2014 Architecture Practice of the Year: OMA 01.01.15

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Rem Koolhaas and his colleagues continue to create buildings in equal parts provocative, exasperating and brilliant. But its the persistent probing of architecture’s big and awkward questions – as shown at the 2014 Venice Biennale – that sets this extraordinary practice apart

No major practice has ever quite done what OMA has done. The foundation of its intellectual mirror image, AMO, has allowed the architects to produce a stream of extraordinary research, to provoke and to think outside the commercial constraints of their own practice in an unpredictable and often brilliant way. And the results of this persistent intellectual enquiry have never been concretised more completely than in the 2014 Venice Biennale.

Rem Koolhaas and his colleagues have a peculiar knack for picking out the salient issues of our time, for identifying phenomena that we ought to have seen clearly yet somehow seem to have missed until they pointed them out. When the rest of the world was writing about Rome and Las Vegas, Koolhaas was writing about Manhattan. He was writing about cities when other architects were obsessed with icons. When the world caught up, he (typically counterintuitively) began writing about the countryside (see Icon 135). In a single, brilliant, hybrid word he defined the contemporary condition of construction – Junkspace. Of course, Koolhaas is in the position of being one of the handful of architects who can actually write – and furthermore write in a way that is not jargon but is engaging, intelligent and often funny.

For the Biennale, he and his colleagues at AMO alighted on the fundamentals, the elements. He almost entirely avoided talking about architecture in favour of building. Some architects were upset by a perceived nihilism in his choices, others were irritated by the sight of an architect who has never been interested in detail or the elements of building suddenly discovering them. Still others compared AMO’s own installation in Venice to a Google search or a building exhibition – a seemingly ad-hoc accumulation of material assembled by a team of young researchers that, collectively, said almost nothing about contemporary culture.

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De Rotterdam, OMA’s “vertical city”

OMA and AMO, however, claim that what they are doing is signalling the death of architecture as we know it. The consequence of Junkspace is the endless construction of boxes and rigs of engineering kit disconnected from any notions of expression of intent, or any possibility of the relationship between form and function, between envelope and interior. The juxtaposition of the restored, painted vault of the Biennale’s central pavilion and the section through a dropped ceiling containing the innards of architecture – the tubes and machinery that allow buildings to be any size we like – is a brilliantly visceral if judgmentally empty image of where architecture is.
That AMO is also able to combine deeply cultural and nakedly commercial projects and mash them up so you can’t be quite sure which is which is a typically provocative and exasperating illustration of what keeps the practice so alive. From Prada’s cultural programme to explorations of the mechanisation of the rural, its analyses can
be painfully superficial, yet they still manage to put a finger on key issues in a way that other architects have been utterly unable to achieve.

Of course, all this flitting intellectual activity is backed up by an architecture that can be equally frustrating and, it needs to be said, brilliant. The practice’s restoration and reworking earlier this year of its own Kunsthal in its hometown of Rotterdam highlighted what a magical, innovative building it really was. An essay in the ad-hoc construction of a brilliantly thought-out programme, this was a building that turned established ideas inside out. Instead of building a ponderous, self-conscious cultural centre as some kind of stolid town hall, OMA built a cheap, poorly detailed yet dynamic building that felt more backstage than icon. Yet not far away, the De Rotterdam development is something else entirely, an insane re-imagining of the city as a sci-fi Manhattan, a too big, yet somehow seductive tower that revels in its dislocation of scale.

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The dropped ceiling at the Biennale

At the same time, OMA is building the Performing Arts Center in Taipei, which, with its spherical theatre sticking out the side, looks like something from the front of a 1970s pulp sci-fi novel or a 1930s world’s fair. Koolhaas famously likes ugly (that’s why he’s in Rotterdam) and his famous “Fuck context” quote – which is, quite appropriately, usually taken out of context – has become a modus operandi. And then there’s CCTV. Fuck everything.

But this is an award, I think, given to an architectural practice not for its architecture. It is a recognition of arguably the only major practice to have applied itself to the big questions. Its position might be occasionally reductive but it is also generous. The Biennale was determinedly not about architects, and OMA was as absent as everyone else. In looking at modernity, in analysing Italy’s extraordinary history of modernist failures and successes (from film to political corruption) and in looking at architecture as an atomised building catalogue that is nevertheless capable of generating the most extraordinary stories, AMO, like OMA, simultaneously explodes the self-serving bullshit that surrounds architectural discourse and builds strange, mesmeric and genuinely groundbreaking work. You can’t argue with that.

This article first appeared in Icon 139

 

Words

Edwin Heathcote

 

Above: Koolhaas in front of Luminaire, his collaboration with Swarovski, at the Venice Architecture Biennale

 

Images: Gilbert McCarragher; Michel van de Kar

quotes story

Koolhaas writes in a way that is engaging, intelligent and often funny”

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Fundamentals, the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale exhibition curated by Rem Koolhaas

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