Content: Rem Koolhaas/OMA/AMO - Buildings, Projects and Concepts since 1996
At the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, until 18 January and then at the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, from 27 March We all know that exhibiting architecture is not about architecture itself but, rather, several means of representation. Sometimes a foundation opens its archives and tries to bring a specific point of view. Then, in the context of history, the smallest sketch or the tiniest model gains an incredible value.
With 'Content', Rem Koolhaas, his architectural office OMA and its think-tank AMO, have decided to show all that they produce on an everyday basis - as if a crazy archivist has opened boxes and displayed the treasures he found, with no specific hierarchy. On the ground floor of Mies'Neue Nationalgalerie of 1962, hundreds of blue foam models and other working materials are presented. There are booklets for building projects, a sculpture by Tony Oursler with the face of Rem Koolhaas reading 'Junkspace', faxes sent by Cecil Balmond, material samples for the Prada buildings, Candida Höfer's photographs of the new Dutch Embassy in Berlin and a little shop trying to sell T-Shirts embossed with logos of the projects presented.
If S, M, L, XL was a bombastic book, a never-before-seen object in the history of architectural publications, 'Content' is its direct continuation in the question of architectural exhibitions. During the last eight years only a few publications, mostly magazines, have presented the projects of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Therefore, when you enter the Nationalgalerie, the shock is astonishing. It is as if the 3kg-heavy S, M, L, XL was falling on your head.
Displaying the projects in a rather free and random plan, the sections are divided only by low walls, pasted with the now classic OMA collages, mixing statistics, diagrams, terse aphorisms and newspaper images. Just a few boards hanging from the ceiling allow you to find your way in this crazy supermarket. The light coming from suspended neon tubes and curved mirrors (which let the few attendants keep an eye on the visitors) emphasises the shopping-mall atmosphere.
Even the models are protected with the little magnetic anti-theft devices you now find in book or record shops.
The exhibition presents OMA's projects since 1996, from the CCTV Headquarters to the Campus Center at the IIT in Chicago via the Casa da Musica in Porto. A few early landmarks are added, discreetly placed in the exhibition space: a model of the Rotterdam Kunsthal, another of the competition entry for the TrÞs Grande BibliothÞque de France in Paris. These two late 1980s projects present Koolhaas' relationship with space: how up becomes down; how a ceiling turns into a ramp and becomes another floor; or, simply, how space can wind up on itself to produce architecture. It is easy to see the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin or the Seattle Public Library as direct sequels of those projects. If there is a will in 'Content' it is probably to show how, since the completion of the Utrecht Educatorium, all the theories and experiments of OMA have become everyday working tools of an architecture office.
The House in Bordeaux, designed in 1994, is another landmark to which 'Content' brings a new vision. Since the original owner died, his family has removed the working desk from the elevating platform and changed the relationship within the house; now a gigantic 'pillow' is in its place.
To see a replica of it here is moving. There is almost no other document about the house (one model, two photographs and a video) and so this section stands out, humble and restrained - qualities that we don't normally connect with the works of Koolhaas.
S, M, L, XL quickly became a bible for students and a reference for trendy architecture books. But there is little chance that 'Content' will become a new archetype of architecture exhibition. It is too controversial and disturbing, too megalomaniacal and attractive.
But by showing all that stands behind the scenes of its projects and buildings there is no doubt that, once again, Koolhaas will influence his numerous followers. So architects armed with digital cameras shoot in all directions at the exhibition, trying to sense the secrets that make OMA run.
Thibaut de Ruyter is a writer in Berlin. See the building study on p24-37