Progress. Now there’s a good modernist word. The drawings of Rem Koolhaas and the practice he formed in London in 1975, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), might also be on display at the postmodernism show across the city at the Victoria & Albert Museum but wandering around the Barbican a visitor can be left in no doubt that Koolhaas isn’t nearly finished with modernism yet.
In fact, the show could have been called “process” because that is what it is really about. The finished building is barely present: this is instead an exhibition of the messy reality, the disappointments, the misunderstandings, the rough models that reveal young architects feeling their way to understanding. It is an exhibition of paper, endless print-outs, images, briefs, introductions, studies, brochures, plans and revisions.
And there is a beautiful symmetry to the paper journey. Koolhaas began his career as a journalist and a scriptwriter; the word came before the building. It has been his brilliance in talking and writing that has sustained this most surreal and intellectual of practices from avant-garde beginnings to its current position as one of the few (possibly the only) architects’ offices capable of blending the critical and intellectual with pop, with serious futurology, with wit and with innovation – and then, on occasion, condensing that body of intensive research into an architecture of consistently challenging aesthetics.
As the exhibition opens, OMA, which has never really built in Britain, is hard at work. It has just opened a new Maggie’s cancer care centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow, and is completing the new headquarters for Rothschild Bank in the City, arguably the most interesting and surprising building in the Square Mile in a decade. And they are working on the transformation of the concrete shell of the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington into a new home for the Design Museum. Bits of these buildings crop up during the show, fragments and glimpses of familiar places having uncomfortable things done to them.
One room is just a display of photos taken by OMA architects as they make site visits around the world to buildings in progress, printed out and stuck on the walls in almost real time so that visitors will be able to follow the process of construction as paper builds up on the walls. In fact even the Barbican itself becomes an exhibit as the original entrance – conceived by the architects but never used, is thrown open, transforming the building as part of the research into a modernist megastructure which proves the perfect venue for a practice so concerned with the resuscitation of the modernist project.
It has been curated not by OMA but by Brussels based collective Rotor, whose brilliant installation of the ageing and worn materials of the everyday transferred onto the walls of the Belgian pavilion at the 2010 Architecture Biennale and reconceived as art piqued Koolhaas’s interest. Rotor were given free rein to explore the archives, the offices, the production and the process of the office and pick what they wanted. This is a quite brilliant trick which allows the architects to have their cake, eat it and display a trail of tantalising crumbs. In having a young, anarchical and determinedly non-hierarchical collective curate the show, Koolhaas and his colleagues can deny responsibility and legitimately claim that this is not a retrospective, rather it is a series of interpretations, the work displayed as a series of found objects. The themes in the rooms are clunkily chosen (‘Movement’, ‘Materials’, ‘White and Shiny’) but in their occasional misinterpretation manage to express some genuinely new and otherwise overlooked aspects of the practice. There is a series of screenshots from a PowerPoint presentation from OMA’s financial director alongside a grumpy note from Koolhaas telling his staff to look after their models. There is a film of every single image on the OMA server on a 48-hour loop blinking away like a mad dream sequence beside a bookshop selling notepads made from cut-up blueprints and there are insanely utopian visions of a space-age Dubai landscape beside a pair of spotlit clay blobs carefully placed on a plinth although no one could remember what they actually are.
And it is memory which forms the core. Showing me around, OMA partner Reinier de Graaf explained that in the early days this knowledge was contained in the head of Koolhaas but, as the practice grew and projects became more distant, the memory faded and blurred and the curating of the past becomes not a vanity project but an act crucial to remembering. A bit like a retrospective, in fact.
Despite the apparent chaos, chunks of OMA’s work are profoundly present. The vast bulk of the CCTV Building in Beijing looms above the exhibition like a ghost from an impossibly ambitious past but the firm’s best building, the brilliant spiralling ramp of the Seattle Public Library is not nearly present enough, Koolhaas’s preoccupation with words being made manifest instead in the endless displays of books and texts, notes and presentations.
Finally – and crucially - there is no escaping that this show is funny. Not laugh out loud but wry, it embodies a deadpan Dutch wit, a preoccupation with the everyday and the intrusion of the surreal. Koolhaas’s dry notes recount the firm’s failures (collages for a MoMA competition lost because they were deemed ‘disrespectful’, a report on Lagos opened at an empty page pointing out that the second half of the book was blank to pad it out). The presentation of the now obscene-looking ambition of the Gulf boom cities of the future and myriad of failed bids is a way of puncturing their own hubris, a pre-emptive strike as the show is so self-critical there is little left for the critic to do. Except perhaps to point out that amidst the brilliance of the presentation, the ideas, the conceits and the acerbic, incisive texts, quite a few of the buildings do seem extraordinarily, almost endearingly ugly. OMA are actually much better at building than this show ever indicates. But to show that would have been too boring.
Barbican Art Gallery, till 19 Feb 2012, barbican.org.uk