Architect, Verb By Reinier De Graaf - Praveen Bavadekar's review

“DeGraaf seeks to lay bare the vacuousness and the fluff that’s behind most buildings built today”, Praveen Bavadekar reviews ‘architect, verb’, By Reinier De Graaf

Praveen Bavadekar, Partner at Thirdspace Architecture Studio reviews, Reinier De Graaf’s book, architect, verb.
Architect, Verb By Reinier De Graaf - Praveen Bavadekar's review

Reinier De Graaf’s book ‘architect, verb’ is in a tradition of writing that explores architecture’s relation to outside forces. The three books DeGraaf has written so far, including the novel, The Masterplan: A Novel, seeks to look at the profession of architecture through an insiders lens, sometimes from inside out and sometimes outside in. If his first book, four walls and a roof, was about critiquing the profession about its own hubris, the current book is about rescuing architecture when it is being besieged upon from all sides.1

One way of looking at De Graaf’s writings is if they were not treated in isolation or even in relation to one another, but would be seen to form a part of a larger trajectory that traces its way from Koolhaas’ writings and research to the work of OMA/AMO. This is not because De Graaf is not an author and a thinker in his own right, which he very much is, but rather as a tool to position De Graaf’s writing as a progression of knowledge produced by the collective that is the OMA/AMO.

De Graaf’s writing does bear certain stylistic similarities to Koolhaas. There are these long expository passages that mine the minutiae of history to come with interesting observations contrasted with parts of the writing which are written in a more commanding and polemical present tense that has a sense of immediacy. Chapters such as Prof speak bear an uncanny stylistic resemblance to texts such as Junkspace or Typical plan, by the use of their present tense (Profspeak is..) and how they set out an argument.

A very powerful installation at the Venice Bienalle of 2014 curated by OMA/ AMO, was of a modern generic commercial false ceiling with all the trappings of services, pipes and cables that it hid, juxtaposed against an exuberant renaissance dome in all its finery2. It was a tongue in cheek commentary about how, in contemporary times, architecture’s role had been sometimes reduced to be subservient to forces outside it, in this case – engineering services.

A constant refrain in OMA’s work, in text as well as through projects, is about this notion of control and de-control, power and powerlessness, a pastorialist way of dealing with forces ranging from contexts to history to client’s briefs.3

The early heady decades of modernism when polemical texts, professing the power of architecture to change society, were written, are long relegated to the past, partly also because of books from that emerged from the OMA stable such as Delirious NewYork in 1978, and later SMLXL in 1995. The manifestos of today have often echoed this lament of acknowledging how it’s not architects but forces exterior to architecture that often shapes the profession, the buildings it produces, as well as the cities we live in.

Delirious NewYork which helped launch and propel OMA, and of which DeGraaf is an integral part of, is a case in point, as were other books from the same period in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s such as Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour. What was common to these books was the acknowledgment that architecture neither had all the answers nor should it assume the role that it did. More recently, Bjark Ingels’ ‘Yes is More’, embraced rather than lamented on the role of market forces to create an architectural practice which spawns words such as ‘hedonistic sustainability’.

If the installation at the biennale was about the hard technologies that were constantly encroaching on the professions turf, De Graaf’s latest book looks at the intangible, often semantic but always unfathomable, notions that have come to dominate the discourse around architecture.

DeGraaf has written in an easy accessible manner, far from the pedantic and obtuse texts that once populated the landscape of architectural theory. Laced with humorous anecdotes that only a true insider at the highest echelons of the profession would be privy to, as well as deep insights into the historicity of how certain terms and processes in architecture have come to be, DeGraaf’s book is a breezy read that nevertheless makes you think deeply and evaluate the state of the profession.

Praveen Bavadekar

By delving into the absurdity of the language surrounding the profession, DeGraaf seeks to lay bare the vacuousness and the fluff that’s behind most buildings built today. Hiding behind a veil of words such as ‘liveability’, ‘place making’, ‘beauty’, projects are routinely being commissioned and unduly influenced by governments and speculators/ private developers alike. There is also an entire section on buildings vying for a plethora of absurd world records and ‘world firsts’ as well as a chapter on architectural awards.

"DeGraaf seeks to lay bare the vacuousness and the fluff that’s behind most buildings built today", Praveen Bavadekar reviews 'architect, verb', By Reinier De Graaf 1
Image: www.world-architects.com

DeGraaf explores the irony that words like ‘Placemaking’ which have yet to find a place in the English dictionary have become so commonplace in the architectural vocabulary. In a way, the book seeks to redeem and rescue architecture from the jargon that De Graaf terms as ‘profspeak’. He identifies profspeak as a ‘prevalent mode of communication across professions…’. It is also what allows diverse fields such as politics and the software industry to invent new ways to hijack the role of architects to serve their own ends.

