In the five years since “Rem” was announced, the same question has hung in the air: How would Tomas Koolhaas’ study of his father fare against “My Architect,” Nathaniel Kahn’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about his late father, Louis?
The comparison is, perhaps, a little unfair. The two films are very different vessels set on very different courses. For one, Koolhaas senior is alive and well, philosophizing for nearly all 114 minutes of his son’s documentary.
Shot over four years, “Rem” follows the architect to hive-like Manhattan, smog-filled Beijing, arid Middle Eastern desert and agrarian Switzerland.
Rather than guide us through his projects, Rem speaks to their wider themes in quasi-narration, sourced from conversations between father and son. There were no interviews per se, Tomas tells CNN, “more an organic flow of philosophical ideas.”
If it’s to be thought of a visual manifesto, “Rem” is a fuzzy one. The film may have you searching for a copy of Rem’s seminal S,M,L,XL to seek out the depths left unexplored.
Part of the issue might be that Rem is, as his CV suggests, an extremely busy man. In the first half of the documentary we see the architect consulting with project managers and in conversation with OMA partners. The camera captures these moments, but the viewer is frozen out of the discussion, separated by a glass wall or a long distance. The minutiae of Rem’s craft are veiled, mediated by a detached voiceover relaying his brand of urbanism.
‘A building has at least two lives’
We do, however, get fleeting glimpses of a candid Rem. Dipping beneath the philosophy, we find moments of doubt. Rem, a man who has orchestrated his own life – like his buildings – with precision, was taken aback by the 2014 Venice Biennale, for example, “overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of people and questions” that arose from his curatorship.
“It was wonderful to see that the thing seemed to work,” he reflects, his voice sounding a touch – and touchingly – surprised.
Elsewhere the architect admits “I cringe every time I hear that (OMA) work with a certain pattern or method,” and that “any suggestion that there is a stable pattern (in OMA’s working process) is almost offensive.”
Accordingly you can forgive the film for feeling fragmented at times, as it jumps from wildly different buildings with equally different functions.
What binds them together – just about – is the exploration of an aphorism provided by Rem: “A building has at least two lives,” he says, “the one imagined by its maker and the life it lives afterward – and they are never the same.”
The same can be said of films. Koolhaas junior’s documentary finally premiered at last month’s Venice Film Festival. However, it still remains to be seen what life “Rem” will lead now that its long gestation is over.