‘I have the feeling that nothing is happening in my life,’ says architect Reinier de Graaf (1964) at the beginning of the conversation in the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam. In corona time, he has regularly worked here in recent months so as not to always have to sit at home. “I had a hard time with the sudden transition from traveling a lot to working in a cocoon. You can handle ongoing matters well with Teams, but creativity is a problem with remote meetings.”
Reinier de Graaf: The Master Plan. A novel. ed. Archis, 314 pp. €19.90.Inl: oma.com
Nevertheless, the life of De Graaf, in addition to Rem Koolhaas, among others, has been one of the eight partners of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)has certainly not stood still in the past year. Not only were projects carried out such as Mangalem 21, a residential area of more than seven hundred homes in Tirana, he also published The Masterplan. The protagonist of De Graaf’s English-language debut novel is the Portuguese architect Rodrigo Tomás, who designs a new city in a fictitious African republic and is confronted with the dark sides of his profession.
Four years ago you published the acclaimed kaleidoscopic collection of essays Four Walls and a Roof. Why did you write a novel now?
“The Masterplan is intended as a sequel to Four Walls and a Roof, subtitled The complex nature of a simple profession. In a novel you can deal with issues that you could never discuss in non-fiction. Literature is not about facts but about awareness. In The Masterplan I was able to get inside an architect’s head and write about a mentality that I had to leave out in my first book.”
As a designer you have to continue to attach importance to things that are actually not important
According to your word of thanks in The Masterplan, you received zero response from various English and American publishers. How did that happen?
“Without a literary agent, you have no chance with the good American and English publishing houses. One of the agents I approached said he enjoyed reading The Masterplan. A beautiful parable about an architect’s hubris, he called it. But he also immediately said that he could not imagine that an American publisher would ever publish it. Why? ‘Because of hypersensivity around the African setting’, he said.
“The identity politics have made English and American publishers totally paranoid. When they read in the synopsis that the story is set in an African country, and then see your white head and age, they immediately know: we are not going to do this. Eventually I ended up with Archis, the Dutch publisher of Volume magazine.”
You are also a lecturer at American and English universities. What was the confrontation with identity politics like there?
“Since my appointment in 2018, I have seen the rise of identity politics as a lecturer at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge, among others. I’ve never gotten into trouble myself, but I’ve found the climate in these universities to be extremely frightening—as a form of oppression and censorship, including the presence of tell-tales.
“There are now students who do not want to be confronted with the work of Immanuel Kant, because in the 18th century he considered Native Americans and coloreds inferior. I find that absurd. It is foolish to measure figures of the past by present standards.
Identity politics is the greatest problem of our time
“Inclusivity is now the magic word at universities, but often it comes down to exclusion. Universities are now required to provide students with safe spaces, but these are like gated communities where residents keep everything that doesn’t fit into their worldview outside their walled neighborhood. In my experience, a safe space comes down to the freedom from any form of criticism and thus a denial of the possibility that you as a student can learn anything at all.
“Identity politics and inclusiveness are mainly about culprits and victims. But guilt is always about the past, while now the future should be central. Identity politics is the greatest problem of our time. It is divisive and hinders the collective action needed to tackle the really big problems of our time. Such as climate change, poverty, inequality, the derailment of the financial system and the housing crisis.”
Speaking of the housing crisis: in The Masterplan, the main character designs a ghost town that is empty after completion. In 2018 you and Harvard students did research into the construction of ghost towns in Angola. What did this yield?
“The new towns in Angola, Corbusian Villes Radieuses with tower blocks, have been paid for with loans from China, probably with crude oil as collateral. The IMF and the World Bank impose all kinds of requirements with regard to corruption and transparency when lending to countries. China doesn’t. There is, of course, something to that. Because not only the loans come from China, but also the prefabricated elements from which the apartment buildings are made and even the workers who put them together. For example, China benefits twice from the loans and they keep its own construction industry going. Because ghost towns have already been built in China, because it is cheaper to build buildings that are empty than to shut down the construction industry.
“In the end, we couldn’t quite get our finger on the shady financial constructions and a lot of evidence remained circumstantial. That’s another reason I wrote The Masterplan. The novel serves to give conjecture the status of fictional truth.”
You also once held the phenomenon of livable city up to the light. What came out?
