The day before the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale opened to the public, Wolf D. Prix, COOP HIMMELB(L)AU’s resident avant-gardist issued a statement to the press. Rebuking the curators for banality in the face of crisis, Prix’s missive evokes a colourful vision of architects packed into a sinking gondola, a metaphor for the discipline’s “powerlessness and irrelevance.” And his prickling has a target. “Politicians and project managers, investors and bureaucrats have been deciding on our built environment for a long time now,” he writes. “Not the architects.” Meanwhile, deep in the Biennale, Public Works: Architecture by Civil Servants, OMA’s contribution to Common Ground, counters the Austrian’s lament.
Public Works celebrates the bureaucrat.
The exhibition features fifteen civic buildings from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, designed by architects employed in public works departments across European cities. The politics of these municipal organizations cover a spectrum from “left-leaning” to Socialist to Communist. The title of each project itself a banal microdrama: County Hall Island Block Extension (1970) by the Greater London Council Department of Architecture and Civic Design; Centre Administratif, Patin (1973) by the Architecte Conceil du Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme; or Akademie der Künste (1959) by Stadtbaurat, Berlin.
Given the timeframe, it’s understandable that a Brutalist thread runs through the large black and white drawings and photographs illustrating each project. Those images of blocky concrete edifices (already darkened with ominous weathering) are set against a life-sized, digitally printed mural of a present-day interior of one such structure — the Undercroft below Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre — garishly tagged with graffiti. The result: a sublime toast to the almost ugly, pedestrian architecture of the period.
Curator Reinier de Graaf, in juxtaposing historic representations against the abject beauty of the trompe l’oeil, underscores the utopian idealism that drove the projects. Or, he categorizes the movement on OMA’s website, “a short-lived, fragile period of naïve optimism — before the brutal rule of the market economy became the common denominator.”
OMA’s allotted space is at the rear of the Central Pavilion of the Giardini, requiring that visitors walk past displays by almost every known name in architectural production today before reaching the gallery. The location reveals a larger juxtaposition. The critical contrast is between the Public Works collectivity and the singularity of many of the installations, which however altruistic in achieving David Chipperfield’s vision of Common Ground, still rely on a more traditional authorship model. Namely, the one-to-one correlation of architect and work exhibited. The text in the small booklet that accompanies the exhibition drives home the point:
“In the age of the “starchitect”, the idea of suspending the pursuit of a private practice in favour of a shared ideology seems remote and untenable. However, given the number of architects that made that choice, forty years ago serving the public cause proved a powerful source of inspiration… one might even call it common ground.”
Additionally, perhaps in deference to the social consciousness of the Biennale’s theme, Rem Koolhaas transferred curatorial duties to his deputy, De Graaf, an OMA partner and director of the research-oriented side of the business, AMO. And, there’s an overt “archival” motif in the gallery: glass vitrines full of ledgers, diagrams, and paperwork, each artifact meticulously annotated with a handwritten label. As such, OMA and De Graaf step even farther away from the role of architect or curator and towards archivist or, even more prosaic, clerk.
The starchitect-to-clerk trajectory tracks through the last few years of production. In 2006, the Serpentine Gallery’s 24-Hour Interview Marathon hosted by Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist positioned the architect as cultural enquirer — as journalist, not subject of scrutiny. Then in 2010, the exhibition Cronocaos, first shown at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, later traveling to the New Museum in New York City, took on preservation as a polemic and, in turn, re-sharpened Koolhaas’ activist edge. And last year’s Progress, curated and designed by the Belgium-based collective Rotor, on view at the Barbican Center, was an exercise in reality-show type testimonial. Turning inside out the contents OMA office — photos stored on hard drives made visible, the clutter of production on display — revealed a behind-the-scenes portrait of Koolhaas and company as architects’ architects: project managers, drafters, and model builders. Finally, Public Works subdues the OMA/Koolhaas brand, favoring bureaucracy’s anonymity.
OMA’s intentional shrugging off of “starchitect” is strategic in an architectural and economic climate that sees signature buildings (ahem, CCTV) as damning evidence of excess. The taking on of urban research commissions or developing smaller interventions as displayed in many of the Common Ground pavilions is a tonic, an architectural Alka Seltzer for a bender that still hasn’t quite worn off. (Prix’s weekend may still be lost.)
By revisiting the past, Public Works spells out a future. “An alternate mode of practice, where architecture is in the service of civic society,” reads the wall text. OMA’s redefinition of architectural practice is neither a cynical rejoinder nor simply a generational shift within the office. If Prix’s critique, complete with Pussy Riot references, is read as a sentimental return to revolution, then we have to remember that Koolhaas (who is rumored to be the 2014 Biennale director) is critically rooted in the kinds of sober public works that the exhibition champions. OMA’s archive was built on social housing and schemes such as the 1986 Bijlmermeer Redevelopment that reconceptualized a 1970s, CIAM-inspired housing block in Amsterdam and called for plurality of urban life. The firm’s contribution to Common Ground at its most utopic anticipates the contemporary return of a collective position, but it is also a masterful espousal of the banal.