Unpacking Rem Koolhaas's Studio: Maarten Gielen on Curating the Barbican's Unorthodox New OMA Show

Unpacking Rem Koolhaas's Studio: Maarten Gielen on Curating the Barbican's Unorthodox New OMA Show

At the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennial, Brussels-based design collective Rotor curated the Belgian Pavilion. Venerated architect and Office for Metropolitan Architecture co-founder Rem Koolhaaswas so taken with their work he welcomed them into his firm's office, allowing them access to whatever they pleased. It was all in order for them to curate "OMA/Progress"at the Barbican Gallery, OMA's first exhibition in the United Kingdom.

Relying on the democratic instincts that unite it as a collective, Rotor invited suggestions from sources better versed inOMA's work: OMA partners and staff, the Pompidou,just to name a few. What they came up with is a fragmented show of hundreds loosely grouped "found objects": an unfinished manuscript of a book that will never be published; faxes in Koolhaas's own handwriting; amonth's worth of discarded paper, directly from OMA wastebaskets. Showcasing OMA's architectural accomplishments as well, "Progress" also features hours of footage of OMA lectures and conferences, scale models,and photographs of their work. 



ARTINFO spoke to Rotor founder Maarten Gielen on the curatorial process behind a portrait of one of the most prolific and influential architectural firms in the world. 



Rem Koolhaas said initially he was "nervous" about the idea of a retrospective because of the idea he could be potentially approaching the end of his career, and also that his work would not be adequately represented in scale models. How did you take that into account in this show? 

I think we also didn't want to make a retrospective, either. What we were interested in is making a show that takes OMA as a tool to look ata much broader world, to use OMA in a metaphorical way to see what it saysabout the world because it is deeply anchored in economy and sociology andconsumerism and so on. We tried to present it really as a process, and what we found important was to give people the tools to form their own opinions on thearchitecture. The captions clearly distinguish opinion from fact — it's not a tribute, and it's notcategorizing it, either. We're not saying OMA is postmodern or modern or post-postmodern. We hardlyuse adjectives in the captions. Most of the time it says this building wasbuilt for this purpose, in this year, and this is what we found particular aboutit. The rest of the story is yours to think of.

Accordingly to the Barbican, Rotor had"unprecedented" access to OMA.

I think unless they've hidden it really, really well, there'svery little of OMA we didn't have access to. We saw the notes they made at financial meetings, their financial records, information on the staff. We saw all the confidential projects as well. It was quite overwhelming. 

What can you tell us more about these confidential projects?

Well, the nature of a confidential project means I can't tell you. If you make an exhibition of architects,you're also making an exhibition about their clients. For some clients it's not a problem, and other clients feel less sure about showing theirdream villa orwhere to place their bed in their bedroom. And so there's a whole seriesofprojects that are not in the show. Let's say there's a couple. But we still had accessto the overall information and we took it with us in a more abstract way.

It sounds like you had a gigantic selection to work with. What was your process of paring it down?

You're right to point out that the quantity was gigantic. Wemade an index of the file server of OMA, and we found out that there were3.5million images on there and 1,500 new images arrived every day for the six months we were there. How do you select 80or 100 or 200 images out of that? There's only so much an exhibition cancarefully look at. The selection process was not very [unilateral]. Somepieces are really our ideas and others were suggested bymembers of OMA staff, or by one of the partners. For instance, the whiteplaster model of CCTV was asuggestion by one of the partners who said it would be a crime not to show it. As he felt so strong about it, we started paying attention.

It sounds like you were getting directions from all sides. We have a saying that too many cooks spoil the soup. 

OMA was already discussing this exhibition for and ayear and a half before we arrived in the story. We were the external voice.They decided to, they used the word surrender, to an external curator. We didn'tchoose the venue when we arrived. We arrived fairly late in the process of theexhibition.   

Because we are a collective, all of our projects have alot of cooks, and so I don't really agree with the saying. I think first of all,we were influenced and that was a good thing. We weren't guided. We weren't manipulated — at least we don't feel that way. We were relatively new to thesubject of OMA. If you have to make an exhibition about a practice asinfluential as OMA in only six months, you need an insider's perspective, andits the only way. Our ambition was to make a portrait out of the show, andthe only way to do that was to give them a voice in the process.

Once you've selected the exhibits, another monumental task emerges: arranging them. What was your methodology there?

On the ground round level we talk about OMA today. We gave one room to OMA, and another room represents six current buildings sites that acts as an introduction. The rest takes place upstairs. Thespace of the Barbican is very fragmented; it's a collection of eight rooms thatconnected in these eight rooms. It was quite a difficult question — how do you cutOMA into eight separate pieces? Are you going to do it geographically? Eight periods in the work? Eight key projects? We didn't find a framework that we found interestingenough, so we ended up with an exhibition that rather tells the story — 450 stories — through 450 exhibits rather than limiting ourselves to eight stories. 

We came up with very loose themes,very loose connections. The first room is a series of buildings that all haveone part that can move — a theater whose roof can move, an escalator that cantilt. One room is themed with museum design, and the last room groups exhibits by color. There's a white room with all the white exhibits inside.

Where did the title "Progress" come from?

We had the impression we had chosenthe title because we had mentioned it once in a discussion, but OMA also had theimpression that they chose the title. That's a nice coincidence.

So it's still disputed?

We're not the kindof people who dispute authorship. The more authors, the better it is.

"OMA/Progress" is on view at the Barbican through February 19.