Interview with Reinier de Graaf on ‘Four Walls and a Roof’

The OMA partner discusses his blunt new book of essays.

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Complexity and Candor in Architecture

A practicing architect based at OMA’s headquarters in Rotterdam, Reinier de Graaf juggles building and master planning projects in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East with a prolific writing career. His latest book, Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, takes an idiosyncratic look at architectural history and dissects contemporary practice—from the quotidian (and sometimes comic) frustrations to the occasional triumphs and memorable failures.


Architectural Record: First, why did you write this book?

There’s a twofold answer to that. I’ve been publishing essays online and in architectural magazines. One in particular was an analogy between Thomas Piketty’s economic history and a history I perceived in architecture. After reading his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a number of things about the history of architecture that had always baffled me all of a sudden became clear. Piketty’s economic analysis also offered a strange explanation for some of the inexplicable stylistic twists that architecture had undergone in the 20th and 21st centuries. The editor of Piketty’s book read my article and we had the idea to make a book in the form of a concept album, a collection of essays with a thread.

The second answer is that I realized this is simply an autobiography about our profession—not of me but of the state of the profession at large. It’s pretty wide, and therefore it carries the title Four Walls and a Roof, the most dumb definition you could give of architecture, and then it has the subtitle which fills you in that this won’t do it. There are lots of publications on the works of architects—buildings, urban plans, etc. Architects always talk about their works, but they never talk about their work, singular— what it is like to work as an architect.

The subtitle is The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, but you’re the head of AMO, the think tank portion of OMA that deals with cultural and research issues outside the traditional realm of architecture, such as energy planning. You’re a curator. You’re an author, obviously. So aren’t you responsible for making it a much more complex profession?

Partly, probably. I’ve happily contributed to the mix in that sense, but I’m a person who at one point decided to study architecture, who has had a professional life which is longer than my history with OMA, and I therefore do like the idea that I could take a step back even from myself. The book, let’s say, couples what it is like to work as an architect with an attempt to take stock in a somewhat more cold way.

As a partner in one of the best-known firms in the world, do you think your experiences are representative? Can you relate to the average architect?

You’d be surprised at how normal 80 percent of my daytime job is, at the degree of banality and at the degree of the anecdotal that pervades this famous office. I think my work is way more representative than many people might think, in that the problems and the dilemmas we encounter are actually fairly representative of the dilemmas of the profession as a whole.

Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the profession?

That is very difficult to say. I enjoy my work, and I think the fact that you write 528 pages about your work clearly means you’re enjoying it, you love your work. This is not a book written out of frustration or out of anger. It is just an attempt to be candid about a profession that is burdened by too many myths. Where I talk about our own experiences— which are sometimes very funny, sometimes profound, sometimes simply silly—I think there is also great comic potential in all of those things. Once you learn to see architecture not only as a way of delivering products but as a form of acquiring knowledge, there’s every reason to be joyous. The book is of course critical, and sometimes dark, but I’m ultimately a happy person and a happy architect.

You are very candid in certain essays, among the funniest, where you shed a not-so-flattering light on some very well-known architects, like your take on a lecture given by Richard Rogers, when you refer to him as Urban Man. Were you afraid of offending anyone?

You have a laugh and a joke about each other. I’m sure people joke at my mannerisms sometimes. This is so normal in the context of many professions. People do that in show business, in literature, in a lot of creative professions. It’s a way of belonging. I think the fact that you asked the question is indicative of one of the things that is looming over architecture—that this is a profession that takes itself extremely seriously, and is made up of people who sometimes take themselves too seriously. Maybe the book is an attempt to single-handedly compensate for that a little bit. I didn’t mean to offend anyone. The fact that there’s a certain sense of humor in an architectural publication is in itself fresh and new.

Another amusing essay is called “The Inevitable Box,” where you wax poetic for 20 pages about the box and the anti-box in all its forms. How much does this idea of the box infiltrate your approach to the design of a building?

Clearly a lot. It’s a lot of text to spend on a three-letter word. What the essay says is that in many ways architecture is a very complex way to arrive at something simple. I write about the box in the most subliminal terms, and I write about the box in the most banal terms. It’s a very weird realization that the box is both the outcome of an extreme architectural effort and it’s also the outcome of no architectural effort at all. That is ironic, and, strangely, it probably takes an architect to distinguish which is which.

