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Rem Koolhaas designing the design process Sjors Timmer

Prize-winner and starchitect-in-denial, Rem Koolhaas and his studio OMA have created a
method and practice that is uniquely capable of dealing with an ever more complex world.
Interested in what this could mean for digital designers I started digging into their design
process, in this article Ill discuss my findings. When asked once what his goal with his practice
was, Koolhaas answered: to keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could
be. And it is this could be that plays a defining role in Koolhaas career.
0. Introduction
Rem Koolhaas studied scriptwriting and architecture and is heading OMA/AMO, an office he cofounded in 1975. You might know him from his books Delirious New York or S, M, L, XL and his
practice from the CCTV HQ, Casa da Msica in Porto or the Central Library in Seattle.
It is not easy to define Koolhaas. Although his buildings can be found all over the world, its
hard to recognise a typical Koolhaas building by visual appearance alone. To define Koolhaas
you have to move to his realm, leave the world of bricks and steel, and enter the world of
images, models and processes, a world of ideas. Not what is, but what could be. His buildings
and his books do, however, have something that makes them recognisable as a product from
OMA. A product that is very much influenced by the process of creation, a bottom up, labourintensive, research-lead way of questioning everything. His products are assemblies, where
Koolhaas refuses to give any easy answers, and instead reveals a selection of evidence and
demands from spectators to form their own interpretations.

OMA Idea Machine

Koolhaass greatest achievement is therefore not a building or book, but a system that is
capable of harvesting, questioning and producing ideas. What Koolhaas has built is a very large
version of himself, a system that, through a method of researching and building, is capable of
reliably creating beautiful and intelligent ideas on how the world could be. In this article I want
to discuss the system that Koolhaas has built to get in that position and how he manages to
remain at the forefront.

1. Observation
The easiest way to uncover new ideas is to be in areas where life is being transformed fast.

Koolhaas and his team have been working on a structure that is capable of searching the world
for opportunities where change is happening faster than anywhere else, where certain
breakthroughs can be made. Some places like the historical centres of European cities have
hardly changed through the centuries, whilst others like Beijing, Dubai or Laos seem to
redevelop themselves within years. As he states: We define an agenda, and then we look at
the current moment and see where and in what way we could make certain breakthroughs and
that is completely independent of making a constant sequence of architectural projects.
In 1998 OMA made their research and create approach more explicit by creating a specialised
research department and think-tank, which deals with architecture in its unbuilt form. AMO is
focused on research, publications and exhibitions. Through this research OMA manages to be
present on the scene before the scene appears.

Long before Koolhaas the builder arrives, Koolhaas the writer was already there. In his role
as professor at Harvard he explored the Pearl Delta before being asked to build for CCTV.
Before proposing an infrastructure plan in Dubai, the manual was already published.
Before working with Prada his research on shopping was already available in book form.

New ideas are most easily created in an environment of young ideas. Its no wonder therefore
that AMOs and Koolhaas research projects can be found in many emerging economies of the

2. The studio practice

Another way in which Koolhaas differs from his competitors is in how his studio is run. Koolhaas
doesnt come up with the masterplan that is then refined by his architects. On the contrary, his
practice defines itself by an enormous freedom, in materials, in methods and in working hours.
One might say that at OMA its avoided at all cost that answers are given based on no other
ground than authority. What Koolhaas therefore provides are questions and not answers.
As Koolhaas puts it: What the OMA process focuses on is not the creator but the critic. In our
way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes
a critical decision. The result is better architecture.
This practice of avoiding ready-made answers runs deep at OMA, it can be found in the way
they source their materials. Kunl Adeyemi states: Of course its easier to use materials from
the shelf, from the catalogue, but we cant be on the cutting edge if we do that. So, we develop
our own materials, we develop new structures.4
Another aspect of this freedom is the way employees are allowed to manage their time, so they
can be productive without being constrained by fixed working hours. As Mark Veldman states
You can walk out or you can stay the whole night and you can work here. You have a freedom
to continue to work.5
Lastly, the fear of becoming predictable and stagnant even reaches into their hiring strategy.

As managing director Victor van der Chijs mentioned We really want every year at least 25%
of our people to be new. And we want them to be young, bright people.6
In order for Koolhaas to have the greatest chance of uncovering new ideas, OMA is created
around renewal and regeneration. Although Koolhaas himself, with his 30 years service, is a
constant factor, it is his continuous work of critiquing himself and the outside world, whilst at
the same time also creating both of them, that becomes the key to the design process.

