When I saw OMA/AMO’s last monographic exhibition Content, my head exploded. It was November 2003, I was a 3rd year student on a study tour of Europe, and I’ve barely recovered since. Nobody told me architecture could be like that. An overwhelming mess of ideas, tests, videos, supergraphics, merchandise, humour, inflatables, graffiti, politics, timelines, arrogance, anxiety, doubt. All ravaging the entry level of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin — a level Mies intended to be kept clear — oh the cheek of it!
Content exhibition, installed in Berlin’s Mies-designed Neue Nationalgalerie, 2003.
This audacity wasn’t limited to the presentation; the projects too propelled prankishness to the next level. CCTV’s unthinkable cantilever (“why don’t engineers ever say ‘no’?”); the Whitney Museum extension’s ‘reach around’ of Breuer (another offended master); the Seattle Library’s ‘waterfall of information’ rendering the institution’s very source of value an unintelligible torrent; the pragmatic EU barcode flag collecting new member states like notches on the bedpost.
It’s with this in mind (and much in-between, including having worked with Koolhaas/AMO on Al Manakh 2) that I approached the latest exhibition of the practice: Progress, staged at London’s Barbican Centre. I’d avoided all images, all reviews of the show, and plugged my ears when friends would talk about it — all in the belief that an untainted mind would increase the chance of another explosion. But my head stayed stubbornly intact, it barely even fizzed…
Progress exhibition, installed in London’s Barbican Gallery, 2012. Source.
The exhibition is built around the productive evidence of an office serious about building: including marble flooring samples, sightline analyses, 1 to 1 truss mockups, an unfinished plasterboard wall, glazing film tests, and presentation models. Of course, this focus on construction and materiality is a key interest of Rotor, the Belgian-based designers invited to curate the show, but they were surely invited for a reason… Notwithstanding a number of flashes of the OMA we know and love (the handwritten commentary, the ‘secret room’, the relentless flashing images pulled from the server) the overwhelming statement made by this exhibition is: “We’re not the cultural agitators you think we are! We’ve grown out of that phase, and we’re actually really good at making buildings!”
This must be the ‘progress’ that the show’s title describes: from audacity to competence.
The shift is not just limited to OMA’s exhibitions, but to their output as a whole. Where Al Manakh 1 was fast and loose, Al Manakh 2 is scholarly and rigorous. Where the CCTV humbles you with its cantilever, the Rothschilds HQ speaks of polite contextualism and sightlines. Where the IIT campus centre challenges the orthogonality of Mies, Cornell’s Milstein Hall takes pride in its earnest box-ness. Etc.
These comparisons imply a specific point in time that the office’s agenda changed tack, but this transition is not explicit, and is far from complete. The Cronocaos exhibit at the 2010 Venice Biennale (particularly the work on the upper level) was typical of the Content-era attitude to ‘research’ – loose with the facts, and persuasive at the expense of rigour. Equally, the imminent completion of the CCTV and its prominent use in the Progress publicity images, blurs the fact that this building was designed almost a decade ago, and is therefore a product of the ‘old’ office.
Cronocaos exhibition, installed in the Italian pavilion as part of the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale.
There doesn’t seem to be a single catalyst for this shift, but a combination of internal direction and external reality. In an economic climate of uncertainty, maintaining the solvency of a large commercial architectural practice requires a safe business strategy – as evidenced by the elevation of Victor van der Chijs to partner. On an architectural scale (OMA), with higher borrowing costs and a flagging real-estate sector, clients and developers are more risk averse and are looking for architects with a safe pair of hands, not just a capacity for designing an icon. On the level of research (AMO), criticism from such respected voices as Mike Davis or John Thackara has forced the think tank to lift its game. In this regard, the unpublished Lagos book featured in the exhibition, seems to stands right on the edge between these two states of the office: cancelled despite years of work, assumedly — judging from a quick read of the draft copy in the reading room — for employing the intentionally naive approach to research, which no longer fits with the office’s new self-conception.
Draft copy of the abandoned Lagos book project, as exhibited in Progress.
Of course all architecture should aim for quality, professionalism and scholarship – but these are not subjects I had associated with OMA/AMO, who occupy the elevated narratives of globalisation, identity and culture. Whether this new trajectory is considered ‘progress’ depends upon your perspective. It’s probably good for business, but bad for 3rd year students hoping for their heads to explode.Posted: March 25th, 2012
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