Architecture, by its very nature, does straddle the divide between the tangible and intangible, between engineering and art. It is as much about seismic and wind loads as it is about evoking emotions such as awe and wonder, and whereas the former is measurable, the latter is not. It is natural that the production of architecture thus, will involve an often messy negotiation between complex parameters, and there will be an attempt to define intangibilities within an objective framework of words.

In its critical engagement, the book by Dr Graaf takes on the mantle of debunking the myths and verbosity that surrounds architectural production.

But it does gloss over the fact that some of the obtuse wordplay surrounding architecture emanated from within the profession itself. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in his scathing book, From Bauhaus to our House, it was the architectural profession which sought to seal and isolate itself in a haze of jargon since the early days of modernism, in what he referred to as ‘compounds’4. One has to only parse through some of the texts that came in the wake of postmodernism in the ‘60’s and later ‘de-construction’ in the late ‘70’s through to the ‘90’s to understand how divorced from reality and obtuse, architectural theory had become.

De Graaf’s book concludes with a comprehensive glossary of ‘profspeak’ which is again reminiscent of another book from the OMA stable – SMLXL, which had a similar glossary of terms running alongside every page of that tome. The literal language in which architecture is written and spoken about is as important and tells us as much as the language of architecture itself. The way it differs from SMLXL is that it seems to be an attempt to question the path architecture took post books such as SMLXL – A nostalgic return to an imagined innocent past.

However in an highly unequal profession, where young architects are fighting against issues ranging from gender bias, to unpaid internships, to thankless and long working hours and toxic work environments, to the high cost of education as against the measly returns, this lament by an established architect over the architect’s loss of control in a project boardroom may elicit a two word response – OK Boomer!

Though , in the book, De Graaf rightly calls out buildings such as the Capital Gate by RMJM which holds a guinness record for its tilt, and the whole spiel that exists over buildings becoming more weirder and strangers because they can, he doesn’t fully address the fact that this acrobatic turn in architecture can be majorly attributed to the 1988 MOMA exhibition, Deconstruvist Architecture5, of which OMA was an integral part of, along with six others. Ironically, most of the seven architects have since distanced themselves from the word ‘deconstruction’ as well as having been seen under that common umbrella6.

The validity of some of the buildings that De Graaf has been at the helm of at OMA, like the rotating skyscraper, Dubai Renaissance, or buildings like the CCTV in Beijing that originally prompted the Chinese government to eschew ‘weird buildings’7, may be no different from a Capital Gate except that in the later case, the narrative underpinning it is naive and simplistic (creating a guiness record). De Graaf does allude to this uncomfortable truth when he positions a Heatherwick or an OMA against a RMJM8.

At the end, the problem of an insider wanting to spill the beans is that then one can be held to the same level of scrutiny and critique that one is subjecting others to.

"DeGraaf seeks to lay bare the vacuousness and the fluff that’s behind most buildings built today", Praveen Bavadekar reviews 'architect, verb', By Reinier De Graaf 3
Image: aabookshop.net

Buildings significantly contribute towards degradation of the environment and climate change and so as a profession, architecture seems to be in a crisis, because indeed if architects were to address climate change in a meaningful way, and not just as green washing, they would be building more modestly and in a much lesser quantum, with their creativity increasingly stifled.

The profession of architecture seems to be in the same conundrum that automobile companies, who are facing the demise of the internal combustion engine, found themselves a while ago, and who still do not want to face the fact that personal transport may need a hard relook.

The moral compass that drove the early modernists has long disappeared and there seem to be fewer justifications to commision buildings to satisfy one’s ego or even market forces. There seems to be a despondency about whether architects can help mitigate and address the climate crisis or whether they will be like the violinists on the Titanic.

Post the financial crisis of 2008, and amidst the growing immediacy of climate change, the world of architecture is being held to standards that were hitherto unimagined, where, even the award of the Pritzker is viewed through a critical lens9.

In a way, this book seems to be born out of this existential crisis within architects about their role in shaping the society of tomorrow. Perhaps the book could be read in conjunction with how OMA itself has reshaped itself over the past decades – From calling out Europe for its preservationist mindset and urging it to be more dynamic like asian cities in SMLXL ( Hong Kong, Singapore), OMA seems to have mellowed out in recent years by actively taking on projects such as Fondation Prada, the Garage in Moscow and also engaging with the countryside.

Architecture as a profession is unique in the sense that it constantly has a need to validate itself, redeem itself and prove its relevance to society and mankind. No other profession would have had so many books written about why and how what they do matters (Indeed, the New York Times Architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, felt the need to write a book with just that as a title – ‘Why Architecture Matters’).

