ArchDaily had the chance to catch Rem Koolhaas and his son, Tomas Koolhaas, together, when they met for a weekend in Los Angeles. In their first ever interview together, following the release of “REM” online, we spoke with the pair about the documentary that was four years in the making. The film had Tomas following his father from the desert to the ocean to the 2014 Venice Biennale, as well as inside several OMA projects around the world, like the Seattle Central Library in America and Maison à Bordeaux in France.
The pair reveal what their father-son relationship is like, how the profession of architecture and filmmaking inform each other, and shine a light on the challenges of filming a well-known family member. Work aside, what came across the most strongly throughout the conversation was the respect they had for each other’s craft, and their gratitude for the chance to work so intimately as father and son.
ArchDaily: I know that it was really hard for media to capture Rem. How did you propose the idea to your father?
Tomas: If you’re a filmmaker and your father is Rem, it is kind of a no-brainer that people would suggest to you constantly that you make a film about Rem. Once I figured out an approach that really showed new things, that was when I felt comfortable enough to come to Rem. It also became worthwhile for Rem to put whatever time he has to do a film like this.
AD: What does a filmmaker have to consider when making a documentary about a family member?
Tomas: There’s the double-edged sword of working with someone you know so well. On one hand, there’s a side to Rem that’s exposed that no one else can capture.
But I know first-hand from working as a cinematographer for 15 years, that sometimes it goes really badly, and it can cause a lot of problems. When that happens on a film set where you’ve been hired you can just walk away, but when it’s with a family member, that can really cause tension in an important relationship. Any time you’re combining business and a super close familial relationship, you have to take that into account.
AD: Rem, did you have hesitations at first?
Rem: Yes I did definitely—not for any skepticism about his abilities, simply whether I would be interesting enough to carry the whole film. That was a big hesitation. The other consideration was whether I wanted to expose myself beyond anything I had done before.
AD: There have been movies made about your work before. Rem, what makes this different?
Rem: One of the key things about the whole film was that I totally and utterly gave myself up to what Tomas wanted and I did not interfere whatsoever, not during the filming, not after the filming, and hopefully not now. And that has been, in a way, very interesting, to do something without any imposition on my part.
AD: Tomas, were you the only one following him around?
Tomas: You’ll see when you see the credits of the film, that I’ve got this ungodly long credit that goes across the whole screen, but I basically did the whole thing myself.
AD: And I’m sure that helped too.
Rem: It helped enormously. It was convenient, strangely enough, and an extremely intimate situation. Which you cannot believe when you make a film how intimate it can be.
AD: Do you feel closer to Tomas?
Rem: When he was growing up, we spent a lot of time together, so it wasn’t sudden intimacy, but it was more interesting to have this intimacy with Tomas as an adult.
AD: After you moved, was this the most time you spent together?
Rem: Yes, absolutely, without any doubt.
AD: Were there conflicts that came up? I can imagine with someone going off to college and then moving back home, there’s often a need for both the parent and child to re-negotiate their terms of interaction. What were things you learned from each other when you spent this extended time together as adults?
Rem: It was not that I suddenly discovered a son, it was more that I could establish complete confidence in somebody I know very well, and I discovered there was a total professional dimension to our relationship. It was a wonderful double situation: confidence in him as a human being, and confidence in him as a filmmaker.
Tomas: It’s almost impossible to think in those terms about a human being you know so well but I will say that even though Rem and I haven’t had the same rigid, traditional, father-son relationship that some people have, I think that’s a positive thing in general. Because there’s always impositions on that sort of relationship, in terms of say discipline, stoicness, where you don’t get to see every side of someone because they are in a certain role.
Rem: Mmhmm. Yup.
Tomas: Through this I was able to see him in so many different ways that I wouldn’t have seen organically in a regular father-son situation.
AD: What’s an example of that?
Tomas: Take the swimming. I wouldn’t ordinarily go and watch Rem swim, but as you see in the film, Rem talks about how you watch someone in the water, how they move, and you really learn something from them through their body language. Because I could see him doing something I would not ordinarily be a part of, I could learn something about that person visually just by looking at them.
Rem: I also think there’s something else. He basically followed me to an enormous amount of professional conditions, basically me working, working alone, working on site, working on freezing sites, working on burning hot sites, and also witnessing maybe the most public moment of my life, when I was the director of the Biennale, which was really exceptional and out there in terms of both exposure and obligation to communicate and confront the press. He really attended moments of crisis and it was really extremely nice to have the feeling that somebody else was there.
AD: What’s the similarity between architecture and filmmaking to you?
