Interview with Reinier de Graaf – “Very few people connect the dots”

Reinier de Graaf is an architect interested in breaking down the boundaries of his profession. We spoke about the merits of being a generalist.

Mensel: You have been quoted saying that your company OMA is interested in “things that very often don’t seem appealing, high-brow, or very tasteful at first sight”. Please explain.
de Graaf: We have a tradition of discovering the intellectual in seemingly banal subjects. Such a blue ocean approach makes a lot of entrepreneurial sense: Few people are talking about those subjects and it isn’t very crowded in terms of intellectual attention. We often have the hope of being the first to introduce certain topics into the debate. That is only one side of the story though.

What is the other one?
Architecture is a very hermetic profession. So subjects that are very marginal in the world of architecture are often mainstream in the real world. Architecture is excellent at ignoring things that are important and instead focuses on things that are ultimately footnotes. We aggressively try to do the opposite.

For instance?
In the 1970s, Rem Koolhaas focused on New York City. At the time, “metropolis” was a dirty word in the European architectural debate. We looked at the emergence of cities in China – which was a very unfashionable thing to do– or the expansion of shopping. The amount of square meters of shopping spaces that are being constructed throughout the world exceeds almost everything else. They are constructed without any architectural attention – and yet a whole lot gets built. Architecture, by focussing on things that might be small, beautiful and culturally accepted, contributes less and less to the built environment and instead retreats into a voluntary marginalization.

Architects need to refocus on people and the mainstream?
The point is not to be mainstream; it is to focus on subjects that are mainstream. And then, by definition, you bring architecture to the people, because those are the buildings they most often encounter.

Shopping malls are more prevalent than private mansions…
But we do those too! We are deliberate omnivores. In a world increasingly dominated by specialization, people often ask us about our specialism. But we have tried to avoid being specialists at anything.

How do you do that?
In as much as we are specialists, we are specialists at everything – which defies the point of being a specialist.


Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

OMA just completed De Rotterdam, a building that you have boldly called a “vertical city”. Is that an expression of a specialist at everything?
I am not sure. The building is a product of its time – even though it is hard to determine which specific time. We first conceived it in 1998 and it is only now being finished. It has survived two successive economic crises and it was on hold for a long time. But it is the product of the optimism of the late 1990s, economic optimism and with it a certain daring attitude of planners and city authorities. Such a mixing of functions can be quite problematic, quite risky, quite ambitious. It’s an unusually large, unusually varied building. We knew it was going to be all or nothing – so we chose all.

“Architects are people as well”

Such a building drastically changes the cityscape. Does it take courage to be an architect?
I would probably agree in any other city, but I am not sure I would agree with regards to Rotterdam.
The city had to be rebuild from scratch after the Second World War and is really a city of new beginnings, a city of trial and error. A city where many waves of modernization and particular insights have been set in motion, were aborted, before different insight set in motion again etc. In Rotterdam, anything sort of goes. Mistakes have been made and so there is a tolerance for them and for a certain modernity. In Rotterdam, there is great acceptance vis-à-vis modern things. And a quick sense of pride attached to them. This building reflects that mentality

People might be so enthusiastic about modern architecture because it surrounds them. Does the enthusiasm impact on your work?
We had a lot of support by the authorities, there was a sense of pride that we were working in Rotterdam. We hadn’t done anything in Rotterdam since 1992, when the Kunsthal (Art Museum) was finished . We’ve been working everywhere else and De Rotterdam is kind of a homecoming for us.

How about countries where the authorities might be less supportive?
We consider ourselves quite lucky. We work in places where we get invited, where people like to see our work being realized. It is always very important to focus on those places and for people to retain a positive energy.


Image courtesy of OMA; photography by Ossip van Duivenbode

Architecture is necessarily very public – something that differentiates if from other professions. Do you take public perception into consideration during the planning phase?
We don’t do polls or preemptive research. Many things arise from a gut feeling. But on the other hand, our office is big enough, populated enough and varied enough to test our designs against the internal opinion. In the end, architects are people as well and we do discuss things among ourselves. But architecture is not the typical kind of profession where people are being polled.

“Anything larger than three meters was considered fascist”

In Germany, large-scale architectural projects such as Berlin’s airport or the new train station in Stuttgart are receiving a lot of public scrutiny. Is this a sign of the changing times or is it because they have recently struggled to get off the ground?
Probably both. The fact that they fail to get finished comes at a very bad time when waste of public funds is under severe scrutiny anyway. The German protest is not necessarily about architecture but about the simple dysfunctionality of the operation as a whole. The ones you mentioned are not without warrant. But as an architect, I would never fear the public opinion.

…which you are increasingly facing. Do you agree that architecture is receiving more attention than before?
I am not sure why, but it has become a popular subject for debate. A debate that isn’t categorically negative. In my youth – in the 1970s – there was a huge backlash against postwar modernization. People wanted to preserve things at all cost, relished the small scale instead of the large scale, anything larger than three meters was considered fascist. In that sense, the current debate is a lot more benign and also supportive, I would say.

Let’s talk about AMO, the think tank you are overseeing. It deals with broader matters such as brand identity and energy. Why is this something you decided to spend your time with?
Since architecture is so hermetic, AMO is an attempt to break out. It is an effort to understand the context in which architecture is being produced. Strangely enough, that kind of effort has led to new types of work.

Why strange?
It is strange that a form of curiosity can breed work. The research works that we do allow us to enter a project at a very early stage when nobody even thinks about hiring an architect. We are involved at such an early stage that we can even advice against planning a building in the first place. Sometimes, a building is not the solution. Architects generally think that a building is a solution to all problems.

If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
It gives them work, which is an ulterior motive that we have nicely liberated ourselves from.

“Architects ultimately have little power”

One of the fields you have focused on is energy. How did you get from buildings to offshore wind parks?
We had been contacted by an NGO that asked us for a master plan for the North Sea. That was interesting, because our plans usually take place on the land. Also, the plan was not for people but for energy provision: A master plan to transform the North Sea from a reservoir of fossil energy to a reservoir of renewable energy.


Image courtesy of OMA

Energy provision, the German government’s signature project, turned out to be much more difficult than imagined. Do these ideas ever move from the blueprint to the real world?
So far, it is very conceptual work. But it is proposed with a high degree of seriousness and earnestness. However: the larger the work and the further the horizon, the harder it is to implement. Architects ultimately have little power. What they have is the power to suggest. They always rely on others to implement their ideas.

Is that a problem?
The scale of the project often meets the fragmentation of the market and of vested interests. In the former Soviet Union, those kinds of projects were possible. But often without any element of correction.

…or public support. You have said that with your power to suggest, you often spark debate in the public realm. Is that something you are consciously seeking?
Absolutely, that is one of the prime purposes of the project.

“The generalist gets very strange opportunities”

The late Steve Jobs was fond of arguing that Apple’s success resulted from the fact that they created software and hardware under one roof. Your approach is similar, doesn’t it include the danger of turning into an even bigger hermit – thereby completely losing any outside perspective?
You may interpret our approach of doing things ourselves as a form of exacerbated isolation. But we are acutely aware that we cannot do everything on our own. In the end, we are not specialists at everything but venturing into domains that are not traditionally our own. Working together with other people leads to a break from isolation – that’s crucial.

A holistic approach opens the door for new ideas?
I think that is what the architect and the journalist have in common. In a context hugely dominated by specialization, the generalist gets very strange opportunities. There are very few people left to connect the dots. Being a laymen with curiosity, which both of them often are, becomes a virtue.

This interview first appeared in The European on February 7th, 2014.

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