Albena Yaneva, Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design (010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009). ISBN 978 90 6450 7144.
Something about this book has seeped into thought and work. It’s gone viral within the confines of VerySmallKitchen, appearing in conversation, articles, talks, both directly and indirectly. Its specifics have become absorbed into VSK assumptions, changed and modified, no doubt misremembered and falsified, deleted, transformed, reified…
So for this response-review it seems useful to impose the limitation of not looking back at the book itself, but trying to sketch out some of this both marked and illusive presence it has attained for me.
Albena Yaneva has written a participant observer study of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in the Netherlands. Yaneva observed and interviewed architects in the office, which quickly challenged the dominant ways in which architectural practice is represented: the images of finished buildings; the representations of process around the visions of star names (in this case, Rem Koolhas); an inferred model of creativity in which the star architect’s vision is made into drawings, then models, then built, in a straight forward, linear process.
Koolhas himself is relatively absent from Yaneva’s study. His starring role in this narrative of architecture is filled by blue foam. Blue foam is the material that is cut and made into models in the OMA office (see image above). Yaneva cites a Koolhas edict that no pieces of blue foam must ever be thrown away. Yaneva cites the failure of a Koolhas plan to have a no-foam month, because OMA architects can’t think and work without it.
Blue foam moves around the office, is moved from office to office, model to model. Old models are taken out and re-worked, re-scaled, applied to new problems and new contexts.
What first attracted me to this book was its use of storytelling. Yaneva presents the book as a short story collection. By “story” she means a narrative of blue foam, how it is used (and how its use is talked about) in a particular OMA episode. Story as a way of connecting incidents, story as a way of paying attention within trajectories of space and time, story giving form to the uncertain (anti-) narrative of process.
Story as commentary in itself. A meeting point of experience and narration, where each can be held in balance.
Nothing in Yaneva’s story-practice is fiction – is “made-up” – or fantasy. The “story” frame allows a muted sense of these other story possibilities to enter into the method – part of the inevitable fiction of narration, the shifting (in-) fidelities of description. Fiction hovers here as an implied criticality in each word, phrase, idea…
I don’t remember the stories. I’m tempted to look up an example and copy it out here. But first I want to try and sketch out more clearly the way this book has been working for me. This, I think, is principally to do with the sense of process it unfolds ( I know, I know, my engagement of this book is looping, repeating, circling). A sense of emergent practices, emergent from working with material, a non-verbal method in what elsewhere seems a highly articulated OMA practice. A vocabulary for this is tricky.
I break my rule. Not to look at the Yaneva book, but to google search the recent OMA book show at the AA in London, much of which focusses on this 40,000 page compendium of OMA publications at the exhibitions centre. It’s an ungainly beast. Books, I decide, are NO BLUE FOAM:
Actually, I don’t think the process Yaneva depicts replaces the notion of architecture as star based and vision-drawing-model-building, but it suggests a possibly infuriating combination of the two, how such ego- strategies are themselves, strategic, improvisational, messy, blue foam-ed….
For a non-architect trying to abstract some lessons from the OMA practice revealed here I think the attraction is about the mixture offered: of improvisation and utility, working on multiple scales (blue foam – China TV HQ or Seattle Public Library), of an image of the shift between studio and world, and an organic, unfolding from project to project, issues arising and problems solved.
In some ways, far from removing the myth of architecture, Yaneva reinscribes it on a more pervasive level – its own private world of methods and techniques as well as the public scale world of huge building sites and the buildings and monographs that arise from them…an arcane world of blue foam operations….
All things which I find tantilisingly absorbable into a writing practice, in ways imaginable and impossible.
I won’t look up the book. Instead, I’ll end up with some fantasy quotations with writer, X – who really reminds me of myself – on how their writing practice has been transformed by the use of blue foam.
VSK: Blue foam. It changed everything, for you. Tell me about that.
X: I love blue foam. Poets and Blue foam. Working with it, moving it, seeing it in different parts of the city-stanza. Seeing the text which came from the blue foam on the cutting machine. Before another text, no text, only the rhythm of working, producing, progressing. Blue foam thirst on page and screen. A formality, a certain codification and system, emergent from working with a material. So although it is actually improvised, mute, there is actually a framework in operation, a system of limitations, but its one whose boundaries can only be sensed, existing, once and only, anew each time, in the moment of working. I like to think so anyway. Such foaming amnesia is strategically useful. Blue foam thinking.
And this, too, leading back to an earlier quote above about an implicit cultural assumption about architecture as representing:
an inferred model of creativity in which the star architects vision is made into drawings, then models, then built, in a relatively straight forward, linear process.
what it means to move away from this, around and towards, under and and, sounding, in words, needing that linear model to be able to take its designated parts, arrange them in new chronologies, multiply them, re-scale, blue foam them, always hopefully keeping the freshness of that, not falling into stale repetition,
still circling, repeating, thoughts on this book, its becoming utility in my own work, opaque, still unfolding, workings and adaptations of model…
For further thoughts on intersections of poetry and architecture, see POETRY AND ARCHITECTURE, hosted and curated by Tim Peterson at the Bowery Poetry Club, New York City, April 25 2009. Full sound files of presentations by Robert Kocik, Benjamin Aranda and Vito Acconci can be found here.