Rem: For me, the similarity is that the architect, like a filmmaker, is stitching together episodes or fragments to create a larger whole. The discovery of montage, in filmmaking, I almost literally apply to architecture; it is one of the cases of architecture, that there can be abrupt shifts in mood or in scale. So I would say my architecture depends to some extent on a number of devices, and procedures, that are learned in filmmaking.
Tomas: I would say architecture and film are two of the few professions where you’re engineering human experiences. So not only is there narrative element and a montage element, when you go into Rem’s buildings you can see and you can compare them to the way one condition transitions into another. Sometimes it’s soft, like a fade in film, sometimes it’s really abrupt on purpose, the juxtaposition, like a hard cut in film. And you know I think there’s definitely that similarity but I think the engineering of human experiences or feelings is important to both of them because it means you need to understand many different fields to be able to do what you do effectively.
Rem: It has to resonate.
AD: How have people reacted to the film, and is it different in the two professions that you’re in?
Rem: I have to admit I haven’t attended so many screenings, and basically after the screenings, it’s hard to get an intimate sense of what the response was. It’s a response in the dark that is very interesting. In the dark you feel emotions, you feel shock, you feel relief. So in other words, the response wasn’t really verbal for me, it was pretty emotional.
Tomas: I don’t want to make it sound like the only response has been positive but generally the responses have been super positive. I really expected people to feel alienated just by the unusual structure of it, but they haven’t been, and that’s a really pleasant feeling.
Rem: For me, it was always very interesting because many people respond to our work and to me as a person as if I am constantly involved in a colossal polemic, and always trying to be outrageous, or really hyper chilly in terms of my rationalism. What is surprising to me in this film is that none of those categories were evident in the kind of responses so far. I think that basically, there is a big difference between the response to me as an architect and to me as a subject of the film, and that in itself was something very surprising, very interesting.
AD: You’ve spent a lot of time together on this film so I’m sure this is a hard question, but do you have a favorite part? Is there something that you experienced together, in the making of the film, that you’re grateful for?
Rem: The very nice thing was to have regular and extensive communication about basically everything. The film, work life, etc. It was the experience of systematic communication over a very long time that was wonderful; and I really recommend it to any parent and child, because it puts your communication suddenly on a very different level after.
Tomas: Even if you don’t have a traditional, non-familial role with each other, there’s still a spectrum that your conversations and experiences fall within. But when you’re in Doha and you’re in the desert and in the middle of nothingness, and you start having a philosophical conversation about nothingness and how it relates to your work, it very quickly breaks through the ordinary communication you would have.
AD: And how do you feel when you watch the film now?
Tomas: I have to preface this by saying the first time Rem saw the film was when it was shown to the public at the Venice Film Festival.
Rem: It enabled me not to look at it as if it was about me, but as if it was a film about an architect. It was surprisingly sympathetic and recognizable. [laughs]
AD: And I just want to understand—where are you right now? I understand you’re in LA? Do you drop by LA for visits often?
Rem: I had an occasion in America and therefore I went to see my son, and that is something we do very often, whenever we can.
AD: What do you enjoy doing together when you meet?
Tomas: Walking, I would say. There’s a section in the film where Rem talks about movement, and I think that’s something I definitely took upon myself as well. That defines our relationship—a lot of our interaction and our relationship is done on the move.
Rem: And a lot of our meetings take place outdoors.
Tomas: I hate being inside.
Rem: I’m claustrophobic.
Rem: And now that I think about it, it is kind of really weird.
AD: You think it’s weird you feel claustrophobic?
Rem: No, claustrophobia is very common, but it explains a love of the outdoors, a need for the outdoors even when we are both intellectuals.
Tomas: [laughs] Really?!
AD: How are you spending the rest of your day today?
Rem: It’s almost over.
Tomas: We’re just going to hang out and be in nature a little bit.
AD: So before I let you go, I have one last question. What’s one piece of advice you really want to tell each other? Is there something you want to tell your son, your father, that has come to mind before but perhaps hasn’t been said yet?
Rem: I think fortunately we have a relationship that there are very few things that we have a hard time saying.
Rem: There’s one piece of advice that I’ve always given, and it is to not be worried about wasting time. It is, in certain conditions, crucial to pursue things other than are directly your aim, and you should sometimes go through all kinds of detours. In other words, it is to be not too linear in all your pursuits.
Tomas: And that piece of advice shows in the film. I wasn’t trying to create something linear in the obvious sense, I just wanted to show what was interesting in a way that reached on a different level, and let them feel however they want.