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In 1998, fresh out of completing postgraduate work at the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam, Shohei Shigematsu joined the team of OMA in Rotterdam. It was an important era for OMA — a time when the now omnipresent firm experienced its first taste of worldwide prominence — and the young Shohei quickly rose through the ranks. He landed his first major project, the Whitney Museum Extension proposal, in 2001; collaborated on some of the firm's most notable buildings, like Beijing's CCTV Headquarters; and demonstrated a zeal for pushing the traditional boundaries of the field.
When the former director of OMA-AMO's New York office left in 2006, Shohei moved to New York City to become director of the office — a position that made him a partner of OMA in 2008. Six years later, Shohei has developed a style all his own — a style that sets him apart from the larger brand of OMA and Rem Koolhaas. "I'm aware that there is something seductive in OMA's designs," he tells us. "But it can be a little too generic, boxy, it doesn't look like we are appreciating a sense of beauty, which we do. In New York City we are trying to communicate that."
Milstein Hall, the A+ award-winning design from OMA-NY, photo via
Milstein Hall, a new academic building for Cornell University's College for Art, Architecture, and Planning, which OMA-NY designed in collaboration with Koolhaas, crystallizes Shohei's distinctive interpretation of the OMA brand. "This was a very good example that some architecture can never really be appreciated until it gets finished," says Shohei. "A lot of people thought it was not so exciting. But when it was built you can see the radical occupation of the space — that architecture doesn't need to be formally extravagant." The building went on to receive numerous awards, including both the Jury and Popular Choice awards for the Architecture + Learning category at the Architizer A+ Awards earlier this year.
Thus far, Shohei's vision has proved undeniably effective. 2013 has been one of the most successful years for OMA-NY — echoing OMA's widespread celebration in the late 1990s — with the emerging office defeating BIG in a much-publicized competition for a new convention center in Miami, winning a major development commission in downtown Santa Monica, and having their resiliency proposal shortlisted as a finalist for the post-Hurricane Sandy competition Rebuild By Design.
The building where OMA-NY is located. All photography by Cameron Blaylock, unless otherwise noted
We headed down to OMA-NY's office on Varick Street, a medium-sized studio strewn with an abundance of architectural models and plans, young designers emitting the invigorating energy of Shohei's visions, and entirely enviable views of the city, to meet Shohei. The visionary architect sat down with us to discuss the influence of Japan and New York on his aesthetic, how his office fits within the larger dialogue of a celebrated firm, and of course, his progress in Miami and learning Spanish.
The team of OMA-NY
On banality, Boston, and his early influences
A suburb of Fukuoka, photo via
“I grew up in a very banal suburb in Fukuoka ... I was born in 1973, which was when the oil crisis happened. It was still a kind of post-war mentality for my parents — that the next generation should be doing better than the previous — but this was the first time in Japan that a generation could be doing worse than the previous. In that sense, that kind of social and economic background influenced me a lot. Somehow I appreciate banality. I tend to look at social issues as one of the most important issues in architecture. Those things influence me more than artistic matters.”
MIT Chapel By Eero Saarinen, photo via
“But, two years of my life I actually lived in Boston because of my parents. That changed me a lot because that was the first moment I confronted a real western architecture. My father was at MIT so we visited the chapel by Saarinen. Just the urban life — like Boston Commons, hi-rises, a typical downtown, historical buildings — it was very stimulating."
On his first breakthrough
OMA's radical design for the Whitney Museum, led by Shigematsu, which was cancelled, photo via
"The Whitney [Museum extension proposal] was the first project where I had enough responsibility to say that it was my project. It was a time when OMA was at the height of its attention from the world. If you look at the design, I was actually also very naive, but I liked the atmosphere then in OMA — to actually let a young kid like me design, and I think that’s a kind of playfulness or openness or naivety that OMA had at that moment. It’s quite beautiful but you can also criticize that it’s a missed opportunity. In that sense it’s a very mixed feeling for me."
View from OMA-NY
"It was amazing to see the complexity of making the building, all the different entities. That taught me a lot in a very short period. Also, the building was approved just after 9/11. It was interesting that no matter how much effort you put in sometimes, things just do not get built because of events you can’t control. And that’s heartbreaking, but also a very rewarding learning experience.”
