Bends in high places

Project Description

Bends in high places

by Giovanna Dunmall, Aug 31, 2012[View PDF]

Visiting China for the first time 20 years ago was a life-changing experience for German architect Ole Scheeren, who is best known for leading the CCTV Tower project in Beijing, where he is based.

“Coming to China liberated me in both brutal and dramatic ways from my European upbringing and a world view that I realized was incredibly limited,” he says.

Scheeren is at the Venice Biennale this week for the premiere of a documentary called Against all Rules .It turns out that on the day of the premiere, Scheeren has not yet seen the film. He does know, however, that it documents the completion of the CCTV project and explores his other work, as well as discussing this generation of architects and the state of architecture in Asia.

This is not a retrospective, he is keen to point out. “I am nowhere near the end,” he says, laughing.” So it’s more a film about a beginning than about looking back, I hope.”

Scheeren says the film came about when German film director Horst Brandenburg sent him a cryptic e-mail that was a bit like “a poem”, somewhat “incomprehensible”, and “almost offensive”. He thought it so provocative and intriguing that he had to meet the sender. That meeting became several conversations spread over six years.

Against all Rules is being screened at the Archipelago Cinema, an evocative floating wooden building designed by Scheeren and modelled on an auditorium he built for the Film on the Rocks Yao Noi Festival in Thailand.

The cinema is designed as a raft that can travel the globe, though a route hasn’t yet been set. When asked where it’ll go after Venice, he smiles. “I definitely want to bring it to Hong Kong.”

Scheeren has been based in Beijing for more than a decade, which was fundamental to the completion in May of the473,000-square-metreCCTV headquarters.

“This project could only happen through personal presence and involvement and reassurance – to be there and take responsibility for what we were doing,” Scheeren says. “Ten years [since winning the building contract] is a long time; but if you realise that this is one of the largest buildings ever built and certainly one of the most complex, you might not think it is that long.”

It would have been completed two years earlier, admits Scheeren, had it not been for the tragic fire in the neighbouring TVCC building, in which one firefighter was killed and several others injured.

Scheeren is aware that the building has as many detractors as supporters. “Controversy is inevitable when you push boundaries or create new things,” he says. He is adamant the building asks many important questions about what architecture is or can be.

“CCTV was full of ideas about how we could redefine a skyscraper. How a skyscraper could be no longer about verticality and height; where tallest is best; where verticality is an expression of power; where the top is always the best and the bottom the worst; where the skyscraper has become essentially a totally generic typology without any identity,” says Scheeren. “It was a vision of how we could basically take this needle and bend it from its one-dimensional linearity to engage in a loop.”

At present Scheeren is working on several projects in the mainland, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. In Beijing he is working on a gallery and studio for a local landscape painter. “It’s a very small and quite emotional project,” he says.

He’s also working on the 50,000-square-metre headquarters for Guardian Auction in Beijing that will include a museum, auction space, boutique hotel and restaurants. It is due to open in 2014.

“I’m interested in how to connect a building to the city, how to break open these hermetic structures and connect them to the life of the city,” Scheeren says.

This concern is evident in his design for a 286-metre tower in Kuala Lumpur near the Petronas Towers, where three solid blocks rest on open layers. The city is drawn to these public spaces to use the gardens, shops, restaurants.
The same concerns are reflected in a residential development in Singapore, where he stacked towers horizontally on top of one another and covered them in greenery, creating big courtyards and outdoor spaces with communal facilities that can be used all year round. “It’s a different take on the communal housing project that goes away from the isolated tower typology.”

Living in China has given Scheeren a different level of involvement and understanding of the many Western firms that have Asia “outposts”.

“I inhabit a radically different position, as my office is based in Hong Kong and Beijing and we design from there for anywhere in the world,” he says.

“Asia is no longer about business opportunities; it is the creative centre. I believe thiswill be the future.” Archipelago Cinema forms part of the collateral projects in the 13th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. For more information: