When architectural idealism meets reality

Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession. By Reinier de Graaf. Harvard University Press; 528 pages; $35 and £27.95. 

HIS name may not be familiar, but Reinier de Graaf’s architecture practice, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), designed the CCTV building in Beijing and the Prada Foundation in Milan. Its co-founder Rem Koolhaas is a classic “starchitect”. Mr De Graaf is known in professional circles for his bleakly humorous lectures on architecture as a social act. 

His first book-part essay-collection, part diary-is thus something of a revelation. It covers some familiar ground, such as the frictions between the utopian tendencies in 20th-century architecture and the realities of real estate and realpolitik. But he has produced an original and even occasionally hilarious book about losing ideals and finding them again.

In the early part of the 21st century architects were again given the opportunity to create master plans for whole districts rather than single buildings, in a way they had not been since the 1960s or 1970s. At the book’s core are diary entries describing his travails in designing such plans for London, Dubai and, especially, Moscow.

In the Russian capital, Mr De Graaf and his team are drawn by the idea of revisiting the Naukograd-the special urban parks for research and development that sustained the scientific prowess of the Soviets. Invited to sit on the council that was ostensibly organising the design competition he was taking part in, he initially declined, saying it would be unethical. As he slowly realised the competition did not operate under normal rules, he accepted the position, to get closer to winning the project he and his team had worked so hard on. Mr De Graaf leads his team through bewildering negotiations, and the process gradually unravels into farce as building begins without an agreed master plan.

One of the underrated skills of the architect is the ability to observe not only urban scenarios but individuals. In 2013 Mr De Graaf called the Russian client representative only to hear hurried apologies-and sirens in the background. The next day the news described another raid by agents investigating fraud on the project. Over the next months he looked on wryly as the grand vision was slowly trashed and key figures were indicted. Comparing democratic systems with authoritarian ones, he wonders “which is more time-consuming: our lengthy procedures to arrive at decisions or their lengthy procedures to undo them.” Meanwhile he notes that while Donald Trump the president railed against inept governments, Donald Trump the property developer played them expertly to win permits and subsidies: “If indeed the public sector is dysfunctional then Trump is the monster it created.” 

Mr De Graaf cannot give easy answers to the tough questions about architecture’s public purpose; there are none. He is better at skewering lazy ideas, like the fad for internet-connected buildings, and at highlighting the ideological struggles over the built environment. He deftly shows that architecture cannot be better or more pure than the flawed humans who make it.

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