We can all name a "starchitecht": there's Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster — all with an easily recognised style and all with buildings that are labelled "iconic." But do they influence other architects or our urban landscape? That honour is more likely to go to OMA, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture.
The Dutch practice was co-founded in 1975 in London by Rem Koolhaas, now one of seven partners of this influential worldwide firm. Despite celebrity status, Koolhaas, who has lived on and off in London since his time at the Architectural Association, shudders at the very mention of the term "starchitecht".
Something of a polymath, Koolhaas was previously a journalist and scriptwriter. He first achieved cult status with his writings and among a host of awards, won the Pritzker Prize for Architecture in 2000 and the RIBA Gold Medal in 2004.
OMA is the subject of an exhibition, OMA/Progress, at the Barbican Centre that attempts to show why the practice (not just Koolhaas) is so influential. OMA isn't just architects: it invites historians and a variety of cultural specialists to be part of the team. Clients who use it are subjected to intense analysis. Nothing is ever taken for granted. "It's been four decades of tireless experimentation," says Koolhaas. "We have to be aware of the pulse of contemporary life. Architecture is a work in progress."
Recent huge projects include the CCTV building in Beijing and the Casa de Musica in Porto. This year the practice completes its first two UK buildings — a new headquarters for Rothschild investment bank in St Swithin's Lane in the City, and the newest Maggie's Centre, providing space for people affected with cancer, at Gartnavel in Glasgow. It has drawn up a masterplan for White City and a new residential project around the former Commonwealth Institute begins soon.
Ellen van Loon, partner and lead architect for Rothschild, stresses the importance of cultural differences. "It often gives us inspiration. You Brits have a meeting culture that's quite heavy."
OMA has designed specially woven fabrics, representing elements of Rothschild's history — and what Van Loon calls "the carpet experience". "The extent of the British love of carpets shocks me. They're difficult to get clean, but you love your carpets."
She professes amazement at the density of the site. "We didn't believe it — it is such a narrow lane. Historically you used to be able to see Wren's Church of St Swithin's. If we had just built a big block it would have been completely enclosed. The churchyard is important as it gives a sense of space, so lacking in the City."
OMA's solution is in stark contrast to the new monolithic Walbrook building by Foster just next door. OMA has built a cube above an open area looking through to the church. There are four satellite annexes, another cuboid shape on top and a garden and outdoor entertainment area.
* OMA/Progress, is at the Barbican Art Gallery until February 19. Tickets £8 online or £10 on the door.
* OMA in Conversation — on Bank: OMA partner Ellen van Loon discusses the design and construction of the new Rothschild bank HQ, January 26, £6 online/£9 on the door.
* Book online at www.barbican.org.uk or call 0845 120 7550.
London's planning rules pose interesting problems for architects, according to Reinier de Graff, the OMA partner behind the residential redevelopment at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington (right). Three blocks will sit around the listed Institute, which will become home to the Design Museum.
Graff observes: "Given [London's] creativity in other fields, architecture here is very conservative. Where architecture's main mission is to change things, London adapts to the change of things."