O.M.A. at work
“The longer I work at O.M.A., the less I understand how architecture is developed,” said a former colleague from O.M.A. to me recently, as we were speaking about his work. Does the office have the character of a Zen Buddhist monastery, in which believers’ certainties are systematically destroyed in order to reveal to them the ‘truth’? How does an office whose rule is to have no rules function? One that continually seeks to escape its own history and the inevitable acquisition of a repertoire or a style, one that seeks to be contemporary and at the same time attempts to avoid similarities with other contemporary architecture. There is, of course, no method, no recipe. Every project has its own history. Yet there is a series of prerequisites and parameters that are characteristic of the design process.
An important precondition is that the majority of the employees are quite inexperienced and young. Not only do they work unbelievably hard for relatively little money and thereby make it possible to pursue thousands of ideas, to try them out and reject them, which no client would ever want or be able to pay for, but more importantly, it is the naivety with which they approach the tasks they are set. Ignorant of how the problem would normally be solved, they can experiment with a childlike lack of inhibitions and thus develop new ideas.
But how can this potential be linked up with the necessary expert knowledge, the required technical intelligence or even negotiating capacities without being limited by convention? Competence emerges at O.M.A. in two ways: firstly, in the form of staff who have been in the employ of O.M.A for a long time, having joined as students or recent graduates and who have accumulated experience at O.M.A. and learned to apply their competence for, not against, an experimental design praxis. Secondly, through engineers from outside or consultants whose judgment carries a great deal of weight – not that they make suggestions for solutions and impose those solutions, rather, they comment on the ideas from their own perspective, evaluate them and formulate requirements as basically as possible, so that O.M.A. can develop new solutions with their help. In addition, they are supposed to develop innovative proposals in their discipline without defining concrete forms. (O.M.A. is not prepared to leave the field of implementation to the technicians. The office pursues a strategy of expansion in order to take in as many aspects of the design process as possible.) The idea in doing this is to use the competence of the engineers to combat the conventionality of their profession. Over and over again they are confronted with quantities of naive, intelligent or abstruse proposals. And sometimes it is possible to arrive at entirely new, surprising and yet very simple solutions, like the ceiling construction of the Educatorium in Utrecht, for example.
Rem’s role in the design process varies a great deal from project to project: for some projects, he furnishes an abstract idea at the beginning, or makes a few sketches that stake out the broad lines; in other projects, the staff search for a concept for weeks, even months, and Rem keeps aloof, as he is too busy with other things, or does not yet have an idea himself of how the project is to be developed. Rem’s instructions are mostly so vague, his presence over long periods only intermittent and his distance to the design team so great that some employees opine that he is not really a designer at all, it is his staff who produce the architecture. But if one analyzes the development of the projects, one sees very clearly that most of the crucial ideas stem from Rem. His type of involvement is justified not only by reasons of efficiency – how can one individual keep control of three, five or more projects – but is also a design strategy.
The distance between the team of designers and Rem leads to great flexibility: at any time, the direction can be changed unexpectedly, and the more doggedly the design team sticks to a solution or a problem, the likelier it is that this will happen. The work of days or weeks can be discarded in the space of a minute without much discussion. Rem does not give any directives; rather, he initiates processes. He intervenes, tries to stimulate new ideas, points out possibilities. His instructions are vague, they are more the description of an intention and must be interpreted. If one takes his suggestions too literally, however, he reacts impatiently, asking why one does not investigate other possibilities and address other questions.
In order to break down the design process further, other members of staff are occasionally drawn in at short notice. Rem or the team present the project to O.M.A. staff who have been working there for years and discuss it with them. Such meetings can greatly influence the further development of the project. This form of intervention can also be extended to short-term cooperation with architects not involved in the project: they work on one aspect of the project for a few days and can thereby change the design significantly. Less in awe of that which has already been achieved, the staff who have been uninvolved until then foil the intentions of their colleagues, which makes it at the same time much easier to develop substantial new ideas.
Basically, almost any form of destabilization appears to be welcome. It is rather unlikely that the team that has begun a project takes it through to realization. It may happen that a team, having worked through the night and an interim presentation, comes into the office to find that the workplaces have been seized by colleages and the team has to find new ones. The concept of private property does not exist in the office anyway: every drafting pen, every adhesive film, every geodesic triangle that one has with difficulty acquired for oneself can disappear again within days or hours. And it would not surprise anyone in the office if he or she were told that they had to fly that very day to Hanoi for several days because of a project. One hundred percent availability is implicitly demanded – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with the exception of Christmas.
