Rem Koolhaas – designing the design process

Prize-winner and starchitect-in-denial, Rem Koolhaas and his studio OMA have created a method and practice that is uniquely capable of dealing with an ever more complex world. Interested in what this could mean for digital designers I started digging into their design process, in this article I’ll discuss my findings.

When asked once what his goal with his practice was, Koolhaas answered: “to keep thinking about what architecture could be. What I could be.”¹  And it is this ‘could be’ that plays a defining role in Koolhaas’ career.

0. Introduction
Rem Koolhaas studied scriptwriting and architecture and is heading OMA/AMO, an office he co-founded in 1975. You might know him from his books Delirious New York or S, M, L, XL and his practice from the CCTV HQ, Casa da Música in Porto or the Central Library in Seattle.

It is not easy to define Koolhaas. Although his buildings can be found all over the world, it’s hard to recognise a typical Koolhaas building by visual appearance alone. To define Koolhaas you have to move to his realm, leave the world of bricks and steel, and enter the world of images, models and processes, a world of ideas. Not what is, but what could be.

His buildings and his books do, however, have something that makes them recognisable as a product from OMA. A product that is very much influenced by the process of creation, a bottom up, labour-intensive, research-lead way of questioning everything. His products are assemblies, where Koolhaas refuses to give any easy answers, and instead reveals a selection of evidence and demands from spectators to form their own interpretations.

OMA Idea Machine

Koolhaas’s greatest achievement is therefore not a building or book, but a system that is capable of harvesting, questioning and producing ideas. What Koolhaas has built is a very large version of himself, a system that, through a method of researching and building, is capable of reliably creating beautiful and intelligent ideas on how the world could be. In this article I want to discuss the system that Koolhaas has built to get in that position and how he manages to remain at the forefront.

1. Observation
The easiest way to uncover new ideas is to be in areas where life is being transformed fast. Koolhaas and his team have been working on a structure that is capable of searching the world for opportunities where change is happening faster than anywhere else, where certain breakthroughs can be made. Some places like the historical centres of European cities have hardly changed through the centuries, whilst others like Beijing, Dubai or Laos seem to redevelop themselves within years. As he states: “We define an agenda, and then we look at the current moment and see where and in what way we could make certain breakthroughs and that is completely independent of making a constant sequence of architectural projects.“²

In 1998 OMA made their research and create approach more explicit by creating a specialised research department and think-tank, which deals with architecture in its unbuilt form. AMO is focused on research, publications and exhibitions. Through this research OMA manages to be present on the scene before the scene appears.

Research and Create

Long before Koolhaas the builder arrives, Koolhaas the writer was already there. In his role as professor at Harvard he explored the Pearl Delta before being asked to build for CCTV. Before proposing an infrastructure plan in Dubai, the manual was already published. Before working with Prada his research on shopping was already available in book form.

New ideas are most easily created in an environment of young ideas. It’s no wonder therefore that AMO’s and Koolhaas’ research projects can be found in many emerging economies of the world.

2. The studio practice
Another way in which Koolhaas differs from his competitors is in how his studio is run. Koolhaas doesn’t come up with the masterplan that is then refined by his architects. On the contrary, his practice defines itself by an enormous freedom, in materials, in methods and in working hours. One might say that at OMA it’s avoided at all cost that answers are given based on no other ground than authority. What Koolhaas therefore provides are questions and not answers.

As Koolhaas puts it: “What the OMA process focuses on is not the creator but the critic. In our way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes a critical decision. The result is better architecture.”³

This practice of avoiding ready-made answers runs deep at OMA, it can be found in the way they source their materials. Kunlé Adeyemi states: “Of course it’s easier to use materials from the shelf, from the catalogue, but we can’t be on the cutting edge if we do that. So, we develop our own materials, we develop new structures.”4

Another aspect of this freedom is the way employees are allowed to manage their time, so they can be productive without being constrained by fixed working hours. As Mark Veldman states “You can walk out or you can stay the whole night and you can work here. You have a freedom to continue to work.5

Lastly, the fear of becoming predictable and stagnant even reaches into their hiring strategy. As managing director Victor van der Chijs mentioned “We really want every year at least 25% of our people to be new. And we want them to be young, bright people.6

In order for Koolhaas to have the greatest chance of uncovering new ideas, OMA is created around renewal and regeneration. Although Koolhaas himself, with his 30 years’ service, is a  constant factor, it is his continuous work of critiquing himself and the outside world, whilst at the same time also creating both of them, that becomes the key to the design process.

