Rem Koolhaas — Designing the design process

Sjors Timmer
Feb 7, 2015 · 11 min read

This is a revised version of a post that appeared on notura.com on February 7, 2012.

Prize-winner and starchitect-in-denial, Rem Koolhaas and his studio OMA have created a method and practice that is uniquely capable of dealing with an ever more complex world. Interested in what this could mean for designers I started to dig into their design process, in this article I’ll share what I found.

When asked what his goal with his practice was, Koolhaas answered: “to keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could be.”¹ And it is this ‘could be’ that plays a defining role in Koolhaas’ career.

Introduction

Rem Koolhaas studied scriptwriting and architecture and is heading OMA/AMO, an office he co-founded in 1975. You might know him from his books Delirious New York or S, M, L, XL and his practice from the CCTV HQ in Beijing or the Central Library in Seattle or stumbled upon him more recently as the curator of the Venice Biennale.

It is not easy to define Koolhaas. Although his buildings can be found all over the world, it’s hard to recognise a typical Koolhaas building by visual appearance alone. To define Koolhaas you have to move to his realm, leave the world of bricks and steel, and enter the world of images, models and processes, a world of ideas. Not what is, but what could be.

His buildings and his books do, however, have something that makes them recognisable as products from OMA. Products that are very much influenced by the process of their creation, a bottom up, labour-intensive, research-lead way of questioning everything. His products are assemblies, where Koolhaas refuses to give easy answers, and instead reveals a selection of evidence and demands from the spectators to form their own interpretations.

Koolhaas’s greatest achievement is therefore not a building or book, but a system that is capable of harvesting, questioning and producing ideas. What Koolhaas has built is a very large version of himself, a system that, through a method of researching and building, is capable of reliably creating beautiful and intelligent ideas on how the world could be. Let’s take a look at the various parts of this system.

Observation

The easiest way to uncover new ideas is to be in areas where life is being transformed fast. Koolhaas and his team have been working on a structure that is capable of searching the world for opportunities where change is happening faster than anywhere else, places where breakthroughs can be made. Some places like the historical centres of European cities have hardly changed through the centuries, whilst others like Beijing, Dubai or Laos seem to redevelop themselves within years. As Koolhaas stated: “We define an agenda, and then we look at the current moment and see where and in what way we could make certain breakthroughs and that is completely independent of making a constant sequence of architectural projects.” [2]

In 1998 OMA made their approach to understanding the world available to others by creating AMO, a consultancy firm that focuses on research, publications and exhibitions. By having people full time committed to research OMA manages to be present on the scene before the scene appears.

Long before Koolhaas the builder arrives, Koolhaas the writer has already visited. In his role as professor at Harvard he explored the Pearl Delta before being asked to build for CCTV. Before proposing an infrastructure plan in Dubai, the manual was already published. Before working with Prada his research on shopping was already available in book form.

New ideas are most easily created in an environment of young ideas. It’s no wonder therefore that AMO’s and Koolhaas’ research projects can be found in the emerging economies of the world.

The studio practice

Another way in which Koolhaas differs from his competitors is in how his studio is run. Koolhaas doesn’t come up with the masterplan that is then refined by his architects. On the contrary, his practice defines itself by an enormous freedom, in materials, in methods and in working hours. One might say that at OMA answers based on no other ground than authority are avoided at all costs. What Koolhaas provides are the questions, not the answers.

What the OMA process focuses on is not the creator but the critic. In our way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes a critical decision. The result is better architecture.
— Rem Koolhaas [3]

This practice of avoiding ready-made answers runs deep at OMA, it can even be found in the way they source their materials. Kunlé Adeyemi states: “Of course it’s easier to use materials from the shelf, from the catalogue, but we can’t be on the cutting edge if we do that. So, we develop our own materials, we develop new structures.” [4]

Another aspect of this freedom is the way employees are allowed to manage their time, so they can be productive without being constrained by fixed working hours. Mark Veldman remarks: “You can walk out or you can stay the whole night and you can work here. You have a freedom to continue to work.”[5]

Lastly, the fear of becoming predictable and stagnant even reaches into their hiring strategy. As managing director Victor van der Chijs mentioned “We really want every year at least 25% of our people to be new. And we want them to be young, bright people.“[6]

In order for Koolhaas to have the greatest chance of uncovering new ideas, OMA is created around renewal and regeneration. Although Koolhaas himself, with his 30 years’ service, is a constant factor, it is his continuous work of critiquing himself and the outside world, whilst at the same time also creating both of them, that becomes the key to the design process.

