Intern of the month: “There is no such thing as a method at OMA”

Yekaterina Nuzhdina told Strelka Magazine about the nuances of working at OMA, an architectural firm founded by Rem Koolhaas and Reinier de Graaf, and shared the story of her six-month internship at the OMA’s Hong Kong office.

Photo: personal archive

Background

Yekaterina was born and brought up in Moscow. This year she plans to graduate from the Moscow Architectural Institute and is currently working on her thesis under the supervision of Yury Grigoryan. During her third study year, Yekaterina joined the Russian firm Project Meganom. In her fifth year, she took a six-month internship at OMA Hong Kong.


Internship terms

OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) is an international architectural firm led by Rem Koolhaas, Ellen van Loon, Reinier de Graaf and six other partners. In addition to standard architectural practice, the OMA structure also incorporates AMO research centre in Rotterdam, which focusses on areas spreading beyond the field of architecture, such as media, politics, renewable energy sources and fashion. The firm portfolio includes the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas (2001), Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson (2012), Fondazione Prada’s venue in Milan (2015) and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow (2015).

In addition to the HQ’s in Rotterdam, OMA’s structure comprises offices in New York, Beijing and Hong Kong. OMA Hong Kong opened under the management of David Gianotten in 2009. By that time OMA had already completed numerous projects on the Chinese market, including the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, a masterplan for Hanoi and the design competition for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Duration: August 2015 – February 2016

Internship compensation: 90,000 rubles per month


Preparation

OMA does not keep a special ‘Internship’ tab on its website unlike, for instance,  Elemental does. However, from time to time they do list internship positions among available vacancies – that’s how I stumbled upon this opportunity. I prepared a portfolio during the winter holidays, submitted my application in early April and got a reply by the end of the month. After passing an interview in May, I arrived in Hong Kong in August. There I found out that OMA is constantly on the lookout for new interns. There is no secret that it’s difficult to get a permanent position at OMA, but the internship program allows to bypass the traditional job market. If you want to become an intern, you should definitely give it a try – even if OMA’s current workload is low. You might still require some sheer luck – I think that’s how I managed to get there. When I arrived, I learned that OMA gets most of its interns through recommendation letters from top universities and through university programmes.

Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Theatre – Parasite (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)

Being a student is the only official requirement OMA puts for its internship applicants. I found out that the Moscow Architectural University where I study had a three week cap for the practice period and would not provide an option for a half-year-long internship. At European universities students are rarely restricted by any time limits, provided they accumulated enough course credits. That allows them to arrange time windows for work practice. In my circumstances I had to give up half a year of work on my thesis to use this practice opportunity.

OMA does not provide free meals or housing, but their student interns receive payment. The size of the internship compensation depends on the city you get to live in. In Hong Kong, the compensation allowed me to rent an affordable apartment, to keep up a sufficient diet and to eat out on weekends. OMA’s HR helped me with accommodation. Anyway, finding a place to live in is not the most difficult thing to do in Hong Kong.

Workflow at OMA Hong Kong

Each of OMA’s regional offices has a rigid hierarchy with several rungs, including a leading partner, a junior partner, senior and junior architects and interns. At the same time there are no concrete walls dividing the top management from the interns, and anyone can communicate with anyone. I arrived at the Hong Kong office at the time when the branch was changing its leading partner. We had partners from other offices visiting all the time, checking on how the things were going. Upon their arrival, the partners held corporate dinners for the employees where you could make acquaintance.

The number of people working at the office is around 50, but the employee turnover is extremely high. This is mainly caused by employees transitioning from one OMA office to another, as well as by the sheer number of projects. My colleagues told me that some time before I joined the team the office had triple its current workforce and was so crowded that employees worked elbow-to-elbow. There are a lot of Dutch employees on a generally multinational team. Additionally, current Hong Kong business laws force the companies to keep the percentage of Chinese employees in their staff above 50%. Half a year ago the OMA office occupied two floors in a skyscraper, but they may have moved since then. Internal office layout was quite generic: a large coworking space, plus a kitchen with a coffeemaker, a toaster and a fridge – that was basically it.

What I worked on

Over six months I took part in six projects with six different teams. Other interns could spend half a year working on one large mockup. I accumulated some great teamwork experience by teaming up with groups with different approaches to their projects. I realised that OMA was not a single entity but rather a union of teams with different workstyles and their own characters within one large corporation. Let me describe two projects I took part in.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

The first one was the project that I joined immediately upon my arrival. We were working on OMA’s competition proposal for the Singapore Rail Corridor, and it had already entered the production stage by the time I joined. Rem Koolhaas liked that project a lot, so he was actively involved in the work process.

