Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession is the recent book by architect and OMA partner Reinier de Graaf, in which he explores the current state of architecture through candid personal stories collected across continents. A significant part of the book is dedicated to his experience working in Russia and the complex power relations involved. Writer Anton Kalgaev spoke to de Graaf about what it is like to work as an architect today and how his Russian projects have influenced him.
Anton Kalgaev: While reading your Four Walls and a Roof I saw three “de Graafs”: the architect, whom I met, whose work I know, the character from the book, and the author of the book. How do you divide these figures?
Reinier de Graaf: I think the book is incredibly personal, because it is written under a personal title. The book is not written under the guise of OMA even though I write about things that I experienced when I was working at the office. The book is very much me without any professional layer, without the company in mind that I work for, without a business interest in mind that I need to further, and also without any obligation to be smart or creative. So I think the book offers an insight into a side of me which maybe professionally isn’t always that clear, but I don’t think that there is a kind of schizophrenic situation between two or three “Graafs.” I mean as far as I know I do not suffer from a multiple personality disorder. At least I haven’t been diagnosed as such.
—How did you come up with the structure of the book?
—The book, let’s say, happened by accident. I was writing articles which sometimes were published on Dezeen, in the Architectural Review, in Blueprint or in HuffPost, and I wrote an essay about Thomas Piketty which was published in the Architectural Review and in the Architect’s Newspaper, I believe, in America. Then the editor of Thomas Piketty read the article and contacted me, if I would be interested in writing a book. Initially I said ‘no’ because I have the time to write short articles, but I don’t really have the time to write a book. Everything I have to say about Piketty I said in these 5,000 words. Then the editor was very persistent and made a second attempt to say: “Can the book not be a collection of essays, almost like a concept album of different opinion pieces, essays you have written, and then the task of the book will be to partly write new essays—to create a certain amount of coherence—and partly the sequencing and curating and ordering them in a book so that the sum total is more than the sum of its parts.” It was almost as much work to order the existing material as it was to write the new material, and then at a certain moment it was done and we published it. It’s not a very heroic story but it’s the truth.
—The fourth figure appears after you finish this book—the architect about whom we know many stories from the book he wrote.
—That might be an unintended by-product, because I had no idea how the book would be doing. I didn’t know what to hope for and then it actually sparked more interest, so in as much as what you described happened. The whole thing was just a series of things I wanted to get off my chest, because I thought they were either interesting observations or things I had realized, which I wasn't sure were realized across the board. It was giving a voice to certain things which I think many people felt but not many people had bothered saying yet. I like writing. And I wrote for a very, very long time OMA project descriptions: project text, competition text, texts which in a way were a form of propaganda for the work we did, which were aimed to help competitions win. I also felt the desire for a type of writing that was more candid, less manipulative, and more telling a story.
Many architects write about how great the projects are, the individual genius, etc. Architecture has a lot of failures. Many projects don’t happen, architects are not exactly powerful figures and they’re getting less powerful by the day, and there’s not very many people who talk about that. In architecture the myth of the individual genius of the heroic creative force is very much cultivated and I thought it was important to break with that state of mind personally. And I also thought the profession could do with it, and given how the book has done I think that was a true observation.
—Has anything changed in your perception of yourself and your practice in the two years since the publication of this book?
—I think strangely there has been a calming effect on myself, particularly because I mean first of all I have a second creative outlet which is writing, which makes me more relaxed about the main creative outlet which is to produce architectural projects. I am more relaxed about our work, but I have to watch that I don’t become so relaxed that the energy to do architecture with conviction starts to be zapped. I’ve continued to write ever since the book has been out and I’m currently in the last stages of finishing a novel, which is even more personal, but there I have deniability that I have nothing to do with the main character.
— Can you talk about this novel or is it a secret?
— It’s about an architect who thinks he gets the opportunity of his life, and then he takes it, then it turns out to be a hoax and he ends up in deep, deep, deep shit. He’s like Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities but the architect equivalent.