One should not attach too much importance to any apparent status. Of course there are some senior members of staff whose judgement carries particular weight, who have influence and power in the office and who usually lead the projects. Yet when working on a design, a good idea from a young member of staff can be implemented, thwarting the intention of the project leader. And even if the team leaders control the communication in the office, this is sometimes spontaneously subverted by Rem.
Another false conclusion would be to think a project was finished. It can happen that just a few hours before a presentation or a deadline Rem wants to change the design, the model, the drawings or collages. Then arguments of time or costs are of no import, to the despair of the financial director and the curses of the staff who have to change everything at the last moment.
When one is involved in this process, one can sometimes despair over the inefficiency and the absence of conventional professionality. But in the end, one is obliged to concede that the non-linearity of the design process, the lack of routine or an established canon of methods or solutions are the basis for the quality of the office’s work. It is precisely the apparent chaos that constitutes the distinctly unusual quality of the office’s professionality. It is characteristic that Rem assesses a project sceptically precisely when it has developed continuously without conflicts, crises and interruptions. And his aversion to developing a repertoire is so great that at one time, he wanted to ban his book SMLXL from the office.
It is the ambition of the office to structure the design process in such a way that the maximum number of influences, criteria and ideas are included. Nothing should be excluded or fixed on too quickly. It is much more a question of discovering possibilities and investigating their potential. In design praxis, this means that a multiplicity of alternatives for each problem is developed and investigated. Each of these options should articulate its own interesting idea, whose essence is usually characterised with its own concept too (like “Donkey Kong,” for example, or “Mixing Chamber” or “Mies Wrap”). As long as an idea is interesting, there is no reason to dismiss it to begin with: it does not matter how impossible to realize, how complicated or absurd it appears at first glance, its potential will first be investigated.
The development of alternatives creates the basis for a quasi evolutionary design process. The possible developments of a design task are shown and a know-how about the problem (program, site, technology restrictions, etc.) is developed. This provides the fertile ground out of which the real ideas often emerge spontaneously.
Working with alternatives is the basis of a design attitude that refuses the arbitrariness of an “artistic inspiration” as much as it does the linearity of functional or constructive derivation of design ideas or the deduction of design ideas from architectural theory. It is indicative that innumerable alternatives will also be investigated when an obviously brilliant idea has already emerged: although Rem had already had the basic idea at the beginning of the IIT project, all the same, he kept the team investigating and developing completely different ideas for weeks. As none of the newly developed options was any more convincing, though, the idea that was there from the start was taken up again.
This Sisyphus-like way of proceeding may appear totally inefficient, but it proves to be extremely fruitful. For one thing, it is indispensable for testing the relevance of ideas in a sort of autocritique. Furthermore, a large reservoir of ideas thus comes into being, a reservoir that is constantly being updated and enlarged. Even if this work only exerts a minimal influence on the concrete project, it can become the source of inspiration for another project and lead to a ‘cross-fertilization’, as one of the options for the ZKM in Karlsruhe did in the basic idea for the Tres Grande Bibliothèque in Paris (see SMLXL, p. 626). The continuous reflection over alternatives keeps the design process fluid. A typical comment of Rem’s is “why don’t you try…?” The staff are urged to keep investigating new possibilities and not limit themselves to a solution favoured by one of them. This manner of proceeding frees the working process from the personal preferences of individual members of staff. Often it is impossible to distinguish the ‘author’ of a design solution, since the various ideas exert a reciprocal enriching influence. The design develops out of a design concurrence. A large number of criteria – rational or intuitive, conceptional or functional – lead in the end to the dominant design idea crystallizing out of the multiplicity of possibilities.
Settling on a solution, or to put it more precisely, filtering out a solution from the pool of ideas takes place very late; the alternatives are developed in parallel over a long period. The decision is postponed as long as possible, because it always implies the loss of other possibilities, limitation.
Rem himself makes the decision, very often asking other people their opinion and sometimes initiating debates. In this process apprentices and visitors just as project leaders and team members can equally be drwan in. If the problem contains construction-related or technical questions, the endorsement of the solution by an engineer competent in the field is an indispensable prerequisite.
