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OMA/Progress at the Barbican

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OMA’s first UK exhibition is noisy and invigorating, but cutting through the cacophony is a challenge, writes James Pallister

(Original print headline: oh! Erm… eh?)

While the V&A grapples with what Post-modernism is or isn’t, interested visitors should hop across town to the Barbican, for a show which, perhaps unwittingly, reveals a lot about our current state of modernity.

OMA/Progressis the first major show in the UK to examine the work of Rem Koolhaas’ 37-year old Dutch practice. A quote from Philip K Dick kicks it off: ‘Do not believe that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe.’ It’s an instructive preamble to a show that is messy, complex and invigorating.


Since Koolhaas, Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis established the practice in 1975, OMA have been trailblazers for a new type of globe-trotting practice. It is known as much for its publishing output, which includes the best-selling Delirious New York (1978), the mega-doorstop S,M,L,XL(1998), The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping(2002), as its built works, which include the CCTV Tower, Beijing, Porto’s Casa da Música, Seattle Central Library and Taipei Performing Arts Centre.

They realised early on that the party had moved on from fusty old buildings, as is noted in the exhibition, that ‘true modernisation now takes place in domains removed from the physical’. They were to be masters of the information economy, plying a trade not just in bricks and mortar, but also in terabytes of abstracted data, of image building, research and branding.

Architects were aware of the importance of PR long before Frank Lloyd Wright donned his cape for the first time and the combination of teaching, writing and building is a tried and tested one. What’s new is the order of scale. OMA and its thinktank AMO (set up to meet the ‘increasing demand for expertise in media’) have managed – in a sort of Moore’s law for publishing – to keep their productive output apace with the massive expansion of IT, and the voracious demand
and availability of images seen in the last 30 years. In a world where winners of the global game are pro-market, hyper-mobile, information-dense and image-savvy, OMA are virtuosos.


The task of mediating the arch-mediators falls to Rotor, a young Belgian practice. Its Belgian Pavilion stole the show at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, where Koolhaas spotted their quiet yet powerful depiction of the process of wear on small parts of rooms; banisters, carpets, and the like. This show is much more bombastic, and the huge amount of material on display means that it requires a certain degree of stamina.

There are plenty of examples of the provocative analysis that made Koolhaas and his colleagues famous. In a part of the show dedicated to Current Concerns, the practice’s partners have written short paragraphs. One of these rues that although ‘our objective, supposedly amoral, stance has been taken as complicity… since 2002 we became the horrified spectators of a runaway economic rollercoaster’. Another predicts the rise of the ‘art city: museums so extensive that they can only be conceived and understood through the framework of urbanism’. Elsewhere, there’s speculation on the possibility of London’s regeneration backfiring, criticising ‘an excessive focus on the public realm [that] promotes an urban void of accident, coincidence, and surprise’. Supposedly, these attempts to ‘eliminate the bad will only lead to its more triumphant return’; an eerie observation since the London riots.

The practice’s contrariness can be fruitful: it even made post-occupancy analysis sexy! In the 2006 special edition of Domus, Koolhaas wrote an editorial that combined his usual perspicacity with the impression of someone tired of being mithered by critics. ‘In the Bermuda Triangle of architecture/critic/public, the market economy has given each corner a perfect incentive for character assassination.’ Architects were ‘a contemporary Faustus, drowning in attention, but not taken seriously’. So away they went, ‘away from the triumphalist or miserabilist glare of media’ to record how their buildings were now being used. And to make a fat, glossy magazine, of course, occupying the role of architect and critic at once.

The diagrams displayed here do the same for the expansion of art galleries as the practice’s CRONOCAOS show at last year’s Venice biennale did for conservation. There, they neatly unpicked a global accelerating obsession with preservation. Here, they record the massive increase in art gallery footprints, from the British Museum’s expansion, to the Heritage Galleries in Moscow. Characters from these institutions are shown in crude, often funny, collages with a trash aesthetic that permeates throughout, one of which shows Norman Foster leering out. Elsewhere, building materials are stacked, a pile of glass panels propped against a wall here, a collection of Ellen van Loon’s travertine samples there.


In the ‘secret room’, Rotor picks up on OMA’s interest in self-reflection by spreading out material collected from the practice’s waste bins over a month. The ephemera give an interesting insight into the minutiae of office life, and its charms, frustrations and humour. Letters to lawyers, print-outs of newscuttings (‘Architects the sexiest profession’), ruminations on ‘Life after Rem’, a graph showing the inverse proportion between the amount of building foam left in the model shop and the days left to a big deadline, form the collection.

They’ve done interesting things with the geography of the Barbican, opening up the west entrance of the art gallery for the first time and puncturing a path through the exhibition so that passers-by can see some of it without paying to enter. They can also spill out onto the Barbican’s Sculpture Court, which shows a 1:1 footprint of OMA’s new Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow.


OMA have picked up their fair share of critics along the way. An essay by Rick Poynor in the Harvard Design Magazinein 2002, considers OMA’s Manhattan Prada shop and its accompanying literature. He comments on its frustrating tendency towards hybridity, which sees a shop look more like a ‘funky, hi-tech arts centre’. He calls for a return to previously respected categories ‘between art and non-art, between instrumental work and work undertaken for its own sake’.

Koolhaas has always been refreshingly upfront about the instrumental nature of architecture. He has also been criticised for stressing capitalism’s woes while serving up ever-advanced iterations of its products. Jean Baudrillard had a useful phrase for having it both ways; ‘the “cool” smile’ of commercials and pop culture. Writing in The Consumer Society, he says: ‘Its smile ultimately encapsulates all its ambiguity: it is not the smile of critical distance, but the smile of collusion.’ Similarly, by handing re-presentation of his practice to Rotor, he is both the object of study, and off the hook.
A thrilling ride then, but does the exhibition make deciphering the beliefs of OMA any easier?


It’s difficult to cut through the cacophony. One of the exhibits, which seems to neatly sum up the practice’s obsession with massive amounts of data, is a slideshow that rattles through all 3.5 million images stored on OMA’s database at sub-strobe-pace over 48 hours. Is this a rhetorical device: a means of creating an obfuscatory fog, where everything is seen and nothing revealed? Or is this a brave revealing of the productive mess in which OMA operate, comfortable in the ambiguities and complexities of modernity? Intense parts of the show such as this turn the viewer’s gaze back on themselves, forcing them to consider their place within this hectic global information economy.

Go and see it. Once there, to end with sociologist Marshall Berman’s thoughts on modernity, you can ‘make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, make its rhythms one’s own, [and] move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty… that its fervid and perilous flow allow’.

Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2, until 19 February, £8 www.barbican.org.uk

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