There is no practice on the planet quite like Rem Koolhaas’ OMA
There is no practice on the planet quite like Rem Koolhaas’ OMA. It has been likened to a cult, and if it isn’t designing some of the world’s most extraordinary structures, it’s publishing scores of books, “extreme masterplanning” the fate of continents and acting as a finishing school for star-architects. Icon was given rare access to go behind the scenes and discover how this remarkable place works.
The electric fog has rolled in. When Rem Koolhaas isn’t in Rotterdam, his office at OMA goes into standby mode – at the touch of a switch, its glass walls turn opaque, as if the cube is filled with smoke. When he’s around the fog clears, the air is charged with static. “You almost see it. The physical energy is different in the office when he’s here,” says Stephanie Akkaoui, an architect at OMA. “When he’s here, there is not necessarily a sense of urgency, but the atmosphere is more vibrant, more energetic.” People run rather than walk.
It’s what you would expect to hear. This is Rem we’re talking about – in Rotterdam, he’s mostly referred to as Rem, rather than Koolhaas or Mr Koolhaas. Or Pritzker Laureate Koolhaas. For a decade Koolhaas has been the face of the global architectural avant-garde.In the planetary star-architect top ten – whatever the other names, it’s impossible to deny Koolhaas would be one of them – he is almost alone in retaining critical respect while claiming the glittering prizes. (Praemium Imperiale and RIBA Royal Gold Medal as well as the Pritzker, and much else besides.)
Following a quarter-century of gathering fame, the past decade has seen a string of superlative high-profile buildings: the Seattle Central Library, the Casa da Musica in Porto, the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. And there’s the crowning achievement, still the largest project on OMA’s books as it grinds towards completion: CCTV, the colossal Beijing headquarters of China’s state broadcaster, a gravity-defying, 465,000sq m semi-cube, the second largest building in the world.
But the fog is in – Rem is out. We are not in Rotterdam to see him, but to see OMA, the practice he has built, a fascinating entity in its own right, one that is often eclipsed by the personality of its founder. Unique among the arrangements of the global star-architects, OMA stands somewhat distinct from its founder – while still strongly identified with him, of course, it is far more than simply a machine to realise the buildings implied by genius-guided strokes of a principal’s Mont Blanc.
OMA (originally the Office for Metropolitan Architecture) produces as many world-famous architects as it does world-famous buildings, an extraordinary roster of spin-off talent from Zaha Hadid in the 1980s through Foreign Office in the 1990s and Bjarke Ingels and REX in the 2000s to Ole Scheeren in the 2010s. Earlier this year Metropolis magazine produced “Baby Rems”, a diagram of all the practices spawned by OMA – it covered two pages and included 46 names. There is clearly something special going on in Rotterdam. In October, a landmark retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery in London will take a practical look at OMA’s work and philosophy (Icon is media partner of the exhibition). Before then, we wanted to go behind the usual personality-focused profiles and look into the office itself, to get under the bonnet of OMA and explore how it works.
OMA occupies the first, second, sixth and seventh floors of an unmemorable modernist block by Hugh Maaskant in central Rotterdam. (There are also offices in New York, Beijing and Hong Kong.) On the August day Icon visits, it seems hushed, even studious, rather than frantic. But this is deceptive. OMA’s internal culture is notoriously high-octane – even in a profession known for long hours and high pressure.
Danish architect Ingels, who left OMA a decade ago, recalled that its atmosphere “was like this cult”. The rigour and clarity of OMA’s architecture emerged from an anarchic creative pressure cooker. Mark Veldman, a project architect, describes conditions as paradoxical: “In one sense, there is absolute freedom. There is, in a way … no pressure. You walk in and you do your thing.” But rather than leading to a laid-back culture, the work ethic is fanatical. “You can walk out or you can stay the whole night and you can work here. You have a freedom to continue to work.On the other side, there is lots of pressure for project leaders and project architects, in terms of delivering, in the end.”
Signs of its extraordinary internal processes are clear to see, if you look. Past reception, which is dominated by a giant model of CCTV, is a meeting room filled with smaller maquettes. At first glance there appear to be perspex and foam models for dozens of projects – but close up you see they’re all clearly the same site, a masterplan in Moscow, modelled over and over again, with different arrangements and relations of buildings.
This is OMA’s unique approach – rather than having principals provide a single vision for a project, which is then realised by their teams of underlings, scores, even hundreds, of different ideas are generated from the bottom up. These ideas then engage in pitched battle, refining, evolving, combining and dying, with Koolhaas or one of his fellow partners in the role of editor. (Koolhaas started his career as a journalist.) “The project that I am focusing on, the main partner in charge is Reinier [de Graaf, partner since 1996],” says Veldman. “And Rem is almost like the critic, once in a while, having a look and sitting down. The two are very different … Reinier is much more on the conceptual points. He is incredibly intelligent in developing an idea conceptually and then communicating that.” Ellen van Loon, a partner since 1998 specialises in the construction phase.
