The first thing one notices of Tomas Koolhaas's newest short film—really a clip, taken from Rem, his full length feature about his father—is the conspicuous absence of our central protagonist. Apart from a brief glimpse of Rem (in hard hat) surfacing from the depths of OMA's on-going 'De Rotterdam' project to survey the prospective horizon, the architect is entirely missing from the proceedings. Instead, Koolhaas the filmmaker chooses to frame the toil of the complex's builders in an effort to capture the "raw condition[s]" of the construction site—articulated here as both gritty work (concrete pouring, paving, spraying) and the kinship that forms from shared back-breaking labor.
The clip juxtaposes the moody, yet frank footage against a frenetic score of wheezy syncopated beats, which accurately conveys the electric staccato of the building site while muting all of its unfocused clamor. Taken together with the previous two snippets Koolhaas has released, it's clear that the polished production and pointed critique of the finished film will be a far cry from the quiet, sentimental poignancy associated with the architect-"biodoc", as best exemplified by Nathanial Kahn's My Architect. Needless to say, we're excited.
Architizer caught up with Tomas Koolhaas to ask him about the project and what it's like to accompany his father to work.
De Rotterdam complex; Rendering: OMA
De Rotterdam complex under construction
How long have you been working on the film? What pushed you to embark on this cinematic project?
The idea existed before I even went to film school. Every time I went to Rem's buildings, I saw great shots and compelling narratives all around me. It was only in film school that I learned how to translate those abstract ideas into an actual film plan. It took many years after that until I had gained enough filmmaking experience and solidified a water-tight concept that I felt comfortable going to Rem with it. I knew I wasn't going to get a free pass from him, I knew I would have to a have a better idea than anyone else because I was his son, not vice versa. Rem doesn't make choices based on nepotism, if somone else had come up with a better concept they would be making the film instead of me. It took about 10 years of shooting other projects, writing and reworking the concept for me to feel ready to take this on both professionally and personally. It's only been in the last year that I have been working full time on the documentary.
CCTV tower, Bejing; Photo: Tomas Koolhaas via his Facebook
From the top of CCTV, looking down at its landscaped grounds; Photo: Tomas Koolhaas
One thing I really like about the footage so far is the power of the architectural photography. How did your previous work prepare you for filming buildings?
I think my strength in shooting architecture is that I don't think like an architect. I think the reason why almost all architecture footage/photography is so similar is that the people who shoot buildings are to some degree architects or hardcore architecture fanatics. That perspective, although often good-looking, tends to be very sterile and usually devoid of life.
Rem Koolhaas, on construction site of 'De Rotterdam'
Construction workers building 'De Rotterdam'
The footage thus far explores the inner politics, potential conflicts, and experiences tied up with the act of building. Add to this your relationship with your father, and you have a intricate mix of large and small scale "problems". How do you think your accompanying your father on the construction site(s) informed your overall view of the structure?
Of course, being with Rem on the sites changes everything. It adds a whole new narrative: how he reacts to the building, how the workers react to him, how the clients react to him, etc.. It's always interesting to capture that, but I also like to shoot without Rem at each location because then I can capture a more raw condition.
How do you think the buildings have been perceived/received by the public? From the piece about the homeless man and the Seattle Public Library, it's clear that you're interested in not just the aesthetics of a building but also of its consequence to its social and public contexts.
I think each building has been received/perceived differently, but I think it's clear that the way it has been received is moreso down to its social consequence/effect than the aesthetic form. If CCTV looked like the Seattle library and vice versa, I think people reactions to them would still be the same. The Seattle library is a public building in a liberal American state that provides part-time shelter to many homeless. On the other hand, while CCTV has some public components, it is the headquarters of a company that is part of a government that most people in the west consider "oppressive". It's to be expected then that Seattle has generally been very warmly received while Rem has received some incredibly harsh criticism for CCTV.
Given your familiarity with your father's work and your own architectural knowledge and experiences, how should the field proceed or in what ways should/can it change?
I should say that I am not an architect so probably not qualified to say if and how the field should change. I will say, however, that in the course of making my film, I definitely noticed that there has been a shift, not only in the representation of buildings but in the way they are designed. The market economy has clearly changed architecture. It used to be the case that the architect had to think much more about the function of a building and how it would serve the public than sending a message with its design. It seems that increasingly the architect has had to cater to private interests and therefore has had to become almost a caricature of themself, becoming a brand almost, with an iconic style that is immediately recognizable (like a logo).
This shift is not limited to the design but also the representation of architecture. The wolverines are a good example, there have been very few examples of the men who built a recent building becoming a part of that building's symbology and identity. The architect himself becomes the star of the show and his design is shown devoid of workers or inhabitants like some iconic sculpture. Little attention is paid to how the public interact with it once it is built. I think you could say these shifts are negative. In general a celebrity-worshipping culture seems to be an unhealthy movement, but for now it's not important for me to decide whether it's positive or negative but merely to explore these shifts in the film.