Where does originality and independent thinking come from? The answer is prosaically straight forward – from an inquiring individual, and an experimental environment wouldn’t hurt to stimulate it. Rem Koolhaas is credited with fostering such an environment, both through building his practice, Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), a 300-architect network of seven global offices, and teaching at Harvard’s GSD, as well as lecturing all over the world. Koolhaas now has eight partners. One of the eight, since 2008, is Shohei Shigematsu who heads OMA New York since 2006. The studio originally numbered just a handful of people and over the years has grown into a large practice of 75 architects with a focus on projects in North America.
Born in 1973, in Fukuoka, Japan, Shigematsu likes to point out that his birth coincided with the moment when Japan’s economy started to decline. Still, the post-war generation of his parents believed that the economy was going to grow and keep modernizing. It did, and the process was very integral with new construction, so architecture was of interest from an early age. When Shigematsu was ten, his father was invited to teach science at an American university. That presented an opportunity for the whole family to spend one year in Boston, which also contributed to Shigematsu’s decision to study architecture. We met for the following conversation at OMA New York to discuss the architect’s role in the company, his search for personal identity, and, of course, architecture’s top priority – its concern with beauty.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: It has been ten years since you became the partner at OMA and twenty years since you started working at the company, initially at the Rotterdam office. What was it that attracted you to work with Rem Koolhaas in the first place?
Shohei Shigematsu: I applied to OMA right after studying at the Berlage Institute. I think the reason was my then believe that if you wanted to become a good architect you had to have a strong personal agenda or a manifesto. In that vein, I was compelled by architects such as Robert Venturi and Rem. These architects would develop their work in a series of stages – from keen observations to rigorous analysis, which often resulted in decisive, programmatically driven designs. Following such an approach involves solid teamwork, forgoing the need for such a strong personal agenda – you don’t have to be a genius to achieve a great result. Although, in the case of Rem, he probably is a genius.
VB: You believe that, right?
SS: Yes, absolutely. So, the approach I am describing was extremely liberating and refreshing because I focus on observation and I keep digging to all the givens of each problem.
VB: You are saying that a personal agenda can be taken out of the equation? Wouldn’t you agree that Rem’s observations are very personal and the kind of questions he is asking are beyond the givens of each problem, beyond of what a client may require, and beyond of what the site or program may suggest?
SS: Sure, but his agenda or interests are very consistent. They are focused on questioning modernization, the multiplicity of functions, urbanization, and there is always a skepticism of the architectural profession [in his questioning]. So, in a way, Rem has liberated me personally by teaching me to observe the world more carefully and reacting specifically to particular circumstances rather than concentrating on forming my own agenda and developing a manifesto. So, I am not saying that he doesn’t have an agenda, but what I learned most is that I always have the starting point in the circumstance of the project itself, and that is liberating.
VB: Could you touch on your professional arrangement with Rem and his involvement with the New York office production? In other words, how independent are you and how significant is his impact on the work currently being developed here?
SS: It has been evolving. In the first five or so years, he felt that he needed to be a part of the design process and to interact with clients. But OMA has been growing steadily, opening new locations in Europe, America, Middle East, and Asia. So, it has become increasingly difficult for him to be active in so many places at once. America, in particular, at least due to the 2008 financial crisis, for a while, was not a priority and that gave me an opportunity to lead this office. It wasn’t easy to go to meetings where clients would expect to meet Rem and instead, they would see a young Asian guy. [Laughs.]
VB: So how did you position yourself to earn trust on the part of the clients?
SS: After being here for a couple of years I started readjusting the way I presented myself. First, the message was – we are a young firm. We are a part of a giant global firm with its experience, resources, and talents. But we are also a local firm where I am the design leader. Of course, in the beginning, this did not work at all. But eventually, people started realizing that as long as we share Rem’s and OMA’s way of thinking we can deliver a project at the highest expectations. So now we have about 75 people and in terms of creative staff, we are about the same as OMA’s main Rotterdam office.
VB: And today, when clients come here do they still expect Rem to be a part of their project?
SS: Not necessarily. I think more clients, as well as the public, are beginning to recognize OMA’s partners as individualistic, independent leaders.
VB: So, clients come here because of you?
SS: Yes, but there are some exceptions. Rem was involved in the design of 121 East 22nd Street, our first ground-up building in New York, as well as the New Museum extension. For such projects, he is typically most involved during the planning phase. He is not involved at all in other projects run out of the New York office.
VB: And he doesn’t mind that, right?
SS: Not only that but other partners, including those in the Rotterdam office are now becoming more independent in developing their own projects. That is now becoming the identity of the OMA office – every partner is cultivating his or her own identity under the overall OMA way of thinking. Rem continues to have his own projects as well.
VB: I want to understand better the way you work on projects here. You said, “We change concept if we can’t come to a good form.” Could you elaborate on your position?