On developing his own identity within the OMA universe
A model of OMA's proposal for the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, their first in Canada
“We didn’t really think of OMA as a celebrated office initially. Of course, I experienced the most celebrated moment for OMA — in the mid to late 90s and early 2000s. But, after that, the OMA brand went through changes. We wanted to start from there, giving new breath, new energy to OMA. I'm not interested in a typical notion of beauty. I was very mixed in my background — not just appreciating artistic direction, but also something junky or something out-of-the-box, I guess. In NYC, we are trying to make it a little more explicit how we appreciate beauty, not just creating polemical arguments. And that’s difficult because then you go into this contemporary architecture formal game. At the same time we have to keep creating an excitement for ourselves, and also to communicate that excitement to the outside."
On New York City
A cluster of models produced by OMA
“My theory is that New York has always benefitted from its name by having 'new.' There are so many things that New York is creating and taking initiative in — some things are very conservative at the same time. I like those balances. Also as a city, it always rejuvenates, it creates ups and downs, which makes architects think a lot. Rem noted in his first book [that] architects were never really there when New York was made. I think there is a certain big dilemma when architects are here, and I think that motivates me a little. It’s a very harsh city, I think. Whether it’s good or bad, people are constantly trying things out, constantly thinking, and I think that’s the attraction I have, what inspires me a lot.”
Designers at work at OMA-NY
"I would love if de Blasio wouldn't just go against development, but towards smart development. Maybe Bloomberg was maybe a little too pro "just development." Smart development and resiliency benefits the city, on a social, economic level, and just the pure safety level. I think the strength of New York, there is always someone smart trying to do something better than before. Development for the sake of development is not sustainable."
On collaborating with Marina Abramović and Kanye West
Shigematsu's Seven Screens for Kanye West, photo via
“After 9/11, we lost a lot of big developers, and we couldn’t get institutional projects, so we started to collaborate with these people who have very strong artistic visions, like Marina Abramović. It’s very intimate and it’s almost like a one-to-one discussion that evolved into architecture and I think that was a very rewarding process. And artists of course — what’s great about them is they know how to delegate or designate certain creativity to others. They know that they can do certain things better, but they know that we are also better at architecture, so there is no kind of micromanagement over design. It was really a kind of jazz where they play something back and we discuss.”
A book about Marina Abramović, with whom OMA-NY collaborated
“I think [Kanye] has this strong drive to undo the kind of top-down system, he just wants to do everything. I think that’s a beautiful ambition. But he should also understand to respect certain professions as we respect him as a musician. I think he poses a lot of interesting questions. Like Ai Weiwei too or Sugimoto who does architecture now. It’s interesting to think they are doing it — it’s clearly architecture, but should we include them in the discourse or not? I think that’s an interesting boundary to confront.”
On Latin America
Models and proposals for OMA's work on the Miami Convention Center
“We just won this huge competition in Bogotá—the biggest master plan in the recent history of Latin America after Brasilia. It’s right in the center of Bogotá, a new governmental district. We are looking to be more involved in Latin America. I started to take Spanish courses. It’s difficult but meaningful, because of Miami and LA it’s quite useful.
OMA's design for the Miami Convention Center and master plan, photo via
“Our big project right now of course is the Miami Convention Center, which politically is not going very well. But hopefully next year in some dimension it will start. I enjoy Miami a lot. I think a lot of the reason things are happening there is it’s becoming a real cosmopolitan city. There’s the diversity with a large Latin American population; it’s Florida, relaxed tax laws, nice weather — it’s becoming a real city. Of course going through such a modernization boom, you have to have cultural institutions, people are very hungry for that. It’s the only American city at the moment that is going through that kind of transformation, and it’s really an honor to be a part of that."
OMA models lined up around the perimeter of the studio
On what's next
“I think about how my expertise can be a little bit more useful. I’m currently doing a studio at Harvard about the food industry. There are three fundamentals in life — one is eating, one is clothing, one is sheltering — and architecture and clothing became quite globalized. Everywhere you go, people more or less dress the same and architecture looks the same. But food is the only one that maintains a strong locality. Also food is the only one that didn’t use architecture as much for a marketing purpose. We designate a student to investigate at least one part of the food process, from harvesting to post harvesting, retailing, consuming, and then even the waste. I’m always interested in how architects can be involved in slightly unexpected ways, as catalyst for social change, so that we can at least participate in change.”
View of New York from the OMA-NY studio