Complex Structures and cultural Constructs Conversations with Ole Scheeren, OMA

Project Description

Complex Structures and cultural Constructs Conversations with Ole Scheeren, OMA

by Ang Chee Cheong( WITH excerpts from Interviews by Lena Ng, Malaysia, and Chalalai Singh, Thailand), Iss. 028.2005 [View PDF]

Conversations with Ole Scheeren

Ole Scheeren, partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture(OMA),is a director of the Rotterdam office and has recently established an office  in Beijing as the new centre for OMA’s work in Asia. As lead designer and partner-in-charge   of several recent key OMA projects such as the new headquarters of China’s national television station CCTV, the Beijing Books Building, the Prada epicenter projects in New York and Los Angeles, and others, d+a presents an exclusive series of conversations conducted over a period of time about architecture and planning, Asian cities, Rem Koolhaas, CCTV, Prada, style, and tropical soup.



HI Ole. To begin, can you briefly tell us about your origins and background…

I was born 1971 in Karlsruhe, in the south west of Germany. After graduating from high school, I have been moving around a lot, mostly for work, partly to study and ultimately out of interests to be exposed

to a multitude of cultures and environments. I lived in French Switzerland, the Netherlands, New York, London and Bangkok, before returning to Rotterdam. And now I have just relocated to Beijing…

Can you describe what got you interest in architecture? When did you first get in touch with the profession?

Funily enough, my first activities in architecture were actually more about destruction rather than creation…When I was still a baby, I was crawling through the corridors of the architecture faculty at university, where my father was a student and assistant teacher at the time. I loved to play with scale models of students that I found stacked in shelves, and would ultimately dismantle and destroy them…

I began working in my father’s office when I was 14 years old, and the time I had finished high school, I had done a number of projects and also opened my own studio for model making. During the second semester of my architecture studies I completed my first independent construction project. It was a very good experience to go through all the responsibilities and different phases of a project   that early, to deal with the client, do the design, and the execution. I learned a lot about the actual process and dependencies.

To have an architect father, you must have been aware of the difficulties of the profession…yet you still chose this route. What were you thinking?

The fact  that my father is an architect was probably one of the strongest  reasons against becoming one-by the end of high I want to be anything but that, and was more interested in literature and my rock band-but I guess in the end it was also the reason not to escape it.

Probably the key experience that made me decide to go in this direction was when I met a guy who had just won a competition for a multimedia building in my hometown-it was Rem Koolhaas, presenting OMA’s design for the ZKM (centre for art and media).There was a power and eloquence to the thinking and the architecture that I felt intuitively very connected to. It was not only the design of a building, but rather a method of thinking, a sense somewhere between the analytical and practical, and something ultimately contemporary. I found that incredibly intriguing, architecture defined as a potential. And I thought if this is actually possible, then it is maybe worth becoming an architect…

What about the architecture schools you attended, was there a strong influence?

Studying was somehow more about learning what not to do in architecture-before going to university, I had the chance to see that architecture was a lot about other things than what was taught, things seemingly unrelated but in fact very relevant in order to produce something meaningful. I ended up changing schools several times, trying to compose different interests and construct a more multi-layered base of education. Each school had something specific to offer, but also a somewhat limited focus or ideology.

I was always interested and involved in other domains. In parallel with architecture, I choreographed and co- curated exhibitions such as ‘Cities on the move’ in Bangkok (the exhibition was conceptualized by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hou Hanrou), collaborated with an artist (Dominique Gonzalez Foerster) on short films, and worked with 2X4, a graphic design firm in New York. It was an interesting period, when issue of globalization, the internet, branding and the media claimed ever-greater attention. But my interest is also partly political-for my graduation project at the Architectural Association in London I proposed an alternative local government structure for the city. (Note: Ole’s final thesis project was awarded the RIBA Silver Medal)

When one speaks of OMA, one thinks of Rem  Koolhaas. Yet, you have been credited as being co-author and partner in charge of a series of high profile projects for the office, most notably CCTV and the Prada projects. This is somewhat unusual in architectural practices, where firms are identified by its ‘star’ and the notion of ego. Can you describe the constellation of OMA and also your relationship with Rem? When did you join OMA?