A 24 km abandoned railroad stretches across Singapore from North to South. The Singaporeans got used to it – some were growing flowers along the tracks, some chose it as their walking route or a sports ground – the railroad became an improvised park. Personally, I didn’t see much sense in changing anything as the railroad was perfect in its new function. However, Singapore chose to issue an RFP.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

A social-oriented approach adopted by OMA during the design stage appealed to me. The main objective was to leave as much as possible in its current state in order to keep the park uncluttered. The territory was divided into four zones, tagged S, M, L and XL, defined by the average city height at each part of the stretch. In Singapore, skyscrapers in the South gradually transition into a village-like setting in the North. This corridor pierces the whole city and reflects its urban individuality. The proposal developed by OMA involved fencing the park off from the superurbanised dense city with a green wall. The former train stations were to be turned into plazas, which would serve as attraction points. Instead of raising a skyscraper district as proposed by a developer, OMA offered to build minimalistic towers at each station, with a goal to create visual reference points along the whole track. This project was definitely the most interesting one I was engaged in. Unfortunately, OMA did not win the competition.

The second project was also a competition proposal – that time we designed a library and a museum. Unlike the concept-heavy Rail Corridor, where we used to discuss the main idea non-stop, this project seemed very technical. I had a hard time understanding this abrupt change of pace. I was constantly calling for an idea discussion, but my colleagues were hardly listening to me. Later I learned that the customer wanted a particular result, and that OMA was basically completing a technical assignment. At OMA they say that they either win competitions by a landslide or fail miserably. OMA had its share of both victories and fails. The latter cost them a lot of money, so essentially they need projects to cover the costs. It was one of those projects. In the end I ended up drawing pretty images and making collages. Previously I used to think that OMA was some sort of a deity which only made next level concepts and then turned them real. Later I realised that technical projects were the bread and butter for any studio, including OMA, allowing to cover the costs of participating in competitions.

Daily schedule

My first three weeks were the most difficult time I had at OMA. As the project was supervised by Koolhaas himself, everyone was working their butts off. During that time we worked until 6 – 8 am every day seven days a week. As I was returning home, people were just getting to work. Two days prior to the deadline we stopped going home at all. I remember that we had to submit the proposal by 10 am, while at 8 am we felt like there was no way we would finish it in time.

There were certain benefits in that. If you stayed in the office past 10 pm, the company would provide you with a paid taxi ride and a meal. We all used this, of course. After making it through the day on snacks, we got together for a paid dinner at a good café. We had enough money to order something interesting. Back then I got to try many new cuisines.

Microdistrict 2.0 (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Microdistrict 2.0 (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Microdistrict 2.0 (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Microdistrict 2.0 (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
Microdistrict 2.0 (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)

Overall, the work schedule was relatively lax. Although that depends on the branch: New York is known as the strictest one, while Hong Kong is the most tolerant. It also depends on a team you get onto: the one lead by a top Rotterdam architect worked round the clock, those guys were pure fanatics. Other teams adopted a slower pace. I got to be on both. When I started, I told myself that I took this internship to work, not to slack. So I was always hard on myself. That allowed me to learn a lot.

OMA’s work code and philosophy

On one of my teams there was a young guy who previously worked for  MVRDV and who told me about a contrast between the two firms. He used to say that at MVRDV employees were friendly and active and had a sense of camaraderie, while at OMA everyone mostly kept to themselves and was a workaholic. Although I made several friends during this internship, OMA did not throw any huge loud parties.

New lapidarium (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
New lapidarium (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
New lapidarium (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)
New lapidarium (a project from Yekaterina’s student portfolio)

I must admit that to some degree this concentration defines OMA’s overall approach towards work. First of all, every single decision is based on a research, and OMA always aims to implement innovations and avoid clichés. That is a very special aspiration, a constant attempt to define the conflict instead of just creating something “appealing”. Secondly, there is no such thing as a method at OMA. If there was a method, that would have meant sticking to the rules, and the rules do not exist. As soon as something reminiscent of a method starts to appear, the firm takes a turn from the beaten path and continues its search for a non-standard solution elsewhere.

Every little step of this process is accompanied by self-criticism. I was constantly forced to ask myself why I was doing what I was doing. During the concept stage I felt pretty confident, and some of the ideas I proposed were taken into work. I figured: we found a concept, so now we could sit back and finish the project. That was not true. At each step, whatever you were doing, even if the drafting had already started, everything could change. For instance, senior architects could come in and ask “Why are we doing this? Where is the sense in doing this?” And you try to reply: “Well…”, only to get a “There is no sense, let’s change that” back at you. And everything started anew, even if there was just one night left until the deadline. Working at OMA means taking a step outside of your comfort zone, abandoning your attempts to take it easy and entering a constant search. My definition for this is that the project should always be balancing between attractive and unattractive, logical and illogical – that a complex balance must be kept.

Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive
Photo: personal archive

I didn’t get to see Rem Koolhaas. He visits the office approximately twice a year, and was arriving in Hong Kong three days after I left. Obviously, he is not involved in every single project and only handpicks those he likes. I don’t regret that I didn’t meet him all that much. Over my time at OMA I realised that the studio is a magnet for top professionals. OMA’s success hinges on something more than Koolhaas’ genius: on the atmosphere built by people from the world’s top universities and by architects with enormous experience.