While the final products of OMA's oeuvre are well-documented and widely published, a large portion of the Dutch firm's work goes unrecognized and relatively unnoticed: the contextual, solution-oriented research undertaken by AMO. Although OMA’s lesser-known twin, AMO is vital to OMA’s approach, allowing the firm to delve into a world of context and explore possibilities beyond the built form.
It was with this in mind that we sat down with Reinier de Graaf, a partner at the firm. In addition to the building and masterplan projects he also manages on the OMA side of things, de Graaf has been the director of AMO since 2002, overseeing a diverse portfolio of projects. Over the past few years, AMO's energies have fueled the creation of the curriculum at Strelka; a "roadmap" for a de-carbonized power grid for the EU; and an exhibition that celebrated the architect as civil servant.
From our very first question (what is OMA's mission?), de Graaf answered with his characteristic aversion to "general terms," explaining that "[OMA's] mission is to explore unexpected subjects [...] without a preconceived mission."
AD: What is the mission of OMA?
That’s a very macro question. We get asked this question often, and I find it very difficult to answer such a general question in general terms, because I’m afraid that if you state the mission explicitly it becomes an incredibly inhibiting, harnessing identity, and then every next thing you do has to comply with that mission. I don’t think that’s the basis upon which we operate.
I think we operate a lot from the gut, from intuition, from intuitively embracing things that we’re interested in, things that very often don’t seem appealing, high-brow, or very tasteful at first sight. I think that, if anything, our mission is to explore unexpected subjects in an unprejudiced way - to approach unexpected subjects without a preconceived mission.
AD: How does AMO work?
AMO is a vehicle to extend the definition of architecture; I guess we always did that, even before there was AMO, because whenever we worked on a building we explored a hell of a lot more things and a hell of a lot more context than is normal when you do a building - I would hesitate to call it research, but I would say that there was an added layer of curiosity, which we never took on its own terms. It was just self-evident that when you did a building you did that kind of thing.
But towards the end of the 90s onwards, the nature of the questions we were asked began to change. More and more organizations that approached us to do a building actually had a purpose for that building that was much bigger: the building was just one element of an overall repositioning and rethinking about identity and strategy. That was the moment that an implicit extra in our work became an independent thing on its own and manifested itself in different products than just buildings.
And of course teaching is a natural part of that because, although only a small segment of OMA is AMO, by teaching you can then extend your workforce, you can extend the reservoir of potential in thinking about certain subjects, thinking without immediately having to put it to use, without an immediate economic purpose to it. Increasingly in the world everything needs to have an immediate economic purpose; the luxury of wasting time and dreaming is increasingly getting smaller. In that sense, universities are also a very nice vehicle.
AD: What do you think about Architecture Education? Is it in crisis?
It’s always very opportune to identify anything as being in a crisis, because that means that there’s work to do and then there’s work for yourself to do - so I would endorse any crisis you identify as a big opportunity.
I’m not sure if it is though. [...] I’m against putting universities to to much of an immediate economical use; if you say that education is in crisis, then that is the crisis - it’s not a crisis from within but from that external position.
AD: How did you conceive of the Strelka curriculum?
Well we did the Strelka curriculum in conjunction with the Russians, who are ultimately responsible for the school. The Strelka curriculum, now in its third year, came about as the result of a series of conversations on topics that are particularly relevant for the Russia of the present day. [The idea is that] in the course of a number of years we will have explored in a relatively free manner a number of subjects, which, together, could define an identity for Russia after communism.
It’s very interesting that, according to us, Russia’s in an inter-ideological state; that there was for 70 years a very strong ideology that is no longer valid, but that in terms of habit continues to determine much of the country. Meanwhile, it has an economy firmly rooted in oil and gas that allows them to suspend thinking about where they eventually want to go. In a way they’ve had a 20 year period of vacation, subsidized by oil revenues, and it’s clear that that cannot go on for ever. Maybe Russia, more than ourselves, needs a kind of mission of where it wants to go in the 21st century.