I joined OMA ten year ago, in 1995, and I have been leading the office as a director over the past years. It was the time when SMLXL was published, a book that summarized the history of the office until that point. Since then, a lot of things have changed, and we have grown from a single person leadership into a group of partners that share both responsibilities but also design and authorship of projects and the office as a whole. Next to the office in Rotterdam we now have offices in both New York and Beijing that operate as American and Asian centre respectively. Our work has spread significantly, and the partnership allows us to practice efficiently across many continents.

I would maybe describe the office as an intellectual framework-a structure that is inhabited by a number of people that share certain concerns and sensibilities. And that work together on developing concepts and proposals across a broad spectrum. My collaboration with Rem has been quite intense over the past 10 years, and we have shared many critical moments and decisions in our work. At the same time there is now also a lot of independence and it is very exciting to realize my own ideas within OMA’s framework.

What do you think is the role of the architect in contemporary society?

Architecture is a profession based on a complex and broad way of thinking. It ranges from cultural and artistic aspects, technical knowledge, to managerial coordination and oversight. I believe this is what    architects   have to offer: the ability to envision complex structures and cultural ’constructs’. The term “architects”, from software architects to financial architects, etc. The framework implied by the term architect is someone who puts together a complex whole; an architect is someone who is not necessarily only a technically skilled “doer” but someone who is capable of constructing larger strategic or conceptual systems.

Can you describe the methods at OMA, the ways of working?

We have a strong interest in the ‘program’, in the actual functions and requirements that are to be accommodated in a building. To understand the client’s needs is an important part of the process; all our projects are part of an intense dialogue in that sense. In a way you could say that our work is about identifying ‘potentials’-with regards to the functions, the site, the usage, the typology, and the position of the project within contemporary society. Our process of working is more editorial than artistic-it is not about implementing a predefined ’vision’, but rather exploring, testing and choosing specific combinations.

In response to the effects of globalization, we founded AMO, the conceptual think tank of OMA, a research branch inside our office that is dedicated to applying architectural think not only to buildings, but to broader issues of sociology, technology, media and politics. AMO explicitly embodies this shift towards an interrelated society in which networks and cross-disciplinary systems become increasingly important to be able to master the emerging challenges.

Architecture as a form of knowledge, as design intelligence?

(Our recent AMO-OMA publication) ”Content” for example is very much about exploring architecture in a series of contexts: economic, political and regional…It is about the effects of what we called the “¥ € $”regime, in other words globalization, the merging of major economies and increasing privatization. The book and exhibition attempt to place and expose our town work as sometimes strong and sometimes weak against this background , and to make the point that architecture does not exist as an independent and aesthetically purified entity. And in the past years we have undertaken several projects in which these aspects both merge and crystallize-the project that maybe illustrated those new dependencies most clearly was our work for Italian fashion company Prada.

With the projects for Prada, there is a sense of constructing a ‘brand’. In an age so consumed with consumption ,  branding and brands, where do you see an opportunity for a critical response?

The more you are getting involved with all these issues, the more it is important to not only understand and contribute, but also to resist them. Prada is the project that most blatantly confronted us with branding or brand identity. They had realized that after their tremendous growth in the late nineties things couldn’t continue the same way they were before, when Prada was still a small family business. Our role was to conceptualize the implications of this enlarged scale and presence, what it meant to be global, and how at the same time a sense of exclusivity could be maintained.

How do you see the connection between architecture and fashion? What are your thoughts on ’style’,   and do you see a need to be “stylish” when working for a fashion house?

I would say that ‘style’ or being ‘stylish’ is exactly what we have always tried to avoid in our work generally. It has rather been about formulating very different proposals in very different situations, and in the case of the Prada epicenter stores that is no different.

