OMA’s New York Branch Excels at Improvisational Thinking

The firm takes free-form trial and error to almost dizzying heights before locking onto a final direction.

The New York studio of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) doesn’t just follow the lead of the mother ship back in Rotterdam. “We’re an outpost,” says Shohei Shigematsu, the lead partner at the Manhattan location. “Rem isn’t involved, and so we sometimes try to do something different.” In terms of its creative process, the New York office often feels the impulse to break free of OMA’s famously rigorous, analytical approach and try for more formally expressive solutions.

For nearly every commission, the firm produces an enormous array of models: alongside renderings, Rhino, and photographic pastiches, it also explores new possibilities in resin and foam core, with teams of as many as three interns working with a seasoned manager. Through the years, the designers have found that model-making is useful as a means of liberating a certain part of their creative subconscious. “People ask, ‘Why do you do renderings and a couple different models?’” Shigematsu says. “While we’re making models, we often have certain accidents that lead to another level of beauty or ugliness.”

For OMA New York’s upcoming project in Québec City, an extension to the city’s Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, model-making took center stage as the designers tried to fill a complex brief in a challenging context. The three-dimensional quality of their models not only helped the team develop a broad menu of ideas, but it also made it easier to choose among them. “I often tell younger designers: thinking of an option is very easy, but deciding is the most difficult,” Shigematsu says. “For me, the model is the only medium I can really judge.”

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