—Four Walls and a Roof is going to be published in Russia. Firstly, time has passed, and the new edition probably requires a new introduction. Secondly, this is a publication in Russian. Since one of the most penetrating stories in the book is about Russia, what would you write in the preface of the Russian edition?
—Nobody’s asked me to write a new preface, so I haven’t really given it much thought. I would probably try to capture some of the things we just discussed in this interview. One thing I would like to say is that many people have mistakenly interpreted my book as cynical. My book is not cynical… People have asked “why do you continue practicing architecture if that is the way you feel?” I’m very happy being an architect and I love my job and what I write in the book does nothing to diminish that. It just doesn’t preach and it just doesn’t sugarcoat anything. So I would probably write that the book is a profound testament to optimism even though some people have interpreted it differently.
—And what does it mean for you to be printed in Russian?
—I think it’s great, because the centerpiece of the book called “A Spanish Tender” is about my time in Russia. That essay isn’t so much critical of Russia as it is critical of the world at large. It is also very critical of some of the Western players who were participating in that endeavor and who are far from squeaky clean. Russia of course in the story is an important setting, but Russia is not a culprit, and I’m sure people will see that, because there is also a lot of—and I don’t know how much this will survive in the translation—humor about Russia.
There is also a genuine admiration for the Russian soul or the particular Russian way of being in the essay. There’s also a certain amount of intrigue I had with Russia then, and I still have when I watch some of the news in the Western media and I know that things might not be the way they are, that there is a truth beyond the truth beyond the truth beyond the truth. I compare it to a chess game, which is a very Russian game, where you fundamentally are faced with a conflict not between East and West, but between long-term and short-term mentality.
I think there is a certain amount of genuine chaos in Russia but I think there is also a certain amount of misperception up to a point, where what we interpret as chaos is actually strategy.
It’s a strategy related to a very, very long-term perspective. Throughout Russian history you actually see some of that, in Waterloo, Stalingrad, you name it—they are a triumph of the strategic long-term mentality which is related to taking all the time in the world, thinking very far ahead where you can infinitely withdraw before you counter-attack. I think the condition of a vast country with almost infinite space over 11 time zones and the perception of time that gives you—you know that you don’t score tomorrow, but calmly, slowly you control your temper. I think that for me is the most intriguing thing and that is also the most important lesson I take away.
—Can I say that you became wiser, and that you'll try to do more in Russia?
—But at the same time Rem Koolhaas’ example with the Garage Museum shows that it is possible to do something in Russia. Did he understand something that you also understand now?
—I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s a very clever man, so I think some of the realizations that are in my mind are in his mind too. He had a project for a private client, I worked for the state, he had a small project, my project was urban scale. But by no means my conclusion is that it is impossible to do things in Russia. That is not what I take away and it’s also not the message of the essay. We have projects in Russia, some not concluded and others are concluded.
—“A Spanish Tender” is about Skolkovo, and after Strelka I made two books about Skolkovo together with “young Sasha” [one of the essay’s protagonists based on architect Boris Bernaskoni]. The first one was his manifesto of the “Cube”, telling about almost the same events as your essay, and the second was just a small funny book about Matryoshkas and the Pyramid, dedicated to the building you also mention in the essay.
—Well his projects definitely show that something is possible even in the context of Skolkovo. And I think he doesn’t regard those projects as overtly compromised. I know Skolkovo is going on and the Business Park of Jean Pistre was built—although I do think that is heavily compromised and a very bad project—but the University of Herzog and de Meuron is also continuing and I don’t think that is heavily compromised. So “A Spanish Tender” is not about success or about our own failure. I was just so intrigued, I was hyper alert and I guess I developed a journalist-like alertness in the course of that project which I never had to the same degree so that’s also why I felt the need to jot it down before it would evaporate from my memory again.