We never state it as boldly as that, because it sounds very grandiose. But by looking at the vast quantities of public space that are in Russian cities as a leftover of communist planning; by looking at elements of their old science program and what relevance that could have in the future; by looking at remnants from the past - particular, indigenous Russian things - and what kind of potential they could hold for the future, we hope that, by doing that long enough, that these series of modest subjects form a vision.
How does OMA address climate change?
I don’t think climate change or energy were ever themes; they were small segments of a larger mission. If you add all our projects together - like the energy projects, the projects we’ve done about mega-cities, the thinking about the countryside that Rem is currently doing, the whole revisiting of a recent 1960s and 70s forms of architecture both in Cronocaos and in the Public Works Exhibition in Venice - they are all part of a covert political agenda, where we look to find alternative models vis à vis the prevalent model that the market economy is currently dictating, not just in the area of the economy, but increasingly in the realms of culture and architecture too.
In a way, they are small elements of what I would call a political project, where it’s legitimate for architecture to not just be useful, but also to be a domain where one thinks big - as people like Buckminster Fuller and exponents of the 1960s did.
How must society change to meet the challenges it is facing?
Underlying in such a question is that it has to change. I think the whole notion of change is problematic because change is increasingly pursued for the sake of change itself. Change is another product of the market economy; it’s what you need to sustain a type of heightened excitement.
But, I don’t know, I think the new - if you can call it that - is sometimes nothing more than the well-forgotten old. Many of our projects, even when they’re about contemporary issues, show an active interest in history, particularly in a context that is often dominated by amnesia. So I’m rather ambivalent about the notion of change - it depends on how you define it.
How would you define change?
I would like to describe it as an extension of the scope of thought, of the broadening of both the mindset, the interests, but also the responsibilities that you claim.
What is the relationship between architecture and politics?
I don’t think that architects should become politicians per se - I think we’ve had some pretty daunting examples of that happening - but I do think that there is a very beneficial potential alliance between architecture and what is left of the public sector. If the cultural domain and the architectural domain are actually on the side of the public sector, then they might together mobilize a credible force to resist, or bend the whims of the market economy into a slightly more meaningful and generous thing.
There is a natural affinity between us and the public sector as two parties that, almost by definition, have to care about the whole. As an architect you have to mediate a lot of different interests and make them coalesce into a single product. I think the public sector is faced with the same thing. Market parties always represent a partial interest; they maximize that interest almost always at the expense of everything else. There is an obligation to think holistically that is present both in architecture and is clearly the responsibility of the public sector, so I think there is a natural bond between the two.
But it seems that relationship isn’t as strong as it used to be...
But that’s also partially a history lesson. I mean, the Venice Biennale of last summer was about a phenomenon that doesn’t exist any more; it was about the architect as an anonymous civil servant doing very beautiful buildings with very minimal personal recognition, which is of course directly opposed to the phenomenon of the star architect that we see today. The "star architects" encounter a weird cross curve between recognition and relevance. If [we’re seeing] the apotheosis of fame for architects, actually their societal relevance is probably hitting rock bottom.
That’s one of the other purposes of AMO; it’s a vehicle that lets you get involved really early, often well before any one thinks of commissioning a building, so that you’re aware of the causes you’re being asked to serve beforehand. It can also be a vehicle, albeit in a limited way, to eliminate some of the naivete that is very prevalent among architects, even amongst very famous architects today.
How important are marketing, networking, and lobbying to your office?
Probably very important, but I don’t really have much to say about it. I think they’re self-evident activities that in the current economy are important to any profession. [...]
It’s really a matter of whether they can be taught. Not everybody is a naturally talented networker, marketer, or lobbyist - there are many good designers who are not so good at explaining what they do and there are good talkers who aren’t good designers. But given the importance of the three things you mentioned, architecture will become a matter of teamwork more and more, where you have to resign to the fact that all these things are important, but you can’t be good at everything. So you team up with people who bring what you lack, and visa versa.