3. Models
Models play a crucial role at the OMA design process; produced in large quantities, they
function as a container for ideas and constrains. Because of their shape they create an
immediate impact, there is no need to go through long documents, a model is an entity to
makes experiments easy. As one of their architects states: [w]hen you have creative minds
you get a lot of ideas. The luxury product is in the fact that we can actually test all of them. Of
course, its wasteful but that is what makes it a luxury.7 Dozens or even hundreds of ideas are
turned into presentations, diagrams and models which through a process of constant critique,
slowly turn into a final plan. As a journalist noticed: [p]ast reception [] is a meeting room
filled with smaller maquettes. At first glance there appear to be perspex and foam models for
dozens of projects but close up you see theyre all clearly the same site, a masterplan in
Moscow, modelled over and over again, with different arrangements and relationships of
One of OMAs accomplishments is therefore also that they manage to run a profitable business
whilst allowing for an enormous amount of waste to be created. This way of working also
allows to blur the distinction between the research, concept and design phases. In these worlds
the information that came from outside slowly grows into a plan that could transform the
future. As Albena Yaneva writes, Manhattan, Seattle, Cordoba are brought into the office; their
life is re-enacted in the studio practice.9 The playground of ideas is constructed through
mixing client demands, the environment, laws and budgets, but also opportunities, ideas, and
dreams. In an endless circulation, ideas turn into shapes and shapes into ideas.
Round after round
Model-making allows the office to play with often contradictory constrains of client demands,
the time pressure and the environment for the building. Models and books turn constrains and
ideas into visual and physical representations that can be used as building blocks to create new
worlds. Erez Ella: Every model has one or more things. You cannot really say what is that a
composition of few things, of materials, of whatever. As such, they accommodate a contested
assembly of conflicting demands, restrictions to demolish, constraints of history, programme,
zoning, typologies, structure and roof, mechanical and electric systems as well as a variety of
human concerns users experiences and clients demands, all translated, transplanted into
and accommodated by one entire the model.10
In this way Koolhaas practice is able to create and maintain many representations of possible

futures that can be tried, altered and questioned. Round after round these representations run
their courses, altering, disappearing and merging with newer and older ideas.

The practice of making a large selection of detailed models allows OMA to keep more
complexity in the design process. The longer they can push final decisions forward, the more
chance there is that a great new idea might emerge. And so each model reflects the studio as a
whole, a collection of changing artefacts always in flux towards becoming more refined,
intelligent ideas of how the world could be.

4. Archives
Ten years ago the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) proposed to acquire OMAs archive.
They sent an art historian for four months to the offices basement storage to make a inventory
of all the items. When the work was done, OMA decided not to sell. Instead they hired the art
historian as its archivist.11
Archives via Borix1
One of the reasons that OMA can afford their process is their ability to recycle themselves. By
using their large archive of models and books they manage to use time more efficiently and to
store a larger amount of complexity. Archiving the models allowed architects to keep the
traces of creativity for a longer period of time; de-archiving them meant they could rediscover
those traces of design invention that time had left intact.12
An example here is the Casa da Musica in Porto where the abandoned and temporarily
forgotten model of the private house came up to the office and re-entered the cycles of design.
Lingering on the tables of the models for months, it was finally take with new assumptions,
reshaped, refreshed and adjusted.13
Working with their vast archive allows OMA to work with a large volume of ideas and a higher
internal complexity, thereby enabling them to pick a good idea from a much larger pool than
would otherwise be possible.

5. Books
Besides the archived models, OMA uses another method to carry information and ideas through
time. As shown in OMAs exhibition at the AA, besides an architecture firm, OMA is also a
massive book production machine, where they use books in all stages of the design process,
such as documenting research, saving projects stages or capturing outcomes.
OMA Bookmachine via Dezeen
These books help to get a grip on time, and allow for a large quantity of information to stay
within reach. In the research phase they contain the photos, diagrams, texts and schemes.
Shohei Shigematsu: [w]e use very naive diagrams almost like cartoons in childrens books. We
also spend a lot of time on making books, which is also part of the presentation materials.
There is also an element of clarifying things for ourselves.14

And later on the books function like their archives as a way to store and shelf design ideas.
Like the tables of models, the books are summaries of the design steps that make the material
trajectory of a project traceable. They keep some traces of exploration, and present the results
of design experimentation. Like the tables they allow the designers to go back and rethink the
design moves previously made.15
Books play an interesting double role at OMA, they are both used to start building processes
and to summarise them. Although other architecture firms have combined building and writing
(think Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller) no firm has managed to operate a book and build
business on the scale of OMA.

6. Conclusion
The process that Koolhaas uses to uncover the future before anyone else, is through the ability
to bring in new ideas faster and to maintain a higher degree of complexity within the studio
and in each project.
It is therefore not the buildings, models, books, exhibitions or magazines that are Koolhaas
biggest achievement, but the creation of a structure that is capable of producing a constant
stream of ideas. As Koolhaas states [t]he biggest part of our work for competitions and bid
invitations disappears automatically. No other profession would accept such conditions. But you
cant look at these designs as waste. Theyre ideas; they will survive in books.16
One might even suspect that Koolhaas mainly builds buildings to have something to write
about, as he concludes in an interview in 2004. Maybe, architecture doesnt have to be stupid
after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of thinking about
anything a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the
diagram of everything.17