The Dutch bad-boy Architect, Rem Koolhaas, is arguably one of the biggest names connected to modern, deconstructivist, architecture and discourse. Coming from a strong lineage of renowned architect grandfather, Dirk Roosenburg, and author-activist father, Anton Koolhaas, Rem Koolhaas, the calculated voice of mischief, aims to become an architect of the globe through the expressive nature of his OMA practice. “REM”, a film shot, produced, and edited by Koolhaas’ LA-based filmmaker-son, Tomas Koolhaas, is a whirlwind of scenes in a period in the time and life- both public and private- of Rem Koolhaas and the work of OMA across drastically changing topographies around the globe. As Tomas told Dezeen, ‘I have an interesting perspective [of Rem] that’s super intimate and hasn’t been shown before’, it prepares you for a film that may have crossed boundaries in all directions- depending on how you would want to look at it.
A stint with Kanye West and The Yeezus Tour, where Kanye wore a mask throughout the tour to de-emphasize the ‘star’ value attributed to a celebrity face, inspired Tomas to explore this concept in his style of film-making for REM, where we hardly see Rem Koolhaas’ face throughout the film. Coupled with the fact that Rem hates a camera being shoved into his face all the time and expounded by Rem’s pace, which left Tomas always catching up with him, familiarises us with the back of Rem’s head and his shoulders. Rem Koolhaas, widely known as a starchitect, is made into part of a grand narrative of his son’s story. In an interview with ArchDaily shortly after the online premiere of the film, Rem revealed that he was skeptical about whether he would be interesting enough to carry the entire film. As you watch the film, you realize that everyone around Rem is looking for a way to sustain the idea that is ‘Rem Koolhaas’, without Rem Koolhaas, not so much as to oust him, but to celebrate him, after his time.
New York City, where it all began for Rem Koolhaas, who moved there in the early ‘70s and produced ‘Delirious New York’ a controversial book meant as a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, where Rem talks at length about ‘Manhattanism’, the theory of creation and functioning of NYC. What better backdrop to start the film which ambitiously wants to portray the human experiences of the work of OMA. Portugal’s Casa da Musica’s sheer grandeur and the activity shown in the opening sequence sets the pace for the film. Tomas brazenly attacks your senses primordially, yet modernizing perspectives from the beginning. Quickly turning into a collection of visual thoughts, the film takes us through the extreme regions where Rem has gone to gain a commission. From the Zen of Japan’s Nexus World Housing, the engineering of France’s Maison à Bordeaux, the stark book-shaped Seattle Central Library, and the 2014 Venice Biennale, everywhere you see Rem in a very relaxed stature (except the Biennale where you see his reaction to a reporter asking him to describe what the visitors will see, hints at his dislike of the fame and star culture of today and yet, he answers the question later as if giving in to the importance of media in our times).
If you are looking for a personal connection with the protagonist, barring a few details like the aircraft he prefers, or the Prada he wears, or that he doesn’t use an iPhone- you won’t find much. Expecting a personal journey, similar to that of Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, where he seeks to find a connection with his dead father Louis Kahn; or a descriptive, cinematic tour of projects, like Arun Khopkar’s Volume Zero: The Work of Charles Correa, would make you the wrong audience for REM. Unlike any architectural documentary, Tomas has compacted the idea of ‘Rem Koolhaas’ through vivid cinematic storytelling. Tomas understands the difficulty in documenting Rem and approaches the subject with a candid quality, which brings out an alluring, mysterious, and characteristically introverted personality.
Being introverted is not new to Rem, as Tomas tells Dezeen, ‘Rem’s a smart guy, he’s a critical guy’. Rem recognizes the nuance of too much or too little publicity. The word “editor” translates to redacteur in Dutch, which when Anglicised, in its most extreme form, means “censorship”. The heavily edited REM focusses on Tomas’ narrative, and also that of OMA’s work in the contrasting climes of the world. Sequences are edited going from the commercial city centers of New York to scenes of the deserts of the Middle East, cutting to Rem swimming in the ocean and back to Rotterdam’s countryside. Accepting this style of a documentary which borders on the styles of fictions like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, relieves the anxiety that builds while expecting documentation of a Starchitect.
The film takes you through a sort of retelling of Rem Koolhaas’ work, in the dynamic film-making style of his son, Tomas. The interviews with users of his buildings, the burden of celebrity carried by Rem, OMA’s struggles to keep the idea of Rem Koolhaas alive when Rem is gone, all under the arching voice of the architect throughout the film, interspersed with his word-thoughts. The film aims too much and delivers short. Keeping in mind the subjective point of view embraced by Tomas towards his dad, it could still have pushed deeper into the psyche of the architect. It generates a lukewarm emotion toward Rem’s school of thought and experiences. If it was not for the extensive media coverage of the film and the actual stance of OMA in world architecture, this film could easily have been missed. That said, parts of the film give us a daring approach to architectural documentary styles and we hope Rem Koolhaas revisits his surrender to documentation, much like his design ideologies.