Roadmap 2050 by Rem Koolhaas's OMA
Oct 20, 2010 - Rowan Moore - The Observer - Guardian.co.uk
ENEROPA OMA's redrawn map of Europe, with Britain
split in two.
I well remember my interview for a place at architecture
school. As a kindly tutor leafed through my cobbled-together
portfolio, on the wall I noticed a photo of a trapezoidal
cabin with a whirly helical thing on top. It was,
I was told, a prototype of an energy-efficient house,
a concept of which I was then only dimly conscious.
That was more decades ago than I care to think,
and it goes to show that green architecture is nothing
new. It goes to the heart of the paradox most architects
face: they tend to be hopeful, liberal types who
want to change things for the better, but construction
requires money and power, which are not always in
the hands of the nicest people. So nice architects
find themselves working for not-nice clients. Similarly
with environmental matters: buildings gobble energy
and resources in their construction and use, so the
most ecological thing might be not to build them
at all, but that would put architects out of work.
So they are drawn to that conscience-salving potential
oxymoron, the green building.
Just as what was once called health food has gone
from muddy lentils to crisp Ottolenghi sophistication,
so green architecture has been through many phases.
For a while, it wore its ecology on its sleeve, sticking
conspicuous turbines and ventilators on roofs, as
in the large bronze chimneys over Portcullis House,
the MPs' office building next to Big Ben. Now it
tends to be a more technical matter, governed by
the calculations of the engineering consultancies
that have grown up to make buildings sustainable.
There has also been a shift in scale since my tutor's
cabin. Now architects design green cities, such as
Dongtan in China, or Foster and Partners' $22bn Masdar
City in Abu Dhabi, which is currently on show at
the Sustainable Futures exhibition at the Design
Museum. But none have gone as far as the Office of
Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the practice created
by Rem Koolhaas. It is proposing to redesign an entire
continent – ours, Europe – along energy-saving
lines. In fact, they would like to include North
Africa as well. As Reinier de Graaf, the partner
in charge of the proposal, says: "Megalomania
is a standard part of our repertoire."
Called Roadmap 2050, it is a plan calculated to
make the Ukip-ians of this world bubble and froth
with rage, as it combines the belief that drastic
intervention is required to mitigate climate change,
with a desire to give meaning and power to the European
Union. It has been commissioned by the European Climate
Foundation, a philanthropic body dedicated to promoting
policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and
it aims to show how the EU can achieve an incredible-seeming
target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by
2050. The proposal is being considered by the EU
Council of Ministers, for their possible endorsement.
The proposal's starting point is the fact that renewable
energy sources such as wind and sunshine are erratic
and unreliable, which means they have to be supported
by other forms of power. But they are also available
in different quantities in different places – wind
is abundant in Britain, sun in Spain – and
in different seasons. The big idea is to create a
power network across the continent linking all these
sources, which could then compensate for each other.
If it was windless in Britain but sunny in Spain,
power could travel from them to us, and vice versa.
This is a political, as well as a technical proposal. "You
can use this project to create integration. It creates
a very pragmatic reason to integrate," says
De Graaf. It coincides with work the OMA has been
doing for several years on the ways that the European
Union represents itself, through their design and
research subsidiary AMO, which "operates in
areas beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture".
Koolhaas is a member of the EU's Reflection Group,
whose job is to think about what might happen a decade
or two hence.
With a cheeky, provocative tone typical of OMA,
they even show a map of Europe redrawn as "Eneropa",
with regions defined by their energy source. Ireland
and the western half of Britain become the "tidal
states", while the eastern half forms part of
the "isles of wind". Former Yugoslavia
is miraculously reunited as "Biomassburg".
Most of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece become "Solaria".
OMA shows images of these places, like postcards
from the future, with batteries of turbines, or plumes
of geothermal steam.
OMA insists that its plan makes sense, even if you
exclude climate issues. It has produced figures to
show that the scheme would not cost all that much
per head, especially when compared with road-building,
war in Iraq, or bailing out bankers. They point out
the benefit of reducing reliance on Middle Eastern
oil and Russian gas. They argue that the economic
benefits would outweigh the costs. They say that
a reduction of even more than 80% could be achieved
if North Africa, with all its sunshine, could be
included in the grid. Their plan, they say, is "not
rooted in apocalyptic hysteria", but is eminently
It's a seductive proposition: go green and get richer.
It is also refreshing and unusual to hear architects
proposing environmental strategies that do not require
the future commissioning of architects to design
buildings. It also raises an obvious question: what
on earth qualifies architects who spend most of their
time designing museums or office buildings or Prada
stores to pronounce on these subjects? This is partly
answered by the fact that OMA is not acting alone,
but is part of a team that includes management consultants
McKinsey, energy consultants Kema and Imperial College
London. But OMA still takes responsibility for the "overarching
The other question is whether to believe them. OMA
has over the years shown me new cities on islands
off Korea, the transposition of Amsterdam Schiphol
airport into the North Sea, and the redesign of the
European flag of gold stars on blue into a multicoloured
barcode derived from the flags of its different nations.
So far all these ideas have remained on paper. Is
there any reason to think the Roadmap would be different?
It is plain that their plan would need will and
cohesion that has not been evident in, for example,
the EU's attempts to solve the Greek debt crisis.
Reinier de Graaf cites as a model President Kennedy's
declaration that, before the 1960s were out, America
would put men on the moon, but Herman Van Rompuy,
the president of the European Union, is no Jack Kennedy.
However, De Graaf argues that European countries
cooperate better at a practical level than an ideological
one. He also stresses that the Roadmap "doesn't
require member states to give up their identities.
It allows states to be themselves."
I have, frankly, no idea if by 2050 anything like
this network will exist, or whether it will join
the ranks of the fantastical and doomed, along with
the cities teeming with autogyros imagined in the
1930s, or the 1960s' faith in the future ubiquity
of hovercrafts. I doubt if anyone else knows, either.
But, of all the abstract speculations about what
sustainable futures might look like, there has not
previously been one so tangible or engaging. Its
value at the very least is to get people thinking
about what, actually, we do want. OMA's Roadmap is
either prophecy or provocation, but whichever way
it's worth having.