Filmmaker Tomas Koolhaas speaks to Glass to reveal how architecture relates to the audience
An individualistic attitude has pervaded deep into cultural representation, and architecture has embodied this with increasingly frequent iconic buildings, the most notable of late being London's Shard standing tallest in Europe at 310m. Importance continues to be placed on architecture's iconicity, yet the significance of such architecture is being questioned. How might a building, such as The Shard, be understood beyond its symbolism of modernity and financial dynamism? There is the hope that our most celebrated buildings stand for more than merely their image.
Perhaps it is then ironic that we find a fresh perspective of architecture from Tomas Koolhaas, a filmmaker whose discipline is centered around the use of imagery. Tomas, son of the architect Rem Koolhaas (who studied in the Film and Television Academy in Amsterdam before becoming an architect), was born in London and worked there on a number of media related projects ranging from a set designer, to the assistant of the head of MTV UK. Having decided to move to the cinematic side of media, Tomas then studied film at the Los Angeles Film School, graduating with a major in cinematography. Having spent ten years working as a cinematographer, Tomas recently turned his focus towards directing, and has completed work ranging from documentaries to narrative features.
His current project entitled REM – the Documentary is attracting attention as Tomas turns his eye to the subject of his father, and the prolific work of OMA. The film uncovers a “human” aspect of architecture that is often forgotten, and is far from the conventional representation of recent iconic buildings. Glass manages to sit down with Tomas to reveal his insights on architecture, from his discreet perspective as a filmmaker.
How do you begin to look at architecture as a filmmaker? There are two main ways I look at things as a filmmaker; one in terms of aesthetics, and two in terms of story (what narrative can be shown that will evoke a given emotion in the audience). I think when filming architecture both of these elements are equally important. No matter what the location, size or purpose of a building, there are always many interweaving narratives at play within them. Through the timeline of a building's existence, you could follow the story of the design process: that of the builders, then that of the occupants, and finally that of the demolition or reconstruction. I think ultimately it is these human stories and experiences of the architecture that are the most compelling for a film.
Has architecture ever struck you as a protagonist, something that could perhaps communicate feelings as effectively as a human subject? I think in the CCTV (Central Chinese Television headquarters) footage I shot recently the building has a presence that is not unlike that of a human character, but I think it's less interesting to impose or project human emotions onto a structure than it is to capture the emotions that the building brings out in those that experience it. Once you capture these emotions in narratives, how do you arrange the various pieces as a single film? There are few choices for a filmmaker in my position. The traditional way is to put the narratives together in chronological order. I am going to put these stories together thematically, so if a theme connects OMA’s Kanye West pavilion in Cannes, to the Prada store in Beverly Hills, I will connect the two – regardless of the difference in time, place or the type of project. The filmmakersAndrei Tarkovsky and Alfred Hitchcock are noted for the strong use of architecture to convey feelings. How important is the architecture itself, rather than the techniques needed to capture the architecture? I would say that with Hitchcock especially, the use of architecture was very planned and symbolic. The way I am filming the buildings is much more natural, I am just trying to capture what is really there, rather than imposing a strict meaning or symbolism through the filmmaking techniques. Part of that difference is due to the inherent differences in making a narrative feature film versus a documentary, but also part of it is a stylistic choice to allow the audience to interpret the images in whatever way makes the most sense to them, rather than forcing my interpretation on them. What are some of the key motifs explored in REM – the Documentary? One reoccurring theme in my work is the interconnectedness of things that may seem unconnected at first. For example, one theme is the global economy and the recent downturn. Rem has some very interesting ideas about the downturn and has had to modify some of his working methods around these changes. I find it interesting to compare and combine this with the effect that the economy has had on the Seattle library, where many of the homeless people are there because of foreclosures. There are countless other examples where Rem’s ideas, theories and working methods can be linked thematically to a human story that takes place in his buildings. Making these kinds of connections grounds the film and gives the intellectual information that the audience is receiving a very human and relatable context.
What strikes me most about your project is how it will impact on different audiences of architects and non-architects. How do you think this project might be perceived? Most non-architects cannot relate to the hyper-intellectual, heavy, technical jargon that is employed in the interviews in most architectural documentaries. Most people can, however, relate to their fellow human being, and derive meaning and have an emotional response to narratives that involve other people.
As a filmmaker it seems you are discovering unconventional aspects of the architecture. Were you trying to show a reality in the architectural representation? Definitely. There is so much that hasn't been shown within conventional representation. For example, while I was at CCTV the first time, during the construction, I saw camera crews from all over the world come and go very often throughout the five days I spent there. Every time another crew would come, wave the workers out of frame angrily, set up some nice static shots of the exterior and then leave again after they had captured the most heroic angles. I stayed there as long as I was allowed for five days, and evenings too. I was alone with the workers. I walked out high over the city on the same scaffolding as them, using the same harnesses to keep me from falling. I filmed them every chance I could, whether they were working, talking or drinking tea.
I wanted to film them because I felt there was something special about these men that some people referred to as “peasants” using many tools that they had made with their own hands to build arguably one of the most complex buildings ever built. I think that's the reality I wanted to show and if I had just turned up, shot and then left I would never have captured it in the raw form that I did.
by Renyi Ng
REM – the Documentary is a feature-length film by Tomas Koolhaas, and is scheduled for completion in 2013.