This system is, of course, extremely duplicative – time is inevitably sunk into many options that wither under competition and are ultimately discarded. “So much wasted effort and ambition …” Ingels lamented of his time at OMA – before setting up his own practice, BIG, to run along similar lines. “It’s a luxury,” says Akkaoui. “When you have creative minds you get a lot of ideas. The luxury product is in the fact that we can actually test all of them. Of course, it’s wasteful but that is what makes it a luxury. When you are in the creative process and you have an idea, you just want to see it and test it, and see if it has potential to develop.”
That makes OMA immensely democratic, for a cult, and could go some way to explaining how it is able to generate the paradoxical “freedom is slavery” work ethic mentioned by Veldman. “One of the great things here is beginning the process in a team; everybody has a say,” says Akkaoui. “So whether you are senior or a junior or an intern, everybody has a say and you get to test your ideas. Nobody is going to tell you, ‘No, no. Don’t test that.'”
But how can this process, with its staggering internal duplication of effort, be justified commercially? Victor van der Chijs, the managing partner and director at OMA, looks after the office’s strategy and business development – his previous job was running Schiphol, the Netherlands’ largest airport – and argues that OMA is fundamentally unique.”I immediately understood that … that creative process, is what makes OMA, OMA,” he says. “If you disturb that, you would probably kill the great side of OMA and also that side that actually makes OMA interesting to many clients.”
Multiplicity of ideas is also spurred by constantly remixing teams, “by putting people from very different backgrounds into one team, and also people who [are not] architects, like a sociologist or someone who has studied history,” says Van der Chijs. “Putting them in the same team can provide something that is genuinely an OMA outcome, something that makes people go ‘wow’. Something that only OMA would come up with.” It may be that this process, with what resembles a crazy lack of focus, ends up being responsible for the distinctive look of OMA’s buildings.
This look is a product of OMA’s genius for massing – which in turn is a product of its extensive model shops on the ground and sixth floors in Rotterdam, where schemes are iterated again and again in blue foam, forms composing, colliding, combining, separating and recombining. OMA’s finished buildings take on strongly affecting sculptural forms –rough-hewn, primal, and yet somehow also lapidary. Within this simplicity, much drama is contained – awesome, vaulting civic space in Seattle Central Library, an enfilade of theatrical moments in the Casa da Musica that suggests it originates from a superabundance of ideas. (The Casa’s throng of possibilities was recently called “psychotic” by Tom Dyckhoff, architecture critic for The Times. Fondly, I think.)
OMA also has a unique output for its surplus creative energy – AMO, its publishing and research wing. Koolhaas has been publishing longer than he has been building, producing numerous classic architectural studies, including Delirious New York (1978), S, M, L, XL (1995), The Harvard Guide to Shopping (2002), Content (2004) and Al Manakh I (2007) and II (2010). AMO was set up in 1998 to handle this output, which grows and grows, as demonstrated by the OMA Book Machine exhibition at the Architectural Association last year.
The Book Machine took all OMA’s publications and stitched them together into a single volume, 40,000 pages long. (More than a foot has been added to this volume since, I’m told.) Forthcoming is a particularly fine-looking study of the work of the Japanese metabolist architects in the 1960s and 70s – metabolism, with its space frames, mass cuboid volumes and megastructures being a visible influence on OMA’s architecture.
“We explain our organisation as two typologies that work closely together. OMA is architecture and AMO is everything but architecture,” says Van der Chijs. “Organisationally, it’s all the same entity.” The two halves of the office are symbiotic – nearly all OMA architecture projects, from the lowliest failed competition entries, lead to publications, and AMO’s research work can lead to buildings. OMA’s work with Prada stands as an example: the fashion label was first an architectural client, for the 2001 Epicenters in NY and LA and lately the 2009 Prada Transformer, and now has the office working on branding, shows and installations. Dead architectural projects tend to go into print, or form exhibitions – an exemplar being On Hold, an exhibition in Rome earlier this year of masterplanning projects dumped in the deep freeze during the financial crisis. This publishing instinct runs deep, says Stephan Petermann, a researcher for six years with particular responsibility for AMO: “Travelling around the world with OMA, seeing so many impressions everywhere is really a driving force; you think ‘somebody’s got to write about this’, and you realise nobody’s writing about it yet or that you have a specific angle that you want to pursue in it, and it becomes a project on its own.”
AMO’s work continues to expand, taking on some of the scale of an NGO – its consulting for the European Union through the 2000s culminating in its ambitious recasting of the continent into “energy regions” earlier this year; the establishment of the Strelka design school in Moscow; present work with UNESCO on changing approaches to world heritage. Van der Chijs casually calls this “extreme masterplanning” – drafting the fate of continents, of the world’s built environment in its entirety.
Laura Baird, an associate who has worked at OMA for four years, says the vast scale on which AMO’s research arm now works is key to the insights it is able to provide: “A lot of our work on this large-scale renewable energy planning, for example, is really about breaking down borders: in order to address the problem at an appropriate scale, you have to take into consideration the territorial needs but not the borders of the countries, as such, or of the states, as such.”
