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OMA partner Reinier de Graaf expounds on how an architect is a verb (or not?)

De Graaf discusses his satirical yet wholly contemplative book, architect, verb: The New Language of Building, tracing the history of the terms dominating architecture discourse today.

by Jincy IypePublished on : May 17, 2023

“World-class”, “award-winning”, “creative”, “innovative”, “sustainable”, “livable”, “beautiful” or fostering “a sense of place and well-being”. What is the significance of such terms? When does a building warrant the label “world-class”? Why is one city more “liveable” than the other? What is the meaning of “innovation” in architecture? And what building can credibly claim to improve anyone's “well-being”?

Who determined these terms, and why is contemporary architecture being increasingly defined by them? What do they really mean?

Leading Dutch architect and writer, Reinier de Graaf, partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and author of architectverb. The New Language of Building is of the opinion that the lexicon describing the vocation and practise of architecture has become increasingly superfluous, and frankly, setting standards that are impossible to achieve—looks like, architecture has become too valuable to leave to architects—it must be measured to unreal ethics of ‘excellence,’ ‘beauty’ and ‘innovation’. The maddening frequency with which these words are labelling modern architecture is forcing the discipline, as well as its authors, ie. architects, to be very obedient, to these phrases that don’t really mean anything.

Dipped in satire, bewildering observations, intentionally sarcastic analysis articulated with dry humour and crushing honesty, de Graaf’s third book traces the history of the terms and ‘buzzwords’ dominating architecture discourse today, from sci-fi megastructures in the Middle East or historicist towns in the UK. How have we come to this space where someone defines the success of a building by how ‘green’ it is? How can that be really measured? How is one city more ‘liveable’ than others? Aren’t most buildings designed, keeping in mind the ‘well-being’ of its users, or were we kidding ourselves till now?

Starchitecture’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in ‘architect, verb’ | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
‘Starchitecture’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in architect, verb Image: Courtesy of Verso

“If De Graaf’s debut book Four Walls and a Roof was about debunking myths within the architecture profession, architectverb aims to debunk myths projected onto architecture by the outside world—a rebuttal of doctrines which have been applied to architecture over the last twenty years. The incorporation of extraneous terms such as ‘livability,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘wellbeing’ into the glossary of architecture is part of an ongoing trend in which the language to debate architecture is less and less architects' own, and more and more that of outside forces imposing outside expectations. Once a profession known for its manifestos, architecture finds itself increasingly forced to adopt ever-more extreme postures of virtue, held accountable by the world of finance, the social sciences or the medical sector. The book includes a satirical dictionary of ‘Profspeak’, the corporate language of consultants, developers and planners, from ‘active listening’ to ‘zoom readiness’,” states the book’s description as shared by OMA.

Contrary to most books on architecture (or at least the ones I have perused), De Graaf’s work strays away from visuals—there is not a single photograph, diagram, or illustration in the book, besides the grinning emoji gracing its front cover. Perhaps, this was intentional, urging readers to not take the contents of the book too seriously, even though, in retrospection, all of it is.

On a sunny (mosquito-filled) afternoon, I had the pleasure of speaking with De Graaf about his latest written endeavour, delving into his thought process, the impossibility of these terms, and his gentle (read: not) pursuit to rid contemporary architecture of these irrational, contradictory, and (bluntly) meaningless expectations that draw power from these made up manifestos.

Contents page of ‘architect, verb’| architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
Contents page of architect, verb Image: Courtesy of Verso

Jincy Iype: As a partner at OMA, you have managed to publish three books over the last six years. When do you find time to write and what is your process?

Reinier de Graaf: Well, I find time in the residual cracks of time that would otherwise be seen as wasted time, vacant time, travel time, or waiting time. In other words, all sorts of unproductive time, that nevertheless exists, if you exist the way I do—and I have discovered that this unproductive time can be enormously productive. So that's the time I write.

Jincy: How did the idea for architect, verb find genesis? Could you also delve into how the book is sectioned into chapters, and what each address?

Reinier: Most of my writing comes from what I encounter when I try to work as an architect. So, most of the books in some way, reflect my own experiences, thoughts, enthusiasms, and frustrations. This last book came about because I have perceived a trend in architecture where the criteria that you must meet, have become more and more measurable.

There is a rising and imminent situation of having to tick certain defined boxes to qualify projects, and I often found these boxes incredibly random. What I also found interesting is that in a way, these boxes can be very vague, like livability, beauty, happiness—they are all wonderful, but essentially, unmeasurable qualities if you really think about it.

