OMMX: Reflecting an Equilibrium Review

By Paul Linton Cowie, Tutor in Moral and Political Philosophy at Oxford University

18 March 2015
AA Lecture Hall, 36 Bedford Square


Jon Lopez, AADipl2011 and Hikaru Nissanke, AADipl2009 at their What's Next lecture titled Settings Image credit: Valerie Bennett

Jon Lopez, AADipl2011 and Hikaru Nissanke, AADipl2009 at their What’s Next lecture titled Settings
Image credit: Valerie Bennett

In presenting their practice’s work for the ‘What’s Next’ lecture series Jon Lopez and Hikaru Nissanke chose an overview with a difference. Something more than a mere compendium of past projects, but also something that was decidedly not a statement of what they thought architecture should be: ‘It’s not a manifesto’, they insisted. So just what, then, were we being treated to? Well, what OMMX sought to convey was something more abstract – less a kind of work, more a way of working.  Throughout their presentation they emphasised their desire to orchestrate four tensions within architecture simultaneously: Detail and Context, Room and City, Furniture and Building, Routine and Ritual.


But what is so special about this approach? And how might it inform the eventual principles that emerge? In addressing these questions I propose we consider the articulation of the principles or values for a design as just one instance of a much wider question: namely, how we should go about constructing any theory of values – be they moral, political, or architectural?

The traditional response to this question, exemplified in 18th Century works as disparate as Kant’s Groundwork and Bentham’s writings on Utilitarianism, had been to focus on the highest order of abstraction. The hope was that, by thinking about the problem at its most general level we could ‘solve’ it, ideally (as both Kant and Bentham in fact did) by advancing a general formula. But whilst formulae might have been the ideal, in practice the consequence was a formulaic approach to thinking about values – a slavish commitment leading to perverse results in individual cases. Refinements abounded of course – ad hoc amendments to try and save the formulae – but these were unconvincing and, worse still, unprincipled.


It took John Rawls in the 20th Century to recognise that a new method would be required. Rawls suggested that in the construction of any theory of values there are certain considered judgements at the particular level (for instance ‘slavery is wrong’) that we want our general theory to accommodate. And, as Rawls explained, the purpose of theorising was to try and achieve a ‘Reflective Equilibrium’ between our general theory and those particular judgements:


‘In searching for the most favored description of this situation we work from both ends. … We can modify the [theory] … or we can revise our existing judgements … By going back and forth, sometimes altering the [theory], at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a [theory] that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted.’

Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971, Rev. Edn., 1999), p.18.


How, then, does this relate to OMMX’s way of working? Well, in their lecture we saw a preoccupation with moving away from ‘going through the scales’, where we formulate an overall plan of a building at its largest, most abstract scale, and then we simply apply this general formulation as we descend to medium scale

(of individual spaces) and in turn to the smallest scale (of particular elements or details). By contrast OMMX, like Rawls, commit themselves to one or two considered judgements in any design proposal that form the counterpoint (or dare I say antidote) to such linear, unidirectional, general theorising.


And much like Rawls’s considered judgements tended to focus on particular cases, OMMX’s considered judgements focus on particular details or elements that any eventual design should ideally incorporate: It might be a particular material, such as the lacquered veneer employed in their Thames Quay project to evoke the intensity of Roni Horn’s photographic studies of the river. Or it might be a particular visual language, such as the use of corrugation to ornament the interior of an agricultural restoration as a means of linking the interior to the exterior, and in turn to the structure’s origins in the agricultural industry. Or it might be a specific element, such as turning a landing into a balcony, in the hope of in turn transforming the most mundane of daily routines (for instance, climbing the stairs to a bedroom), recalling Le Corbusier’s Maison La Roche.


But, and this is what OMMX intend to be the key takeaway from their presentation, such details or elements must present themselves as integrated into the wider design principles of the building at the inception of a project. It is no good just inserting them after the building has been designed. Instead, they must themselves be integral to the overall design process. In short, the building must present itself as a coherent whole. Or, putting the point another way, it must reflect an equilibrium.


For more information:

Visit OMMX’s website

Watch the OMMX lecture: Settings online