Nhow Hotel from 2019 at Amsterdam RAI. Photo Koen van Weel / ANP
“Magazines such as The Economist make a top ten of most livable cities every year, which also aldermen of large cities in the Netherlands stare blindly. In the early 21st century, Vancouver was repeatedly ranked first. Now this city has Canada’s biggest homeless problem. This is not so much about junkies or alcoholics as about people with a job who cannot afford a home on their average income. Vancouver, the ultimate example of a livable city, is now a city where you can’t afford to live anymore.
“Something similar is happening in Vienna, which has been voted the most livable city in recent years. We have calculated that someone with an average income and a maximum mortgage can buy a house of only twelve square meters without down payment. This is the size of a parking space and significantly smaller than the so-called Existenzminimum dwelling as it was defined a century ago.”
Someone with an average income and a maximum mortgage can buy a house of only twelve square meters in Vienna
In The Masterplan, you have a shadowy American investor say: Real estate doesn’t exist for people, but for money looking for a home.
“I am convinced that this fact is the main cause of the global housing crisis. There is not so much a housing shortage as an affordability crisis. It is the result of a system error. If we treated food like real estate, we would starve. Housing, a primary necessity of life, is subject to the free market and the pursuit of profit to such an extent that housing is now in immediate danger worldwide.
“There is an enormous amount of capital in the world looking for the highest return. In the Netherlands, foreign investors like Blackstone are buying up homes en masse. As a result, the price of real estate has risen much faster than wages. And since high returns have been achieved especially in real estate over the past ten years, more and more capital is flowing in, causing house prices to rise even faster, and so on.
“But what seems like a good investment in the short term is also the source of economic vulnerability and instability. This became clear in 2008 with the financial crisis. After all, it started with the trading in junk mortgages that collapsed. The tragedy of the crisis is that the lessons have not been learned. The financial world soon went back to normal and real estate is still – or again – the cork on which the economy floats.”
Investors are the main cause of the global housing crisis
In The Masterplan, the haughty Rodrigo Tomás discovers that as an architect of a new city, he is actually doing marginal work. Doesn’t this apply to all architects?
“In reality, it’s even worse: architects are actually not needed at all. Angola’s ghost towns don’t involve an architect; everything, from design to building components, came ready-made from China.
“I wrote an architect in the script of The Masterplan to show the marginality of his work in today’s world. In most of the twentieth century, the government in Europe, for example, built buildings itself and took the initiative for housing. But now that housing has almost entirely shifted to the private sector and the government rents its ministry buildings, an architect is usually only needed for branding. An architect can give a building a little more quality and character, so that it can compete better with other buildings. And, like a fig leaf of sorts, it can be helpful in getting a building permit.
“But it is precisely its marginality that makes hubris an indispensable characteristic for the architect. As a designer, you need a cultivated blindness to give importance to things that are actually not important.
The new Timmerhuis by OMA (2015) Photo Walter Autumn
“In essence, architecture is still a romantic discipline. The Nhow Hotel from 2019 that we built in Amsterdam, for example, consists of three separate, widely overhanging volumes that hang one above the other. The hotel would, of course, have been cheaper to build if those volumes had formed one whole, and this would have made no difference to the view from the hotel rooms. But for the expression of the building, the feeling that it is withdrawing from gravity, the floating building parts are essential. You can only convince the client of this with words, with a good story. If a client nevertheless suggests making the volumes one whole because less steel is needed and the construction costs can be lower, then it is essential that as an architect you think: what poverty! You need that attitude, and you must continue to cultivate it to make buildings like the Nhow Hotel happen. If only numbers are decisive for architecture, the romanticism has disappeared.”
Reinier de Graaf (Schiedam, 1964) studied architecture at Delft University of Technology and the Berlage Institute. In 1996 he joined the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), of which he is now one of the partners.
As OMA architect he was (co-)responsible for, among others, De Rotterdam (2013) and the Timmerhuis (2015) in Rotterdam and the G-Star office (2014) and the Nhow hotel (2019) in Amsterdam.
In 2002 De Graaf co-founded AMO, OMA’s think tank. Since 2010, De Graaf has also been teaching at the Strelka Institute in Moscow, Harvard University (US) and Cambridge University (GB), among others.
‘The Rotterdam’ by OMA (2014) Photo Martijn Beekman/ ANP
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 21, 2021