Take a petrol station or the Farnsworth House: one is not the other, but they have everything to do with one another. The irony of a lot of modern architecture is that, in many ways, it was a vanishing act. Another essay talks about the East German prefabrication effort, where architects essentially disappear into the building industry, which was actually a trajectory initiated by the Bauhaus. This fine line between a masterpiece and a vanishing act, which is what the box is about, is of course something that looms over you as a designer constantly, particularly in the context of the free market economy, which has a habit of pointing out your irrelevance to you on a very regular basis.

Going into this book, one might expect to read about projects like the Guggenheim Bilbao, or OMA projects, but instead there are many unexpected or unlikely buildings, like that postwar housing in East Germany or your entire essay on the Atlanta airport. Why did you include what most might see as very banal projects?

There’s a strange beauty to their honesty. In the case of the Atlanta airport, it’s a surrender to the perfect diagram based on the dimensions of planes. It’s strangely beautiful, even though there is probably no other compositional effort invested in it, just an extremely utilitarian reflection of a diagram. The same goes for the East German housing. It’s in a way the simplest possible solution to a very pressing problem, where repetition, which is normally disliked, acquires an aesthetic dimension simply because of the sheer scale.

I have a very perverse aesthetic fascination for those things personally, because they are on the threshold of an extreme radicality of architecture, which is at the same point where architecture almost ceases to matter, which is what fascinates me in Mies’s work too. This realist threshold between being all-relevant and being irrelevant is, ultimately, the theme of the book. The book is both megalomaniacal about the profession, and nihilistic.

Politics runs through this book, sometimes very obviously, as in the essay about Trump, but often as a background to how and why certain projects got built or torn down. Does this reflect your own interest in politics or your personal experiences in building?

I’m a left-leaning individual, that much may be clear, but in the context of this book, my interest in politics is mostly driven by a desire to get to the core of things, to not just scratch the surface. Since I have a hunch that in the end everything is political, and therefore if you think about things with that in mind, that is the best way to treat the subject. I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way.

In the essay “From CIAM to Cyberspace: Architecture and the Community,” you write, “The community became the most frequently invoked concept in architectural and urban discourse, endowing even the most mediocre designs with an aura of good intentions and implicitly condemning designers who declined to use the word.”

Yeah. I do go for it, don’t I? That is ultimately about the legitimacy of architecture. Architecture has a legitimacy in itself, which is neither good nor bad, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It has its own deep-felt value system. In a time when everything needs to be argued, where everybody has to answer for their actions, architecture has invoked essentially extraneous causes—participation, community, sustainability—to enhance its own legitimacy, but, when it does that, it often hurts its own case. As soon as architecture becomes moralistic, it becomes mediocre. Do-gooders always have this kind of evangelical notion about them. Good intentions are often incredibly oppressive phenomena and very detrimental to creativity. I remember, particularly as an architectural student, how intimidated I was when sometimes I was put in a corner as an insensitive, evil person for not adopting the same jargon. I don’t think it helped anybody. I think it’s also produced quite a bad generation of designers, on the whole.

OMA is not generally recognized as a firm that does green architecture, and yet in a quiet way you’ve been increasingly involved in sustainability, with projects including a strategic master plan for the North Sea; the publication in 2010 of Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe; and The Energy Report, a global plan for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, with the World Wildlife Fund.

A lot of architecture that is green ends up looking green. We’ve done buildings. They’ve won awards for energy consumption and sustainability, which is very nice, but I will always present them as buildings with a lot more qualities than just that. I’m not against sustainability. I’m not against the community, nor am I against world peace. Of course I’m for clean air. But these things are so obvious that I feel they don’t need arguing. Whoever argues about them too loudly is slightly too suspect for me. I’m just against one-dimensionality, because we have a three-dimensional subject. Once one of those things becomes a topic, it tends to be incredibly reductionist, in the sense that then you only talk about that aspect of a building. Invariably, you deny architecture its richness.

The new book closes with the story of Pruitt-Igoe, followed by a photo essay on other modern buildings that fell victim to the wrecking ball, and, finally, an alternative kind of housing project recently built in the Rockaways in New York. Why did you choose to end the book on that note?

The title of the last chapter of the book is “Progress.” It’s the architecture which was most vocally erected in the name of progress, and its demolition and its legacy is simply pointing at the most relative notion of progress at the same time, so there is a literal and a metaphorical meaning for that. I put the Rockaway article at the end also because of the last sentence: “Perhaps, in the end, that is where history’s resolution lies: in oblivion.”

In oblivion?

I thought that was quite appropriate at the end of a long book.