3. Models
Models play a crucial role at the OMA design process; produced in large quantities, they function as a container for ideas and constrains. Because of their shape they create an immediate impact, there is no need to go through long documents, a model is an entity to makes experiments easy. As one of their architects states: “[w]hen you have  creative minds you get a lot of ideas. The luxury product is in the fact that we can actually test all of them. Of course, it’s wasteful but that is what makes it a luxury.7 Dozens or even hundreds of ideas are turned into presentations, diagrams and models which through a process of constant critique, slowly turn into a final plan. As a journalist noticed: “[p]ast reception […] is a meeting room filled with smaller maquettes. At first glance there appear to be perspex and foam models for dozens of projects – but close up you see they’re all clearly the same site, a masterplan in Moscow, modelled over and over again, with different arrangements and relationships of buildings.8

One of OMA’s accomplishments is therefore also that they manage to run a profitable business whilst allowing for an enormous amount of ‘waste’ to be created. This way of working also allows to blur the distinction between the research, concept and design phases. In these worlds the information that came from outside slowly grows into a plan that could transform the future. As Albena Yaneva writes, “Manhattan, Seattle, Cordoba are brought into the office; their life is re-enacted in the studio practice.9 The playground of ideas is constructed through mixing client demands, the environment, laws and budgets, but also opportunities, ideas, and dreams. In an endless circulation, ideas turn into shapes and shapes into ideas.

Round after round

Model-making allows the office to play with often contradictory constrains of client demands, the time pressure and the environment for the building. Models and books turn constrains and ideas into visual and physical representations that can be used as building blocks to create new worlds. “Erez Ella: Every model has one or more things. You cannot really say what is that – a composition of few things, of materials, of whatever.’ As such, they accommodate a contested assembly of conflicting demands, restrictions to demolish, constraints of history, programme, zoning, typologies, structure and roof, mechanical and electric systems as well as a variety of human concerns– users’ experiences and client’s demands, all translated, transplanted into and accommodated by one entire – the model.10

In this way Koolhaas’ practice is able to create and maintain many representations of possible futures that can be tried, altered and questioned. Round after round these representations run their courses, altering, disappearing and merging with newer and older ideas.

The practice of making a large selection of detailed models allows OMA to keep more complexity in the design process. The longer they can push final decisions forward, the more chance there is that a great new idea might emerge. And so each model reflects the studio as a whole, a collection of changing artefacts always in flux towards becoming more refined, intelligent ideas of how the world could be.

4. Archives
Ten years ago the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) proposed to acquire OMA’s archive. They sent an art historian for four months to the office’s basement storage to make a inventory of all the items. When the work was done, OMA decided not to sell. Instead they hired the art historian as its archivist.11

Archives via Borix1

One of the reasons that OMA can afford their process is their ability to recycle themselves. By using their large archive of models and books they manage to use time more efficiently and to store a larger amount of complexity. “Archiving the models allowed architects to keep the traces of creativity for a longer period of time; de-archiving them meant they could rediscover those traces of design invention that time had left intact.12

An example here is the Casa da Musica in Porto where “the abandoned and temporarily forgotten model of the private house came up to the office and re-entered the cycles of design. Lingering on the tables of the models for months, it was finally take with new assumptions, reshaped, refreshed and adjusted.13

Working with their vast archive allows OMA to work with a large volume of ideas and a higher internal complexity, thereby enabling them to pick a good idea from a much larger pool than would otherwise be possible.

5. Books
Besides the archived models, OMA uses another method to carry information and ideas through time. As shown in OMA’s exhibition at the AA, besides an architecture firm, OMA is also a massive book production machine, where they use books in all stages of the design process, such as documenting research, saving projects’ stages or capturing outcomes.