Models

Models play a crucial role at the OMA design process; produced in large quantities, they function as a container for ideas and constrains. Because of their spatial qualities they create an immediate impact. To understand it there is no need to go through long documents or interact with virtual 3D models on a computer screen. A physical model is an an entity to makes experimenting easy. As one of their architects states: “[w]hen you have creative minds you get a lot of ideas. The luxury is in the fact that we an actually test all of them. Of course, it’s wasteful but that is what makes it a luxury.” [7] Dozens or even hundreds of ideas are turned into presentations, diagrams and models which, through a process of constant critique, slowly turn into a final plan. As a journalist noticed: “[p]ast reception […] is a meeting room filled with smaller maquettes. At first glance there appear to be perspex and foam models for dozens of projects — but close up you see they’re all clearly the same site, a masterplan in Moscow, modelled over and over again, with different arrangements and relationships of buildings.” [8]

One of OMA’s accomplishments is therefore that they manage to run a profitable business whilst producing an enormous amount of ‘waste’ . This way of working blurs the distinction between the research, concept and design phases. In these worlds the information that came from outside slowly grows into a plan that transforms the (idea of a) future. Ethnographer Albena Yaneva writes, “Manhattan, Seattle, Cordoba are brought into the office; their life is re-enacted in the studio practice.”[9] The playground of ideas is constructed by mixing client demands, the environment, laws and budgets, but also opportunities, ideas, and dreams. In an endless circulation, ideas turn into models and models into ideas.

Model-making allows the office to play with the often contradictory constrains of client demands, time pressure and the environment for the building. Models and books turn constrains and ideas into visual and physical representations that can be used as building blocks to create new worlds. “Erez Ella: Every model has one or more things. You cannot really say what is that — a composition of few things, of materials, of whatever.’ As such, they accommodate a contested assembly of conflicting demands, restrictions to demolish, constraints of history, programme, zoning, typologies, structure and roof, mechanical and electric systems as well as a variety of human concerns– users’ experiences and client’s demands, all translated, transplanted into and accommodated by one entire — the model.” [10]

In this way Koolhaas’ practice is able to create and maintain many representations of possible futures that can be tried, altered and questioned. Round after round these representations run their courses, altering, disappearing and merging with newer and older ideas.

The practice of making a large selection of detailed models allows OMA to keep more complexity in the design process. The longer they can push final decisions forward, the bigger the chance that a great new concept emerges. And so each model reflects the studio as a whole, a collection of changing artefacts always in flux towards becoming more refined, intelligent ideas of a possible world.

Archives

Ten years ago the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) proposed to acquire OMA’s archive. They sent an art historian for four months to the office’s basement storage to make a inventory of all the items. When the work was done, OMA decided not to sell. Instead they hired the art historian as its archivist.

Barbican Exhibition Guide [11]

One of the reasons that OMA can afford their process is their ability to reuse their past output. By using their large archive of models and books they manage to use time more efficiently and to store a larger amount of ideas.

Archiving the models allowed architects to keep the traces of creativity for a longer period of time; de-archiving them meant they could rediscover those traces of design invention that time had left intact.

— Albena Yaneva [12]

An example here is the Casa da Musica in Porto where “the abandoned and temporarily forgotten model of the private house came up to the office and re-entered the cycles of design. Lingering on the tables of the models for months, it was finally take with new assumptions, reshaped, refreshed and adjusted.”[13]

Working with their vast archive allows OMA to work with a large volume of concepts and a higher internal complexity, thereby enabling them to pick a good idea from a much larger pool than would otherwise be possible.

