The polite applause petered out as Joshua Prince-Ramus stepped onto the stage at the Dallas Museum of Art. The 35-year-old architect was there to publicly unveil the schematic designs for the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, part of a new performing arts center in Dallas. The Wyly is the first building to come entirely out of Prince-Ramus’s New York branch of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA, the think tank/design lab founded by the iconoclastic Dutchman Rem Koolhaas.
With 350 pairs of eyes upon him, and a widely anticipated design to show off, Prince-Ramus might have basked, just for a moment, in the spotlight. But he didn’t. “Since I have a captive audience for about an hour, I want to first make a little PR statement about architecture,” he began. “Architecture is not created by individuals. The genius sketch . . . is a myth. Architecture is made by a team of committed people who work together, and in fact, success usually has more to do with dumb determination than with genius.”
Most of the audience, a mix of architecture students, reporters, and curious theater patrons, probably brushed off the preamble. But for Prince-Ramus, that brief stand on his soapbox had nothing to do with false modesty. Coming from a young partner at a “starchitect” firm–Koolhaas, like Gehry and Libeskind, belongs to that elite circle of one-name wonders–the little lecture amounted to a swipe at celebrity-obsessed architectural writers and critics. More to the point, it was a promise to his team that he will tirelessly promote their efforts and accomplishments.
Prince-Ramus is in an excellent position to do so. His first major project, the Seattle Central Library, which opened last summer, is being hailed as a reinvention of the public library–in the glowing words of then New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp, a “blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon.” The gemlike creation, with a glass exterior roughly cut into facets that reveal the building’s inner spaces, is perhaps best known for the “book spiral”–a ramp that snakes upward for four stories, enfolding all of the library’s vast stacks–allowing them to expand and contract as needed. While the library was designed collectively by Koolhaas, OMA, and the Seattle architecture firm LMN, Prince-Ramus was the hands-on partner who honchoed the effort.
“The Seattle library is one of the best buildings in recent history,” proclaims Tina di Carlo, the assistant curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “It will probably go down as one of the masterpieces.”
Designer as Collaborator
Prince-Ramus wants to do more than create radically innovative buildings. He aims to design a sustainable future for Koolhaas’s North American beachhead. In the United States, OMA lost out on four high-profile projects over the past four years, two of which went to rival Renzo Piano. That hurt, considering the firm’s short history in the United States–before the Seattle library, OMA had completed only a small theater and a Prada store in New York, a campus building in Chicago, and two Guggenheim outposts in Las Vegas. Indeed, since OMA was founded 30 years ago, Koolhaas has made his name on his writings as much as his architecture; only recently has the firm finished projects with any frequency. Over the past five years, OMA has completed 12 buildings; it took its first 25 years to grind out the same number of projects.
If Koolhaas’s enterprise is to endure in the United States, Prince-Ramus must hang on to innovative architects and collaborative clients. He is trying to foster a work culture where young architects are given due credit for their contributions and are rewarded with steady, stimulating challenges. So far, at least, the formula appears to be working. In addition to the Dallas theater, OMA is crafting an information-sciences building for the California Institute of Technology. It’s also negotiating two more projects, one of which is a midpriced hotel chain. Prince-Ramus “is the force behind OMA’s success in the U.S.,” says Toshiko Mori, who heads the architecture department at the Harvard Design School.
Prince-Ramus might dislike the field’s cult of personality, but he makes a strong impression. Tall, with close-cropped hair, icy blue eyes, and thick arms revealing a rower’s past (he was a finalist for the 1996 Olympic men’s team), he has a quiet intensity about him. Before architecture school at Harvard, he studied philosophy at Yale, and he retains a philosopher’s view of the world. He added his wife’s name to his when they got married; an e.e. cummings quote is tattooed along the underside of his arm: “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
At Harvard, he was introduced to Koolhaas. He soon learned to love the firm’s hypercollaborative nature. OMA might well be one of the flattest organizations in all of architecture–good ideas from both naive students and veteran partners are considered equally. One of Koolhaas’s founding principles is that youth wins out over experience.
Despite the many upsides, Prince-Ramus quickly learned that the cult of Koolhaas has its downsides, too. It can be a bottleneck (“There still is the belief [in Rotterdam] that Rem needs to piss on it for it to be real,” he says) and can obscure the visibility of talented young staffers. While Prince-Ramus admits that he has been given lots of credit for Seattle, he notes cryptically that Koolhaas “doesn’t always actively direct attention elsewhere.”
Prince-Ramus, however, is trying to make his mark without leaving any fingerprints. He repeatedly underlines the point that the Seattle library is the result of a collaborative effort. His face contorts in disgust when he recalls how he and Koolhaas were given all-star billing in a brochure for the Dallas theater. (He called Dallas and demanded an alphabetical list of the participating architects, giving equal treatment to all.)
OMA’s New York office, in SoHo, reflects a collegial culture. On a late Saturday in March, two days before the Dallas presentation, several young architects are gluing, sanding, and making last-minute adjustments to models of the new theater. When a late lunch is ordered in, everyone stops to eat together. After Prince-Ramus’s description of his work hours in Rotterdam–his first day on the job extended into three as he worked 65 straight hours before collapsing–it’s surprising to find that Erez Ella, one of the architects for the Dallas theater, is missing in action. “He’s with his 1-year-old son,” says Prince-Ramus. “Where he should be.”
To See Into the Future
Aside from building a sustainable team, Prince-Ramus is stretching OMA’s blueprint for the design process. Koolhaas does not have a signature aesthetic; there is no immediately recognizable flourish in his work. Rather than focusing on shape or style, Koolhaas organizes a building by its functions, uses, and content.
The Seattle library is one of the best examples of this approach. The building’s individual spaces are clearly defined and clearly visible, both outside and inside. “Each element–the book stacks, the staff offices, the meeting spaces–is given its own volume,” says MoMA’s di Carlo, “then connected and shrink-wrapped.” The exterior, a skin of diamond-patterned glass, seems almost draped, like a net, over the interior spaces.
OMA took a collaborative approach that can be used in any industry. The process began with a three-month journey to brainstorm how to build the first 21st-century library. OMA, LMN, and library representatives traveled to 20 other libraries in North America and Europe and met with technology executives and futurists to talk about what’s next for books. They held seminars with librarians to understand how architecture could help them work better. They didn’t begin to think about design until the research phase was completed.
On the tours, they noticed how many libraries had been designed with what Prince-Ramus calls a “shotgun” approach, creating universal spaces that could be used for anything. That flexibility made the rooms generic. Librarians also told the architects about the difficulties that came with interdisciplinary research. The result of that conversation: the “mixing chamber.” Resembling a trading floor, it merges the library’s research spaces into one central area.
When Prince-Ramus talks about anything, but especially architecture, he sketches messily on plain white paper, which he carries with him everywhere. Asked about the role that aesthetics plays in his approach to design, he looks down at his hand, as if it’s separate from his body.
“Everyone wants to talk about authorship,” he says. “It’s really kind of irrelevant. Its only relevance is who makes the space for something to happen.” Koolhaas made that space for a then 29-year-old architect to lead what is already being hailed as one of the great masterpieces of contemporary architecture. Prince-Ramus wants to make that space, too, for another generation of the Koolhaas kids.
Jena McGregor is Fast Company’s associate editor.