Like it Never Happened: An “IN MEMORIAM” by Architect REINIER DE GRAAF of OMA

In the recently published book Four Walls and a Roof – The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, Reinier de Graaf reflects on what it means to be an architect today. De Graaf himself is a partner in the Dutch architectural firm OMA, which has been featured frequently over the past decade by 032c, most recently for their Prada runway set designs. The book’s essays are made up of his personal accounts, disappointments, analyses of architecture’s connection to political and economic movements as well as a 31-page photo essay titled “In Memoriam.”

“In Memoriam” mirrors the messiness that comes with a shift in cultural values. Pictured below, the photographs show exploding post-war social housing. At the moment of their collapse, the once affixed structures freeze in wobbly uncertainty. It hurts to watch an idea be demolished.

In anticipation of the Berlin book event held at the ANCB on January 31st for Four Walls and a Roof, 032c’s Eva Kelley spoke with Reinier de Graaf about a building’s life cycle, if we have simply stopped trying, and what our architecture says about our attitudes.

EVA KELLEY: Could you tell me a bit about the photos in “In Memoriam”? What does this collection of images mean to you?

REINIER DE GRAAF: To me, these images represent a larger point, namely the loss of certain progressive values. Nearly twenty years into the new millennium it is as though the previous century never happened. Its low-cost industrial architecture, which facilitated social mobility on an unprecedented scale, is now discredited. Despite higher rates of homelessness, large public housing estates are being demolished with increasing resolve. The idea that the twentieth century with all its great emancipatory achievements is slowly being undone seems to find concrete proof in the removal of its physical substance.

Are buildings that get demolished a “failure” of architecture? Or do you see these images as part of a natural life-cycle?

These buildings were demolished well before their natural life cycle ended. Somehow, society felt it no longer had a need for them – not because their mission had been accomplished, but rather, because we gave up on their mission. To me, it is an open question if it is really the architecture that has “failed” or whether the demolition of these buildings ultimately sounds the death knell of political ambitions – that when it comes to progressing in solidarity, we have simply stopped trying.

I recently went to a talk in which the state of Rome was discussed – how the trash was piling up and money was only flowing into the upkeep of tourist attractions rather than taking care of its citizens. One panel member suggested that maybe one should accept that Rome would inevitably turn into a museum and that it might be ok that some places become Disneyland versions of themselves. Another panel member was outraged at this sober reaction and suggested a cap on tourism. Do you think architecture should shape society or should the people’s desires shape architecture?

Of course, architecture is a response to people’s needs, but in themselves those needs never explain the full story. The needs of people can be presumed to be fairly consistent. If it were solely people’s needs that shaped architecture, we wouldn’t see the shifts in style or approach that we see happening in architecture. Architecture is largely a reflection of the type of society we choose to have. In that sense the demolition of these buildings is as much an ideological statement as their one-time erection.

Is there a tipping point to this relationship?

The relation between people and society is by definition reciprocal. The same goes for architecture. The essence of reciprocity is that it has no tipping point.

Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, 1954–1972. Photo: Lee Balterman / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

Sutter Housing Project, New York City, 1955–1987
Photo: David Rentas / New York Post Archives / © NYP Holdings, Inc. / Getty Images

Christopher Columbus Homes, New Jersey, 1955–1994
Photo: Spencer A. Burnett / New York Post Archives / © NYP Holdings, Inc. / Getty Images

Minguettes, Lyon, 1965–1994
Photo: Thomson Reuters B.V. / © ANP Photo B.V.

Lexington Terrace, Baltimore, 1959–1996
Photo: Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images

Norfolk Park Estate, Sheffield, 1960s–1997
Photo: Dan Chung / Thomson Reuters B.V. (PHOTO) / © ANP Photo B.V.

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, 1962–1998
Photo: Scott Olson / Thomson Reuters B.V. (PHOTO) / © ANP Photo B.V.

St. Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, 1960s–2001
Photo: Chris Bacon / PA Archive / PA Images

Breezy Point, New York City, 1979–2002
Photo: Education Images / Universal Images Group Editorial / Getty Images

Vela H, Naples, 1974–2003
Courtesy of SIAG SRL

Barres Ravel et Presov, Paris, 1963–2004
Photograph by Philippe Wojazer / Thomson Reuters B.V. (PHOTO) / © ANP Photo B.V.

Churchill House Offices, Belfast, 1965–2004
Photo: Paul Faith / PA Archive / PA Images

Marzahn, Berlin, 1977–2004
Photo: by Bernd Settnik / Picture-Alliance / © ZB–Fotoreport

McDermott Tower, Ballymun Estate, Dublin, 1966–2005
Photo: Haydn West / PA Archive / PA Images

Le Tripode, Nantes, 1972–2005
Photo: Alain Denantes / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images

Barres du Pré de l’Herpe, Lyon, 1974–2005

Cornouaille, Meaux, 1960s–2007
Photo: Olivier Laban-Mattei / AFP / Getty Images

Zwarte Madonna, The Hague, 1985–2007
Photo: René van Harrewijn / Beeldbank Haags Gemeentearchief

Pollokshaws, Glasgow, 1964–2009
Photo: David Cheskin / PA Archive / PA Images

La Duchère, Lyon, 1962–2010
Photo: Philippe Desmazes / AFP / Getty Images

Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam, 1968–2010
Photo: Sergio Felter, 2010

Aylesbury Estate, London, 1977–2010
Photo: Lewis Whyld / PA Archive / PA Images

La Cité Balzac, Paris, 1967–2012
Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP / Getty Images

Derby Street Blocks, Dundee, 1967–2013
Photo: David Cheskin / PA Archive / PA Images

Brewster-Douglass Public Housing Projects, Detroit, 1955–2014
Photo: Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

Tour 13, Paris, 1960–2014
Photo: Christophe Herou / PA Archive / PA Images

AfE Tower, Frankfurt, 1972–2014
Photo: Boris Roessler / AFP PHOTO / DPA / Getty Images

Red Road Flats, Glasgow, 1964–2015
Photo: © Carol McCabe Photography

Joseph Plunkett Tower, Ballymun Estate, Dublin, 1967–2015
Photo: Brian Lawless / PA Archive / PA Images

Neubrandenburg Plattenbau, 1974–2016
Photo: Stefan Sauer / © DPA / Picture-Alliance / ZB

Four Walls and a Roof – The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession is published by Harvard University Press (Cambridge, 2017)

Photographs Courtesy of OMA and Harvard University Press

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