Beijing/New York – Ole Scheeren

Project Description

PIN – UP
Beijing/New York – Ole Scheeren

by James Valerie, Spr / Sum, 2007 [View PDF]

Beijing/New York – Ole Scheeren

Ole Scheeren has a light foot-something you wouldn’t expect from the guy shouldering what could be the Chinese government’s most important architectural commission ever. Having joined Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture in 1995, Scheeren became partner five years ago and is now leading construction of the China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and its adjacent TVCC building-a behemoth undertaking more than three times the size of the Ground Zero. Scheeren, 35, shepherds a team of 50 architects (a mix of staff from OMA in Rotterdam and from the Chinese firm ECADI) as well as up to 10,000 construction workers, on duty 24/7, to meet the looming deadline of the 2008 Olympics.

While CCTV will not be Beijing’s tallest structure it will certainly be a spectacular addition to the skyline of China’s capital. Designed as a giant loop, a powerful image in symbol-conscious Chinese culture, CCTV will allow for an unusual confrontation of public and private functions: Alongside millions of square feet of office space, it will feature a state-of-the-art broadcasting theater, cultural facilities, and a five-star hotel. While many high-rise offer one-stop express elevators to a viewing platform, CCTV promenades visitors through all of the 51 floors, providing peek-a-boo glimpses into TV studios, cafeterias, and the like-an unexpected candor for what some people ( especially in the ever-suspicious West) deem China’s No.1 propaganda outlet: the state-controlled television headquarters.

It is easy to see only the conceptual side of OMA’s work, (despite a long track record of buildings). This is one of the reasons Scheeren and his team were more than happy to showcase the project recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York-as he put it, “to show that CCTV is actually happening.” And yet, the conceptual turn of phrase trademarks German-born Scheeren as much as it does OMA’s founding partner. During our early morning interview, PIN-UP was treated not only to Scheeren’s well-structured smarts but also to an all-around package of polite reticence, humor, and aristocratic good looks-the perfect circumstance to hear about fashion, Beijing nightlife, and of course, CCTV.

Felix Burrichter: What brings you to New York?

Ole Scheeren: A couple of meetings. I also went by MOMA to discuss the logistics of extending the exhibition we have there right now.

FB: Have you gotten good feedback for the show?

OS: Yes, the feedback was quite good. And I think the show is nicely embedded in its context.

FB: The context of New York or of the MOMA?

OS: Both.

Pierre-Alecandre de Looz: In the show, hung alongside the images of the CCTV building and the models, there were many old drawings that Tina [di Carlo, the show’s curator] pulled from the MOMA collection: Peter Cook’s Fun Palace, Buckminster Fuller, Superstudio, Kisho Kurokawa…. Do you feel that CCTV is almost the realization of a lot those utopian ideas of the twentieth century?

OS: I think it’s interesting that at this point in time China is actually in the position to realize these ideas; it’s not only about us [OMA] and CCTV, it’s largely about the context, both historically and politically, and really a convergence of a series of events and developments that opened a window for the project to happen. In that sense architecture is almost all about timing: It is usually a fairly narrow time span during which the potential exists for certain things to happen. And it is indeed quite interesting that the country which perhaps least participated in the modern, contemporary architecture movement is all of a sudden in the position to execute some of the most radical visions that have been developed over the past 50 or a hundred years in other parts of the world.

I even wonder if CCTV [and the other visionary projects] would still be possible in China right now-I think it was really a particular moment, a window that opened and closed again.

FB: Why do you think it wouldn’t be possible anymore now?

OS: There are a number of reasons why CCTV could happen then, in 2002: With the emerging economic development and China joining the World Trade Organization, there was the recognition in the rest of the world that China was actually happening-and quite importantly China’s recognition of itself as a new power on the global stage. And ultimately everything got boosted on propelled by that psychological wild card of the Olympics, it unleashed an enormous amount of enthusiasm and energy that architecturally speaking accumulated in a series of projects, of which CCTV is only one. But CCTV clearly happened within that momentum of future vision and a kind of set target and deadline, when China will represent itself to the world and when the world will look at China-so it’s an extremely symbolic moment. Now we’re already way too close to the actual date of the Olympics to start a project like this, so this moment concludes a very specific chapter in the process of modernization of the country.

P-AdL: Would you sum it up as a kind of national branding exercise on the part of the Chinese?

OS: I don’t like to sum things up; it’s somehow too reductive as a perspective. It obviously had something to do with the expression of a particular power. But if it had been purely about symbolism, it could have happened in a much easier way. So to condemn the project to a purely iconographic value I think would be a big mistake, because CCTV exceeds the level of ambition and effort that one would need to devote to achieving a mere effect. The effort is really related to all the other things the project does and proposes simultaneously. The client, and ultimately China, is committed to executing these aspects of the project to the full extent: the programmatic shifts, the organizational affects, the public ambitions. The building realizes far more than a daring geometric form and to me that also signals that there is an awareness and a conscious decision on the part of the client to want more than just an icon or symbol.