This need to be validated may be due to the fact that for thousands of years, great buildings and glorious cities were consistently produced by societies with little or no involvement of architects, or at least, by architects in relative anonymity. The fountainheadesque phenomenon of the architect as a tragic hero is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Walter Benjamin compares architecture to film making in his seminal essay, The work of art in its age of technological reproducibility, where, unlike a piece of art in a museum, architecture is consumed by people, as a collective, and in a distracted mode, ‘in a two fold manner, ‘by use and by perception’10. The status of the architect is thus historically subdued and gets even more marginalised as buildings get more complex, resource heavy, and involve more and more specialist consultants.

Architecture, Verb is an honest but maybe vain attempt to rescue and redeem the role of the architect in shaping our collective future.

In a recent talk that accompanied the launch of this book at the AA, De Graaf is asked a question of whether he expects the architecture profession to be driven into obsolescence in the future, perhaps by technology11. The book is essentially about this very conundrum of whether the profession can continue to flourish and create meaning to life and cities, in this rapidly evolving world. In this aspect, the book seeks to be a tool to tease out what is central to architecture and needs nurturing, and weed out the extraneous, so that architecture as a profession and a calling can continue to be relevant.


Notes and Citations

  1. Very early on ( 2.55 mins) , in this interview preceding the book launch at the AA, London, De Graaf delves into how the present book is an inversion of the first one.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m02KfhqgJys&t=177s
    Very early on ( 2.55 mins) , in this interview preceding the book launch at the AA, London, De Graaf
    delves into how the present book is an inversion of the first one.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m02KfhqgJys&t=177s
  2. Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian – Rem Koolhaas blows the ceiling off the Venice Architecture Biennale, 05/06/2012
    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2014/jun/05/rem-koolhaas-architectur
    e-biennale-venice-fundamentals
  3. Sanford Kwinter, The Building, the Book, and the New Pastoralism , ‘ANY 9 | Urbanism vs Architecture : The Bigness of Rem Koolhaas’, AnyOne Corp, 1994
    Kwinter calls Koolhaas’ approach ‘Pastorialist’, comparing it to how sheep herder tend to their flock, not determinative in minutiae but allowing for forces to unfold while still influencing the outcome.
    https://www.anycorp.com/store/any9
  4. Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, Farar Straus and Giroux, pg 16
    https://www2.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/177/pdfs/wolfe.pdf
  5. Tina Di Carlo, Deconstructivist Architecture, ArtForum, 11/2013
    MOMA’s Exhibition of Deconstruction was meant to elicit strong reactions, and it did just that.
    https://www.artforum.com/print/201309/deconstructivist-architecture-43521
  6. Peter Eisenman, Interview with Thomas Ravenscroft, Dezeen, 10-05-2022
    In a recent Dezeen interview with Thomas Ravenscroft, Eisenman distanced himself from the MOMA
    exhibition. “The show at MoMA was a made-up idea of deconstructivism by [co-curator] Mark Wigley, who actually knew better,” added Eisenman.This view has been echoed in several ways in the past by nearly all of the seven architects who featured in the exhibition.
    https://www.dezeen.com/2022/05/10/deconstructivism-killed-off-postmodernism-says-peter-eisenman/
    Simone Kraft, The Deconstructivist Architecture at MoMA – a story of success?, Art Style, undated
    file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/Essay_1_ART%20STYLE_Magazine_Simone_Kraft_ISSUE_6_[11-24].p
    df
  7. Mandy Zuo, South China Morning Post, Chinese government bans those ‘weird buildings’ that Xi Jinping can’t stand, 17/04/2021
    The Chinese Government’s decision to ban weird buildings was widely covered, and in this article in the
    South China Post, was explicitly linked to buildings such as OMA’s CCTV tower, which was colloquially nicknamed ‘giant trousers’, much to the consternation of the architects as well as their clients.
    https://www.scmp.com/news/people-culture/article/3129880/chinese-government-bans-those-weird-buildings-xi-jinping-cant
  8. Reinier De Graaf, Architect, Verb, Penguin Random House, pg 42.
  9. Kate Wagner, This Year’s Pritzker Winner is a Surprise, But Not in a Good Way, Curbed, 08/03/2023
    Wagner questioned the choice of Sir David Chipperfield for the Pritzker as a reassertion of the traditional notions of excellence in architecture as defined by the largely male, and white power structures of the Global North.
    https://www.curbed.com/2023/03/pritzker-winner-david-chipperfield-architects.html
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, pg 18
    https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
  11. In the interview at the AA, towards the end, a student asks the question about the future of the profession and it’s possible demise.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m02KfhqgJys&t=177s

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