Atypical Typologies: OMA’s Architectural Approach to Blurring Boundaries

Potato Head Studios, a Balinese resort in Indonesia designed by OMA. © Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of OMA.
David Gianotten, OMA’s Managing Partner-Architect. Photograph by Bart van Vlijmen. Image courtesy of OMA.
Potato Head Studios is not exclusive to hotel guests, but open to the public. © Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of OMA.
The façade design of the Potato Head Studios’ guestroom corridors was inspired by Balinese Tika, or divination calendar. © Kevin Mak. Image coutesy of OMA.
The soon-to-open Western Australian Museum in Perth. © Peter Bennetts. Image courtesy of Hassell + OMA.
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Whether it’s an art institution or a beachside resort, architects are being asked to engage and transform typologies beyond their traditional definitions—here is how Dutch architectural firm OMA is taking on the challenge.

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of OMA

Potato Head Studios, a Balinese resort in Indonesia designed by OMA. © Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of OMA.

 

OMA co-founder Rem Koolhaas and AMO, OMA’s research studio, had just mounted an exhibition at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim called “Countryside, The Future,” in February of this year when, a month into its six-month run, the museum had to shut its doors in line with social-distancing measures brought on by the global health crisis. It was an Alanis Morissette kind of ironic: the topic of the exhibition, in loose terms, was a consideration of man’s reliance on city life and a proposition for a global shift towards the countryside. And in the months since, many of us have indeed run from populated cities and embraced the great outdoors.

With many plans on hold and plenty of time alone to ponder life’s great questions, architects around the world have spent many an hour contemplating the mysteries of space and buildings, seeking a way to combine the community and city life to which we have become accustomed, with the new world order.

With a post-Covid mindset, OMA Managing Partner-Architect David Gianotten believes that the need for human connection is greater than ever, but that the divide between city and country, inside and outside, us and them is blurring and disappearing. He shares insights on two projects conceived prior to the pandemic—the new Western Australian Museum in Perth and Potato Head Studios in Bali—which, despite being typologies that might once have been perceived as exclusionary, now seek to involve country and community, through engagement programmes, use of materials, and more. Different as they may be, they prove that architecture is, today as much as yesterday and tomorrow, still a mechanism for fostering human interaction.

 

David Gianotten, OMA’s Managing Partner-Architect. Photograph by Bart van Vlijmen. Image courtesy of OMA.

 

With the pandemic still affecting the world and spatial relations, what revelations have you had regarding architectural design, both in general and specific to people-oriented spaces such as art institutions?

One important thing that the pandemic has revealed is that, people are after all social beings, and spaces for human connection are important. Over the past decades, we have seen the design and construction of buildings or public spaces that people can hardly relate to, whether because of their enormous scales, or because of their architectural forms created with little consideration of the people who would eventually use the buildings. I think as architects, we are at a privileged position to shape environments that people can engage with, and also engage within. No matter which architectural typology we are working with, we should remember that.

 

You also recently completed a hospitality project, Potato Head Studios, which is something the firm doesn’t engage as often. A Balinese resort might be a first for OMA—how did you seek to shake up the format when conceptualising the design?

OMA has a strong portfolio of cultural projects, and we work with other architectural and urban typologies. We are always keen to experiment with existing typologies, and this is the case for Potato Head Studios. When our client Ronald Akili presented us with his vision to build a five-star hotel in Seminyak not only for hotel guests, but also the local community, we saw the possibility of creating a new typology of resort—what we eventually refer to as a village—that is not exclusive to hotel guests, but open to the public. We came up with a design that incorporates public programs into typical hotel programs without any physical boundaries.

 

What aspects and details of the design are particularly of note?

I think visitors to the hotel would notice its tactility, as well as references to Indonesian architectural traditions. In terms of spatial organisation, the way we located the floating ring and the block resulted in two courtyard spaces—the open platform at the ground level and a private garden on the second floor—which evoke both the raised courtyards in Indonesia, and traditional Balinese courtyards found at the ground level. In terms of architectural details, textures of some concrete walls in the resort were created by local craftsmen. We have deployed ijuk—a local roofing material, teak from a local and renewable source, handcrafted breeze blocks, terrazzo made from waste concrete chunks, and ceiling panels woven with recycled plastic bottles by local craftsmen. The façade design of the guestroom corridors was inspired by Balinese Tika, or divination calendar. This façade filters light into the building to create poetic shadows. Throughout the project, we worked in close collaboration with Indonesian architect Andra Matin. Andra’s team helped us to understand the local culture and circumstances, and gave us a lot of ideas and comments on the design.

