Escalator in Koolhaas' Seattle Central Library - from WatNielsen on Flickr
The past decade has seen Rem Koolhaas’s steady rise to ‘superstar’ architect status. Winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize among others, he was recently named in Times top 100 World’s Most Influential People. So it wasn’t surprising Belfast’s architectural community took interest when Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect screened in the Black Box as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Introduced by Todd Architects, the screening was moved from the intimate Black Box cafe to the main performance space to cope with demand.
The film makers seem to understand the visual appetite of their audience and A Kind of Architect dashes through Koolhaas’ early life with speedy cuts and surreal animated montages that wouldn’t look out of place in a Monty Python show. The son of an influential writer, Koolhaas initially studied scriptwriting and was involved in making the most expensive film ever produced in the Netherlands, the White Slave. Unfortunately it bombed and Koolhaas turned to journalism, writing social commentary for the Haagse Post before heading to London to begin his architectural studies in 1968.
During his time in London he wrote extensively on the city as an entity and published some controversial papers including explorations of the notion of enclosure, using the Berlin Wall as a starting point. If part of a city is enclosed, ghetto-esque, and all the inhabitants outside are told how wonderful it is inside the walls, will they cease to be satisfied until they too are enclosed within? Narrated by two German voices, soundbite phrases like ‘modulate reality’ are frequently used in the subtitles sitting beneath images of Koolhaas’s theoretical studies and early villa work. Unfortunately, after a while the constant jargon begins to grate and it becomes an effort to keep up with the subtitles.
Thankfully the later two thirds of the film is made up of interviews with members of the happy OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture) family and Koolhaas himself, interspersed with videos and images of Koolhaas’s back catalogue and future projects. OMA was set up in 1975 by Koolhaas and three colleagues and put a firm emphasis on the abstract and theoretical aspects of architecture. So much so that a splinter company, AMO, was formed purely as a think tank to further Koolhaas ideas and investigations that could feed back into the OMA design process.
At just over an hour and a half, A Kind of Architect feels overlong. After the magic of a wandering shot through Porto’s Casa da Musica, the remaining film follows a repeating pattern of OMA interview, achingly cool photomontage, OMA interview, tracking shot of project, OMA interview, photomontage, OMA interview and repeat. The interviews with OMA staff, while giving an interesting insight into the inner workings of Koolhaas’s practice, descend almost into sycophantic meanderings towards the end, giving the air of a Koolhaas propaganda film more than an entertaining and informative look at one of today’s more influential architects.
The last project looked at is the flagship Beijing headquarters for Central China Television which is being run by the newest office, OMA Beijing. Koolhaas himself bemoans the restrictions and loss of faith in architecture he encountered in America and has instead begun to look towards the Far East for progress. When the question of working with a totalitarian regime with a dubious human rights record is raised, the film’s response is to draw a subtle comparison between the CCTV’s new control room and the Panopticon Prison Koolhaas worked on in Arnhem. Both designed to keep an eye on everyone, it can only be hoped that this was a deliberate touch by Koolhaas and a sign he hasn’t lost his critical zealous.
Eva McDermott is an architect working in Dublin and Belfast.
Related: "Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect" from the Alan in Belfast blog
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