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.
Jan 8, 2014 | Architecture Column

12/2006. We are approached to design a science campus at the easternmost edge of Kazakhstan, about 100km from the Chinese border. The brief describes a business park that will be the location of a Technical University, as well as a new oil company headquarters, the latter also being our client on this job. The aim is to create a ‘Technopolis’, translated into Russian as ‘Naukograd’, an old Soviet concept to denote cities built in the former USSR specifically for the pursuit of science. This reference in particular convinces us to go for it; we begin to make preparations for our first visit.

1/2007. It is mid-winter when we arrive. Covered in snow, the site looks devastatingly beautiful, almost too beautiful to be disturbed by buildings. We imagine a campus of long, hovering buildings, leaving a virtually uninterrupted ground plane, invoking former constructivist architectural experiments. Given the use of the term Naukograd, we assume there is an appetite for such ideas. Upon further inquiry however, it becomes apparent that the term should not be read as a wish to resurrect an old Soviet idea, but is inspired by our client having recently visited modern science parks in Japan…

3/2007. During a first presentation we unveil some preliminary ideas. We allow ourselves to get carried away, ranting against recent architecture in Kazakhstan: showing ample examples of the pastiche that has been built on the back of the recent oil boom. The prime target of our polemic turns out to be our client’s current headquarters…

6/2007. Interim presentation: prior to entering the client’s maximum-security premises, the underside of our vehicle is inspected with what look like brooms with a mirror-dish on the end. We are cleared and allowed to proceed towards the building which only a month ago we had so eloquently vilified. (We now think it is a masterpiece.) We are escorted into a large elevator and taken up to the boardroom where we set up our presentation. After some 20 minutes the president of the company enters the boardroom from the opposite end, through a hidden door that appears to give access to an elevator dedicated exclusively to his personal use.

We show slides, and our commentary is in the form of short sentences to give the translators enough time to follow. After explaining that the circulation in our plan should be read as ‘an egalitarian system based on democratic principles’, the translations stutter: the translator gently asks us to move onto the next slide. His English is impeccable.

9/2007. After nine months of work we conclude our masterplan. Two days before the final presentation we are asked not to present in person, but to send the drawings by e-mail. And receive offer to pay upfront serves as a financial incentive for our absence. We proceed and get paid within a week. Silence ensues…

11/2007. A short video surfaces on the Internet, of long buildings hovering above an uninterrupted ground plane. The sky above appears to have been retouched: just a shade too blue. The resemblance to our proposal is striking, except that these buildings are clad in a curious mix of aluminum and marble. Randomly, some of them have been covered by the same pitched roofs as an adjacent ski resort... An animated Russian voiceover accompanies the images. “Naukograd” is the only word we can make out.

2/2008. An unexpected fax arrives: It is from the same client requesting another science campus, based on the same design principles, but designed for a different location. One had not managed to acquire the land for the previous version. The ski resort next door has made a better offer and is currently expanding its operations to include the campus site.

We decline.