OMA Bookmachine – via Dezeen

These books help to get a grip on time, and allow for a large quantity of information to stay within reach. In the research phase they contain the photos, diagrams, texts and schemes. “Shohei Shigematsu: [w]e use very naive diagrams almost like cartoons in children’s books. We also spend a lot of time on making books, which is also part of the presentation materials. There is also an element of clarifying things for ourselves.14

And later on the books function like their archives as a way to store and shelf design ideas. “Like the tables of models, the books are summaries of the design steps that make the material trajectory of a project traceable. They keep some traces of exploration, and present the results of design experimentation. Like the tables they allow the designers to go back and rethink the design moves previously made.”15

Books play an interesting double role at OMA, they are both used to start building processes and to summarise them. Although other architecture firms have combined building and writing (think Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller) no firm has managed to operate a book and build business on the scale of OMA.

6. Conclusion
The process that Koolhaas uses to uncover the future before anyone else, is through the ability to bring in new ideas faster and to maintain a higher degree of complexity within the studio and in each project.

It is therefore not the buildings, models, books, exhibitions or magazines that are Koolhaas’ biggest achievement, but the creation of a structure that is capable of producing a constant stream of ideas. As Koolhaas states “[t]he biggest part of our work for competitions and bid invitations disappears automatically. No other profession would accept such conditions. But you can’t look at these designs as waste. They’re ideas; they will survive in books.16

One might even suspect that Koolhaas mainly builds buildings to have something to write about, as he concludes in an interview in 2004. “Maybe, architecture doesn’t have to be stupid after all. Liberated from the obligation to construct, it can become a way of thinking about anything – a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything.17


This text eventually made it into a presentation
Rem Koolhaas –designing the design process

Martin Belam wrote a review of this presentation

More about Rem Koolhaas/OMA
Barbican event site
Rem Koolhaas, Index Magazine – Although a bit generic in the opening, the journalist manages to get some good information out of Koolhaas in the end
Intelligent Design, The New Yorker Daniel Zalewsky – Reads like a James Bond story
Interview with Rem Koolhaas – Der Spiegel catches up with Rem Koolhaas’ current work
Tomes, sweet tomes – The Guardian reflects on OMA’s book exhibition at the AA
How to build a universe that doesn’t fall appart two days later  – Although not directly about OMA, this short story by Philip K. Dick is used as the opening motive for the current Barbican exhibition
OMA/Progress at the Barbican – One of the more insightful reviews of the Barbican exhibition
Brute Force Architecture and its discontent  – Insightful article about the usage of labour, process, management and blue foam in designing solutions
AD interviews Reinier de Graaf – On OMA/AMO and the changing landscape of architecture

Rem Koolhaas/OMA – Good introduction into Rem Koolhaas
OMA’s Vimeo channel – OMA’s own archive,  a good place to start exploring
Barbican’s OMA videos –  Videos of talks helt during OMA’s Barbican exhibition
OMA’s Hong Kong project – Although not a winner, this article and video give a good feel for the style
OMA’s Cean Library proposal – A case of explaining a complex conceptual project
David Gianotten – Interview with OMA’s Asia director
Shohei Shigematsu – Interview with OMA’s New York director
Joshua Prince Rasmus – Ted talk on the Seattle Library and the use of diagrams

Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva – my main source  for this article, describes OMA’s love affair with blue foam
Delirious New York – Koolhaas’ first book
Project Japan – Koolhaas’ latest book
Considering Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture – A Collection of essays reviewing Koolhaas from a cultural perspective


  1. Rem Koolhaas, Index Magazine, 2000
  2. Rem Koolhaas, OMA in Conversation, Barbican, 2011
  3. Intelligent Design, The New Yorker Daniel Zalewsky
  4. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page  80
  5. Inside OMA, William Wiles, Icon, page 146
  6. Inside OMA, William Wiles
  7. Akkaoui, Inside OMA, William Wiles, page 149
  8. Inside OMA, William Wiles, page 146
  9. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 85
  10.  Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 56
  11. OMA/Progress, Barbican free guide
  12. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 65
  13. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page  86
  14. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 33
  15. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design, Albena Yaneva, page 72
  16. Interview with Rem Koolhaas, Der Spiegel
  17. Content, Rem Koolhaas, 2004

Massive thanks to Alia Zapparova for reading and reviewing this text

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