Packed with information but cleverly organised in an informal space that almost feels like a construction site, the new 'OMA/Progress' exhibition at London's Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating portrait of the celebrated Dutch architecture practice OMA and its research arm, AMO.
'OMA buildings look like no others, and this exhibition looks like no other,' the Head of Barbican Art Galleries Kate Bush said in her introduction to the show, referring to its seemingly haphazard appearance. 'The gallery space itself became part of the exhibit.'
The seeds of the exhibition were planted a year ago when OMA founding partner Rem Koolhaas visited the Belgian Pavilion during the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale and was struck by its freshness and originality. Curated by Belgian collective Rotor - made up of Marten Gielen, Tristan Boniver, Lionel Devlieger, Benjamin Lasserre and Melanie Tamm - the show was beautiful, intelligent and captivating.
A few months later, Koolhaas and his OMA partners handed over the keys to their office and archives to the Belgian group, allowing them to gather material about the practice for this Barbican show. 'The result is very personal,' says Rotor's Marten Gielen. 'It was driven not only by our own instinct but also the result of many conversations with OMA.'
There was no place in the office that Rotor didn't have access to, and nothing went overlooked - from old models to the contents of the office bins. Gradually unravelling the everyday workings of the architecture firm, the Belgians organised the exhibition around different aspects of its design process. Exhibition areas focus on a variety of subjects, from 'view lines' and 'movement', to 'ornament', 'adaptation' and even basic categories like 'white or shiny', which simply puts the spotlight on the use of white and shiny surfaces.
The volume of material on display is staggering - a collection of around 450 items - yet it is essential in helping represent the inner workings, processes and progress of OMA over four decades of intense architectural production, each adding a little piece to the full OMA/AMO picture.
A special room at the end of the show was given back to OMA to use as they wished. It now displays the firm's current preoccupations, such as the recent economic climate. 'This is a period of transformation in the office,' explains Koolhaas. Next door to this, one of our favourite displays shows building site shots of several ongoing projects (including De Rotterdam tower and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange), which will be updated throughout the exhibition, following OMA's respective site visits.
This exhibition - 'the word "retrospective" makes me nervous,' admits Koolhaas - coincides with the completion or near completion of a number of key buildings for OMA, including the Maggie's centre in Gartnavel, Scotland, the New Court building for the Rothschild Bank in London, and the CCTV tower in Beijing. So there will be plenty of opportunity to see an OMA building up close wherever you are.
And if all this isn't enough, there's another compelling reason to visit Barbican. For the first time ever, and for this show only, it has opened up its east entrance, linking the gallery directly to the Barbican complex terraces and creating a new path into the building that also provides a free glimpse into this exciting show.