Reinier de Graaf
Partner, OMA
Reinier de Graaf is a partner at The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where he heads the work of its think tank AMO, dedicated to demonstrating the wider relevance of architectural thinking beyond building and urban planning. Projects include: The Image of Europe, addressing the European Union's iconographic deficit; D-40210, a strategy to prevent further gentrification of European town centres; Eurocore, about the contours of Europe's first cross-border metropolis (spanning parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium); and The State of Moscow, a proposal for a more accountable system of governance for Moscow. De Graaf is also in charge of AMO’s increasing work on energy planning, including Zeekracht: a strategic masterplan for the North Sea; Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, with the European Climate Foundation; and The Energy Report, a global plan for 100% renewable energy, with the WWF.
Mar 7, 2014 | Architecture Column
London's change of things

London has a long-standing and very checkered tradition of architectural controversies acted out in public (Paternoster square, Chelsea barracks). Rarely is the intensity of the debate warranted by the quality of what is debated. In fact, the debate often serves to promote proposals that would otherwise receive little exposure. One often wonders if the staged ‘run-ins’ between ‘modern architects’ (the chief advocate is usually Richard Rogers) and their opponents (championed invariably by Prince Charles) serve any other purpose than the embellishment of the two prevailing establishments that the two men have come to represent, conveniently agreeing to disagree in order to keep each other going.

When the question is asked whether London is prepared to commit to modernity, the answer is forever being deferred. With much of the appeal of London’s modern icons deriving from their being at odds with a prevailing aesthetic regime, the metropolis thrives as much on the existence of that regime as it does on breaking its rules. London’s modern buildings have a vested interest in the rest of the city perpetuating the status quo: Designed to be different, these buildings are intended to remain different.

Every new modern building suggests the possibility that it could be the last. If there is a “Modern London” it is not the result of conviction, but of slowly conceding ground. London engages modernity on its own terms: hosting modern architecture without ever really entering into the obligation to modernize as a city. Even with the city now having become an almost permanent construction site, boasting new and ever more modern projects, one cannot help but feel that London’s actual modernization will always be officially on hold…

In many ways London constitutes a definitive rebuke of architecture’s main mission: While architecture acts to change things, London (most of the time) adapts to the change of things. Its genius resides in a regime of permanent improvisation. Maybe the city’s tradition of accommodating change without really changing its physical substance is so long-standing that the population never really believes the reasons architects give for their interventions.

London frequently quotes the ‘arrested development’ of its city fabric with a sense as of pride. It even goes to great lengths to undo modernizations that have already taken effect. Many architectural icons from the 1960s and 1970s are now up for demolition to make space for new buildings more favorable to the ‘city’s history’ (which apparently ends in 1960).

Two successive photographs of Piccadilly Circus (1960, 1970 and today) show only the most marginal increments of change. Today, true modernization takes place in domains other than architecture, domains that are not physical. Maybe London is the ultimate demonstration that being modern and practicing modern architecture have become two distinctly different things.

Londons Picadilly Circus 1963. Photo © / The English are Coming.
Picadilly Circus in London 1933. Photo © The Extraordinary Transformation Of Piccadilly Circus In Historical London Pictures.