Books

Besides the archived models, OMA uses another method to carry information and ideas through time. As shown in OMA’s exhibition at the AA, besides an architecture firm, OMA is also a massive book production machine, where they use books in all stages of the design process, such as documenting research, saving projects’ stages or capturing outcomes.

These books help to get a grip on time, and allow for a large quantity of information to stay within reach. In the research phase they contain the photos, diagrams, texts and schemes. “Shohei Shigematsu: [w]e use very naive diagrams almost like cartoons in children’s books. We also spend a lot of time on making books, which is also part of the presentation materials. There is also an element of clarifying things for ourselves.“ [14]

Later on the books function like their archives as a way to store and shelf insights. “Like the tables of models, the books are summaries of the design steps that make the material trajectory of a project traceable. They keep some traces of exploration, and present the results of design experimentation. They allow the designers to go back and rethink the design moves previously made.” [15]

Books play an interesting double role at OMA, they are both used to start building processes and to summarise them. Although other architecture firms have combined building and writing (think Le Corbusier or Buckminster Fuller) no firm has managed to operate a book and build business on the scale of OMA.

Conclusion

Koolhaas uncovers the future before anyone else through a process that brings in new ideas fast and sustains a high amount of complexity throughout each project and within the studio.

It is therefore not the buildings, models, books, exhibitions or magazines that are Koolhaas’ biggest achievement, but the creation of a structure that is capable of producing and sustaining a constant stream of ideas.

The biggest part of our work for competitions and bid invitations disappears automatically. No other profession would accept such conditions. But you can’t look at these designs as waste. They’re ideas; they will survive in books.

— Rem Koolhaas [16]

One might suspect that Koolhaas mainly builds buildings in an never-ending attempt to understand the world, as he concludes in an interview in 2004:

Maybe, architecture doesn’t have to be stupid after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of thinking about anything — a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything.

— Rem Koolhaas [17]

More about Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Articles:
Rem Koolhaas, Index Magazine — Although a bit generic in the opening, the journalist manages to get some good information out of Koolhaas in the end
Intelligent Design, The New Yorker Daniel Zalewsky — Koolhaas like a modern-day super hero
Interview with Rem Koolhaas — Der Spiegel catches up with Rem Koolhaas’ current work
How to build a universe that doesn’t fall appart two days later — Although not directly about OMA, this short story by Philip K. Dick was used as the opening motive for the Barbican exhibition
Steve Jobs Architect — article that compares Steve Jobs and Rem Koolhaas’ approaches to understanding the world.
Brute Force Architecture and its discontent — Insightful article about the usage of labour, process, management and blue foam in designing solutions

Videos:
Rem Koolhaas/OMA — Good introduction into Rem Koolhaas
OMA’s Vimeo channel — OMA’s own archive, a good place to start exploring
Barbican’s OMA videos — Videos of talks helt during OMA’s Barbican exhibition
OMA’s Hong Kong project — Although not a winner, this article and video give a good feel for the style
OMA’s Cean Library proposal — A case of explaining a complex conceptual project

Books:
Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva — my main source for this article, describes OMA’s love affair with blue foam
Delirious New York — Koolhaas’ first book

References

  1. Rem Koolhaas, Index Magazine, 2000
  2. Rem Koolhaas, OMA in Conversation, Barbican, 2011
  3. Intelligent Design, The New Yorker Daniel Zalewsky
  4. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 80
  5. Inside OMA, William Wiles, Icon, page 146
  6. Inside OMA, William Wiles
  7. Akkaoui, Inside OMA, William Wiles, page 149
  8. Inside OMA, William Wiles, page 146
  9. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 85
  10. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 56
  11. OMA/Progress, Barbican free guide
  12. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 65
  13. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 86
  14. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 33
  15. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 72
  16. Interview with Rem Koolhaas, Der Spiegel
  17. Content, Rem Koolhaas, 2004

Sjors Timmer is a freelance interaction designer. You should follow him on Twitter.

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