Oliver Wainwright considers the merits – or not – of filial adulation
Being trapped on a floating pontoon in the middle of the lagoon with Alan Yentob would have been tough enough on its own. But that night at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale was made even more painful by the feature-length documentary about Ole Scheeren, the ex-OMA wunderkind, who had ferried boatloads of unwitting critics to his private floating cinema with no means of escape.
It was probably the only way he could have got anyone to sit through Against All Rules, an interminable series of montages of the trenchcoated Scheeren, blue-steel-staring into the middle distance, as CGI visions of his improbable Asian mega-projects flashed away in the background.
After this monumental flop, it might come as a surprise to learn that Scheeren’s former mentor, Rem Koolhaas, has now followed suit with his own biopic.
Produced, directed, filmed and edited by his LA-based film-maker son Tomas, who has been filming his jet-setting dad around the globe for the last few years, REM provides an unprecedented behind-the-scenes window on to the working methods and personal ruminations of the most feted architect in the world. Or at least it could have done.
Instead, the result feels like a cross between a psychiatry session and an ad for a travel agent. In non-stop jump-cuts between taxis, planes and hotels, we see Koolhaas striding across the dunes of Qatar, surveying Beijing’s smoggy skyline from a rooftop helipad, wandering through Dutch cow fields and floating in the sea off an exotic rocky coastline, as his voiceover intones pearls of wisdom to the sound of classical strings.
‘Time,’ says Koolhaas, the camera panning around his wiry frame as he contemplates the horizon, ‘is like a barcode. Some moments seem almost implausibly extended and luxurious, as if time is standing still; then other periods are almost unbearably accelerated.’ As the film ploughs through its 10 chapters, acceleration of time is the one thing you find yourself wishing for.
At one point, Koolhaas muses on the idea of celebrity, complaining that doing interviews is ‘almost a self-defeating effort,’ and asserting that ‘the dilemma of celebrity is whether you can use it or not,’ as he battles through crowds of adoring fans. This indulgent filial eulogy, bereft of irony or critical distance – the very things that have most defined Koolhaas’s career – might not have been the wisest use of his fame.
Tomas isn’t the first architect’s spawn to document the majestic career of its parent on film. Nathaniel Kahn, son of Louis, started the trend in 2003 with My Architect, a relatively accomplished effort, if not free from the mawkish American sentimentality that comes with a momentous ‘quest for truth’.
Struggling for novel ways to present architecture on film, at one point Kahn straps on his roller-skates and glides around the plaza of the Salk Institute, inscribing balletic arcs across the sun-scorched stone. Did this inspire the young Koolhaas to arrange a ‘parkour’ sequence inside the Casa da Muscia in Porto, bounding up the front steps before jumping over a few handrails and flipping off the walls of the corridors – rather than, for instance, showing how the spaces of the building are actually used by concert-goers?
One such parental tribute that has yet to see the light of day promises to be the most compelling. Jim Venturi began filming his parents, Bob and Denise, in 2004, and had amassed over 400 hours of footage five years later, since when little has been heard. Perhaps the sheer scale of the task defeated him. Or maybe he’s just biding his time for the right moment to release it – such as their long-overdue RIBA Royal Gold Medal, which can’t come soon enough.
Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at the Guardian
For some of the best examples of architecture on film, take a look at the work of Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine, who started out filming the daily trials and tribulations of the cleaner in Koolhaas’s highly mechanised (and highly impractical) Maison à Bordeaux, where Lemoine herself grew up. Their charming films reveal the lives of buildings in all their poetic and often dysfunctional glory.