Another big part of my time in Russia was Strelka. It was three years that we did studios there, and I have to say those are three years which I remember very fondly, that we could do certain things or explore certain topics with a certain amount of patience and with weird angles. I’ve since taught at American universities where they also have the studio format, so you explore a subject with 10 or 12 students in American universities—that means mostly Chinese these days—but still it’s the American system, so there wasn’t quite the same patience. There wasn’t quite the same vibe. One of the things about studios at Strelka—the Hinterland, the studio about the Megacity, the studio about Energy, the studio about Predictions, the studio about the Microrayon that David Erickson did—there were 10 people working on something, but you always had the feeling that the sum total of the studio was more than the sum of its parts. And this given what I’ve seen in other universities since is not so obvious as you would expect. At Harvard and at UPenn I found this a lot more difficult to engineer than we did at Strelka. We have little books we’ve done at Strelka in the office and they’re good.
—Another thing which surprised me is your mindset in the book. I thought you were more into urbanism and social engineering than into architecture.
—I’m trained as an architect, I am a run-of-the-mill architect with an architecture diploma. For past employers I’ve drawn drain pipes and window details and everything, I’ve done all of it. I’m just an architect with a somewhat funny career, a certain amount of detours where the detours became maintours at some point. Even today I work on buildings and deliver buildings—besides all the kind of peripheral stuff our office does, buildings are still a very, very big part of what our office produces. Also the book is very much written from the perspective of an architect.
—But at that time you were involved in Strelka research projects, master planning for Skolkovo, a grand vision for Greater Moscow...
—Yeah, but I think that was a coincidence. That was just the nature of the projects I did in Russia. Moscow and Skolkovo were the things that crossed my path so the biggest things I’ve done are those projects and of course in the past I’ve also worked on the Hermitage with Rem in the early stage.
—Looking at the current Russian situation after your work there, would it be fair to say that we should not judge it from a short-term perspective?
—I think Russia, because of its patience, somehow has a bigger tolerance for complexity than the West in its current form. Which is also why, slowly but surely, Russia is actually gaining influence at the expense of the United States and somebody like Trump—despite his harsh rhetoric—only accelerates that shift. There is a little bit in the book about the meeting where we finally had to present the project. A member of Medvedev’s cabinet was supposedly fired at that time, but he was put on Putin’s cabinet, which means that his firing was actually a promotion and not a demotion. The crowd outside celebrated it as a big victory for the protests, but in fact the whole truth was exactly inverted. When I look at the news, whatever it’s about, whenever it’s related to Russia, I think of that situation and I think of myself—maybe I am just like one of these protesters outside that only has half the story. So I am just inclined not to speak up for, not to speak out against, I just reserve judgment. I think that is a good thing, because as long as you have judgment reserved you keep your eyes open and you are receptive to things that go on around you. As soon as you arrive at a judgment is also the moment you stop looking… You don’t escape judgment and you don’t escape action along the way, but you think as much as possible. Just like when you design, you reserve the final judgment of your creation for as long as possible to arrive at the best possible result. I think that is an interesting metaphor to attitude towards life itself.
—You finish “A Spanish Tender” with the MH17 plane crash. The feelings that you describe, did they appear only because nobody from Russia wrote you, or did the tragedy affect you personally?
—That was a very weird moment. The amount of people I knew in Russia, the amount of them I would even regard as friends or people I had friendly relations with were far larger than the people who actually wrote me an email. I could have had relatives on that plane. They’re all Dutch people so that could have been people I knew. There was one Russian—it was Vasily Auzan—who sent me an email, “this is so sad regardless of who's to blame and who’s not to blame; I simply hope there was nobody you knew on the plane” which I took to heart and I thought it was very, very kind of him. But that was the only one and that always puzzled me, because most of the people I knew were actually warm people. It’s just hard to point down to but that was something that just struck me, because I thought I had developed a relation which was beyond any blame game.
Cover image courtesy of OMA