Blueprint innovation: 16 interviews with international architects

Reinier de Graaf

Reinier de Graaf. Photo: Ekaterina Izmestieva / Strelka InstituteReinier de Graaf. Photo: Ekaterina Izmestieva / Strelka Institute

Reinier de Graaf runs architecture practice OMA’s think tank AMO. Established in 1999, its aim is to examine broader issues around culture, identity and organisation, independent of the need to actually build anything. It does, however, provide strategic input to projects, sometimes buildings, but also publications, research collaborations and exhibitions - including the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

Innovation means precious little to me, because I am sure that architecture doesn’t have much to do with innovation. By definition architecture is an old-fashioned profession, so the only effects of innovation are forms of disruption that occur in architecture.

Concept for the development of the Moscow City Agglomeration, for the Moscow City Government. Courtesy OmaConcept for the development of the Moscow City Agglomeration, for the Moscow City Government. Courtesy OMA

It’s essentially a stale medium sometimes thrown into turmoil by certain innovations that come not from itself, but from other domains forcing architecture to reinvent itself. The interesting effect of innovation in architecture is that it doesn’t so much create new things but makes a number of its former reflexes redundant.

For example, when reinforced concrete was invented, it went hand in hand with the use of steel, a material you could put under pressure and under tension. That meant that spans had to be horizontal - whereas before it was all about arches, because arches are designed to take pressure. Interestingly, after reinforced concrete was invented it took at least 20–25 years for people to stop making arches in concrete. Habit continued to affect the way architects made buildings. Architecture is a delayed response to much older inventions; what we tried to do with AMO is to deliberately cultivate an interest in other domains in an effort to reduce that somewhat inevitable delay.

What we see is that today’s developments - such as groundbreaking revolutionary technological breakthroughs - undoubtedly take place outside the domain of architecture. That’s fine - the digital revolution is an altogether different realm. The real innovation of digital is that it makes form less relevant. Although parametric architecture, which is supposed to be very modern, is a hopelessly old-fashioned reflex: to put your discipline at the centre of everything and just shift everything else elsewhere.

A ‘barcode’ which merged the flags of current EU member states into a new representative flag. Photo: Österreichische Präsidentschaft / Hopi-Media / Georges SchneiderA ‘barcode’ which merged the flags of current EU member states into a new representative flag. Photo: Österreichische Präsidentschaft / Hopi-Media / Georges Schneider

As an architect you can only have a healthy relationship with innovation once you realise that innovation takes place in different domains and you are a medium through which to express that innovation rather than be at the centre of it.

I am, however, interested in the effect of the digital on urbanism and the way we organise ourselves. In this area, we are only scratching the surface. I am also interested in the political aspect of that whole thing. For a lot of big tech companies, the rhetoric of the smart city is nothing more than a vehicle for privatisation. There’s a lot of euphoria about the digital, a real celebratory rhetoric. But as with any technology it’s very important to acknowledge that it is ultimately agnostic.

Without political choices related to the technology, the legacy of any technology is indeterminate. It’s the choices you make afterwards that are important. I would like to see that whole smart-city discussion brought together with politics - they have been divorced too long. It’s phenomenally important that they start to address real issues of how technology impacts on society. We have developed a group - Megalopolitics - to investigate how we can create a bridge there.

Once you start to think on that scale, you start thinking big. And you have to acknowledge you can’t do that alone. An… opportunity arises for architects to regain some control over urbanism, for example, by acknowledging they are not the only profession to have something meaningful to say about it.

Photo: Österreichische Präsidentschaft / Hopi-Media / Georges Schneider
Photo: Österreichische Präsidentschaft / Hopi-Media / Georges Schneider

There should be an equality of disciplines, none of which holds the ultimate truth. In order to bring them together you have to push them out of their comfort zone. We always like it when architecture is pushed out of its comfort zone.

Where innovative thinking is most needed right now is in the domain of real estate. Somehow we need to find a financial mechanism that can break the seemingly inevitable asymmetries that occur, the endless gentrification of city centres, the escalation of prices. It’s a strange situation: while on paper it seems we’re getting richer, there’s a certain amount of impoverishment and exile. If some genius could crack some financial principle it would not be the case. It’s one of the most necessary things… As architects, we have done little more than make our property developers rich. VS

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