The projects for Prada were not merely about creating architectural objects and a ’design’, but implied an involvement in a much broader context of Prada, its fashion, its history, its interests, its effects and impacts… We were interested in the idea of enlarging instead of reducing this identity, to look for not such much coherence but rather complexity, multiplicity, richness… a sense of aura. With regards to architecture, we were not interested in the formal object-status of a building as means to represent a ‘brand’, but more in its abilities to address program and relationships, both functional and cultural.

One of the key questions was how to define exclusivity at a point when shopping has invaded all urban spaces, all public life and activity? This issue of the public, of readmitting the public into the territory of commerce interested us-how to recognize the consumer as a public persona and not only the other way around.

You are also designing a new epicenter store for Prada in China…

Yes, we are looking at a new epicenter concept in Shanghai. Like the other stores, it will be very specific to its context. It will be very much about location-not really in the traditional, commercial sense, but about how the placement and positioning of the store can alter its relation to the public.

Going East was the theme of your book content. What is it about Asia that occupies OMA?

We always had a strong interest in extreme urban conditions. Asia, over the past decades, has undergone a process of rapid modernization unparalleled in other parts of the world. It is a context in which most rules and models of western traditional architecture and urban planning are completely invalid. Conditions in China are currently transforming at such a breathtaking pace that it becomes almost impossible to describe how things actually work. A lot is about improvisation within a continuously shifting environment. Many aspects around projects we are doing are new and have never been done or tested before, so the work requires a continuous relearning and adapt and adjust. It is both a very demanding but also very inspiring process.

China is simultaneously interesting, exciting for its potential, and scary, inscrutable at the same time…The CCTV project is your first commission there, and one of the largest buildings ever built. The Beijing Books Building (BBB), at over a million square feet, is probably also one of the largest book stores sever. What is it about China that amplifies all ambitions and possibilities?

Certainly, China is a country that confronts you with figures in a fairly shocking way. CCTV is not only one of the largest high-rise structures conceived until today, but it also is a TV station that once it is completed will be one of the biggest media empires in the world. Currently CCTV is already producing 15 channels, and it will be capable of broadcasting more than 250 channels with this new building. These are all scales and quantities that go beyond that you would believe is feasible. This also counts for the Beijing Books Building. A bookstore of 100,000 square meters seems completely unthinkable in comparison to the fashion stores of about 2,000 square meters we did for Prada. The prospect of doing something 50 times that scale for a singular retail space would be impossible elsewhere. But again, once you start to look at the conditions there (in China), while certain things look every ambitious you realize that some might also be entirely plausible. The existing bookstore of 50,000 square meters is jam-packed with people, who are not only buying, but actually reading there, standing in the aisles, in front of the shelves, sitting on the floor…The store is used as a public facility, as a library instead of a purely commercial space. And again, this kind of adaptation is actually what I am very interested in within the Asian context. There is a much greater sense of flexibility-thins that would only be declared dysfunctional and a big problem in the west are here being explored and reinterpreted in a very different way.

Let’s talk about the CCTV project-in your introduction to the recently published special issue of A+U magazine ‘CCTV by OMA’ you talk of the high-rise having reached its destiny-and CCTV as a proposal to rethink the skyscraper…

About 2 years ago Asia surpassed the United States in terms of number of skyscrapers; it had suddenly become the new centre of this typology. While now the world’s tallest structures are to be found in Malaysia or Taipei, there is very little development of its architectural-or urban-values. We asked ourselves what we could contribute at that point in times, as westerners building in Asia, and how the skyscraper could be redefined about 100 years after its birth.

CCTV is a proposition that counters the race for ultimate height, which you can only lose, or win for only a very short period of time. Instead of attempting to be the tallest, the project proposes a three-dimensional, programmatic configuration that unites all aspects of television making in a single loop of interconnected activities. All divisions and components of this gigantic media company are assembled in a single building and allow the company to operate as a coherent whole. We used the analogy of a system ‘where the heads know what the hands are doing’ to express the idea of both an organizational but also social entity that would allow for a new sense of collective production. The ‘loop’ represents that; and with some 12,000 inhabitants the building starts to form a collective in its own right.

