In His Latest Residential Building, OMA’s Reinier de Graaf Doesn’t Practice What He Preaches
OMA's Norra Tornen in Stockholm, whose showy launch purposely coincided with that of a nearby residential project by BIG, is a pedagogical embarrassment, our critic writes.
Last month in Stockholm, OMA partner Reinier de Graaf took a not-so-sly swipe at Bjarke Ingels: “I’m not a reincarnation of Harry Potter,” he said to a packed lecture theater at Stockholm’s KTH University.
De Graaf’s address—following Ingels’ own characteristically slick presentation—was part of a rare architectural double feature: the launch of OMA’s Norra Tornen alongside Bjarke Ingels Group’s (BIG) 79&Park, both residential projects for a private Swedish developer.
Though Ingels once sat next to him at OMA (Ingels worked at the firm from 1998 to 2000), de Graaf seemed to do his best to create rhetorical distance between himself and the charismatic Danish architect. He also seemed to disavow his own project, running through his thoughts on derivative architectural style, economic disparity, and property ownership, before making a comic point of mumbling through rushed slides of Norra Tornen. In fact, de Graaf’s demeanor felt so unconcerned that he seemed embarrassed of the project. He should be.
Norra Tornen (North Towers, in Swedish) is a pair of towers holding luxury housing—the penthouse apartment is on the market for over $7 million—in Stockholm’s rapidly developing north-eastern district of Hagastaden. The first tower, completed last month, stands at 35 stories and is now the tallest building in Sweden. When the second tower is completed in 2019 they will form an imposing pseudo-gateway to the city center.
OMA’s towers, as well as Ingels’ 79&Park, three miles to the east, are projects by Oscar Properties, the eponymous business of Oscar Engelbert, a media-savvy developer from an established Stockholm family whose vision is “to help improve the city landscape in whatever way” he can. This entails working through a who’s who of contemporary starchitects (Herzog & de Meuron are next) to produce a series of architectural landmarks marketed to an emerging demographic of aspiring upper-middle class residential consumers.
As has been—and continues to be—learned by Londoners, New Yorkers, and others, viewing the city as a landscape or set of architectural trinkets tends to mean private investment in unaffordable properties that are not needed by the citizens who live and work there. In-keeping with the trend, Sweden, once renowned alongside its Nordic peers for its progressive social democracy and strong welfare state, is experiencing a housing shortage and increasing inequality in line with its neoliberal turn in the 1980s.
It’s thus disappointing to witness the participation in this project by de Graaf, an architect-cum-theorist who has argued directly against its likes: “…modern architecture’s social mission—the effort to establish a decent standard of living for all—seems a thing of the past,” wrote de Graaf in Four Walls and a Roof, his tome published last year. “Once more, architecture is a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its one-time ideological endeavor,” he continues.
So what’s the ideological endeavor at work at the Norra Tornen? Back in Stockholm, at a press conference preceding the lecture with Ingels, de Graaf tried a little harder to defend the project, backing its “aggressive, confident manifestations of modernity” and arguing, preposterously, that the tower’s self-described Brutalist architecture will guarantee the full occupation of its apartments, as opposed to their purchase by absent investors.
Ingels, usually the showman, made a similar point with a little more nuance. During the press conference he posited that by avoiding “cookie-cutter” design and introducing a variety of domestic unit scales, the development will be less likely to become “an investment subject.” Oscar Properties’ acquisition of a building contractor in 2016 meant that the company’s control over construction is greater than other commercial developers. This allows BIG’s 79&Park, for example, to feature 169 residential units assembled across a ziggurat of cedar-clad units overlooking a national park, each one with a different floor plan. BIG’s offering is certainly more contextually aware than OMA’s—the lower end of the sloped stack echoes the scale of a typical Stockholm city block, as does its interior courtyard—although the price range is similar (79&Park’s penthouse will likely sell for over $3 million).
de Graaf’s claims in Stockholm are striking, not least because social media’s #brutalist revival has now leap-frogged from mugs, maps, and tea towels to luxurious apartment buildings—a far cry from Brutalism’s original project to provide a decent standard of housing for all. Again, frustratingly, de Graaf knows this. In the same essay, he argues, in reference to the gentrification of London’s Brutalist housing such as the Trellick Tower, that the “same architecture that once embodied social mobility in béton brut, now helps to prevent it.”
“Brutalism” at Norra Tornen comes via a stack of cuboids with facades built from prefabricated panels of ribbed concrete with an exposed pebble mix. Texturally, Norra Tornen is akin to the Barbican in London, its brutaluxury predecessor, albeit a little smoother and defined by a rectilinear surface geometry. The tone of the material was chosen specifically to ape the yellowish palette of the Stockholm cityscape. More than concrete, however, glass windows occupy a large central portion of the concrete units’ surface area on the facade, while glass parapets for the apartment balconies add to the stacked effect of the units across the structure’s 35 floors. Rather than the glazed “pixels” of OMA’s recent Timmerhuis in Rotterdam and Blox in Copenhagen, the visual effect at Norra Tornen is more a stack of electronic screens—perhaps an allusion to Stockholm’s propensity to produce wildly successful tech startups, Skype and Spotify among them.
Tellingly, the Financial Times reported in September that leading tech firms are threatening to leave Stockholm, as their employees are affected by the housing affordability crisis. With the recent citizen rejection of a new Apple store for the Kungsträdgården park, a move that would have resulted in the sale of symbolically and geographically central public land, and the attendant resurgence of grassroots urban activists such as Alternative Stad, these issues will likely continue to come to a head in the years to come.
Reinier de Graaf, with the expertise and understanding of the economics behind contemporary urban development, displayed so adeptly in Four Walls and a Roof, should be on the side of these activists and not the commercial developers they oppose. Stockholm knows it can do better. Reinier de Graaf should too.
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