Filmmaker Tomas Koolhaas has been hard at work on a new documentary that explores architecture from the inside out. Titled REM, the film exposes the human experience of architecture through many of his father Rem Koolhaas' iconic buildings, from The Seattle Public Library to the CCTV building in Beijing.
The trailers and clips so far, which include an interview with Kanye West, reveal a multi-faceted, refreshing look at how buildings are planned, built, and used by the public. The film documents Rem Koolhaas and his company OMA as much as it examines the overlooked and misunderstood aspects of architecture as a medium. A man does parkour throughout Casa De Musica in Portugal, Kanye West talks about working with OMA at Cannes, and a homeless man in Seattle talks about his relationship to the city's library—all of these colorful, intimate scenes are a taste of this highly anticipated film.
Following the news of Rem Koolhaas curating the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014, we caught up with Tomas Koolhaas to learn more about the film and its (fingers crossed) end-of-year release.
Visually I connect most with buildings that shift in appearance from various angles. There's something very cinematic about that effect; it's almost like a slow cross-dissolve transition in film.
Growing up, how did you view your dad's career and what he was doing? Did it feel like a large part of your upbringing?
I think it was [a large part], but I think his massive curiosity (both intellectually and sociologically) influenced me more than his actual building career.
Did you ever think that you'd make a documentary about his life and work? When did you decide to and when did you start?
I always thought I would make a project that explored his work, just because I found many aspects interesting that hadn't been fully explored before. I started working full time on REM about two years ago.
The trailer for REM itself is very powerful. How did you decide to get Chris Lodge running through and interacting with Casa De Musica like this, without a narrator or an overview of the film?
The idea with using the parkour in that building was to fully explore the surfaces in a fluid and visually exciting way. I don't think any other technique would have done that building justice. For example, the room with green rubber spikes—if you just had someone move through that room without interacting with the surfaces it might look like the spikes are rigid, maybe hard plastic. But when you see Chris flip off the wall in slow motion, it reveals the soft texture of the green spikes in a visceral and beautiful way.
Some people criticized the use of parkour in the trailer, suggesting that someone walking through the building would have been better. That's laughable, and luckily those people aren't filmmakers or the audiences would be bored to death. There has also been some confusion regarding the use of parkour in the final cut. Some lazy "critics" who didn't do any research insinuated that my film will be all parkour, other people have wondered why I used parkour in my trailer since my film will not be primarily made up of parkour. To clear this issue up, I will say that parkour will be in the final edit, but it will make up a small percentage of it. Parkour was just one of many tools I used because it was useful to explore one condition.
Sometimes an interview with an inhabitant (like with the homeless man at the Seattle library) was more useful to explore another condition, so I let the building/condition dictate what cinematic tools I used to explore it. It's strange to me that people think in such a black and white way about this, as if the film has to be all parkour or all interviews, as if it cannot be a synthesis of many types of exploration of space and conditions.
Often there are quite simple, practical concerns that still guide a lot of the architect's decisions rather than some lofty, ideological ideas.
What made you turn to Kickstarter for this project's post-production? Was part of it an effort to gauge the public's enthusiasm or make the public feel a part of the film?
It wasn't to gauge enthusiasm but to create a community that had something at stake in the film and would be a part of it long before it was complete. Of course there were also financial and practical concerns. Kickstarter funding allows you greater creative freedom than money from commercial interests; that was important given my non-traditional approach.
Do you have a favorite building or project that your dad has been a part of? If so, why that one in particular?
I think visually I connect most with buildings that shift in appearance from various angles (like CCTV and De Rotterdam). There's something very cinematic about that effect; it's almost like a slow cross-dissolve transition in film.
Your documentary seems like it will definitely approach architecture from its use and interior as much as or more than the exterior, inanimate view. What do you think are peoples' biggest misunderstandings about architecture—whether it be the process, design, funding, or something else?
That's hard to answer briefly, because I think there are so many misconceptions out there. I would say one of the biggest is the idea of ideology, and what role it plays in architecture and the design process. It seems like people believe that the architect "imposes ideology" on the client. No doubt many architectural projects do reflect some kind of ideology—either that of a government, a company, or that of the architect, but I think the idea that architects can "impose" much on their clients is a bit unrealistic.
If you have ever been in meetings between clients and architects (as I have been with many architects, not just Rem), it seems as if the architect is usually justifying or explaining a lot more than imposing anything. I think there is also too much focus on the ideology of building versus the practical concerns. I think that's why it's interesting that Rem has chosen "fundamentals" like the window, door, and ceiling for the Biennale this year. I think it will show people that often there are quite simple, practical concerns that still guide a lot of the architect's decisions rather than some lofty, ideological ideas.
What is the effect, to you, of showing workers in progress on a building? Do you think this is a forgotten part of normal architectural documentation?
I think the effect is to show the process in its true form. I think people have a sanitized idea of how buildings are made. Since buildings today mostly look so modern and are clearly computer aided designs, it's easy to feel as if they are made using giant 3D printers, not cobbled together by guys who sweat, carry rocks and bags of sand, and still smash things with hammers.
It's easy to feel as [buildings] are made using giant 3D printers, not cobbled together by guys who sweat, carry rocks and bags of sand, and still smash things with hammers.
How have you seen architecture most improve or change someone's life? For example, the homeless man's take on the Seattle Library.
I think that was a clear case of architectural decisions changing someone's life for the better. The man I spoke to was a musician, and the choice to include a room full of instruments that he could play made him "feel human" again.
How did you get Kanye West to comment on Koolhaas' legacy?
I don't think Kanye spoke about Rem's legacy specifically. I think what we focused on mostly was how he found working with OMA on the Cannes Pavilion and also the effects of "fame" on a creative person, whether an architect or a rapper.
On Vimeo it says that the Kanye West interview is the "short version." Do you have plans to release the long version?
Not currently. To see that footage you will have to watch the final cut of REM.
How much did the project change from start to finish, in terms of how you originally planned to do it and what took place in the end?
The more I filmed, the more I thought the most interesting and telling stories occurred after the building was built and inhabited/used by people rather than within the walls of OMA.
When do you think the public will be able to see the film?
Hopefully towards the end of this year or early next year. A lot depends on film festival and distributor scheduling, though.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR REM HERE: