After a four-year journey filming Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas across the world, Tomas Koolhaas has made a new film about his father titled Rem. The documentary offers a close-up of the architect just before his Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibit next year, "Countryside: Future of the World," a major shift in focus for the urbanist. Not since Nathaniel Kahn's 2003 documentary, My Architect, about the work of Louis Kahn, has there been a father-and-son documentary about architecture. But this is a different kind of documentary. In his directorial debut, the younger Koolhaas opted not to be in the film. He wanted the subject to speak for himself. Plus, as Rem, founding partner of global-powerhouse firm OMA, reminds the viewer, unlike Kahn, this architect is very much alive.
“Part of the reason [the documentary] worked out is I gave Tomas complete carte blanche,” the architect says from Amsterdam, where he primarily lives and works. “To the point I didn’t see the film before it came out [at the Venice Film Festival]. The outcome was worth taking the risk.” Tomas stays off camera, rather than narrating the piece or interviewing his father, because he felt a documentary based on the father-son dynamic would be the least interesting angle.
“I wanted it to be very much first person and stream of consciousness. I wanted the viewer to get inside Rem’s head and inside the lives of these buildings, rather than have someone tell them these things,” Tomas says.
According to the architect, his director son revealed authentic moments of peace and chaos in the architect’s life.
“What is really interesting is all the gradation between serenity and stress that are apparent in this film. Tomas captures the stress of the [Venice] Biennale to the serenity of the desert,” Rem says. The film explores the human aspects and lives of Rem’s buildings, his relationship to celebrity, and the radical changes he observes happening in the countryside, which the filmmaker notes is one of his favorite themes in the film.
“There are many shots in the film where Rem is having a stare down with cows—to see him in nature and a pastoral Dutch condition is funny,” Tomas says. “It’s very unusual for someone who’s built their work in cities most of their career to turn to this.” A renowned urbanist, Rem has influenced architectural landscapes in New York, China, and Africa. His work now turns to the countryside with his exhibition at the Guggenheim that opens in the fall of 2019, a collaboration with his office, OMA, and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. This will be the architect’s first exhibit at the Guggenheim since he wrote his manifesto, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, in 1978.
Countryside: Future of the World will focus on the effects of technology, global warming, and politics on rural areas. The architect studied 12 to 15 rural areas across the world and will illuminate various developments through mixed media, including film, documents, and paintings.
“I think there’s an enormous apocalyptic quality, but it’s not all bad. Simply, [the show] says, ‘Pay attention to the countryside.’ It’s definitely not a negative show. It’s saying, ‘Be aware,’” Rem says.
Meanwhile, Tomas admires his father’s ability to not stay on one linear trajectory. "At the time he wrote Delirious, New York had been written off. The same way right now, the countryside has almost been written off. That’s very unique to Rem. He’s willing to radically shift his perspective even if it contradicts what he’s been doing,” Tomas says. “Having a father who has that kind of life and who also includes you in that kind of life…I think is massively beneficial.”