Once a design idea has become established, in the subsequent course of proceedings it will be seen as a given and all future developments will have to grapple with it. As with a growing organism, later developments build on earlier ones. The new can modify that which has existed until now, changing its meaning, but usually cannot dispose of it any more. This ‘freezing’ of elements in an otherwise undirected, non-linear process is important, so that the projects can develop depth and multidimensionality. Important architectural elements that have gained great relevance during the design work attain an autonomy this way and are retained even when the conditions of their emergence disappear and they lose their original significance. In this way one finds in many projects elements that are not to be explained directly through the concept, but rather can only be understood through the historical development of the project, like for example the slanted entrance door of the Villa Floriac or the Corporate Beam of the Universal Headquarters.
If, however, the design decisions do not concern key elements, but rather partial aspects, it really does happen that options that have been rejected are taken up again in the further course of the work. This happens when new criteria emerge through the further development of the project.
Once a basic idea has been found, the further shaping of the project does not result out of this in a linear and consequent fashion. Rather, the basic idea can be watered down or contaminated on other levels, through other elements or even in their technical execution, as well as in their architectural articulations. Underlying this is the desire to integrate as many ideas as possible into the design process. Not clarity and simplicity, but density and intensity, enriching and accumulation is the goal.
This attitude to design allows for responding to external ‘disturbances’, be they of a technical kind or building code related or of another kind: external forces that affect the project, even if they at first throw into question the original concept, are not regarded as inimical, but rather as potential new qualities that could enrich the project. It is precisely out of the conflict between original ambitions and pragmatic demands that the strongest moments of the projects often arise. The design evolves out of a power play between intention and external forces in a sort of dialogue. Specific forms never come into being as ‘artistic inspiration’ but always out of such reciprocal influencing. There are indeed ideas which remain dominant, yet it is not a question of retaining them in their ‘pure form’. Design ideas are considered to be raw material that can be modified to the limit of legibility.
Apart from the process of deformation and contamination, there is still a another way in which external influences have an effect: during the design process, a surplus of ideas for the formulating of the guiding thought or individual aspects of the project is generated. Through the confrontation with external demands (the client’s wishes, costs, technology), a good number of these ideas is lost, but a substantial number remain extant. Those ideas capable of surviving are filtered out of the surplus. This manner of proceeding not only keeps the project open to external influences, but also permits the formulation of frivolous or risky ideas. It is not self-censorship in advance of the expected constraints that takes place, rather these are negotiated in dialogue.
In the office itself a filtering of the innumerable ideas is undertaken in preparation for a presentation. After a phase of work and experimentation as wide-reaching as possible, toward the end of a design phase, the ideas that come out of it are set in relation to the whole project. In this focusing process, the relevance of the individual ideas and aspects to the project as a whole are examined and weighed. The unimportant or disturbing is filtered out in order to arrive at clarity and comprehensibility for the presentation, for the communication with juries or clients.
In this phase Rem undertakes the formal interventions, otherwise so disparaged. They take place toward the end, when the concept stands on its own feet, and are not intended to replace a design, but rather round off an existing one.
Another important influence is the chance factor. Chance can have a crucial influence on the emergence and development of a project and sometimes the potential offered by chance can be heightened deliberately. For example, the office was awarded a contract on the basis of a wrongly directed fax, while in another project, the packaging of a Japanese fan that turned up by chance spontaneously resolved the vain search of weeks for a suitable building concept. Again and again such ‘objets trouvés’ turn up, and at the crucial moment find their way into the design and then they are taken surprisingly literally in their exact dimensions and proportions, in their colour or texture. Concrete and abstract conditions of the building site too – whether the materiality of the site, a provisory and informal throughway or clearance regulations and zoning laws are also tied into the design in this way, sometimes directly and without being filtered. The constant desire for ‘non-design’ is at the root of this process. And yet it is surprising how great the role O.M.A. cedes to chance, for otherwise, the office is always keen to avoid any form of arbitrariness. Here one can see a reference to the classic avantgarde, to Dadaism and Surrealism, movements that also implemented chance again and again , in order to bring into play the Other, the excluded, the repressed, the unconscious.
When we first came to O.M.A., we thought a theoretical discourse would be conducted in the office and that it would influence the work and even provide the foundation for it. Yet it was not long before we realized that there was not much discussion, but principally production: sketches, models, drawings, collages, diagrams, faxes, computer perspectives. For the work in the office it is considerably more important to be familiar with James Bond films than the theoretical discourses of Eisenman or Kipnis, Deleuze or Derrida. Rem makes a sharp distinction between his theoretical work and production in the office.