Somehow, the way architecture is being evaluated currently has made all these people try and make these things measurable. I think that is impossible! So, my book is about that. Impossibility.

Front cover of ‘Four Walls and a Roof’ authored by Reinier de Graaf | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
Front cover of Four Walls and a Roof authored by Reinier de Graaf Image: Cover by Tim Jones, Courtesy of Harvard University Press

And so, I have taken 10 prevailing criteria now, and I have looked at the history of all these buzzwords and tried to get to the bottom of it. There is, of course, a biblical resonance with the 10 commandments that you must live by as a human being. In a way, my book is about the 10 commandments that you must live by as an architect. I simply went into the history of each, what, why, and how they happened and managed to prevail, and why they became so important in the world of architecture, how debased they have become, and how disingenuous they have become over time. So, I also aim to reveal a certain level of hypocrisy that is behind all these terms in the individual chapters.

Jincy: Why was it important for you to identify, or literally call out the often callously used ‘buzzwords’ that describe or ascribe traits to contemporary architecture, such as ‘starchitecture , world-class, award winning, creative, innovative, sustainable, liveable and beautiful spaces that foster a sense of place and well-being’?

Reinier: I didn't really have to identify them. They come at you with an almost frightening frequency. All I needed to do was check my inbox or go on the internet and look at any newsfeed and the words almost attack you, repeatedly, like a mantra. I'm just a messenger in many ways (laughs).

Front cover of ‘The Masterplan’ authored by Reinier de Graaf | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
Front cover of ‘The Masterplan’ authored by Reinier de Graaf Image: Cover by Simo Tse, Courtesy of Archis

Jincy: But I think there's something interesting about how these words, as you called them a mantra, they become repetitions in some way, and they keep garnering more meaning the more they are used. Or not?

Reinier: I think the more we use them, the less meaning they have! That's the irony. I have a theory that the most frequently used words, are also the words that nobody knows the meaning of anymore. Their frequency is inversely proportional to their actual meaning!

Jincy: What would you say was one of the words that really struck you, that completely lost its meaning while you were working as an architect and author?

Reinier: I'll give you an example. The word livability—you have all these ‘livability’ indices about cities—they get a score based on an enormous amount of criteria, often ex-pat salaries, the amount of green cover, the price of a cappuccino, you name it. Because of that, either Vienna or Vancouver tops the list, for whatever reason. It's with great precision that these lists are made. But of course, the criteria themselves—why not the price of a glass of milk? I looked at the city of Vancouver in Canada, which was on top of the list for about 10 years, and I looked at how the word ‘livability’ came about there. Initially it was part of a protest movement against big highways being planned throughout neighbourhoods. People protested against that and, in the name of ‘livability,’ this protest movement became a political party called The Electors' Action Movement (TEAM), and their prime ideology was keeping Vancouver 'liveable,' and came to be known as the ‘liveability movement.’ Very earnest and rebellious, typical of 1960s, early 70s counterculture. But then, they succeeded, and the areas remained untouched, and the city improved, overall. Then it became a global model that marketed the term ‘liveability’ to the rest of the world, which is why the rest of the world happily moved there.

‘Livability’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in architect, verb | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
'Livability' as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in architect, verb Image: Courtesy of Verso

As a consequence, the whole city became tremendously expensive. Therefore, there is a massive homeless problem in Vancouver. There is an enormous housing crisis where even people with a middle-incomes struggle to afford even a basic apartment. And so, in the name of 'liveability,' the city has become unliveable, at least for people with an average income. That is often the strange hoops that many of these terms go through. 

Another criterion is the notion of 'beauty' in architecture—it has become very much part of the culture war in the United States and in England, where the conservative parties define ‘beauty’ as the prevailing common taste. They define and attribute beauty to traditionalism, equating it with traditional values. Consequently, the celebration of the notion of beauty in architecture now means old, vernacular architecture, and classical architecture, and that's also part of an onslaught on progressive values.

So, architecture strangely finds itself at the forefront of several very important developments in society, which go much deeper and are much larger than that. I chose these 10 because they are very prevalent, but each tells a much larger story.

‘Livability’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in architect, verb | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
‘Sustainability’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in ‘architect, verb’ Image: Courtesy of Verso

Jincy: Please elaborate on something that you have mentioned in the book—"Once a profession known for its manifestos, architecture finds itself increasingly forced to adopt ever-more extreme postures of virtue, held accountable by the world of finance, the social sciences or the medical sector.”

