A Conversation with Ole Scheeren
A Conversation with Ole Scheeren
by Caroline Roux, Feb, 2012[View PDF]
A conversation with the celebrated architect on the speed of life in China
Architect Ole Scheeren hails from Karlsruhe, Germany. With his even-tempered voice, he speaks in confident, exact sentences that disguise his age — he’s only 40. Yet Scheeren, as a partner in Rem Koolhaas’ studio, OMA, has delivered what could well be the defining buildings of the last two decades: the fabulous Prada Epicentres (flagship shops, but bigger and better), for example, or the spectacular loop-shaped CCTV headquarters in Beijing. They are breathtaking.
With the establishment of Büro Ole Scheeren and major commissions for skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore as well as an artist’s studio in Beijing, Scheeren has now set out on his own. The world is watching with anticipation.
Caroline Roux: Are you something of a pioneer, as a European architect moving to Beijing and setting up a major office?
Ole Scheeren: My relationship with China goes back a long way. I came here for the first time almost 20 years ago, and I’ve been working in China for the past ten years now. I’ve lived in Beijing for almost eight years, so that in itself suggests a certain commitment and continuity, rather than opportunism.
Caroline: Have you seen the city change? The last ten years in Beijing must have been pretty extraordinary.
Ole: I think the last twenty years have been dramatic and the last ten really extraordinary. The Olympics were obviously a high point in terms of change. It created a clear deadline, a catalyst that made a lot of things happen. Many people thought that was the peak and that things would completely slow down afterwards, but that hasn’t happened at all.
Caroline: I was in Beijing for Design Week last year and it felt like things were moving faster than ever.
Ole: Yes, almost. But it seems to me there’s been a re-focusing. Now that things are no longer being built around a big official deadline, the country is finding its own pace, which turns out to be equally speedy. But there’s a focus on some fairly long-term strategies and there is incredible progress being made. People here are asking all sorts of pertinent questions about the future, and that in itself makes Beijing a very exciting environment to work in.
Caroline: You must be a pretty significant figure in Beijing. You delivered the CCTV tower to the city.
Ole: Well, the building has surely made a particular contribution to the city — one that’s only at its beginning.
Caroline: I think it’s an icon of the new China, as well as being a new kind of skyscraper. It’s fantastic.
Ole: I hope it will come to be a symbol of a really future-oriented vision — of how things could be different.
Caroline: In what way?
Ole: It proposes a slightly different way of thinking about architecture and about skyscrapers.
Ole: I think it does question what architecture could be and what role it could play in the city. The exciting thing with this project, though, is that its completion is by no means the end of it. It’s only now starting to be operational and occupied. Beyond its existence as a physical piece, once it really starts to be accessible it will actively contribute to its environment through the people that use it — a community of ten to fourteen thousand people.
Caroline: Is that how many people will work there in the end?
Ole: Yes. It’s a very particular scale. Once it functions, I think people’s perceptions of the building will change. It will be about the people that use it, and they will connect it to the rest of the city. I think that’s the most exciting part of it. I believe in architecture not as objects in spaces or cities, but really as organisms, used by the people who occupy them. The building becomes a social generator, not only a structure of steel and glass. When you build a building that houses fourteen thousand people, it means you have about thirty thousand people passing through the entrance lobby every day. How do you handle such quantities?
Caroline: Thinking about the Prada Epicentres you built in New York and Los Angeles, to what extent did they have an influence on something like the CCTV building?
Ole: The projects could hardly be more different.
Caroline: And yet I suspect they are somehow interconnected?
Ole: Yes, in a way they are, because both cases meant working for a very specific and particular client. In one case for a national broadcaster, and in the other case a fashion company. Certainly two very different types of client but very specific nonetheless. And though the spaces for Prada were quite small compared to CCTV— the stores are about 2000m² each — the audience is also an incredibly large one.
Caroline: What was Mrs Prada like to work with?