How large is the project, actually, and how do you work on a building of such a scale?

The main building CCTV alone comprises more than 450,000 square meter gross floor area, and the Television Cultural Centre TVCC is about another 100,000 square meter large. Both inhabit a site of 20 hectares in the new CBD in the east of Beijing.

During the early design phases, I was leading a team of about 60 architects, and we were working with more than 100 structural and mechanical engineers from Arup, as well as many other specialist consultants. The intense collaboration between architects and engineers has always played a key role in our work, but CCTV is probably one of the best examples for this close relationship and the building a real hybrid of all disciplines.

A large part of our team was actually Chinese; we invited our Shanghai-based partner office ECADI (East China Architecture and Design Institute) to send 13 staff to live and work with us in Rotterdam for the first yea, to engage in a cultural exchange, and profit from each other’s knowledge. We wanted to go beyond the common practice of foreign firms that treated their architecture more like an import-export product, did their work at home and subsequently handed it over to the Chinese while withdrawing from the local realization. Since one year I have now a large group of our staff in Beijing to continue the collaboration on site and maintain involvement in the project until its completion.

During the past year some difficulties of the project were widely publicized. Also the issue of foreign architects building many of the key projects in China remains an ongoing subject. How did you overcome all these charges and challenges? Many people still believe the project is not happening.

At this point it is maybe important to say that the time of hesitation is completely behind us and everybody else. It is true that there were many rumours last year, but the project is proceeding with full speed, and construction has already started last year in September. Before the end of this year, the foundations for the main building will be complete, and TVCC will have finished all underground construction. So there is actually very little doubt that it is happening…both buildings will be in use for the Olympics in 2008.

There is a group of Chinese architects that call s for containment and restriction of international involvement. In principle I very much understand this position or even sympathise with it. But I think there are also a number of things that can maybe be a contribution to the development of architecture in its current stages in China. But we are also very committed to working with local architects to not only inject our own vision, but to engage in a process and collaboration that allows both sides to develop their skills and understanding. And now a new generation of young Chinese architects emerges that will soon start to build elsewhere in the world, in the Europe, in the United States. The issue will reverse…

TVCC is an intriguing building, but it is always overlooked in the shadow of its larger sibling, CCTV. It has an incredibly complex public and cultural programme on the ground floor, with a floating theatre, multiple auditoriums, and also the cell-like arrangement of the hotel rooms above with the soaring atrium…

Yes, there is mostly too little attention paid to TVCC-it’s actually a really exciting building. It will also be the structure completely accessible to the public, and therefore play a key role in the urban life of the project. The 1500-seat theatre is maybe one of its most interesting features; it is a theatre that is a hybrid between a traditional theatre and a television studio. I can stage classical performances but also convert into a fully experimental performance space. While in common theatres the seating of the ‘parterre’ occupies the ground and small balconies accommodate additional seats for large audiences, our design unites all spectators on a single floating balcony. The ground floor is liberated from all seating and allows television cameras to move freely around and inbetween the performance. The entrance of the theatre-the foyer-is now level with the stage and allows a direct confrontation of the incoming spectators with the performance, and unusual types of shows to emerge.

How about the Beijing Books Building, BBB…

The Beijing Books Building is going to be a doubling of an existing structure located on Beijing’s central axis Chang An Avenue. Although the building is a bookstore, it is filled with people that actually goes to read there///it resembles more a library than a commercial space. For up to 50,000 visitors per day, the new structure is conceived as a system of ramps that connect to the existing building and merges both old and new into a single continuous floor plate. The circulation is no longer confined to escalator banks, but the sales areas themselves form a spiral movement of gradually sloping bookshelves that both channel and accommodate the customers. The building starts to unfold an urban experience of multiple activities mixed with commercial areas along its vertical trajectory, which transforms the existing bookstore into an urban media centre for the city.

In south-east Asian architecture, there is an emphasis on ‘tropicality’, and of its encounter with modernity. What is your take on this notion of ‘Topical Modernity’?

