16 Feb 2019

Reinier de Graaf: social housing and disappearing architects

From Saturday Morning, 10:06 am on 16 February 2019

The demolition of state-built housing in the late 20th century was symptomatic of a more general abandonment of the values of that century, a Dutch architect says.

Architect, planner, architectural theorist and writer Reinier de Graaf has released Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession a significant section of which is devoted to images of council estates being demolished which, for de Graf, is an indication of how society has changed and where it’s heading.

Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis.

Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis. Photo: Screengrab

He grew up in a prefab concrete block and celebrates the often maligned council flats of Europe.

“There is a stigma attached to these kind of council estates and I never, growing up, thought it was an awful place. I remember it as a happy place and I’ve always been surprised at the stigma that is apparently attached to these places to the point that some of my writing has become a kind of celebrating of these places only as a way of disagreeing with a prevailing stigma which I think is wrong.”

These demolitions are a retreat from the notion that the state has a role in housing people, he says.

“The key substance of the 20th Century is being blown up at a massive scale and I see that as a symptom that the values of the 20th Century are being abandoned which I think is a very bad thing.

“I see the demolition of much of physical substance of the 20th century as a symptom of a larger problem. You have to see those blocks in their time; they were big, brutal blocks, they were also a very impressive effort to give as many people an affordable home in the context of a housing shortage – and they did.”

Homelessness is now in crisis again, which is no surprise to de Graaf.

“That was the state who built them. Since then, there’s been a global consensus that the role of the state has to be reduced. In reducing the role of the state we are wrongly thinking that the problems that the state used to address have also simply disappeared. It’s an extremely dangerous conclusion.”

He gives as an example the Pruitt-Igoe projects completed in 1954 in St Lois, Missouri which replaced slums in the city. 

By the late 1960s the projects had fallen into disrepair.

The buildings were demolished in the mid-1970s. St Louis today has the highest rate of homelessness in the United States meaning.

“It’s simply a misleading thought that by demolishing those blocks you get rid of the problems they’re associated with,” de Graaf says.

de Graaf is a partner in the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and has been responsible for the design and planning of projects in Europe, Russia and the Middle East, including De Rotterdam a 'vertical city' of three interconnected, mixed-use towers; the Amsterdam headquarters for fashion company G-Star (2014); and a redevelopment of the former Commonwealth Institute in London.

He says when he started out his career he had this romantic notion of the “heroic” architect as depicted in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A teacher gave him the book on learning he was going to study the discipline.

“My first encounter with the profession was that myth of heroism and for the first part of my career has been a discovery that the hero doesn’t exist.”

The role of the architect in shaping society has shrunk, he says.

“The role of architects in the context of the welfare state after the war in Europe, in America, was a more significant and serious one, and a more politically relevant one than it is today.

“I do think there is a certain deterioration from being marginally meaningful, to being meaningless.”

His practice OMA had the option to participate in the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in the United States - or to participate in a new public broadcasting building in China, de Graaf says.

“We chose the latter, you could say, but you could also say we rejected the former. We did not, at the time, have any genuine affinity with the whole mood that was surrounding Ground Zero, with the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre. We suspected it was going to be a decade-long American sentimental talk-show.”

In the end, the 9/11 memorial turned out the way he had anticipated.

“I think it’s a pretty awful project. There’s no accounting for taste I guess. I preferred the old towers by far. They set a very good architectural measure which I think the new one doesn’t come anywhere near close it.”

He has also been involved in some huge Russian projects, He led the planning of Skolkovo Innovation Centre (the 'Russian Silicon Valley') and the Greater Moscow Development Framework.

It was often a fraught process, he says.

“Well, what didn’t happen in Russia? Pretty much anything that can happen to an architect, including the premature abortion of his plans.”

The Moscow development ended up being a much-reduced project, roughly five percent of what was originally intended was built.

“The wonderful thing that you realise as an architect is that there are things that you know, things you don’t know, and there are things that you don’t know you don’t know.

“The latter category I still feel is the largest. Russia is a wonderful place that keeps you guessing and, in a way, keeps the rest of the world guessing.”

OMA has been criticised for some of the projects it has chosen to work on.

“There are good and bad projects everywhere. To retain your independence and credibility, it’s incredibly important that you assess projects on a case-by-case basis because almost anywhere, and particularly the project we did in China, is a neck-and-neck race between bad and good intentions, between laudable aspirations and fraught ulterior motives.

“At the beginning when you accept a job, or you don’t accept a job, it’s an educated guess of which side you think will prevail. That is what we do, we’ve accepted projects in China, we’ve rejected projects in China, we’ve accepted projects in the United States, we reject projects in the United States. It’s all based on a kind of hunch you have at the beginning and sometimes we get it right - and also sometimes we get it wrong.”

Reinier de Graaf is in New Zealand for In:Situ, the NZ Institute of Architects Conference. de Graaf is a partner in the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). He joined in 1996 and over the past two decades has been responsible for the design and master-planning of projects in Western Europe, Russia and the Middle East, including De Rotterdam (2013), a 'vertical city' of three interconnected, mixed-use towers; the Amsterdam headquarters for fashion company G-Star (2014); and a redevelopment of the former Commonwealth Institute in London