P-AdL: I imagine it’s probably a very ferocious political arena to operate in. Was there a lot of political negotiating?

OS: What is really most important in the context of CCTV is to maintain a strategic operation rather than a predetermined plan-a system that continuously allows you to renegotiate, not only with your counterparts but actually with yourself, the way you ultimately think, execute, and further the project. You constantly have to watch your environment, since it is changing so rapidly and not necessarily consistently, and then assess how you actually act in this context.

It’s a very interesting situation because it reaches a level of extreme in which the status of knowledge or experience is maybe no longer the same as what we’re used to. Knowledge and experience is something extremely valuable in a stable context. If you know how certain things work, you can apply that knowledge repeatedly. But that implies that the context to which you apply that knowledge is still receptive to it. The moment the context is not developed enough yet to receive that knowledge, or when it develops so rapidly that its mutations are neither consistent nor steady, that’s when the whole status of knowledge changes and a much more dynamic way of operating is necessary.

P-AdL: You’ve literally lived on-site now for over two years. How has the overall operating climate in Beijing changed? Or was there a particular moment where you felt the carpet was pulled under your feet, where you had to readjust your strategy?

OS: There have been several moments like that, or, as I said, it has been a continuous process of adjustment and readjustment. I have been working in Beijing for five years now, since we started the project in 2002. Within that period there have been a lot of cycles: the change in political leadership and the implicit difference that that made in policy; the issues arising from the project being the only central government project in Beijing’s central business district-the business district-the business district is a planning project by Beijing city, but CCTV is related to the government-so it became the point of contact of the two sides to negotiate their respective positions within this part of the city. But it certainly also happened on the legal or technical level that construction laws changed, and not necessarily inn a coherent way. And all of these things you can only really deal with and take care of through a continued direct involvement and presence. If you’re not there, if you’re not physically part of that process, you will first of all not find out early enough that something like that has happened, but you would also not have the possibility to react quickly enough, renegotiate things, and maneuver accordingly to affect any of it.

FB: How has life in Beijing changed? For example, when did the plastic surgeon move in downstairs from you…

OS: …and at what point could you actually see the visual effects of it?

FB: Exactly.

OS: Well, things have changed dramatically over the past few years. When I moved to Beijing, it all seemed to be a quiet residential environment. Now my apartment shares the same floor with a Japanese karaoke bar, a Chinese interior design firm, and an old lady’s flat…there seem to be no limits to the mix.

Apartment, office, and construction site-I’ve tried to keep everything in spatial proximity, because it’s quite easy to get lost in the jam; traffic is total chaos. In the past years I’ve completely abandoned all modes of transportation: No more bicycles or cars, I just walk.

FB: But Beijing used to be the capital of bicycles.

OS: There was an initiative by the Chinese government, towards the end of the nineties, which was: “For every bike, a car,” and that was obviously a promise or an appeal that has started to fulfill itself. In 1999, I did the show “Cities on the Move” that was curated by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist. For the exhibition in London the artist Chen Zhen created a piece in reaction to this statement by the government. It was a huge snake that was made out of bicycle tires, and out of its belly came 20,000 little black toy cars that started to spread all over the gallery. It was a really powerful piece, probably the most frightening of the entire show.

P-AdL: You’ve talked a lot of the social potential of CCTV. It was obviously on the minds of a lot of the people whose work was shown alongside in the MOMA show. Do you feel that that is the responsibility of an architect?

OS: For me, it’s maybe the most interesting and exciting part of the work. I think there are other legitimate positions in architecture that can be pursued, but the social-or in certain cases you could also say collective-aspect is the part that interests me most: beyond the sense of aesthetics and design, beyond the comprehension of either object or space. In this way architecture is really an issue of responsibility, or, you could say, taking responsibility.

FB: You went to school in Karlsruhe, Germany, in Lausanne, in Switzerland, and at the Architecture Association in London-but your father was also an architect.

OS: My whole trajectory was not really linear. In retrospect it might develop a certain linearity, but it didn’t really have one then. There was the question of architecture as an intellectual or academic pursuit and then architecture as a kind of built, physical construct. My father was an architect, and my parents were still studying when I was born, so as a baby they would always take me to school-I was known to dismantle all the students’ models at the architecture department. And strangely enough, it’s a memory that is still strongly imprinted in my brain: these long abstract university corridors with the occasional shelves full of study models. During my teenage years, I built basically two houses together with my dad, so there was also an early confrontation with physical reality.

FB: What kinds of houses?

OS: Houses for us to live in, essentially. And then late I also worked for many months on construction sites, because I wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side, to understand the whole context from that perspective. And it was actually fairly shocking to feel the vibe among the workers when “The Architect” shows up. It’s a strange mixture between fear and anger, a kind of cold stiffness.

When I was 21, I did my first independent project, which was a fashion store. Previously, towards the end of high school, I had started my own model-making office. All of that was partly to survive, to make a living, but also because I was really interested in testing out the relationship between drawing and physical reality. When you build a model you essentially have to redraw the entire project, with the dimensions of all the materials that you have available. And this was all pre-computer age, so a completely manual process.