Reinier: What I think has happened is that all these words, and particularly the rating and measurement systems, force architecture to be very obedient. Not to its own criteria and its own values, but to the criteria imposed by others. I mean, the criteria of others will inevitably present challenges similar to an architect's own criteria, but at least the advantage of listening to your own criteria is that it means listening to your own instincts and your own experience. There's less and less room for that. Architecture is now increasingly becoming a random guessing race of how to meet these vague criteria, accompanied by even vaguer, elaborate scoring lists. In that sense, I think, architecture has been less and less itself. It was a very arrogant discipline when I grew up.

But I somehow prefer that to the sort of meek demonstrations of virtue, where people profess to be so good that I simply don't believe them. If somebody assures me 20 times that he's not a racist, I am inclined to doubt that. You know what I mean? No architecture would want to be unsustainable, unliveable, ugly and make people unhappy, that's not the point. These are values that are so obvious. This is why I get suspicious when they are mentioned all the time, so specifically.

‘Placemaking’ as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in ‘architect, verb’ | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
'Placemaking' as analysed by Reinier de Graaf in architect, verb Image: Courtesy of Verso

It's like we are building a colossal monument to the obvious as a smoke screen for some very sinister trend—the weaponising of beauty, and the unliveable Vancouver are only two examples, but in a way, each of the chapters tries to get to the bottom of that, to discover that there is something wrong. The 10 terms are a summary of everything that has corrupted architecture for the last 15 years.

Jincy: So, all this jargon, do you think there's a way to combat, or better, get rid of them?

Reinier: It’s very difficult because, the more you combat it, the more you contribute to its prevalence.

Architecture is a very old discipline. It existed before all this jargon came into being, and I'm sure it will continue to exist after this jargon. I think the best way is to simply try not to get too affected by it. See through it, and then do what you feel is right.

I am certain that these words used so frequently will eventually make everybody sick of them. It's very interesting—it's a product of a particular generation, not necessarily my own. In the book presentations that we have held in universities and at events, it's already clear that there is an even younger generation who is already, totally sick of all of this. So, I'm sure it'll pass, and if my book can accelerate that process, I'd be delighted.

Roadmap 2050 by AMO | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
Roadmap 2050 by AMO Image: Courtesy of OMA

Jincy: Could you read some passages from the book that mention the satirical dictionary of 'Profspeak,' the corporate language of consultants, developers and planners, from 'active listening' to 'Zoom readiness?'

Reinier: Here’s one:

Consider the notion PEOPLE-FIRST DESIGN. The addition 'people-first' seems superfluous. Isn’t it the business of design to put people first? Its apparent existence suggests this may not be the case. Before there was ‘people-first design’, there was ‘design’, which evidently offered no guarantee of putting people first—if it considered people at all. The introduction of the mutant branch of ‘people-first design’ promotes the understanding of ‘design’ as a hypothetical antonym. After ‘people-first design’, ‘design’ becomes ‘people-last design’, and all who practise it agents of evil by default. No Profspeaker, however, will ever be caught saying this. Such would be Illspeak, which the conventions of Profspeak prohibit at all times.

HUMAN-CENTRIC ARCHITECTURE, EMANCIPATORY DESIGN, SMART MOBILITY… the examples continue ad infinitum. The established disciplines invariably get the wrong end of the stick—inhumane, hierarchical and stupid by implication, as archaic as the singular words that signify them. Still, we shouldn't complain. In a final instance, even Profspeak’s own neologisms aren’t above suspicion. The introduction of a term like HEALTHY PLACEMAKING makes its earlier iteration, PLACEMAKING, unhealthy by default. Purges of its vocabulary are a matter of routine for Profspeak, only for the omitted entries to become part of even longer, compounded compound words.  

A glimpse of the ‘Dictionary of Profspeak’ from ‘architect, verb’ | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
A glimpse of the 'Dictionary of Profspeak' from architect, verb Image: Courtesy of Verso

That is an example that shows the surreptitious nature of all these terms. 'People-first design’—it's so manifestly good, but it also serves to raise suspicion to whoever practised design before. I mean, we have the ‘smart city,’ and that's a very smart term, because it means that apparently the city before was stupid, and architects produced stupid cities. While in the name of good, there is a disqualification of a whole generation of professionals and entire philosophical domains.

Another one—'healthy placemaking'—firstly, I don't know what placemaking is. It doesn't feature in the dictionary. And then apparently there is something called ‘healthy placemaking,’ which means that placemaking was apparently unhealthy. With each adjective, the noun gets more debased. What does it mean?