SS: I think this notion that OMA method is driven by program and is therefore very boxy and dry is a myth because what we care about most is beauty. So, in those cases when programmatic or contextual assessments don’t lead not just to a surprising but beautiful outcome we will reassess that approach until we conceive what, in our opinion, is considered beautiful. Of course, whether something is beautiful is open for debate. So, we are often perceived as rational thinkers, and it is true that so many of our forms come from such things as program diagrams, but our design process is never direct, linear, or literal. We go back and forth between rational thinking and post-rationalization, and form-making. This process is very dynamic, but beauty and originality play a very critical role. I am always looking for something that was not thought of or seen before. I don’t like to repeat what was done before. I push for something surprising, different, and new.
VB: You said, “I have never put my identity forward when I’m designing.” Were you talking about your Japanese identity or personal identity, as a creative author?
SS: I would love to find my way too, but my starting point was different from those architects who opened their own practices early on and had to put their identities forward and gradually grew into bigger firms. Here, I worked within an established system, and then took over the New York office. I had to figure out how to make the New York office grow as a distinct offshoot of an established brand. I succeeded in developing the OMA way of thinking, as far as building projects on what was given, while remaining consistent with how the office worked before me. Now, ironically, more and more, I am asked for my personal preferences. What kind of architect am I? So, I am thinking about my own identity at this later stage. I want to be clear about what I like personally. Yet, I would not want to be fixated on any particular style. I am now at a point when I am looking back, analyzing the last ten years here at OMA New York and I am also looking forward, trying to envision what will be the direction for our office in the next ten years. How it will shape my identity? I don’t know if I want to go into multiple directions, but even if I wanted to choose one, I don’t think I have it yet. My Journey is starting now.
VB: You said that you are always looking for possibilities to reinvent a familiar program because architecture can disguise behind different forms and materials, but – if the program is the same, then your experience will also be the same. Is that the key focus in your work – program?
SS: These ideas came out of my analysis of mixed-use projects, as well as Rem’s writing about the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan that combined a sequence of disconnected floor programs such as hotel, athletic facilities, hospital clinic, interior golf course, Turkish bath, and swimming pool. They all worked independently both from each other and the building’s exterior envelope. What came out of this analysis was to conceive an ideal form for each program and then start stacking them up. The Seattle Public Library is a good example. I particularly like how the project addressed its future; it is run very successfully. It is a great assembly of volumes that are both fixed and continuously altered. The form is very beautiful, and it works with its structure quite well. The building’s beauty is not arbitrary; it is responsive to its complex program. I think it is one of the best public buildings in the world.
VB: We know that OMA has shifted its focus on various subjects over the years, such as iconic and generic forms in architecture, while Rem also developed interests in preservation and countryside, among other topics. What is the current focus of the New York office?
SS: I would name landscape and integrating architecture into landscape and nature.
VB: So, you are talking about this shift of going from buildings as standalone objects to buildings as environments. Introducing social engagement to architecture, and what can be a better building than a park? I like that. My only objection is that just about everyone is preoccupied with this idea in very similar ways. That is everyone’s focus today. As a critic, I am concerned with the lack of ideas right now. There is no diversity anymore.
SS: The media has pushed us into this situation.
VB: And the architects have pushed the media because there came a point when architecture became so saturated with ideas that the critics no longer could be engaged in a meaningful critique of the form-making. When architects started defending their ideas with their “why not?” attitude that eventually put an end to any meaningful discussion with the critics. That’s why so many of them are simply going over their checklist: green – check mark, social engagement – check mark, a bench – check mark. And if it is just an expressive form, they stumble and tend to evaluate it negatively, and even go as far as calling it unethical, especially if it takes great resources to achieve it, like the CCTV Headquarters.
SS: Well, maybe our focus is banal. [Laughs.] But I am describing to you our thinking and where we stand today. And we are focused on as many diverse projects as possible in terms of size and programs. That’s what generates energy here; we try to avoid having a single focus. Many of our projects now integrate parks but I am also skeptical about overloading parks with programs. I think people enjoy parks that have no program at all. Do we need to program everything? That is alarming. And the number of buildings that are integrated into parks is a representation of that tendency. Everything becomes very active to compete for attention.
VB: Rem said that architecture is a form of scriptwriting. What is it for you?
SS: I agree, and I enjoy architecture as a narrative, particularly about the design process. Establishing narratives within a project at all phases gives a different understanding of design and the opportunity to communicate our core philosophy.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written nine books, including New York: Architectural Guide (DOM, 2019), Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: world tours of the work of Harry Seidler (since 2012), Emilio Ambasz (2017-18), Sergei Tchoban (since 2016), Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15), and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH. In 2018, he was a visiting scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He has lectured at universities and museums in more than 30 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest conversations with the most innovative international architects. Since 2002, he interviewed over 300 architects. These intimate conversations are featured in the curator’s ongoing site-specific installations made up of voice recordings and thought-provoking quotes.