By the time I finished high school, I was absolutely certain that I would never want to become an architect, because in some way I knew too much about it already and I thought it was the worst profession that you could ever start.

P-AdL: What did you see that was so bad about it?

OS: You could easily sketch a fairly sinister depiction: It’s profession that is completely encapsulate in dependencies that restrain it to a point that only in very rare and lucky cases you are able to realize what you have been working on, and then also go beyond the predefined standards and expectations from either the side of the client or the environment. It’s also a job in which by default 50% of your life is essentially wasted, because half of what you work on will never happen-most projects simply never get built. And I think it’s a job that requires an enormous input of time, in relation to accredited achievement. It involves an enormous complexity, both in intellectual terms, but also in organizational terms. Few other professions require that simultaneously to the same extent. And it’s still a service directly bound to the production of physical reality that doesn’t have the benefits of repetitiveness and industrial production. And because it produces physical reality, it’s not a speculative domain-so it doesn’t have the volatility of speculative value: It is almost entirely measured against real value. And that’s exactly the limitation of architecture: The investment is enormous, but it’s bound to a set of physical properties, that are necessarily not always perfect, And the value of the service is only measured in direct relation to the physical properties of the product, not to a potential associated or speculative value that other domains operate with, from the Internet to the stock market to art. Architecture has not really managed to mobilize similar mechanisms in order to define its value.

P-AdL: So how did you escape all that?

OS: I didn’t. [laughs]

FB: After Karlsruhe, you decided to go to Lausanne and work with Luigi Snozzi?

OS: As a teenage I traveled a lot. Rather than looking at books or magazines I drove around in my little car, through France, through Italy, Holland, Germany.

During one of those trips through Switzerland I met a woman who is the owner of a house Snozzi built. She told me how he had changed her life through architecture. She essentially told me how absolutely nuts and crazy he was, but so into his thing, his architecture, that he ultimately convinced her to build something she had never wanted-a modern piece of architecture-and it made her an incredibly happy person. Somehow that’s what made me want to study with him.

Interestingly, the only thing Snozzi would lecture about were his own projects. I really liked that. He didn’t judge others, show what he deemed good or bad; he simply explained his work, his projects, his thoughts. He used to say: “If you want to do things like Jean Nouvel, then go to him. I can’t tell you how to do that.” Snozzi was like that, extremely pedantic and precise at the same time. He spoke much about the city-it was his actual concern, even if he had mainly built house-and in some way his architecture was quite political, and concerned with the relationship of the individual to the larger group. He was one of the figures of the far left in late modern architecture.

FB: Someone told me that nowadays you are somewhat of an arbiter of style in China.

OS: It’s funny you would say that, because quite recently a very popular Chinese magazine asked me if I would write a style-watch column. And I had to tell them that I was totally interested but entirely inappropriate for the position.

FB: Given your work on the Prada stores in New York and Beverly Hills, are you or were you ever contractually obliged to wear Prada?

OS: There is absolutely no obligation. Actually, as long as I was actively working on the projects I completely refused to wear any of it, and I really only started to wear it after the completion of the New York store. But in fashion, I quite like the Belgian designers, like Ann Demeule-meester, Dries van Noten, and Raf Simons.

FB: Are those designers available in Beijing? Beijing is not known to be the best city for shopping in China, or the most fun, for that matter.

OS: It’s true – Shanghai is much more commercial and Hong Kong is certainly still the center of shopping. If that’s more fun is another question. Obviously shopping is still limited in Beijing, and the stuff you find is not always up-to-date. But it’s getting better, especially in the last two years. Which goes back to the question you asked earlier: How has life changed in Beijing? The face that a shopping culture starts to emerge is obviously part of it. Five years ago there were probably five magazines available, sold on the back of a bicycle in the street. Now you have about 800 magazines that are plastered on countless kiosks around the city. The cars have changed colors, too. It took me a while to figure out why every photograph I took of the streets in Beijing had a particular feel to it; then I realized the cars only had three colors: They were either red, white, or black. That completely defined the experience of the streetscape. Also the nightlife has changed. I had some of the best nights our there, when it all started, when everybody was just so excited to be partying and having a good time; there was absolutely no attitude. Obviously also that has changed. Now every club has a bouncer, has been renovated three times in two years. It’s all getting glitzy, and more-but not really-impressive.

P-AdL: Do you still go out?

OS: I still go out, but less.

P-AdL: What do you do to relax?

OS: I take very long walks on the CCTV construction site. [laughs]

FB: So what are you going to do when CCTV is over? The next project is a tower in Singapore?

OS: Singapore is already a parallel project-a 500-foot-tall residential tower in a tropical city. But I’m always trying to avoid the question: What is after CCTV? It’s difficult to answer. But Singapore is already happening; and we’re also looking at another project in Bangkok right now, which is very exciting, because it is a city with an incredible energy and I would really like to realize something there.