Ole: Miuccia Prada is an exceptional person. It’s not often that you find a client so intellectually and artistically well versed. On one hand she gave us a huge amount of respect and freedom, but at the same time she confronted us with a really sharp eye and some intense criticism. There was a very different level of exchange than what you would have with more typical clients.
Caroline: Did you always think you were going to be an architect?
Ole: There might have been a certain inevitability. My dad is an architect. He was still a student when I was born, so I basically grew up immersed in it. I started to work in his office when I was 14. I got the first commission of my own when I was 21.
Caroline: Caroline: That’s young! What was the job?
Ole: Funnily enough, it was a fashion store in Karlsruhe, where I grew up. The owner took quite a curatorial view of how to run her multi-brand store. She wanted to reinvent her project, but she couldn’t find an architect she liked. Then someone she knew suggested that she talk to me. At the time I had set up my own studio for model making. I was building architectural models for other people — my work was pretty obsessive. Anyway, she gave me the job.
Caroline: When you look back at that project, do you think it’s a good piece of work? Or do you think: “Oh god, I still had a lot to learn.”
Ole: It’s certainly a part of my past. Last year I went back to Karlsruhe for the first time in a decade. Someone said, “Why don’t we check out your shop?” And I was like, “Er, I don’t know…” But we did, and it was really incredible. It looked exactly the way I’d done it 20 years ago. It was so well kept. I’ve never seen a commercial space so well taken care of.
Caroline: What were the materials that you’d used?
Ole: There was a lot of wood for the furniture and concrete for the walls. And even the same carpet was still there. When I came to the store, the owner was almost in tears, as she’d not seen me in so long. But she had also just received notice from her landlord saying that she had to vacate the place and the whole thing would be destroyed. It was really just a few days before its disappearance and almost 20 years after I had done it.
Caroline: What kind of architect was your father?
Ole: My father was a professor in Wiesbaden. The path I chose in the end had very little to do with his architectural practice, but he obviously taught me a huge amount. He was incredibly generous and didn’t tie me to his own reality or his own world.
Caroline: How old were you when you started working with Rem Koolhaas?
Ole: The first time I met Rem, I was 18 or 19. I started to work with him when I was 24 and we worked together for 15 years. That was obviously a key experience. It gave me extraordinary opportunities to explore and formulate my own position and thoughts towards architecture in a privileged way.
Caroline: How does that manifest itself now? In, say, the colossal project that you are currently working on in Kuala Lumpur?
Ole: Angkasa Raya is a 268m tower with almost 160,000m² of construction area. For Europe that’s quite large, but in Asia you could maybe say it’s of medium scale. The project is located right next to the Petronas Towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world when they were completed in 1998. They were icons of architecture as a power symbol. I wanted to design a building next door that wouldn’t be competing in those terms. We want to work with a completely different set of architectural qualities: to make a building that will be an inclusive structure, that will open itself up to the public and that will be a mix of residential, office, hotel, retail, restaurants and cafés. Kuala Lumpur is tropical, so both life indoors and outdoors are important — the integration of inside and outside. The building is also somewhat of a prototype for extreme urban density.
Caroline: But you’re also building an artist’s studio on the outskirts of Beijing. Can you tell me about that?
Ole: It’s a very different project. It’s about the creation of a very personal space for a single individual. The artist is a landscape painter and a collector of historical Chinese objects and buildings such as pagoda-like pavilions and rock formations. We are designing an overtly historical Chinese garden for these pieces over a few thousand square metres, with a contemporary building in the middle. It won’t be open to the public, but he will receive visitors there.
Caroline: Are you an art collector yourself?
Ole: No. The work we do is incredibly intense, so to be honest I don’t have much time to do other things. I actually don’t collect anything — in fact I possess very little. I care about knowledge and experience, but not material ownership. It doesn’t interest me at all.
Büro Ole Scheeren was established in 2010 as a partnership between Ole Scheeren and Eric Chang, also formerly of OMA. The studio’s website (www.buro-os.com) highlights its current work as well as Ole’s work with OMA.