For someone who follows OMA's work and ideas, the new exhibition "OMA/Progress" at the Barbican in London doesn't really provide much new information. But I find myself enjoying it because of the way it's organized and the way OMA's architecture is presented. Curated by the Belgian collective Rotor (not OMA), the show peels off layers of PR-engineered information and gets to the heart of the practice. The young and observant members of Rotor stayed in OMA's Rotterdam office for months and gathered objects and intelligence from the archive, and even from the trash. The result is a distant yet engaged interpretation of the firm's 35 years of history, providing a fresh look different from the singular narrative told by OMA on their own work (like in "Content" 8 years ago). As Rem said, this time "it's their show on our work."
The show starts with projects by AMO. (A message on the importance of broad thinking?) Then you see a chronological index of all OMA projects on a track before you get into the real lobby with a research area on the left and a shop on the right. Only now I realize the west entrance is also open, a gesture that turns this part of the lower level into a public passage cutting through the Barbican Estate. The life-size cutout figures here and there are probably signs to say "This is free."
|Entrance with cardboard cutouts|
|"Project Machine" - index of all OMA projects|
|Research center with blue foam stools from the Milan Prada catwalk show|
The ticketed part of the show starts with an almost empty room. Two small strange-looking lumps are displayed at the corner, lit like artworks. The description says, "It is unclear to the archivist whether these are models or just clay leftovers." On the wall next to it is a letter from Rem. I think it's a fantastic and funny juxtaposition, and the tone of the letter sounds so familiar...
The next room is about current projects under construction. The idea is an evolving gallery where the contents get updated every time the architects pay a visit to the construction site. The buildings and the exhibits are both work in progress in this case.
In the "Current Preoccupations" room, ideas, sketches and images are pinned up on the walls as simple A4 printouts, like a normal meeting in the office. On the other side, there are A5 tear-off sheets that allow the visitors to pick and make their own books. Here, you can see ideas spanning from the market economy, politics, religion, megacities, countryside, desert, Europe, education, preservation, iconic vs. generic, etc.
|"Current Preoccupations" room|
In the atrium is a 48-hour video that flicks through every single image Rotor found on OMA's server. There are 3,454,204 images and each one only shows up for about 1/20 of a second (close to the rate at which each frame of a movie is shown). This relentless flashy display of raw materials gives you a sense of "more or less what's going on," but more importantly, an impression of the sheer quantity of stuff OMA have produced.
The exhibition setup has been linear so far, although one can argue that the opening of the west entrance makes the public zone sequence reversible. The upper level, however, is organized as a non-sequential loop that doesn't specify a start or an end. The arrangement takes advantage of the gallery space, turning each of the eight semi-independent rooms into its own small universe with loosely related themes. These themes are not meant to set up a scholarly framework of architectural practice nor trying to cover OMA's entire body of work. They are intersections Rotor extracted from the crisscrossing of the multi-layered OMA thinking, a sampler of the zillion things that OMA is interested in.
You see a seat from Cornell's Milstein Hall next to a rotating skirt from Prada's "Waist Down" show in the room call "yet it moves," together with projects like the Dubai Renaissance, Guggenheim Hermitage, Prada New York, the Bordeaux house, and the Wyly Theater. The next room "sight lines" shows how buildings such as Casa da Musica, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, and Seattle Library become lenses to look at views, but not in a naïve BIG way. There is a room with only white or shiny models, and another showing the museum typology as ways of display. In the room about structure, a 1:1 CCTV truss mock-up is placed opposite to the correspondence with ARUP on the wall. In the "ornament" room, you see fabrics designed by Petra, Prada LA foam, Cornell ceiling, several Casa da Musica finishes (gold leaf wood grain, blue tiles, black and white tiles), and 2x4's Mies face at IIT.
My favorite room is "Adaptation, instead of quitting." It's a collection of projects that experienced "crisis" during the design process. Examples include the compromise and subsequent demise of 23 E 22nd St, the long wait and realization of De Rotterdam, the half remaining Cordoba Congress Center, and the cantilever decision of Cornell. It's admirable to see an active attitude towards reality in the tough business of architecture.
|Yet it moves|
|Living inside the truss|
|Places, and what to do with them: site visit slideshows|
|Two white models showing two generations of object-making|
|Museum as ways of display|
|The "secret room"|
Rem said at his Cornell lecture, "We don't believe in progress any more." The Barbican show is not about progress per se, but more like work in progress. No real architecture is shown in the exhibition - everything is fragmented to the extent that it even surprised Rem. Through the bits and pieces of behind-the-scene materials and anecdotes, you get a glimpse into the design process and everyday happenings in the office of OMA. In a secret room that is not even marked in the official guide, the walls and ceiling are all covered with waste paper Rotor collected from OMA's Rotterdam office. It is brave to show architecture as a messy and complex practice, a reality far from the fancy image in Justin Bieber's mind.