PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect

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.

Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect

Director: Markus Heidingsfelder and Min Tesch
Cast: Rem Koolhaas
Length: 97 minutes
Studio: Art House Films and Curiously Bright Entertainment
Year: 2007
Distributor: New Video
MPAA Rating: NR
Release Date: 2010-06-29

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.