Progress: The Office of Metropolitan Architecture Bares All
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
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.
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.