One of the more in-depth and personal explorations into the work of architect and curator of the next Venice Architecture Biennale Rem Koolhaas may likely be the upcoming documentary “REM,” which, due out later this year, has been richly detailed by the Pritzker-winning design star's son, Dutch filmmaker Tomas Koolhaas. Over the course of the project, Tomas Koolhaas has focused on shooting life in and around some of his father’s studio OMA’s most iconic buildings, ranging from the construction site of the ambitious CCTV headquarters in Beijing, to Rem’s “de Rotterdam” vertical city project in the Netherlands, to Seattle’s Central library, which has become a much praised example of aesthetically and practically pleasing public architecture since its completion in 2004.
As clips and rough cuts that the younger Koolhaas has recently published online reveal, his aim was rather different from more boilerplate versions of an architectural documentary — with long shots of workers and people going about their everyday lives about these impressive structures, they present the buildings within their urban context from development through institution. BLOUIN ARTINFO Germany spoke with Tomas Koolhaas about his approach as well as his view on his father’s work , and where Koolhaas drew inspiration for his film.
See a rough cut from “REM” below the interview.
Could you tell us when and why you decided to make this documentary?
I’ve been in the unique position of growing up around Rem’s work, so the idea has been developing for a long time, ever since I was a kid, really. I saw many fascinating stories occurring in and around his buildings. As I got older, I realized that although there were many projects (films, books, etc.) that had been made about Rem, none of these stories were being included in those works. I felt that a film exploring these narratives would add something unique to people’s understanding of him and his buildings.
Did you have any role models or films in mind, when you started planning your documentary?
My concept was inspired primarily by things I’ve seen and experienced at the buildings rather than any other films. However, since I started making “REM,” I’ve seen two documentaries that happened to use a similar approach, even though their subject matter is vastly different. “Babies” and “The Carter” are both documentaries that do not use “interviews” or a narrator. They follow their protagonist(s) in a more organic manner. I have been using a similar approach in my film as much as possible.
In contrast to filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary about his father Louis’ work, you have said that your project is not about a father-son relationship, but about film and architecture; your work and your father’s work. How does the filmmaker Tomas Koolhaas see the architect Rem?
For me as a filmmaker, the thing that stands out most about Rem as an architect is his attention to function and usage. A pretty structure offers you a few nice camera angles, but ultimately, to make a compelling film there needs to be at least one meaningful narrative. I’m lucky as a filmmaker in that Rem has already taken these kinds of interactions, experiences, narratives into account in his designs, writings and theories. When making a film about him it’s easy to incorporate all of the sociological, cultural and even political conditions surrounding the buildings because he has already discussed and explored these in one way or another.
Did this film change your perception of your father and of his work? What perspective did you have on it before and after shooting?
Mostly my perception of the buildings and their surrounding context changed during the filming process. When I went to China for the first time I expected to see miserable workers trudging along, being shouted at by brutal foremen. I expected to have a lot of trouble filming too. I thought I would need forms double- and triple-stamped with the communist seal to even get onto the site with a camera. What I found in reality was the exact opposite. I didn’t even need to fill out a single form, and once on site I was literally left to my own devices with no one watching or supervising me. I could film wherever I wanted, for as long as I wanted. I spent a lot of time alone with the construction workers. What I saw surprised me. They seemed to have very little supervision and were remarkably jovial.
From what one can see already, your film is very interested in the people and the lives in and around the featured buildings. You have said in previous interviews that you miss this practical, every day human aspect in architecture documentaries. Could you elaborate?
Most architecture films focus only on the hyper-intellectual elements of architecture, and almost completely ignore the fact that these buildings are, or will be, inhabited and used by people, and that ultimately this is what gives them a purpose and meaning greater than that of a mere sculpture.
Architecture docs are generally made up almost entirely of talking head interviews, renderings, animations and a few shots of empty buildings. This doesn’t give the audience any kind of feel for the human experience of how it was built and what it’s like to use it every day or live in its shadow. For me, hyper-intellectual information is helpful in understanding architecture but is only one part of the puzzle. A lecture is a good place to get that kind of information, whereas a film should go deeper, and be more compelling visually and emotionally.
What impressed you, when shooting?
I was impressed by the construction workers, not just at CCTV but also at De Rotterdam. It’s strange to me that recent architecture films don’t show the construction phase and the workers that execute it. They almost make the audience feel as if the building is designed and then spat out of a 3D printer. I found the buildings themselves even more impressive after filming the construction at close quarters, especially CCTV. Many of the tools I saw the workers at CCTV use were handmade. To build a structure of such complexity using those tools and techniques is incredibly impressive.
Has your father seen the footage, and did your perspective provide him with new insights on his work?
He’s seen some footage. He liked what he’s seen so far. I think it’s enjoyable for him to finally see aspects of his work that he’s always found very relevant and interesting being explored on film.
Which is your favorite scene in the film?
It’s hard to say, because I think all of the footage I’ve shot is special in different ways. I think the most poignant for me personally is the footage and interview I shot with the homeless man in the Seattle library. I don’t think anyone can talk about that library in a more meaningful or compelling way than a man who spends every single day there and who, without the free Internet the library provides, would be completely unable to reach out to the outside world and have any chance of “getting back on his feet” as he put it.
See a rough cut clip from Tomas Koolhaas’ documentary “REM” below. For more clips, click here.