Like Nathaniel Kahn, Tomas Koolhaas has made a film about his father, the celebrated architect, but this is no intimate family portrait – Rem himself gets only a supporting role. Instead, Tomas turns his lens on the buildings themselves and the lives taking place in and around them
On the poshest stretch of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, couture boutiques line up in a solid row of glass, concrete and metal, each towering doorway guarded by a sharply dressed greeter. Occupying the middle of the block is Prada’s Epicenter store, designed by Rem Koolhaas in 2004. While the facade has been altered significantly from the original design, the interior remains his, from the perforated lime green resin lining the walls to the motion-detecting glass, which frosts opaque to offer privacy. I met Koolhaas’s son Tomas here on a hot spring afternoon, and as we walked through the pristine store I admired the exquisite materials, from the sumptuous dark wood staircase to the brushed metal banister. They seemed like difficult materials to keep clean, which reminded me, naturally, of Koolhaas Houselife (2008), the documentary that focused on the daily tasks of the housekeeper in Koolhaas’s Maison Bordeaux in south-west France.
Documentaries were on the mind, as Tomas has been working on a feature-length film about his father. Titled Rem, it will be released at the end of 2013 and will add not only to the growing body of films about Koolhaas, but also to the curious genre of father-child documentaries, Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect (2003) being the most obvious example. However, Tomas’s intentions are quite different to Kahn’s. “No one wants to hear about me,” he says. “I’m not interested in examining our relationship, or of putting myself in the film at all.” In fact, even his father plays a slightly peripheral role.
Based in Los Angeles, Tomas has been criss-crossing the globe to document his father’s buildings. But we won’t hear the story of Koolhaas’s life and career trajectory, or watch urbane experts analyse his work and theoretical stances. Instead, the film’s focus will be on the lives of the buildings themselves.
“I always thought it was a shame that people were shoved out of the frame,” he says. “I grew up around architects, so I’ve heard a lot of the very intellectual rationalisations behind design choices and I think that’s relevant to architectural discourse. But just focusing on that, which a lot of people do, and a lot of films do, makes everything very one-dimensional.”
Having spent so much time on site at his father’s buildings, Tomas recalls being jarred by how differently they were ultimately portrayed in photographs and films. “It was just empty,” he recalls. “I saw film crews at the Seattle Library saying, ‘Get these homeless people out of the shot,’ or telling workers, ‘Quick, can you clear the frame?’ I thought it was strange, almost like they were trying to film the building as if it was just a sculpture, purposefully devoid of the human aspect and human stories. But I always thought those things were the most interesting.”
Rem will offer a visceral experience of Koolhaas’s buildings, zooming in on details and capturing their imposing forms from afar. But it will also linger on the individuals who construct and use the buildings, trying to convey how this architecture affects their daily lives. In the short teasers released so far, moody, slow-motion shots depict the colourful Beijing street life unfolding below the futuristic towers of the CCTV headquarters, or the focused construction workers spreading concrete at the De Rotterdam complex. One poignant clip features a homeless man talking about spending time in the Seattle Library, which has been a pivotal shelter and sanctuary. “The homeless man who comes into a building every single day is going to have a much better understanding of its reality than any sort of rendering or animation can give,” Tomas says.
The cinematic influences for Rem are, he admits, pretty wide-ranging. He cites the documentaries Babies (2010), which follows a year in the lives of four babies from around the world, and The Carter (2009), about the rapper Lil’ Wayne. These two films resist the conventional narration and interview format and emphasise freer visual storytelling. Tomas’s aim for Rem is similar. It will unite Koolhaas’s geographically scattered buildings not chronologically or thematically, or by dissecting the psyche of their designer, but by exposing their human component in an atmospheric, experiential style.
Rem Koolhaas has said, “The interesting thing about architecture is that no matter how pretentious or unpretentious it is, it is always used.” Tomas tells me that his angle for Rem rose out of a lifetime of discussions with his father, but that he was galvanised, in part, by an early visit to the construction site of CCTV. There, he saw the workers wielding crude handmade tools for a project of unparalleled complexity. “They literally cut their own tools out of sheet metal,” he says. He felt that showing this intersection of extremely high-tech engineering and rustic process was a crucial part of the building’s story. After watching some casual footage he had shot of the workers, he found it more compelling than any he had seen taken of his father’s buildings, because of its cultural and human context.
“There are so many interweaving narratives,” notes Tomas, recounting the cascade of political and economic crises that are “inextricably caught up” in his father’s recent projects, from the spike in homelessness in the US to stalled projects in Dubai. “I could make a movie about each one of these buildings, or about just one construction worker,” he says. His interest in the broader socio political stage and its nameless players suggests a deliberate lean away from the hero-worship of much popular architectural discourse. In this sense, then, it’s fitting to name the film Rem, bringing the larger-than-life architect down to a more human level.
Storytelling also runs in the family; Rem Koolhaas had a brief dalliance in film in the 1960s. “If you listen to how he talks about his architecture, he uses the word ‘scenario’ a lot, which means script in Dutch,” Tomas says. As for this film, Tomas had the idea for years, but “needed to wait until I had the best possible concept and could prove I was the best possible person to do it before I approached my father,” he says, explaining his years working in construction, attending film school and doing cinematography. “It’s kind of a no-brainer if you go to film school and your dad is Rem. But he’s not the type of person who will let you make a film about him just because you’re his son.” (Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to come from a remarkably collaborative family. Tomas’s mother, the artist Madelon Vriesendorp – Icon 120 – co-founded OMA with Koolhaas in the early 1970s, and she has produced books and an exhibit with her daughter Charlie, a photographer whose biography notably states that she “focuses her work on cities, but only as a backdrop for their inhabitants”.)
The Rodeo Drive Prada store has not made it into Rem, but Tomas says it still might. Walking around its sleek, imposing atmosphere with those glass privacy walls that can conveniently veil celebrities, I would agree with his take. The building is intriguing, but the stories reside in the wary employees standing there all day long, the sneaker clad tourists who have come just to look, or the moneyed older women awash in heavy perfume. Without them, the building is just sculpture.
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The De Rotterdam site is captured in moody, slow-motion sequences