Interview: Tomas Koolhaas

15 Aug 2014

WAN meets Tomas Koolhaas in Los Angeles to discuss his upcoming film: REM

Film is similar to architecture in that it is divisive. Tomas Koolhaas is no stranger to divisive opinion, having already received some outspoken commentary in response to several short clips made public before the official release of REM later this year. The feature-length film will be a consideration of the work of Tomas’ father, Rem Koolhaas.

“I’ve had people commenting that something ‘doesn’t have anything to do with architecture’ when I post shots that aren’t directly of a building or people huddled around in an office making the design for a building,” he muses. “I think that’s a very limited definition of what an architecture film can or should be about but I think many people will see parts of my film and not see the connection, and that’s okay, that’s to be expected.”

As you may gather from this response, Koolhaas’ latest film REM, due to be released later this year or in early 2015, is a move away from the 'sanitised' architectural films we are so often presented with in that the building form is not necessarily the focus. Koolhaas is more interested in the way in which building users interact with the architecture, bringing it to life in their own unique ways.

He explains: “It’s not that I think my concept is superior to that of any existing films, but I think that what I’m doing is, unarguably, very different. You could say where other films have been more focused on technical information, mine is more philosophical. I know that the approach I am taking won’t be to many people’s taste. To a degree that’s always going to be the case when you depart from the expected format of any given genre.”

In advance of the official release, Koolhaas has posted a series of short clips online which give some indication of the work to come. The most touching of these clips focuses on a homeless man who frequents the Seattle Public Library. In the short film, the man considers his personal relationship with the structure and how it impacts his life on a daily basis.

Touching on the wide variety of architectural documentaries circulating at this moment in time, Koolhaas mentions the similarities in perspective between himself and international architectural photographer Iwan Baan, noting that it’s important to consider architecture in a multifaceted, humanising way.

During our conversation Koolhaas compares his approach with the photographic style of Baan, who has known personally for many years: “If we’re sitting somewhere we’ll watch people and see how they’re interacting, so it makes sense that when we go to a building we look at it in that perspective. But also, the photography, the filmmaking, and the discourse about architecture became a bit one-dimensional. It became super top-down and intellectual, super hypothetical. I think in order to break away from that the only thing you can do is bring it back down to earth and bring it back to a more human level.”

Koolhaas explains that he began shooting for the film almost ten years ago when he visited OMA’s CCTV Building, then under construction in Beijing. On visiting the construction site, Koolhaas took some footage of the construction workers and this, in turn, sculpted the rest of the film.

“You can’t know really what you will get before you go anywhere so I always wanted to focus on the human aspect of the architecture because that’s what’s always interesting. When I went to the buildings, you look at the shape and it’s beautiful but after the first impression of beauty, scale and use of space, what really sticks with me is how people use it and how it causes people to interact with the space.”

In taking a passive role in the film and enabling others’ experiences with Rem’s architecture to take centre stage, Koolhaas enables the viewer to watch the architecture come to life from a variety of perspectives. The final product promises to be an enthralling experience, examining the human narratives that run through some of the most exquisite architectural forms in the world.

During our interview, Koolhaas ponders existing architecture documentaries, noting how the media has become ‘really sanitised’. He explains: “REM isn’t just shot like a documentary; it has the feel of a narrative feature film. I keep to my roots as a cinematographer. I don’t want it to seem too sanitised because that’s part of the problem with architecture documentaries and that’s part of my approach - to have it raw.

"Initially, being a professional cinematographer, you lean towards having everything very clean, very beautiful…and I’ve found that actually a lot of the footage that was brutal and a little bit gritty, a bit grimy, and less ‘beautiful’ was the stuff that worked best. 

It is arguable that whilst the film may be titled after Koolhaas’ father, it is in fact an autobiography for the architect’s completed works. We await its release with baited breath.

Interview by Katerina Hojgrova. Words by Sian Disson

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