minimalism. We’re into a kind of neutrality and embracing a sort of genericness. There is an interesting analogy there in the world of medicine. There is such a thing as generic medicine, which are medicine free from patents so that they can be distributed at a lower cost world worldwide. There are studies showing the competition that ensues, and thereby the protection of knowledge in favor of a market position, one could compete well [with generic medicine] as a big pharmaceutical company. I think the medical world is confronted with the same degree of specificity projection as well as a kind of generic need which transcends individual interests – there is generic architecture, there is generic medicine, and there’s something to be said for both. I would like it if our building was a home for generic medicine, although of course I have no say in that whatsoever.
As I understand, generic medicine can be produced once the patents expire.
If there were no patents, generic medicine could be produced from the get-go and probably be available to a lot more people a lot quicker. One of the main advantages of architecture is that we don’t have patents. I mean, certain star architects like to think we do. But architecture by definition is a form of generic medicine because we all happily steal, we all happily copy and nobody has a monopoly on ideas. I think this is one of the things for architecture to celebrate, that even very specific ideas, which are not created in the name of genericness, are in fact created in the name of a form of hyper-specificity. Once you repeat them long enough, they become generic as well.
Your medical master plan for Doha can be adapted to further sites. Will these still be OMA-projects?
I never think about whether something is an OMA project. I never have. A lot of people tell me what OMA is about, people I randomly meet. I’ve worked here for 25 years. Nevertheless, they happily describe in detail to me the philosophical mission of OMA, and I always shut up and listen politely, but I never really think about it. I simply think about what would be a good idea in any given situation. I do think that the building we have produced is for the desert, and for Mars, maybe. That’s also a kind of red desert. There’s an increasing amount of desert in the world if we’re not careful, of course. In the West, we clearly have our thoughts about a country like Qatar and the Islamic world. But a country like Qatar is also an exporter of certain ideas and concepts.
The Arab world has a reputation for top-down processes. In the West, we talk a lot about participation. How do you deal with this? Is it an advantage for you as an architect if the Qatari planning processes are faster and possibly smoother?
Well, I tell you, they have a lot of internal participation. I can guarantee you that even in countries we regard as non-democratic, there’s a hell of a lot of talking going on. And there’s a hell of a lot of people who come to the table to express their opinions. There’s a hell of a lot of stakeholders, et cetera. You’re referring to regimes, we are referring to projects. And even if the differences between regimes might be there, the difference between building projects are surprisingly small, wherever you do them in the world. There are always people who have an interest, and people that then, by definition, get a say. And of course, in the Arab tradition, everything that is decided is the form of endless conversations with members of the community. There is these courtyard talks which are famous and on the basis of which decisions are taken.
Can you describe these courtyard talks?
Well: “quatschen”, There’s a particular Arab word for it. It is making small talk, but in between the lines of the small talk about things, very eminent messages are sent about the will of particular individuals in relation to a thing. And this thing is the product of a lot of talks with medical experts in that organization, but also, for instance, of a very large group of international experts who were involved in the projects, and talks with locals. So: call it participation, if you will. I don’t like the term per se because it’s become a very debased term in our own world.
Debased in which sense?
Participation used to be a slogan of the left in the 1960s, It used to be an emancipatory slogan to give people a say in what otherwise was decided over our heads. In the context of neo-liberalism, participation is a lame excuse for a government not to act on certain things. “you participate”, means: “fuck off and look after yourself”. In that sense, a lot of these terms have become very double edged. Hence my allergy.
Buy Reinier de Graaf’s novel, The Masterplan, published by Archis, here.