The office is characterized more by an American mentality than a European one: produce, criticize and don’t ask for the reasons, don’t argue, show unlimited commitment, don’t expect any solidarity from your colleagues – don’t worry, be happy. It is not by chance that almost all the project leaders come from the U.S.A..
It is obvious that sometimes more reflection could save a lot of running on the spot and one of the office’s manifest weaknesses lies in the absence of a critical discourse – this role is left principally to Rem. This is because for one thing, in spite of all the freedom, in the end, the office does have quite an authoritarian structure – who wants to lay oneself open by assessing and criticizing, when the next minute Rem might take the opposite standpoint. Even people who have been project leaders for years are not always in a position to foresee what Rem’s judgment will be.
For another thing, Rem does not promote theoretical discourse within the office, probably because he fears that a theoretical approach would restrict the design process rather than opening it up. A theoretical manner of proceeding usually leads to unambiguous categories, monocausal structures and linear conclusions, which contradicts the intentions of O.M.A. Thus it is not to be wondered at that not textual but visual methods prevail in the design process. Rem responds only to that which is to be seen, as diagram or as model.
The diagram serves principally for the development and clarifying of ideas in early phases and is, moreover, indispensable in order to communicate by fax. Fifty percent of the time Rem is on the road – in the USA, Asia or Europe, visiting clients, on building sites, at colleges, at lectures or just at home in London – and he wants to be kept up to date about the development of the projects on a daily basis. Therefore towards evening, the teams look at the results of the day, structure and select the material and reduce it to its quintessence – in small diagrams, easy to read and to fax, short explanations and mottos – on 10, 20 or more pages. The necessity to convey the results to someone ‘from outside’ in a comprehensible fashion leads to a reflection on the otherwise rather undirected production, to a reduction of the plethora of options to the essential and to checking whether new thoughts and ideas are in agreement with the basic concept.
Concept models are prepared from the usable ideas; often these models represent a direct translation of a diagram into the third dimension. They have to convince not through beauty, but through clarity: often they are made of blue polystyrol, harsh, direct and abstract. Once the basic concept has been found, however, the working models are coloured and made of specific materials. Very early on, ideas about materiality and colour are developed with their aid. In the later work, the early concept models are brought in again and again, in order to check if the original intention has not lost in pithiness. They provide a yardstick and serve as corrective, so that in spite of increasing realism, the conceptual architectural quality is not weakened.
Forms occasionally arise out of the translation of a diagram into a concept model which is then seen also as a concrete model with dimensions and proportions. Rem usually tries to adhere to the intuitively fixed proportions and dimensions of the concept model. Only if it is unavoidable because of external constraints (costs, technology, etc) will the proportions be changed, and usually this does not limit the original intention. All the same, there is an insistence on the first articulation, a resistance, one could say, to outside constraints.
Rem loves models. He can touch them, take them in his hands and manipulate them. The working models can be changed, parts can be added to them or taken away and in this way many ideas are developed on the model. Rem is disgusted if elements in the model are already glued in place, suggesting finality, although they are still under discussion.
The model is the tool in which the sum of the ideas are investigated in their mutual influences and in relation to the context, with which proportions and spatial interrelations are tested. In contrast, the diagrams drawn in thick, black pencil serve to clarify concepts and the investigation of individual parameters.
If one consciously considers how many influences a design is exposed to over time, then the complex and multifaceted results become understandable. The individual ideas, elements, aspects and qualities of a project arise out of an indissoluble tissue of influences. By constantly checking the effect against the model, retention of the succinctness and coherence is assured. It serves to keep the intention comprehensible and to keep the projects from becoming autonomous in the open process.
We thank our (former) colleagues Gro Bonesmo, Minsuk Cho, Wilfried Hackenbroich and Julien Monfort for conversations about their experiences at and with O.M.A.
P.S.: If you think you have now understood how O.M.A. works, then you are entirely mistaken. You will find everything that we have described in the office, but also its exact opposite. If by chance you should start to work yourself in the office, this will not help you very much. When one works at O.M.A, the only certainty is that there is no certainty. And one cannot even be sure of that…
Philipp Oswalt, Matthias Hollwich