 

Potato Head Studios is not exclusive to hotel guests, but open to the public. © Kevin Mak. Image courtesy of OMA.
The façade design of the Potato Head Studios’ guestroom corridors was inspired by Balinese Tika, or divination calendar. © Kevin Mak. Image coutesy of OMA.

 

With so many typologies being blurred together nowadays, what is your strategy for approaching spaces with multiple functions? Is “typology” a term that continues to have relevance?

You are right that many buildings nowadays have multiple functions. However, it is still the case that a building usually has a primary function, be it museum, hotel, stadium, or house. I think functional typology is always relevant as it defines the primary purpose that a building serves. It gives certain boundaries to a design, which we as architects can choose to work within, or to break through. At OMA, we are always interested in bringing new definitions to architectural typologies by exploring form, program, materiality, and work process. For example, through Potato Head Studios, we tried to redefine the resort typology—from something exclusive to something public. Through the new Western Australian Museum, we tried to create a new kind of museum for active participation rather than passive consumption.

 

What was OMA and Hassell’s brief for designing the soon-to-open Western Australian Museum in Perth, Western Australia?

The new Western Australian Museum is located at Perth’s Cultural Centre. The OMA and Hassell team were tasked to revitalise the former museum to provide spaces for exhibitions and events, and new retail and dining opportunities. When open to the public in November this year, the new museum will showcase the State of Western Australia’s natural and cultural collection to both the local and an international audience. The former museum was comprised of heritage-listed buildings, including the Old Gaol dating from the mid-19th Century, the Jubilee Building built in 1899, the original Art Gallery, built in 1908 and Hackett Hall—the State Library’s reading room built in 1913. We had to work with heritage to create a new museum that engages with visitors and the local community in unique ways.

 

The soon-to-open Western Australian Museum in Perth. © Peter Bennetts. Image courtesy of Hassell + OMA.

 

What is the role of the architect in creating a space to display art/history?

A museum should not just be a place for [the] display of objects. It should be a place for telling stories. As architects, we need to work closely with an institution to understand the possible narratives that can be created with the collection. The State of Western Australia is home to the oldest continuous culture on earth, with an increasingly diverse and multicultural population. It is also a world biodiversity hotspot. With an understanding of such characteristics of the State, we conceived the museum as a framework to share the diverse stories of Western Australia. In our design, new volumes wrap around heritage buildings to create two core elements: two intersecting circulation loops that offer a variety of curatorial possibilities, and a City Room—a public space at the museum’s centre for cultural programs and daily activities, where visitors could interact and share their own stories with each other.

 

How is the typology of the museum being challenged of late?

A museum is traditionally a place for storing and exhibiting objects of interest. A visitor usually takes the role of an observer, who receives information. This is a rather passive role. I think a new typology of museum could be a place where visitors take on more active roles. They do not simply look at individual objects and learn facts about the objects. Instead, they experience the museum on a more personal level. For the design of the new Western Australian Museum, we tried to create such a possibility. The intersecting circulation loops connect objects of the museum in different ways to create a variety of narratives about Western Australia, and each narrative offers a unique visiting experience. Any visitor can choose to explore a narrative that is particularly relevant to him or her. The City Room is another space that allows visitors to actively participate in activities and engage in dialogues that they can relate to. So, in general the new Western Australian Museum has been designed as a place not for passive consumption of exhibitions, but for active participation in the making of stories to different extends. The exhibition designers have created the stories within the building that will hopefully support this philosophy of the architects.

 

What aspects and details of the design are particularly of note?

The new Western Australian Museum is a mix of heritage and new elements. One particular example of preservation worthy of noting is the lantern at the Hackett Hall. In order to preserve it, we removed the original roof structure and lifted the heritage ceiling into a new position on the level of the new galleries. A glass floor replaces the original ceiling. This has resulted in a portal window open to the view of the function room three storeys below.

Another main feature of the museum is the gold mesh façade inspired by one of the first historic objects in the museum’s collection—a piece of quartz with a vein of gold running through it. To achieve the desired transparency of the façade with a tinge of gold, our team tested the façade interlayer with a prototype under different weather conditions.

 

How was the culture and heritage of Western Australia applied?

I would not say the museum applied the State’s culture and heritage. Rather, I would say that the museum is rooted in Western Australia. The museum itself is comprised of heritage buildings and new volumes, which embody both the history of architectural and cultural development of the State. The museum’s space is a venue for contemporary presentation of Western Australia’s history and culture. The City Room is a place for everyone in the city and visitors to gather and engage with contemporary culture. So, I would say at the museum, heritage, history, and contemporary culture are pretty much intertwined.

 

 

 
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