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OMA’s Reinier de Graaf writes not from contempt, but love

Paul Finch
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The Dutch architect’s stimulating new book gives a fascinating insight into the complex nature of a simple profession 

Two recently published books, both by Dutch architects, cast critical perspectives on the output, values and working practices of the profession.

The first, Architecture Matters (Thames & Hudson, 142pp), is by the critic Aaron Betsky. He delivers a combination of advice, reminiscence and anecdote in pithy texts which require no illustration. He is in equal measure informative and entertaining.

The second, launched at the Building Centre in London last Friday, is by OMA director Reinier de Graaf. Four Walls and a Roof (Harvard University Press, 513pp) has, as its length suggests, greater scope. It provides descriptions of, and reflections upon, what it means to be a practising international architect today, but also includes fascinating accounts of subjects ranging from the triumph of Neufertist standards and panelised construction in the USSR and East Germany, to the story behind the construction and demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

Reinier de graaf web

Reinier de graaf web

Source: OMA

Reinier de Graaf

This is the most stimulating book on architecture and its practice that I have read for years. Not only is de Graaf a good anecdotalist (his hilarious account of a long-winded and fruitless masterplanning competition in Russia should be turned into a film), but a perceptive analyst of how architecture represents, or connects with, wider political and economic movements and trends. Observations are provocative; for example: ‘Democracy becomes a matter of nostalgia for the times when it could not be taken for granted.’

OMA’s ill-fated White City project no doubt followed de Graaf’s advice on ‘how to be an urban consultant’, which is to invoice fast and frequently

I had the pleasure of hearing him lecture at the British School in Rome in 2011, where he staged an exhibition called ‘On Hold’. This was devoted to various projects OMA had started but hadn’t finished, including an ill-fated attempt to masterplan a multi-ownership site at White City in London, which wasted seven years of the practice’s time, though no doubt it followed de Graaf’s advice on ‘how to be an urban consultant’, which is to invoice fast and frequently. 

A few years later I chaired a selection panel for the Commonwealth Institute residential project, which OMA won following a presentation by de Graaf, which went roughly as follows: ‘We asked ourselves what is the greatest piece of apartment architecture ever, and thought Mies’s Lakeshore Drive (slide); we wondered if we could fit that on the Kensington site and we can (slide); but we were worried about height so thought we might cut up the Mies scheme (slide); and then we fitted the pieces onto the site (slide). That’s it.’ A brilliant diagrammatic presentation which deserved to win.

It is fun identifying thinly disguised projects and individuals that make an appearance in the book; these contribute to the overall tone, which is one of brutal, not to say Brutalist, honesty. The ambivalence with which architects approach their task, and the claims they make for themselves, are subjected to withering examination, not least in a cringe-making collection of quotations from the world’s leading architects, suggesting that dictatorships are really not so bad.

The book is well-designed, with a readable typeface and font size, reflecting the coherent structure of the book itself, which splits into seven sections, each with its own set of connected essays, many of which have been published individually elsewhere (see this month’s Architectural Review). 

A photo essay of Modernist buildings in the throes of demolition is ambiguous: is de Graaf angry, sad, resigned or relieved? He can certainly express anger, for example in relation to the demolition of Pimlico School (by public architect John Bancroft), and the PR guff issued by the architects designing its humdrum replacement.

If he generally appears cynical about architecture and architects, one might bear in mind the definition of the cynic as ‘frustrated romantic’. You suspect he writes not from contempt, but love.

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