"OMA’s method is systematically not having a system"

Tomas Koolhaas — on the film Rem, a portrait of his father and a great architect.

Tomas Koolhaas / photo: Facebook

The Russian premiere of the film Rem took place at Strelka on May 21st. Rem is a movie about the architect Rem Koolhaas, the founder of the OMA studio and AMO research centre, which was shot by his son Tomas. The footage is accompanied by Rem’s thoughts about contemporary architecture and how to work within it in times of globalization. All kinds of people who use buildings by OMA, from French intellectuals to homeless people from Seattle, talk about what Koolhaas’s projects mean to them. Strelka Magazine interviewed Tomas Koolhaas on how to make a film about an architect and a father, while showing OMA’s projects from a new perspective.

The following is from the interview with Tomas Koolhaas

On how to talk about architecture

Screenshot from the film Rem

In the film, the architectural details of Rem Koolhaas’s projects are revealed through purely visual methods. This is not because language and thinking in architecture cannot adequately convey the architectural. It has already been explained in lots of films and books before, and that kind of exploration doesn’t lend itself to making a movie really cinematic. On the other hand, the film has narratives. These are the personal experience of making and using architecture. They have not been seen before and make for a more evocative and visually compelling picture.

On the radical focus on architecture

Screenshot from the film Rem

If one takes the camera as a substitute for the human gaze, there is no sense in showing the viewers what they can see themselves. People are familiar with the remote, intellectual, and cold perspective of most architectural films. I wanted to demonstrate a different perspective, and that is why I shot OMA’s projects from a different point of view. In the film, there are episodes in which the library in Seattle is used by homeless people, and the space of Casa de Musica in Porto is explored by a traceur. Showing homeless people’s perception was important, because this is a point of view of those who are usually ignored by architecture or removed from it. It is not only unique, but is also much more about immediate needs, rather than lofty intellectual ideas. The parkour was another different perspective, though a less raw one. It was a more whimsical exploration of the space that only this practice can give us, viscerally revealing the textures and scale of the space by physically interacting with each surface.

On those who live and work in Koolhaas’s buildings

Screenshot from the film Rem

While shooting the film, I often spoke with people who use buildings by Rem Koolhaas. One common thread in talking with them was that they felt the projects were not made to be easy. Instead, the buildings challenge the user in some way. For example, both Louise Lemoine and Laure Boudet, who live in a house by Koolhaas in Bordeaux, said that they felt they had to “live up to their house”, and that they subsequently felt a need to be more socially and intellectually adventurous as a result.

On OMA’s method

Screenshot from the film Rem

In the film, Rem Koolhaas denies that OMA has any kind of universal method of work in architecture. In fact, there is neither anything common to all their buildings, nor a certain way of designing that Rem and OMA use every time. If there is a common thread, it is that they begin from scratch each time and question everything afresh. I think we could say that OMA’s method is systematically not having a system, but rather figuring out a new one for every project.

On working with local contexts

Rem Koolhaas has a different approach to the idea of globalization, and before working on any project he thoroughly studies the local context. That also was my method while shooting the film. In every location, I spent days being immersed to the point where the local people and inhabitants got used to me and no longer paid any attention to the filming. The footage also conveys Rem’s ideas that were directly inspired by the context. For example, in the desert his narration acquired more esoteric and philosophical connotations, which were inspired by the potent nothingness of the desert.

On the personal portrait of Rem Koolhaas

In the case of Rem, who spends so much time working, you cannot separate personal aspects from professional ones. Even if he’s walking down a quiet country lane alone, he seems to be thinking about things that directly or indirectly relate to his work or add to his understanding of the world. Then, these things shape his entire philosophy and the way he works. That’s why I like the last section of the film, where he talks directly about how being in these various conditions, which are far removed from the office, affect the way he perceives, and therefore, the way he builds.

On the most cinematic OMA projects

Screenshot from the film Rem

It’s hard to choose the most cinematically electrifying project by OMA. For me as a cinematographer, Casa de Musica in Porto was the most intriguing. But from the narrative point of view, the library in Seattle was the most challenging. There is so much more at stake for the homeless users of the building than for the rest of the population, so there was a level of emotion and drama that wasn’t present elsewhere.

Author: Sergey Babkin
Translation: Philipp Kachalin