Tomas Koolhaas is not an easy man to catch up with. He is currently putting the finishing touches on one of the most anticipated architectural documentaries in recent memory. With the film set fot release next year, AN contributor Guy Horton snagged the director for an interview. Titled simply REM, the documentary tells the stories of some of the most famous buildings that the filmmaker’s father, Remment Lucas Koolhaas, designed.
The stories are those of the users in the communities where the buildings exist. Viewers and fans of the famous Dutch architectural theorist—and Harvard professor, and Pritzker Prize winner, and one of Time magazine’s “most influential people”—should not expect words from Rem about his design philosophy or his particular programmatic approach to, say, CCTV.
Instead, they’ll meet the migrant construction workers who built that headquarters for China Central Television; they’ll hear what it is that those living in its shadow think.
While the film presents the lives of people who interact with the architecture, it also hints at the life of the architect himself. Rem is off-center, out of focus. All we have to go on are little scenes, facial expressions, his hard hat rolling around on the roof as he squints through the haze of Beijing. We catch little glimpses of him exploring the steel skeleton of the structure at night, watching the blue flashes of welding.
The Architect's Newspaper: You once said how Rem isn't really into nepotism and that you really had to sell him on being a part of this. How did that play out? Were there any conditions or did you have total freedom to tell any story you wanted? Was he shy or wary about being on film?
Tomas Koolhaas: Rem didn’t make his involvement conditional in any way. He isn’t trying to micromanage the process. He doesn’t give editorial input or have any say in how the film is made. But I had to come up with a concept that was different enough that it was worth his time. He is insanely busy, so for him to invest the kind of time and energy I needed to make this film work, he had to be sure it was worthwhile. There have been many films about, and interviews with, him, so I had to prove that there was going to be new ground covered.
Was the angle always going to be how people interacted with the buildings, or is this something that evolved as you became more engaged with the architecture during the filming?
My concept has always been more focused on human interaction with the work, just because I find that more interesting, and it’s the least explored aspect. But the concept has of course evolved during shooting. For example, my experience shooting with the workers at CCTV definitely caused me to focus more on their story, not just the users post-occupancy.
Did you ever want to be an architect? Did your father influence you either for or against? Were you always into filmmaking or have you tried your hand at other pursuits?
I never wanted to be an architect. I would say that although Rem never said, “Don’t ever become an architect!” I think what I saw of his career would have been enough to put me off, even if I had wanted to.
I think in general people have a misconception about architects. They think that architects are way more in control of their own destinies than they actually are. I read articles and comments online; people seem to think Rem travels around the world imposing his ideology on naïve clients, tricking them into aggrandizing his ego with every building. If he had that much control, his life and job would be quite easy, but he doesn’t. He ultimately has to please the client, and in many cases the client isn’t one person but a board, a government, a panel of experts, etc. I think it’s almost impossible to impose that much of an ideology or philosophy on people when your ideas are being filtered through a whole group that you have to answer to. I think it can be a pretty brutal and sometimes humiliating profession. Because I saw that reality from a young age, [the profession] never appealed to me.
I myself have done many different types of work. I’ve worked construction, as a photographer’s assistant, at MTV (when they still showed music videos), and of course many roles within film, from the lighting department to directing.
What was it like growing up with Rem?
Let’s just say it wasn’t conventional. Rem doesn’t think like most people, and neither do I. That’s not a coincidence. I was always encouraged to think for myself.
As a filmmaker, which directors do you consider to be most influential in shaping your vision? Did you approach this film with a particular vision, or style of shooting, in mind, or did the architecture and how it was being used override this?
I don’t think the work of any one director influenced my style for this film. My approach was dictated by the needs of this project. I think more so than anything I wanted to avoid how other directors had handled documentaries, particularly architectural documentaries, in the past. I wanted to avoid making a film full of talking–head interviews and shots of empty buildings. It’s important to me that my film appeals to people other than architects and architecture students. I think most architecture docs are so hyper-intellectual and full of dense architectural jargon that no one outside of the field stands much chance of staying engaged for a whole 120 minutes or so.
Did you ever encounter people who were critical of the architecture, as in genuine social opposition?
Honestly, no. There’s a lot of hostility online toward Rem and his buildings, but when I went to them in person, everyone tended to be quite happy with their effect and how they work. A few people in China said CCTV looked like a pair of large pants but that was as deep as their critique went.
Were there any unexpected implications of this kind of architecture you discovered along the way? Has the process changed how you view the built environment at all?
I don’t think like an architect, so I’ve never really thought about buildings in a schematic or hyper-intellectual way. I’ve always noticed the function more than anything else. For me the occupants are what makes a building so interesting. Without occupants, there is no story, it is no more than an aesthetic form—just a sculpture. I wasn’t really surprised by the social or cultural impacts of the buildings on a macro level. The surroundings of any building are made up of hundreds, thousands, even millions of people and various buildings all with their own different goals and functions. How can you come up with one overall answer as to how a building relates to or affects that? Especially when people haven’t even been to the site in person and spoken to anyone around it. I’ve done that at every building I shot, and instead of trying to come up with one sweeping view of how it relates to its context, I found it interesting to see the micro-level, the effects it had on individual people. What surprised me, if anything, was the extent of the building’s ability to affect one person’s life. For me the homeless man in the Seattle Public Library was one powerful example. He was a “songwriter,” and he told me that one of the only things that gives him hope for the future is being able to play in the musical instrument room in the library.
What does Rem think of the film so far?
The film isn’t finished, so he doesn’t have a response to it as a whole. I don’t think he has seen all of the short teasers either. I mostly just show him unedited rushes. He’s been enthusiastic about what I’ve shown him because it’s unlike everything that has been shot before. I think he’s excited about people experiencing aspects of his work that have always been important to him but haven’t been explored very much by others.
For you, which projects/environments are the most compelling?
I think they were all compelling in different ways. Filming the homeless in the Seattle library was probably the most moving, but being in China and filming CCTV and the surrounding environment was like being in another world more than another country. Spending time there and really capturing “everyday life” as it occurred was fascinating to me, and something I’d never seen in any documentary, architectural or otherwise.
Any ideas for the next film?
Not sure. I have many potential projects; some narrative, some documentary. Whichever one I end up doing first, it will be very different from REM but will no doubt also focus on compelling human stories. Whether they take place in one building, one country, or even in the future or past, that’s always the common thread.