This expansion beyond architecture makes business sense, diversifying the office’s sources of income. But it is also in a way ideological, related to the OMA way of looking at the world. “Ultimately,” says Baird, one of only a few architects inside AMO, “an architect’s office is often seen as having a limited area of expertise … instead of increasing our area of expertise, [we can] widen the definition of architecture, and then it’s possible that, in a way, everything is architecture. Branding is also a form of architecture, marketing is also a form of architecture, energy is also a form of architecture, infrastructure is also a form of architecture. We use the architect’s mentality and apply the methodology of architecture to different processes.”
OMA’s breakneck internal pace comes at a cost – the company has an extremely high turnover of staff, as implied by the number of independent practices that spin out of it; high numbers of burnouts are also rumoured. Incredibly, this high turnover is company policy. “We want to refresh and renew our organisation on a permanent basis,” says Van der Chijs. “We really want every year at least 25 percent of our people to be new. And we want them to be young, bright people. The idea [is] … that we really need those people to feed in new ideas, make sure that OMA stays relevant and really understands what is going on.”
Many companies would balk at this kind of turnover. A high churn rate of staff is very costly – time is tied up training, knowledge and experience is continually leaking away, good practices can be hard to maintain. The benefits of new blood are less apparent when you have to lug a dialysis machine around with you the whole time. Petermann acknowledges that there are “tremendous costs” but adds, “At the same time it’s also really fun that it has its own metabolism.” And while columns of hugely talented young people sluice through its doors, OMA’s core of partners and managers remains extremely stable.
“Most people know that when they join OMA, that they work on average for three years here and after that, they leave,” says Van der Chijs. “It’s already in their minds.” And he adds that their departure is not necessarily a loss to the office – it can mean on the contrary, another OMA agent out in the world. “Either we encounter them with our clients or they, after they start [their own company], bring their own projects to us and work with us together on that.”
Looked at with these expectations in mind – people join OMA knowing they are in for an intensive but short and valuable experience that will leave them ready to start up on their own – and the office starts to look more like an elite college than an architecture and research firm. “The environment that is generated from the projects here is an incredibly strong learning experience, a fast-track learning experience,” says Veldman. “You learn much more here in a year than you would learn in a university.”
What’s more, this internal managed chaos means OMA is uniquely able to cope with the external chaos of the seething globalised world. “You have to be intensely flexible,” says Veldman, just in order to work in an international, constantly changing office. “There is an enormous range required of types of work that you should be able to do. And you can be switched from one project to another overnight. We always try to get people to the right spots but it just doesn’t always happen in reality, so … very versatile people are required. They have to respond quickly.” There is never any settling down.
See OMA as a kind of super-academy and its involvement in setting up the Strelka design school in Moscow makes more and more sense. “Strelka gives us direct access to a group of bright young people that we wanted to see,” says Van der Chijs, presenting it as a kind of prep school for OMA. “After the first course, of a group that I think was 20 students, we hired three of them.”
Still, the Darwinian battle-of-ideas model does have costs, and Petermann, a confidant of Koolhaas, suggests that the office may make efforts to move beyond it in future. “It can be the best way to explore the unthought and the never-before-seen,” he says, “but it is also part of a lack of control and a lack of vision in a way. What we’re trying to do is probably to generate a more coherent and more regular vision.”
This goes hand in hand with a new desire to pursue “generic architecture”, to go beyond the spectacular shapemaking that has characterised the global architecture of the past couple of decades, and make “unspectacular buildings that have spectacular qualities”, says Petermann, to improve the great middling part of architecture, “the mediocrity you see out of the window”, rather than the headlining top 10 percent. Shenzhen Stock Exchange, under construction, is cited as an early example of this new approach (an unapologetic tower impaling a box, its spectacular aspects are still a little more evident than its unspectacular ones). More prosaic, and possibly more influential, is a fresh take on that perennially tempting yet elusive goal for architects: an attractive modular system for office building. But, as Petermann says, “still I think 90 percent of clients ask us to design an iconic building”.
And there are other iconoclastic moves in the offing. There’s new focus on the countryside by Koolhaas, one of the city’s most brilliant champions and oracles since Delirious New York, his hymn to Manhattan; a shift away from computer visualisations by a studio that has seemed to thrive in the pixel-froth of the digital age; and, with the Cronocaos exhibition at the Venice Biennale this year and the work with UNESCO, a new focus on heritage and preservation by an office noted for, well, iconoclasm. A new conservatism for a tougher, more troubled world? It’s hard to believe. OMA and AMO thrive on global upheaval. “The markets, the politics, everything’s falling apart,” says Petermann. “It gives us enough to write about and think about, for us it’s golden years, probably. There’s enough interesting stuff happening … and we keep optimistic.”
OMA/Progress is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, 6 October 2011 to 19 February 2012