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Arthouse Films 013: Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect

Director: Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch
Cast: Rem Koolhaas

(Art House Films and Curiously Bright Entertainment; US DVD: 29 Jun 2010)

The architect as paper doll.

The 2007 documentary, Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, essentially begins with the question, “Who is Rem Koolhaas?” While a conventional enough query, directors Markus Heidingsfelder, also the writer, and Min Tesch do not take a conventional approach to answering it. There are some elements of traditional biography in the answer, you learn that Koolhaas’ grandfather was an architect, for example, but for the most part the filmmakers choose to deconstruct, rather than unify, their subject. The opening argument in the film is that the “Rem Koolhaas” the viewer knows, the singular genius of media accounts, especially in America, is a convenient signifier that masks another “Rem Koolhaas”, one who is not singular, but plural, a walking composition of influences, ideas, theories and collaborations.


The documentary unspools a number of influences, but as the film works its way through the architect’s signature buildings, the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, the Casa de Musica in Porto, Portugal, the Seattle Public Library in the US, three emerge as having a particular importance to understanding how Rem Koolhaas works.


The first is writing. Before he was an architect, Koolhaas, born in Rotterdam in 1944, was a lifestyle reporter. The documentary suggests that this not only immersed Koolhaas in broader cultural matters, but the practice of writing became a model for how he approaches the making of architecture, as a process of constructing stories or narratives for clients and users. Koolhaas himself compares his creative process to script writing.


The film also presents the argument that Koolhaas’ facility with language, particularly with playing with language, has been critical to his practice. One key example of this is the creation of AMO (Architectuur Metropolitaanse Officie), the companion think tank to Koolhaas’ architecture practice, OMA (Office of Metropolitan Architecture). Framing thinking as the flipside to ‘actual’ architecture allows Koolhaas and his collaborators to literally and figuratively buy time for theorizing and brainstorming. As one of his partners points out in the documentary, this is something that architects have to do anyways, but creating a twin office expressly for the thinking piece makes it seem novel, and that it has value on its own. The mirroring of OMA and AMO projects this sense of novelty.


The second is cinema. Also before he was an architect, Koolhaas belonged to a filmmaking collective that included future action director Jan de Bont (Speed, 1994 and Twister, 1996). This partly explains the scriptwriting analogy, but Koolhaas’ buildings are easily understood in cinematic terms. Their unusual boxy shapes, which defy easy categorization as modernist or post-modernist, retro or futuristic, make for striking additions to the urban landscapes in which they have been placed, precisely the kinds of buildings that filmmakers like to have for establishing shots of cities. They are visual striking, memorable, and inspire curiosity in viewers.


The interior experience of walking through a Koolhaas structure, an experience rarely suggested by the view from the outside, is also fruitfully compared to film in the documentary. His buildings are described at one point in the film as following a rhythm of action and cut. Walkways, as in the Berlin embassy, that allow users to ‘pan’ the surrounding city, or windows and cut outs that frame views of other urban landmarks, a noted feature of the Casa de Musica, are also stopped or ‘cut’ by walls and barriers, setting up a transition to the next ‘scene’.


Third is situationism, an artistic and political movement that was en vogue in the late-‘60s. Situationists are concerned with breaking up the normal rhythms of life in advanced capitalist cultures. Their activism involves creating unique ‘situations’ wherein people can exercise more basic desires for freedom and play, as opposed to being driven by the dictates of mass consumerism.


The documentary suggests that Koolhaas’ journalistic encounter with the situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys was crucial to moving him into architecture. The film cites the artist’s idea of the ‘enclosed city’, an interior urban landscape that minimizes private space and maximizes the public, allowing for all matter of unstructured and unregulated encounters, as a key idea for Koolhaas, and one that can be seen in the construction of OMA projects. The structures surveyed in Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Arhitect seem to be almost literally built as containers for human activity, partly segmented into private or dedicated space, but which also always provide generous zones for the mixing of peoples and uses. Such buildings are miniature enclosed cities.


In the film, of course, Rem Koolhaas is examined as being the product of these intertwining influences, but the filmmakers and their informants clearly find room for the individual as unique synthesizer of contributions and influences and Koolhaas is that individual at OMA and AMO. The idea of the architect as cultural assemblage or construction is punctuated by the use of paper doll style animations that give Koolhaas a variety of guises and poses.


The New Video DVD of Rem Koolhaas: Kind of Architect comes with two extras, an eleven minute aerial ‘tour’ of the Casa de Musica, and an extended interview with Koolhaas. While modest, they are both substantive companions to the film.


Not surprisingly, the documentary can veer towards being more glib than clever, particularly in the male and female voiceover duets, which, whether meant to be sincere or ironic, sound a little too knowing or in on the joke to be taken seriously. The film is stronger when building from interviews with collaborators, other architects, and art historians. The again maybe that kind of narrative tension is perfect for catching the Rem Koolhaas that Heidingsfedler and Tesch want to re-present.

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Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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