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.
Dec 4, 2013 | Architecture Column
On hold – The intangible legacy of the past decade

In September of 2008, the world began to face the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This crisis was particularly felt in the construction industry, as the years immediately prior to the crisis had given seen an unprecedented construction boom. From 2000 till 2007, more square meters were built worldwide than in the entire post-War boom. Compare this to the estimate that in 2008 declines in share and real estate values wiped out USD 28.8 trillion worth of global wealth (according to the sixth McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report on “Global Capital Markets”, September 2009), something which immediately brought the boom to a halt.

The architectural remnants of this boom are well known: taller, ever more extravagant structures conjuring up ever more extravagant skylines, individual buildings weighed down by the expectation that they would change the face of entire cities, and ‘the iconic’ as the one ‘shared value’ of an otherwise divided architectural profession. With architecture consistently driven to ever greater degrees of excess, inevitably a need for a more objective (and abstract) organizing mechanism emerged. Casually, almost as an accidental byproduct of the drive for growth, the urban plan re-surfaced as the vehicle to deal with the demand for ever larger quantities of built structures.

This rehabilitation of urbanism as the ‘other product’ of the construction boom has largely gone unnoticed. Architects have been happy to leave the domain of urban planning to large engineering firms, and as a result, common practice or theories to explain the urban plans of the last ten years for the most part do not exist. As an office, we have been both witness to and participant in this silent revolution. From close range we have experienced cities imagining, conceiving (and drafting) futures with a boldness last seen during the days of Le Corbusier. In 2007, almost 40 percent of our office’s turnover was generated by commissions for the design of large master plans. By contrast, the 2008 crisis resulted in a large number of these planning operations being suspended, put ‘on hold’ for an indeterminate period of time, left high and dry between the poles of premature abortion and anticipated restart.

What remains is a body of work primarily known through its imagery: visions of the future planned in a time of immense demand and market prosperity. Even if propelled exclusively by the forces of the market, the pre-crisis boom actually allowed, for the first time in 50 years, a strange and unexpected glance of a new and uncompromised modernity. The sheer scale of many of the operations offers a preview of what happens if a single vision were to prevail, turning the city into an imaginary universe, with idea(l)s taken to their ultimate conclusion, executed without any dilution. In this regard, the real significance of the last decade is most clearly revealed by the imagery of unrealized urban visions rather than the architectural icons that were actually built.

What will be next? The current moment is mainly one of questions. Will the pre-crisis boom go down in the annals of history as an aberration, or prove only to be a precursor of things to come? Is ‘on hold’ merely a convenient euphemism to keep hope alive, a shared inability to face the facts (for clients and architects alike), or does it really only signify the pause it seems to insist on, a coma from which one day these enterprises will awake?