24 Hours: Ole Scheeren

Project Description

24 Hours: Ole Scheeren

by David Evans, Mar, 2006 [View PDF]

Ole Scheeren, The partner of ultra-cool Dutch design firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), tells David Evans about life in charge of the unconventional CCTV headquarters project in Beijing.

“I’m based in Beijing, but half my time is spent on the road in Asia or visiting Rotterdam, London and New York. I’ve set up an office from where I’m managing all our Asia projects, but I’m still involved in projects in other parts of the world.

It’s incredibly hard to establish any routine in my life. To a certain extent I’ve always resisted the idea. Not only is it difficult, but I think it would be counterproductive to have a really rigid routine. The day is so flexible and dynamic.

There is a base matrix I follow. It’s a system that allows me to negotiate and adapt freely to unscheduled events. My scheduled day could involve meeting with a lawyer, meeting one of my teams to discuss a design, preparing a strategy for a client presentation, receiving a dignitary to tour a site, fixing the schedule for the next week or planning my trips. Then, as I open my e-mail or switch on my phone in the morning, there’s a message – like a couple of weeks ago, when there was a fire in New York at the Prada store and the building was destroyed. You have to react immediately and reassemble a team to deal with the life-support systems of the store.

I set the alarm for about 7.30am, but I’m often awake by then. The first thing I do is open the curtains and look at the city. I’m living on the 33rd floor in Beijing and have a nice view across the city that never sleeps. It’s extremely active. There’s 24/7 construction and what you see is a mixture of buildings, highways and the city growing in front of your eyes. The nights are never quiet, so you wake up with a certain state of alertness. I also do that from my hotel room when I travel. Looking out the window is mental preparation for the chaos before you jump into it.

I take a shower and get dressed or sometimes, especially when I get up early, I switch on my laptop to check e-mails – a quick scan to see what’s happened in the past few hours and to prepare strategically for the day. I love to eat breakfast at home, although it hardly ever happens.

The office is close, within a 15-minute walk. I’ve been walking to work for many years, even when my office was an hour away. By walking, I’m not subject to public transport commuting time or traffic jams. I’m only affected by that when I have to go to specific places.

If I haven’t had my breakfast at home, I’ll pick up a pastry from a bakery on my way to the office. When I arrive, I make myself some green tea. I stopped drinking coffee four months ago. It’s incredibly interesting, the moment you stop doing something, how liberated you feel. I was an espresso addict and I still miss the smell. I get into the office at 9am and usually I’m the first there. Everyone else comes in about 10am. It’s a good time for me because it’s quiet and I can answer my e-mails and prepare further for the day.

The office is a large box and a vast field of tables. My room is acoustically separated from the rest of the office by a glass wall, which allows me to have an omnipresent view of the work. That way, I’m continuously reminded of all the needs and requests from my design teams. I have four tables in my office: one for my laptop, another with a conference phone, and two others at which I hold meetings. Moving between them helps me to shift focus from one mindset to another. Each table is equipped with a stack of papers and notes dealing with all the ongoing issues, projects and planning.

The make-up of the office is 50/50 Chinese and non-Chinese designers. Our office has always been very international. That’s a crucial part of maintaining focus, since the complexity of our work is based on a multitude of influences. The composition of teams is a strategic part of the work that determines how the project will unfold.

In the past, firms from the west offered their product and handed it over to the east with little care about how it was implemented. In the case of the China Central Television [CCTV] headquarters, I tried to design something quite different. It might have worked in many ways, but also failed in many ways.

During the competition, there were several Chinese on our team with whom we discussed not only the technical and legal aspects of the project, but also the cultural aspects. As I started the design in Rotterdam, I made it part of our contractual agreement that, from the beginning, our Chinese partners would send 13 of their staff to live and work with us for a year in Europe so we could really develop a dialogue. They would understand how we work and think, and we would be able to challenge ourselves against their opinions, senses and feelings. It was also part of the original plan that I move 15 of my people to Beijing and set up the office there to continue that intense collaboration.

Winning the competition brought a mixture of disbelief and excitement, paired with realizing what an incredible responsibility it was to proceed with the proposal. Construction started on September 22, 2004. There is only one deadline in Beijing and that’s the Olympics in 2008, so everything will be ready by then.

Since I’m working with so many cities, my day starts at 9am, Rotterdam kicks in at 3pm and New York at 11pm. I can easily be up until 3am working. I’m currently preparing an exhibition with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I’ve just returned from visiting Prada and seeing the museum there.

The one time to relax is at dinner. That’s when I shift from work into semi-work mode. I like to go for good food in nice places. I enjoy going to places that are relaxed. I care much more about the food and service than I do about the design of the space. I’m able to switch off for those moments. Then it’s either return to the office or go home and pick up the phone.”