Reinier de Graaf's 'architect, verb'

A Book of Lists

John Hill
3. March 2023
Cropped cover image of architect, verb: The New Language of Building by Reinier de Graaf (Verso, 2023)

ARCHITECT, verb. 1. to design and configure (a software program or system) (few software packages were architected with Ethernet access in mind). 2. the activity architects are considered to engage in.

It's incredible now, in the third decade of the 21st century, for the world of architecture to be focused on, at least for a moment, a single book. It's even more amazing that this particular book does not have a single photograph, drawing, diagram, or any other image. Which means architects are actually reading it, not just flipping through it and looking at the pictures, as is the case with most architecture books. The only thing one can could call an image on OMA partner and AMO cofounder Reinier de Graaf's third book, architect, verb, is the cover: a winking smiley-face emoji, its wide grin constructed with a protractor. The image seems to be telling us that this is not your average architecture book while also hinting that the contents don't take themselves too seriously. But serious it is, even if it's also considerably funnier than the average architecture book.

As mentioned, architect, verb is de Graaf's third book, following Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession, a collection of 44 essays released in 2017, and The Masterplan, a novel published in 2021. Anticipation over the new book that hit stores earlier this week seems to come from the popularity and critical reception of the first book rather than anything to do with the novel, which this reviewer admits to not reading (I did read the first). De Graaf actually positions architect, verb in relation to Four Walls on page four: “If Four Walls and a Roof was about debunking myths projected by architects, architect, verb aims to debunk myths projected onto architecture by the outside world — a rebuttal of doctrines which have been applied to architecture over the last twenty years.” So where the first book tackles such self-created myths as the presumed authority of architects and their devotion to progress, the new book turns the gaze around and explores how clients, the media, and society look at architects in terms of starchitecture, sustainability, wellbeing, beauty, innovation, and five other areas in its ten chapters.

Photo: World-Architects

HEDONISTIC SUSTAINABILITY, noun. (neologism) 1. the admixture of environmental ecology and fun, two commonly thought incompatible phenomena. 2. organized fun for the socially aware. 3. the means by which unsustainable attitudes are allowed, unpardonably, to continue.

The first chapter of the book, “Tears and Love,” is about starchitecture, but instead of presenting us with stories about the famous architect who founded the office where he works (Rem Koolhaas is mentioned by name once in the book, and in passing, not enough to land him a spot in the index), de Graaf goes back to 1997 and the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The first words on the building are not de Graaf's, but come from Philip Johnson, who is standing inside the museum alongside Frank Gehry, the architect catapulted into the stratosphere with the building's completion. Johnson cannot muster much beyond “Wow.” “There's no words,” he says, “Architecture's not about words. It's about tears. And love…” 

From Johnson's speechlessness during an episode of Charlie Rose from May 1998, de Graaf sets off an a 20-page exploration of Gehry and the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Guggenheim Foundation and Bilbao, the impact of the “Bilbao Effect” around the world and — especially — in Spain, and how the world looks at architects post-Bilbao. The chapter establishes a formula the architect/author repeats in the nine chapters that follow: hone in on one example befitting the “myth” in question; provide historical background and additional context; widen the scope to pull in other examples; and provide a postscript to summarize his take on the myth and bring the chapter full-circle to the initial example. It's simple but works well.

Photo: World-Architects

NON-PLACE, noun. a place without inspiring the sense of one.

PLACEMAKING, noun. (neologism) an approach to the design of public space which (cl)aims to transform non-places into places. (See 'non-place'.)

Where critics or journalists might have tackled starchitecture and the other subjects with interviews and other primary sources, De Graaf's sources are all secondary: newspapers, magazines, websites, and occasionally books — if Google points him to any. Part of this can be attributed to the fact de Graaf is an insider, a practicing architect and partner at one of the world's most famous three-letter architecture firms. He works with a starchitect and understands what it's like, for example, when a client asks for a scheme that is “about placemaking.” The chapter on placemaking, “Here nor There,” actually begins with an anecdote about one such meeting, where a (potential) client tells de Graaf: “If we want to make this a successful development, placemaking must be at the heart of our strategy!”

De Graaf admits, at least to us, if not to the unnamed client through his delayed, nonverbal reaction to the statement, that he does not know what placemaking is. Therefore, the chapter — one of the better ones in the book — is his effort in understanding placemaking, moving from dictionaries and websites to newspapers and books in order to get a handle on it. His research leads him to Fred Kent, the founder and former president of Project for Public Spaces, the organization inspired by the social theories and research techniques of William H. Whyte. If Gehry is the heart of starchitecture, Kent is the heart of placemaking.

Curiously, de Graaf's Google- and internet-focused research approach means we learn about Kent and hear his words as quoted in articles and through stories written about him and PPS, but not from the man himself. It's as if de Graaf, well aware he is not portraying the various parts of his profession in the most pleasing light, took firsthand encounters with architects, urban planners, and clients out of the equation; the few encounters in the book leave the other party unnamed. Spoiler alert: By the end of the chapter de Graaf is no closer to a definition of placemaking than when he started, but one can't help wonder if speaking with Kent would have gotten him to one.

Photo: World-Architects

UNPUTDOWNABLEadjective. 1. (of a book) so engrossing that one cannot stop reading it. 2. Oliver Wainwright while working at OMA.

One aspect of de Graaf's writing that stood out to me while reading architect, verb is his reliance on lists. I first noticed it in the middle of the chapter on sustainability, “Crisis? What Crisis?,” where de Graaf devotes a few pages to the BREEAM and LEED standards, listing the subsets developed over time (BREEAM Multi-Homes, BREEAM Bespoke, LEED Core and Shell, LEED for Interior Designs and Construction) and the various categories for meeting the standards (Health and Wellbeing, Land Use, Water Efficiency, Education and Awareness). At first I thought the lists, which go on much longer than the examples here, were unnecessary and could be skipped over, but then I realized they were integral to his argument — if anything, to point out the absurdity of standards that serve to function more as marketing for clients than as means for aiding in the design of truly sustainable buildings. Ellipses and etceteras would not have conveyed this aspect of this myth, nor other areas where the client side is straightjacketing the architectural profession.

De Graaf grows the lists in this book — this book of lists — with “Data” sections prefacing some of the chapters, where he copy/pastes information, much of it in the form of lists with tiny italicized text. The page of data before the placemaking chapter, for example (see middle spread, above), lists nineteen “definitions” of the term. Definitions is in quotes because placemaking is missing from the last list: the “Dictionary of Profspeak” at the back of the book (a few terms pulled from it pepper this review). Here, de Graaf broadens the scope of his frustration well beyond the themes explored in the ten preceding chapters. 

“More than a testament to jargon itself,” de Graaf writes, “Profspeak is a testament to the promiscuity of jargon.” Accurate much of the time, humorous at others, and occasionally hilarious, this dictionary that lends the book its title is quite risky. This appendix most overtly conveys, as succintly written by Jonathan Meades on the back cover, “[de Graaf's] enthusiasm for biting the hand that feeds him…” With de Graaf's — and our — internet feeds full of stories about lines in the desert and cubes the size of twenty Empire State Buildings, that bite might just be what architecture needs right now.


architect, verb. The New Language of Building

architect, verb. The New Language of Building
Reinier de Graaf

14.8 x 21.8 cm
272 Pages
ISBN 9781839761911
Purchase this book

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