Tropical Modernity should perhaps not be thought about just in the contest of architecture but also of the city and all it entails. There could be much more exploration of the uncontrollable dynamics of Tropical Urbanity, its ability of improvisation, its informal qualities and aspects, all the things that come and go in a continuous flow, all the things that are the opposite of what architecture usually stands for.

The project for Penang Island, Malaysia, which we collaborated on, was a masterplaning proposal. What I would like to talk about is the idea of planning: Since more than a generation, there has been an almost clear absence of urban manifestos, of a ‘vision of the city’-have we entered a period in which architecture and planning no longer have ‘rules’? At a time where utopias are no longer credible, is planning still possible? Your comments…

What is interesting to me about the PTC project is that instead of a vision of an ideal city, it proposes to acknowledge a series of given conditions-the physical site, the culture contest, but also the ambitions of the developer and the related economic implications-and negotiates the inevitable conflicts of the situation without completely resolving them. The scheme does not create the illusion of a fully integrated, homogenous tissue, of ‘perfect planning’, but actually confronts contradictory interests and conditions in a heterogeneous constellation. It is about the complexity of the city, in contrast to the simplicity of the interests of the developer.

It is a question of the relationship between the typical and the special-how do you operate within a given program that consists of the ever-same ingredients from housing to offices, hotels and retail, which introducing distinct and pronounced qualities for each one of them? How could you envision an urban structure that while offering very distinct characteristics would also be about being not so special, about the existing fabric and a sense of integration and continuity of the surrounding realities? We are proposing to acknowledge and re-formulate the contradictions and energy of the tropical city in a way in which they could unfold a partly controlled, but also partly liberated environment that doesn’t become a pure vision of architecture of planning, but that actually leaves open a whole range of things-something that is a non-design, a type of urbanity that can tolerate and live with differences-a city that maybe lives exactly from these difference.

Can you elaborate on the strategies employed in the design for Penang, its workings?

You could almost describe the approach as a tool kit with intentional gaps: it catalogues certain elements and defines rules and positions of their relationships, but it simultaneously ensures incompleteness, or therefore openness. It defines that is contained and what is flexible, and assigns zones to the first, and leaves space for the latter.

The huge quantity of building program is contained in circular fields, each building core containing essentially a mono-function. The concentration of the ‘had’ program leaves more than half of the site actually open-and allows it to become a fluid tissue that connects the surroundings to the activities within the site. The scale of the circles is controlled in a way in which their inside guarantees independence, yet their border ensures connectivity to what we called the ‘tropical soup’, this connective tissue of tropical green and urban activities. The contrast between the building and the unbuilt, the controlled and the uncontrolled, the architectural and the tropical is the central focus of the project.

Singapore is currently engaged in an interesting period of investigating and re-imagining itself, a process known as ‘Remarking Singapore’. This is a strategic initiative to maintain Singapore as an attractive and relevant location, also to declare new beginnings, new intensities…Architecturally, this seems to settle on a discussion of ‘iconic’ production, of the Bilbao effect…What suggestions can you make to Singapore at this juncture?

While iconic architecture has in certain cases succeeded to act as a visual catalyst for change, I am not so confident that this model is actually what the focus should be on-Malaysia did, then Taiwan, opt for the iconography of the tallest structure to manifest its place in the race for recognition, but an interest in the actual ‘contents’ of what is built, the environment, both physical and social, might be the more relevant strategy for change. Within the perpetually changing panorama of the region it would actually be quite interesting to take a more detailed look at these issues and to investigate Singapore’s potential role in the south-east Asian context at this point in time.

Thank you.

Thanks, its been a pleasure.

Ang Chee Cheong practices in Malaysia as Chee Ang Architect. He is the new Malaysian correspondent for d+a and will provide regular coverage of Malaysian projects and activities, as well as periodic commentary on international and regional developments. Ang participated with OMA in the PTC (Penang Tropical City) Competition to redevelop the existing Penang Turf Penang Turf Club site.