Reinier de Graaf on research as design, architecture as a conceptual practice, and his new book
Those who have been following my work for a while know the influence OMA — Rem Koolhaas’s multidisciplinary architecture firm — has had on my own thinking around building a design practice. I’m still kinda surprised I got Reinier on the podcast1. De Graaf has been with OMA since 1996 — he’s the longest serving partner outside of Rem — and is the co-founder of AMO, their think tank and research arm that tackles projects outside of what we think of as traditional architecture. He’s also overseen building and masterplanning projects around the world and teaches at Harvard.
I’ve long been fascinated by the work of AMO and we begin our discussion talking about its origins and goals. As de Graaf explained it to me:
Essentially what it is is the arm of our office that does all the projects you wouldn’t expect an architect would do. As an architect, let’s say one in every ten projects that you do result in physical matter. The rest are aborted efforts, efforts that for all sorts of reasons never get concluded. But that doesn’t mean they are worthless. Very often these efforts embody enormously insightful experiences. Very often they contain very valuable work even if the end result isn’t a building.
We discovered that and we were very open about that. Lots of offices try to hide their failures but we’ve always been quite candid. Because of that, a number of clients started to come to us with their dilemmas, not saying “we need such-and-such a building but that we have such-and-such an organization with these challenges, will you think along with us?”
Should that question be asked to the average architect? I know the answer to your problem, you need a building. That means as an architect you always have an ulterior motive. But I’m firmly convinced that a building in not the solution to every problem in the world. (In fact probably more often it isn’t than it is.)
Since there were people interested in our thinking as much as our building, we managed to engineer a business model that allowed us to think and have our thinking be a component of our labor.
I immediately saw parallels to graphic design and how many times a client has come to me and said they needed a book/poster/website/logo but those are often bandaids to cover the real problem they are trying to solve.
With AMO, de Graaf, Koolhaas and their partners have worked on everything from fashion shows for Prada to case studies on Lagos, a new flag for the European Union and helped develop the curriculum for the Strelka Institute. In purely capitalist terms, AMO is a way for OMA to get paid for their research. OMA is famous for an extensive research phase and with AMO, that research becomes the product. In many ways — and what becomes a recurring theme in this conversation — it’s much more interested in asking questions than in finding answers. As de Graaf explains it to me: “OMA is involved with formulating the answers where AMO is involved with formulating the questions.”
Last year, Reinier published his first book, Four Walls and a Roof, a collection of essays about architecture and architecture’s relationship to the world. In the first essay, de Graaf lays out what I see as the book’s thesis:
As a profession, architecture presents a paradox. In economic terms, it is mainly a reactive discipline, a response to reformulated needs; in intellectual terms, it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future, aspiring to set the agenda and precede the needs. Architecture is a form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency.
Again, I immediately saw the relationship to my own profession as a graphic designer. Both architects and designers often present themselves and their work as an autonomous discipline that imagines and creates new worlds. Yet in reality, more often than not, we are at the mercy of clients and budgets, constraints and contractors. de Graaf returns to this theme again and again in the book and we spend a lot of time talking about in in our conversation. He refers to a recent Metropolis piece with the headline “Reinier de Graaf doesn’t practice what he preaches but offers a slight correction: “Reinier de Graaf doesn’t preach what he practices.” Again, he refers to the demands of the market, the grey areas between theory and making, and how he encourages his students to not rush to build.
It’s an imperfect analogy as these two books are completely different but reading Four Walls and Roof reminded me of reading Michael Bierut’s 79 Short Essays on Design some ten years ago. de Graaf and Bierut have completely different writing styles and their interests rarely converge but both of these books felt like a peak into a profession I knew little about. When I read 79 Short Essays, I was in college and had never worked in design and Bierut’s book felt like it pulled the curtain back and showed me how the work gets done. de Graaf does something similar — he interrogates the inner-workings of an architectural practice, goes deep on the pitch process, and questions architecture’s role in the world. It’s an easy read and kaleidoscopic look at contemporary architecture practice. I highly recommend it.2
It was an honor to have Reinier on the podcast. I enjoyed the conversation immensely and am grateful for his honesty and openness in discussing his work and thinking. His work has had an outsized influence on me, my work, and this podcast, so to have the chance to talk to him at length about all of these things I’m interested in was a privilege. I hope you enjoy it too.
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At the end of conversation, de Graaf mentions he’s working on another book now, this one a novel. I obviously can’t wait to see what happens with that — I’d love to have him on again when it’s published to continue with another recent podcast theme: the relationships between design and fiction. ↩