A sprawling show in London tries to capture the manic pace and self-conscious ways of Rem’s firm.

Photography © Lyndon Douglas

Organized by the Belgian design collective Rotor, the exhibition includes stools made from the same blue foam that OMA uses for its study-models.

In the late summer of 2010, the Belgian Pavilion was the talk of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Curated by Rotor, a young Brussels-based design collective, the pavilion was a beautifully sincere, irony-free study of the ways that architecture ages and is worn down by daily use. In the midst of the Biennale, which is often obsessed with new buildings and gymnastic forms, it was a subtly radical display.

One of OMA’s many projects scattered around the globe, the Casa de Música opened in Porto, Portugal, in 2005.

The notoriety Rotor gained with that job helped it win its most prestigious commission to date: organizing a massive retrospective of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture that opened in October at London’s Barbican Art Gallery and runs through February 19. Working on a project of this kind with Rem Koolhaas, who founded OMA in London in 1975 with Madelon Vriesendorp and Elia and Zoe Zenghelis, couldn’t have been easy; though OMA picked Rotor to organize the show, Koolhaas seems constitutionally incapable of a hands-off approach.

Nearly all of the wall text in the exhibition OMA/Progress was written by Rotor, but it occasionally includes annotations in Koolhaas’s handwriting. Considering the age difference between the curators and their subject—Rotor’s members are mostly under 40, Koolhaas is 67—it’s not difficult to read the result as something of an Oedipal production.

Readers may interject here that OMA is not simply Rem, and vice versa. (At the moment, the firm has seven partners, including Koolhaas.) From its earliest years, OMA, as its intentionally bland, collective name indicates, has been at pains to promote the idea that it is a collaborative office. As Koolhaas put it in a recent interview. “It’s not purely my voice. It’s more of an orchestration.” One of the small pleasures of the exhibition is reading the fine-print credits on some of the projects and being reminded of all the talent OMA has cultivated and sent out into the architecture world over the years. (Those alumni include Winy Maas, Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, Bjarke Ingels, Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo, Minsuk Cho, and many more.) At the same time, of course, Koolhaas is among the brightest single stars in the architectural sky, with a blazing self-regard to match.

One of the exhibition’s strengths is the sidelong, conscientiously indirect way it approaches these themes. If it can be tough to parse the authorship of an OMA building, the same is true of the show. Rotor establishes its control over the proceedings not with top-down gestures of authority, but by means of a strategically messy, agglomerative strategy.

Koolhaas gets to contribute to this museum-world version of a Wikipedia page on OMA’s evolution—but he is one of many would-be historians tweaking the text.

The first two rooms feature densely arranged boards that OMA itself produced for many of its best-known projects. It’s a way for Rotor to acknowledge that OMA, a famously self-critical office, has in essence been curating its own output for years. But as it turns out, that hall of mirrors is something of a false start. After making your way through it—and past a special OMA gift shop—you come to a piece of unadorned, beat-up drywall that officially announces the exhibition, with a guard stationed there to take your ticket.

The wall text at this second entry point begins with a surprisingly banal statement of curatorial purpose. “The problem with architecture shows is that they can’t show what they promise: architecture,” it reads, reviving a complaint about architecture exhibitions that has been endlessly rehashed in recent years. It continues: “This exhibition gives an outsider view of the insides of a particular architecture office. OMA/Progress is a portrait that consists mostly of found materials, materials that exist for reasons other than this exhibition.”

Yet prominently displayed in the very next room is a note from Koolhaas to his architectural associates, which the curators point out was “found pinned on the kitchen wall of the OMA office in New York.” Dated 1998, it includes the following admonition: “It is crucial that each of you take responsibility for the preservation, maintenance and, if necessary, repair of models, drawings and other evidence of architectural research.”

There are certainly moments when this curatorial strategy—raise an idea only to immediately undermine it, as Koolhaas and OMA have done so often over the years—seems too clever by half. But in the galleries that follow, as the exhibition snakes across two floors of the Barbican, Rotor’s approach manages to produce a deft, fitting portrait of contemporary architecture’s most complex and influential firm, one that can seem self-satisfied and self-flagellating at the same time.

The show is exhaustingly thorough. (As Rowan Moore wrote in The Observer, “Don’t expect to understand or even see it all. Nobody will, not even the people who made it.”) There are rooms on OMA buildings that move (the famous house in Bordeaux); on projects that were put on ice by the economic crisis (a vertiginous condo tower for Twenty-second Street in Manhattan) or dramatically modified to save money (Cornell’s Milstein Hall); and on designs dominated by the truss (CCTV in Beijing, the Wyly Theater in Dallas). There are inside jokes (squared-off stools made of the same blue foam that OMA uses for its intentionally crude models). There is a slideshow that shuffles through every digital image'3.5 million in all'stored on every one of the firm’s servers.

There is also a small section the curators call the “secret room”; its walls are plastered with documents found in OMA’s administrative files and its recycling bins. The most poignant is a written request by an anonymous young staffer, made nearly a year in advance, for two days of vacation. There is also an RFQ mailed by Harvard University on June 30, 2008, noting that proposals are due back in “July 2008.”

That manic pace—and the complexity of contemporary architectural practice—is something that OMA has embraced from its earliest days and has incorporated into its work in direct, strategic fashion. As if to illustrate that idea, the exhibition includes the boards for an ill-fated OMA proposal for Universal Studios in Los Angeles, commissioned by Edgar Bronfman, Jr. The accompanying description of the scheme, written by the firm, compares the Universal job to other famous architecture for corporate America, including Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, an earlier Bronfman-family commission: “It soon became apparent that the commission was less straightforward than it seemed. Where in ’54 Seagram was a single entity with a clear identity that would be relatively stable during the five-year minimum that any architectural enterprise takes from beginning to end, that was no longer the case: by the mid-’90s, the substance and nature of any corporation was in constant flux, if not turmoil.”

This is the culture for which OMA has always designed buildings, and the one Rotor has so energetically tried to recreate inside the Barbican. Forget the crystal-clear Modernist dictates that drove Mies; flux and turmoil are the muses for our age. I don’t know if that counts as progress, but it seems to be just the way OMA likes it.

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