Recording is the beginning of a conceptual production
I was joined in New York by my Cameraman Chris Arata. We managed to schedule the shoot during the worst snowstorm there for numerous years. It was so cold that one of our cameras stopped working altogether. We had to walk everywhere because Taxis ceased to operate due to the snow on the roads. As is always the case, this adversity lent itself very well to filming and we got some incredibly dramatic shots of New York itself but also of Sho (Shohei Shigematsu) at the OMA office and in the storm itself. Our interview with Sho was very different from any of the ones we have captured with Rem. I was surprised when I asked Sho if he thought one positive difference between OMA and other practices was the focus on program he responded that he felt that he felt that to the contrary, by focusing so intensely on the programmatic concerns of each design OMA had recently missed some opportunities to “make a statement” the same way that some other well known architects have who are willing to put program a distant second to radical exterior forms.
The “Nothingness” of the desert was not only beautiful to shoot, but was super inspiring not only for me, with my camera, but also for Rem. We recorded some very interesting audio while we were driving. The tone was more philosophical, less intellectual. I think its hard not to make that shift in the radical emptiness of the desert, it lends itself to contemplation of the nature of existence itself rather than complex intellectual ideas. I asked Rem what effect travelling from such varied conditions (the bustling European city, to the empty middle-eastern desert) had on his thinking, he answered: “When you are in the desert, even from 500ft away, someone’s body language strikes you immediately -it is amplified by the emptiness of the context. In the city there is so much of everything that even at a distance of 20 centimeters these same details are barely noticeable.”
In order to drive through the desert we hired a special SUV and a skilled “desert driver.” Before we got there he let most of the air out of the tires. The feeling of driving on the flat tires in the sand was a strange sloughing from side to side. Our driver Mohamed drove incredibly skillfully, but incredibly fast. This shot was captured while rem was in the car driving sideways –crablike- down the dune at around 50 mph. As the car nearly tipped over and Mohamed laughed maniacally in the background, Rem and I both thought there was a chance we might not make it out of the desert. This feeling only enhanced the quality of the shots, our conversation and the experience in general.
The city of Doha itself was like no other I’ve ever seen. I always tell people when I go to places like it that they don’t feel like a different geographical location, but a totally different world. Growing up in the West I have been raised with the usual expectations about the middle-east that the Media promote. I expected a very secretive and cautious place where it was very hard to film. I had similar assumptions about China and in both cases I was wrong. It was in fact very easy to film, in fact the people I filmed (from construction workers to random people at the public park) actually seemed happy to be filmed.
The skyline was something I shot many times, in varying lighting conditions. It was most beautiful during sunset when there seemed to be a graduated purple haze covering it. The structures reminded me of a graphic made by OMA once for a lecture that showed what a skyline would look like if it was inhabited only by all the most famous buildings of “starchitects.” Although the skyline was radically modern, the life around it still seemed to occur at a languid pace that you don’t usually encounter in ultra-modern cities. Most people still wore traditional dress and walked slowly having intimate conversations, rather than rushing around texting, sipping Starbucks or listening to their I-pods. Doha like many places in the Middle-East is a strange combination of extremely old ways mixing with new, sudden and radical modernization. This has become a recurring theme in my film visually in terms of shots of the juxtaposition between modern structures and old often dilapidated surroundings (around the CCTV building most notably) but also in recorded conversations between Rem and me.
The Biennale was an extremely frenetic time and therefor called for a different filmmaking approach. Instead of trying to interview Rem myself (which was impossible given his schedule of back-to-back tours, interviews, press conferences and meetings.) I decided to film the interviews that the press were doing with Rem and include those in the film. These provided some incredible moments, with really intelligent, lucid questions provoking very eloquent answers but also comical and awkward moments where ill-researched questions were asked in a repetitive and clumsy manner, often as Rem was swarmed by groups of interviewers and “gang-interviewed” at length. One question that rankled Rem and provided me with some comical footage was when he was asked to “take my hand and guide me through the biennale” to which he answered, “ok first you come up to the ticket booth and they ask you in a brutal way if you have a ticket, if you do they let you in, if not they don’t…”
The only respite Rem had in his non-stop schedule was when he would swim for half an hour every day. I followed him and filmed the whole ritual. I think at the heart of a documentary like this people want to find a deeper understanding of how someone like Rem thinks and how he manages the rigors of his existence. It may seem strange to try and achieve this by filming him doing laps in a pool but it is important to see him when he is not physically at work just as much as when he is. For someone like him just as many important thought processes are occurring during the time of decompression and repetitive, meditative movement as when he is surrounded at the office. He told me that many of his most important ‘realizations’ have occurred when he is swimming, or walking, or otherwise away from the office and engaged in some form of exercise.
My filming at the Biennale was the second to last shoot that I executed for the film. It felt fitting that the biennale and the countryside shoot that followed served as the end of my production phase since it also serves as the end of the film’s narrative; Rem trying to create a “hiatus” from the traditional architectural thinking with his reverting back to fundamentals for the biennale and then continuing onto his next focus which is the countryside that has traditionally been ignored in favor of the city.
The shoot in the countryside was a simple but an important one. Rem and I just walked through the repetitive but beautiful Dutch Countryside, surrounded my cows and windmills. Strangely a group of cows seemed to follow Rem wherever he went. We also recorded audio as we were parked along a country road. I asked him about why he was focusing on the countryside, he answered: “The city has been studied by everyone, meanwhile the countryside has been changing at an unprecedented pace, I think we need to at least take a closer look at that change.” He also told me that he might do some fictional writing as part of his study of the countryside, something I found particularly interesting having written a novel myself.