CCTV in Beijing, designed by OMA (ph: Philippe Rualt)

This autumn the Barbican hosts the UK’s first major exhibition of the work of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the firm co-founded by Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis in 1975. Coinciding with the opening of OMA’s first UK buildings, Rothschild Bank in London and a Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow, the show is curated by Brussels collective Rotor.

The pervasive influence of OMA in recent years stems in part from its role as an incubator of talent in architecture and related fields. Here, three former employees – Philipp Oswalt, Farshid Moussavi and Finn Williams – recall their time at OMA.

Philipp Oswalt
Going to work at OMA was actually based on a misconception. After years as editor of Arch+, for which I had met and interviewed Rem several times, I wanted to work for an office in which theory and practice were combined; the obvious choice in my generation was OMA.

Arriving in Rotterdam, however, I quickly found I had been mistaken. Theory and discourse didn’t take place in the office; it was all about production. And this took place within a radical denial of method as a kind of meta-method, a sort of Zen Buddhist nirvana that occasionally brought out the unexpected.

This all required such an incredible commitment of strength and time that any notion of a private life was an impossibility. I didn’t get the best impression in this respect.

Today I regard Rem with somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I still see him as one of the truly great contemporary architects, a Le Corbusier of our times. On the other, I increasingly miss the social agenda in his work, something more than an endless search for the new. Nowadays I think we’re recognising more and more the necessity for a different dimension.

Philipp Oswalt is director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation; he worked for OMA from 1996-97 before setting up his own office.

Farshid Moussavi
Rem Koolhaas and OMA taught me a number of lessons: the first was to look at things closely – but always from a distance. The second was to relearn whatever you think you already know. The third was to always be suspicious of anything claiming to be ‘ideal’ and the fourth (and most important) was that the world is full of architectural opportunities – you just have to learn to see it that way.

Farshid Moussavi worked at OMA from 1991-92 before co-founding Foreign Office Architects. She now runs Farshid Moussavi Architecture in London.

Finn Williams
I was interviewed by Rem in the basement car park of the Casa da Musica in Porto, then under construction. I remember the severe incisiveness of every one of his words – each question was breathtakingly quick to cut to the core.

And that’s how he seemed to work as a designer. In my time at OMA
I didn’t see any evidence of Rem being an architect; he started out
as a scriptwriter and journalist, and from what I saw he remained more of an editor than a creator.

The office relied on intense overproduction, a feverish climate in which ideas were churned out in endless streams of blue foam models and diagrams. Rem would stride in straight from an airport to carry out a spectacular demolition job on the vast quantities of work we had produced, sometimes literally tearing apart models. The little that was left after those sessions was nearly always the core of the idea – the brutal basics of a project – that our bleary eyes hadn’t had the perspective to see.

One scene that stayed with me was an important summit with the stakeholders of a major masterplan in the UK. The project team had worked sleeplessly to realise a layout that reconciled stakeholders’ complex, competing demands in time for the meeting. But the night before, Rem dismantled their meticulous model, telling them to show a blank site and supply him with generic blue foam building blocks plus a few old OMA projects at the right scale.

The next day a very British set of chief executives assembled in the boardroom beside my desk. But instead of presenting proposals, Rem only asked questions. He invited each stakeholder to place their own building blocks on the model, politely pointing out where this would conflict with some technical condition to subtly guide their hands to alternative locations.

By the end of the session the stakeholders proudly felt they had made their own masterplan, but the model on the table was exactly the same as the one the project team had laid out the night before.

Finn Williams worked for OMA in Rotterdam from 2004-05. He founded Common Office in 2007, and currently works for Croydon Council where he is leading a number of masterplans.

OMA/Progress is at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 19 February 2012.

First published in AT222, October 2011

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