Beyond Buildings


Progress: The Office of Metropolitan Architecture Bares All

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Image Credit: Lyndon Douglas


OMA/Progress, currently on view in London's Barbican Centre, is both the best and the worst architecture exhibition to date. It is the best because it is so witty, so full of visual material, and so revealing of its subject matter–the Office of Metropolitan Architecture--that it just about solves the problem of any architecture exhibition, which is how you show something that is about buildings in an uprooted manner inside a building. That success is also its failure: the exhibition works because it doesn’t show you any buildings.


That is not completely true, and that is why Progress is not perfect: there are a few glossy photographs, some models, albeit mainly working ones, and enough floor plans that, with a little bit of work, you could figure out some of the buildings. These are the most boring part of the exhibition, and you would do better getting the same information from the prolific publications the office spits out.


The core of the exhibition, both physically and symbolically, is a tilted screen on which every single image stored on OMA’s server flashes by at lighting speed. It is a true retrospective, displaying everything the office has ever done, looked at, or considered. It will take millions of hours, until long after the exhibition is over, for all that visual knowledge to cycle through. This is architecture of the open eye and the open mind, surveying, framing, working through, and rethinking our whole global culture with intelligence and wit.



Image Credit: Barbican Centre


There is a sense of excess about everything in this exhibition, which was put together by Rotor, the Belgian collective responsible for the brilliant exhibition of human-made materials at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2010. You can find thousands of memos, reports, and analyses of every aspect of running the office, going for projects, running projects, and making sure the office is kept clean. All those piles make Progress not just a retrospective, but also a true office portrait. I once proposed to another architecture firm that we make an exhibition on their work by just moving their office to the gallery and having them work there for the duration; this is about as close as I guess any architect is willing to get to that kind of nakedness.


My favorite moment was the exhibition’s introduction: a clay blob sits on a pedestal all by itself. The label explains that Rotor found it in OMA’s Rotterdam office, but nobody there is sure whether it is scrap or a rough representation of some project. It raises the question of whether architecture can represent anything, and whether form is the result of anything but contingency and happenstance. Whatever the case, it is an object that is both beautiful, in that it does evoke a number of those of the firm’s designs that try to condense complexity into multivalent shapes, and ugly, in that it is, in the end, just a blob.


All of Progress is ironic and uncertain, even self-critical, in that manner. For the requisite pretty video every show seems to need, the curators chose Ila Beka’s documentary on the Bordeaux house featuring the housekeeper and gardener showing off the downstairs to the house’s iconic and moveable upstairs, while demonstrating how nothing really works. In its worn qualities, the house actually gains in beauty, losing the sense that it is just a showcase and becoming an almost elegiac description of a life lived within both its constraints and that of the owner–a now deceased paraplegic.


I am sorry to say Progress will not travel anywhere, so you will have to make your way to the Barbican Centre by February 19th to see it.


In rereading this post, I realize how much I am mimicking the review by the excellent Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times. I can only say in my defense that he mimics my own notes on the show, which I visited before reading the review.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: gideon | Time: 11:17 PM Monday, December 05, 2011

    Truly hilarious pedestal with the ambiguous clay blob. And the unfiltered image bank also sounds right on.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.