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Casting a critical eye over OMA's oeuvre

OMA at the Barbican

Dislodge the present positions’. Written in bold white letters against a contrasting black background, this was the statement that introduced Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s (OMA’s) 1997 competition entry for the extension of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York. What followed was a series of collages, sketches and models that went well beyond proposing a simple cosmetic extension for the museum and, ultimately, radically questionedwhat a contemporary art space was and could become (and allegedly, for that reason, resulted in OMA losing the competition).

Though 14 years have gone by, this statement still echoes throughout the OMA/Progress exhibition, which recently opened at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. When he was invited to organise a retrospective on the practice that he co-founded in 1975, Rem Koolhaas − the sole surviving member of the original four who formed OMA − thought the time for such a definitive event had not yet come and opted instead for a dynamic and forward-looking concept for the exhibition. Rotor, the young Belgian collective formed in 2005 which gained international renown for its national pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2010, was invited to take over the commission and − according to the Barbican − given ‘unprecedented’ access to both OMA’s office and archive.

What results is a rather dense and heterogeneous collection (450 objects) that well portrays the relentlessness with which OMA has been operating: there is virtually no scale, medium, building type, geographical region, contemporary architectural movement or material that the office has not worked with at some point. One large screen plays on a video on a 48-hour loop which Rotor made by collecting every single image from OMA’s server. It features about 3.5 million images. Rotor has calculated that OMA churns out about 1,500 images every day.

Confronted with the sheer scale and variety of production and the desire to avoid the typical retrospective, Rotor opted for a more earnest portrait of OMA: a firm that operates globally and whose range of interests well exceeds just buildings. Traditional hierarchies and the concerns of most architects are abandoned: polished models coexist freely with rough prototypes; finished commissions and conceptual studies are given equal importance; one space − dubbed the ‘secret room’ − even displays working documents such as correspondence with clients and acquisition lists, the kind of material other architects carefully hide from the public eye.

Rotor tried, however, to establish some order by renouncing the idea of a traditional linear narrative in favour of a more open approach and dividing the upper level galleries into separate rooms, each dedicated to specific themes such as moveable building parts, materials and urban studies.

The idea of conceptualising Rem Koolhaas’s work retroactively is not entirely new to the architect, who first launched this strategy through his seminal Delirious New York, a rear-view manifesto for Manhattan, and subsequently for OMA’s two monographs, S,M,L,XL and Content. This time, however, the curatorial strategy does not have the same robustness. For instance, Content organised the work geographically from West to East, implying a shift in the political and economic landscape that demanded a re-alignment of the office’s agenda.

Here, the choice of themes varies without an underlying question emerging. We go from the brilliant space in which OMA’s agility in managing the design process is explored, through looking at how projects transform, to a perplexingly anaemic room where only white objects are displayed.

What remains invariably consistent throughout the show is the level of questioning that any preconceived architectural or cultural element undergoes in the hands of OMA. (In a recent interview with the Guardian, Koolhaas defines himself as a ‘criticism machine’).
At its best, this strategy produces energising moments of liveliness that challenge the intellectual inertia the profession regularly drifts towards.

At a time when architectural debate is largely concentrated on urban issues, OMA uses the show to launch a new research project on ‘those who are left behind’ once urbanisation strikes, that is, the countryside and agriculture. Part of the intellectual provocation also relies on the title of the show: Progress. Though Koolhaas and Rotor explicitly suggest the notion of the ‘work in progress’ − of the unfinished and forward-looking − the word also insinuates other connotations.

It represents what modernity and positivism stood for and evokes an idea of time as a linear trajectory toward an inevitably better, improved society. The show, on the other hand, communicates a more complex and postmodern notion of time: the eruption of ideas explored through the designs recur, evolve or are simply dismissed; sometimes sustained by extreme rigour, sometimes relishing the unpredictability of intuitive thinking.

Such complex engagement with time is demonstrated, for instance, by the office’s recent preoccupation with architectural preservation. OMA had the opportunity to test some of its ideas and strategies on the Barbican, an austere complex, the planning for which began soon after the Second World War.

This is one of the show’s most enticing sections: the integration of contemporary shapes and materials with the Modernist building is both contextual and dynamic.

Rotor designed a series of curved walls of corrugated plastic that create fluid lines, reacting to the severe spaces of the exhibition gallery on the third floor. The curators also negotiated to open the west entrance for the first time since the Barbican’s completion, thus allowing the public to occupy spaces as intended by the original architects. Outside, in what was always meant to be a sculpture garden, a 1:1 footprint of the recently built Maggie’s Centre in Glasgow is displayed (see Buildings section).

The interior areas − labelled as the ‘public zone’ as no ticket is required to visit them − are not only boldly shaped by the curved walls but also constructed around the OMA shop that acts as centrepiece. The complex relation between culture and commerce is played out with wit and precision. Once again, OMA has pulled the rug from under our feet to remind us that instability is the only stable condition we can rely on.

OMA/Progress

Where: Barbican Art Gallery, London

When: Until 19 February 2012

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