I have another one:

Maturing by the day, Profspeak meanwhile allows for the translation of almost all Layspeak. Take the following sentence: ‘Any architect with a certain awareness and understanding of sustainability will try to design green buildings to further improve the quality of the environment.’ In Profspeak, the entire sentence can be rephrased as follows: SMART SUSTAINABILITY MINDFUL BUILT ENVIRONMENT PRACTITIONERS ARCHITECT TO GREEN GREEN GREEN.’ When used proficiently, Profspeak becomes pure poetry.

Here, the architect is a verb, which is, the title of the book, whose appendix includes a lot of these terms. That ending was inspired by George Orwell's 1984, which also has an appendix with the principles of Newspeak—the principles of Profspeak is a kind of contemporary, oppressive equivalent.

The Image of Europe by AMO | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
The Image of Europe by AMO Image: Courtesy of OMA

Jincy: Referencing your book’s moniker, why is an architect a verb?

Reinier: Well, I think an architect is a noun. But architect as a verb comes from the digital industry, which happily uses all kinds of architectural words in quite a promiscuous and opportunistic way. The problem arises in the way it has made its way back into the vocation of architecture.

For me, architect as a verb is also an example of Profspeak. The title is highly sarcastic. It is a word from the dictionary that I simply selected to be the title of the book. Like a tiny, seemingly insignificant detail can become the title of a novel. The original subtitle of the book [as opposed to the final one, which is The New Language of Building] was The Ultimate Guide to World-Class, Award-Winning, Innovative, Creative, Sustainable, Liveable, and Beautiful Buildings that foster a Sense of Place and Wellbeing. When you condense all of these terms in a single sentence, the irony and the absurdity become manifest. That was somehow also the purpose of the title, but it presumes a common sense which may no longer exist.

  • The Al Daayan Medical District designed by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    The Al Daayan Medical District designed by OMA Image: Courtesy of HMC
  • De Rotterdam by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    De Rotterdam by OMA Image: Ossip van Duivenbode

Jincy: I also wanted to ask you about the book's cover—it's bright, sunny yellow with a winking, laughing emoji made with a protractor—quite contrary to its textual content. What was the thought here?  

Reinier: It's a smiley, it's a wink. If there's any doubt that the title architect, verb. is ironic, I think the illustration sort of settles that. I also accidentally realised that the colours blue and yellow are the colours of the Ukrainian flag. But I don't know how much of that was at the forefront of the graphic designers' considerations (laughs). I don’t think it's meant to be taken too seriously, to be dissected.

Jincy: Could you take us behind the process of putting this book together?

Reinier: It's largely a product of the COVID pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. What I mentioned about idle windows while travelling, mainly applies to the other books I have written. The Profspeak dictionary at the end of the book was made by sitting in lots of online meetings, we have all been there. Switching off my camera, putting my microphone on mute, taking a pen, and just making notes of everything that was exchanged in those meetings. This book is more structured than my other ones.

  • Mangalem 21 by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    Mangalem 21 by OMA Image: Kontakt Design Department
  • Timmerhuis by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    Timmerhuis by OMA Image: Ossip van Duivenbode

In my other books, particularly the novel I wrote before this, the writing very often got the better of me. But you don't know where it'll end and then you change something while you go along, and you have to change the beginning of the book. You change the beginning, the end changes again, etc. It's a permanent struggle against going mad.

Jincy: What is NEXT for you?

Reinier: Please excuse my vagueness, but I am trying to write a book about how certain elements of counterculture from the ‘60s to early ‘70s have once again become extremely relevant in the face of climate change, but also how these are quite different to the original meaning when they were rebellious and critical of society. Now, counterculture is almost mainstream, at least its values, which means that there's no longer a counterculture because there's nothing to counter. The working title of the book is Above Us Only Sky. It’s from the lyrics of John Lennon’s song, Imagine—" Imagine there's no countries… And no religion, too… Imagine no possessions…”

  • Norra Tornen by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    Norra Tornen by OMA Image: Laurian Ghinitoiu
  • Nhow Amsterdam RAI Hotel by OMA | architect, verb by Reinier de Graaf | STIRworld
    Nhow Amsterdam RAI Hotel by OMA Image: Laurian Ghinitoiu

Jincy: That sounds very interesting. I'm sure we will follow up with you about that!

Reinier: Yeah, yeah. But I still have to write it, so no pressure, please.

What do you think?

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