CANactions
Get Your Hands Dirty and Enjoy Practice!
Interview with Reinier de Graaf
REINIER DE GRAAF AT THE IN:SITU CONFERENCE IN AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND, 2019. PHOTO BY DAVID ST GEORGE.
Get Your Hands Dirty and Enjoy Practice!
Interview with Reinier de Graaf
Reinier de Graaf is a Partner at OMA, an international practice working in architecture and urban planning, and co-founder of AMO, OMA's research and design studio. He will visit Kyiv and present his well-known book 'Four Walls and a Roof' to the Ukrainian audience in the framework of CANactions Festival 2019 on May 17–18. In the interview to CANactions, Reinier de Graaf discusses the most challenging aspects of the profession, the projects he is excited to be involved in, as well as his book, which is being translated and published in Ukrainian by CANactions.
CANactions: We are happy to introduce 'Four Walls and a Roof' to the Ukrainian readers. Is it the first time the book is being translated?

Reinier de Graaf: Yes, the book is being prepared for publication in several countries at the moment, but you will be the first.

What was the reason for writing 'Four Walls and a Roof'?

It happened in a very funny way. I was regularly publishing essays for various architectural outlets and after I had written an essay about Thomas Piketty's 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' and what I thought about its relevance to architecture, the editor of Piketty contacted the office asking if I would like to expand the column into a book. We said no, but then they persisted and came back with the offer to make a book of essays in which the essays already published could be included and the other part should be written from scratch. I agreed and thus 'Four Walls and a Roof' came about.

In an interview published on Archdaily you said that at OMA you "explore unexpected subjects in an unprejudiced way – to approach unexpected subjects without a preconceived mission." Does this mean that you don't use a certain methodology when working on projects?

We do improvise and when you improvise enough, you tend to come prepared for your own improvisations. But before using any methodology what is important for us is to be involved in the very early stages of the design process, before a project officially becomes a project, and when there is still a window to define the questions which you have to answer yourself later on.

There is not as much information about AMO as about OMA. How is AMO organized?

There is plenty of information about the projects that AMO does. They often generate more publicity than a building, simply because they are more unexpected, because they deal with topics that architects don't usually deal with. AMO is a very fluid entity within our office. The way it is organized depends on the project we work on at that time. There is not one room in the office, or one group of people who work in one way. We worked for the European Union years ago and we had to hire and collaborate with people with different backgrounds, like political scientists and journalists. Many projects we do in partnership with other organizations, offices or specialists, who know more than we do about the subject. We often emphasize the knowledge of others. AMO is the brainchild of OMA's leadership who has a very vivid interest in matters other than architecture. And the way it is cultivated and enriched works in a way that makes sense from a business point of view, too.

You mentioned AMO was founded as a response to a new kind request for design. Do you agree with those who say that the main task of architecture is being changed and the future purpose will be not to create something new, but to transform the existent into something new?

I am not sure. What AMO does is to expand the task of architecture and not necessarily change it. I don't mean that now that we have AMO, we have to stop doing buildings. We still make buildings, we still detail them, we do everything an architect normally does. We just do more. Firstly, because it is interesting, but also because we want to understand the context in which architecture is produced. The more you know about the context, the more meaning your architecture acquires. I don't think we have to transform the task of architecture; we can simply expand it to others domains.

What is the main purpose of architecture?

The major purpose of architecture is to understand and shape the environment in which we all exist.

Reinier de Graaf presenting 'Four Walls and a Roof' at the Architecture Matters conference in Munich, Germany, 2018. Photo by Tanja Kernweiss.
You have an architectural practice, a research organization. What could be the next stage of your office development?

An educational institution would be interesting, and a certain political activity would be interesting, too. I am thinking about this. I have been teaching for a while and I find it very interesting. I am fond of experimentation and academia is a good environment for that. Even more interesting is when you can involve other disciplines besides architecture. Because even if your goal is to build, architecture may not provide all the answers. In the university I studied in Delft, for instance, there is no mentioning of the word 'architecture' in the name of the faculty; it is called Faculteit Bouwkunde, which refers to the knowledge of building – a wider mandate than architecture alone. Bauhaus also never explicitly mentioned the word 'architecture' in their curricula.

What skills have become the most important for architects today?

The main skill is the ability to keep on learning after your supposed education has been finished. I have seen people who came to work in our office with excellent study results and they have failed within a year. I have seen people that came as nobody and they developed into absolute heroes. The nature of our profession is that you are asked questions continuously and you have to produce answers about a subject all the time. That is why you have to continue learning every day and do it fast. An open mind and the ability to learn fast are very important.

What would you recommend to someone who starts his/her design practice or studies architecture?

As an architect, it is incredibly hard to plan your career. A lot in a career is the function of luck and the function of trying again and again with things you work on. Do not shy to enter the labor market of architecture. At least do not stick around to become a teacher at the moment you have just graduated, having a minimum of experience in the field. Get a job or start your practice, but enjoy practice for a while. Then start theorizing on the basis what you have experienced yourself in practice. Every vision stemming from that is much more powerful and valuable than a vision which is only informed by reading. I don't mean to say 'Do not read books,' but make sure this is not the only thing you do. My advice is: 'Get your hands dirty!'


Reinier de Graaf presenting 'Four Walls and a Roof' at the in:situ conference in Auckland, New Zealand, 2019. Photo by David St George.
Text: Olena Vozniak