Design & Philosophy

Project Description

THE EDGE MAGAZINE
Design & Philosophy

by Audrey Simon, Oct 19, 2009 [View PDF]

Ole Scheeren, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, gives Audrey Simon an insight into his design approach and explains why Asia is important to him.

If Ole Scheeren had followed his dream in his teenage years, we might be listening to his music CDs today instead of admiring his great body of architectural work. He says he was very much into music in his late teens and had even formed a band. However, Scheeren confesses that he sings badly and he will never revisit the idea of singing in a band profess ionally.

Short of asking him to hum a few bars, we have no proof of his singing ability. What we do have is tangible proof of his genius in architecture. The 38-yearold German architect has a portfolio that is the envy of many in the industry.

As a partner-in-charge of the famed Office for Metropolitan Architecture COMA), Scheeren has led the design and construction of the China Central Television headquarters and Television Cultural Centre in Beijing. His current projects include MahaNakhon, a 300m-tall tower in Bangkok; The Interlace and Scotts Tower residential projects in Singapore; a media centre in Shanghai; the Taipei Performing Arts Centre in Taiwan; the conceptual plan study for the West Kowloon Cultural District project in Hong Kong; and a recent bid to build the new city centre for Shenzen in South China. Since 1999, he has directed OMA’s work for Italian fashion giant Prada to complete the Prada Epicenter in New York City and Los Angeles. In 2006, he designed two exhibitions – one for The Museum of Modern Art in New York and another for Beijing.

One can only guess what the internationally renowned architect’s schedule must look like, but he made time for Options when he was in Singapore last month to unveil The Interlace, a new residential project that will be built on the site of the former Gillman Heights Condominium. This 81,000 sq m project is by Singapore Exchange-listed realestate companies CapitaLand and Hotel Properties Ltd.

Scheeren meets us at the China Club the day after The Interlace media presentation and, if he is exhausted, he never once shows it. He sits through the photo shoot like a pro, in a crisp white open-collared shirt, blue jeans and a well-cut black jacket.

How did this dapper young man end up designing buildings instead of writing ballads? He says it was because of his father, who is also an architect. “He was the reason why I never wanted to be an architect and he is also the reason why I became one.

“I started to work for my father at the age of 14 and, by the time I was 21, I had built my first independent project in his office. So, there was a fair amount of working with him and learning from him. But, there’s obviously a moment in the life of a teenager when you think the last thing you want to do is what your father does.”

“I was also convinced this waspossibly the worst job one could ever have. And that might still be true,” he says with a laugh. “The moment I started my studies, I already knew a number of things and that made it. .. although it may be absolutely wrong to say … easier. It also made it difficult for me [as] I never quite fit in. Teachers at my first year of architecture school always told me ‘you cannot know this yet. You have to do something simpler’ and that was an incredibly frustrating experience.”

This frustration marked the turning point in his life, driving him to seek greener pastures outside his hometown of Karlsruhe, which he refers to as a “boring administrative city in the middle of nowhere”. He left for London, where he graduated from the Architectural Association in London and received a Royal Institute of British Architects CRIBA) silver medal. He has, for the last five years, called Beijing home – from there he oversees all of OMA’s projects in Asia.

There is no doubt Scheeren is excited about the prospect of more projects in Asia. He thinks the continent has the potential to transform and Asia is, to him, undergoing an incredible transformation – more than in any other part of the world. “Compared with the sad West,” he deadpans, “here [in Asia], there is a dramatic difference between the defensive attempt of maintaining the old status quo and the sometimes overenthusiastic engagement with the future. It is very exciting to be part of that and to imagine and conceptualise scenarios for the future.”

The story of creation
Scheeren is ready for that future, and one good example of his design is The Interlace – a project he finds interesting, especially with regards its scale and arrangement. Taking on challenges that push the boundaries is something familiar to him – think 153m-tall Scotts Tower, which features four apartment tower blocks attached to a core shaft that look like they are suspended in the air. The Interlace comprises 31 apartment blocks, each six storeys high, stacked on top of one another in a hexagonal arrangement. The configuration allows for eight large-scale open courtyards.

Asked about his approach to each project, the soft-spoken Scheeren pauses for quite a while and then says, “At the beginning of the project, we try to suspend ideas and avoid any sort of predefined vision being imposed onto a situation. It is really more a process of trying to learn and understand it first … to look at the context.” The context he is referring to means not just looking at the site or the city, but also looking at the “cultural context of the society we are operating in “.

“If you look at the spread of [our] projects, they are of very different situations. Not only physically, but also culturally. I think each particular cultural or sociological environment needs to be understood in [terms of] its own characteristics and parameters. Then, there is always the rigorous process of investigating the programme, the actual building type, the typology [and] the functions that are in it.”

Also taken into consideration is the ability to understand what the building is about and what the architect could make it to be. Scheeren offers this example: “What is a theatre at this point in time? What role does it play in that society? What things are happening in it? But, also, what could it or should it be at this point in time? Are the traditional models still appropriate? Or do we actually need a contemporary reinterpretation or redefinition of such a typology”

“I think there is always a very dedicated and rigorous process within our work to look at each type, each typology [and] the programme components and see how synergies can be created.”

At times, the surroundings could bring in new elements the client may not have thought of. Scheeren says, for instance, the nearby sea could suddenly transform and enrich a building. “It really is the sum of these investigations that forms a subdued basis for the creative process, upon which ideas slowly start to emerge.”

What is architecture?
Scheeren is a thinker, offering gems that will set one’s mind working, making one think and look at things differently. He very seldom gesticulates, preferring to let his careful choice of words and dulcet tone of voice carry his message across loud and clear.

One perfect example is his definition of architecture: “I like to think about architecture in nar- THEEDCiE SINGAPORE I OCTOBER 19, 2009· OP7 says with a smile. “I have a lot of dreams. What I am looking for are opportunities, in which there is an ambition to not simply repeat a status quo or fu lfil a set of predefined intentions … but situations in which a client, the context and architect can come together to think about what more we could give, what more we could generate, what more we could do differently and how we could improve or increase the potential in things.” The projects, he adds, could be tiny or huge, private or public. “If you look at the projects I’m working on, they are very diverse, from residential to television station, fashion, theatre [and] many other things. Each project can profit from the lessons of the others. Each context can certainly benefit from developments in the other fields, so I think this cross-referencing works.” The Interlace comprises 31 apartment blocks, each six storeys high, stacked on top of one another in a hexagonal arrangement In short, don’t expect to spot a building and easily label it a “Scheeren”. He eschews the idea of being pigeonholed in one style. He avoids branding because he thinks branding something ultimately means you are stuck in a mould. This leads to “a fixed perception of who you are and what you do and, at this point, everyone wants you to do the same thing over and over again”, he says. rative terms. For me, there is a strong parallel between fiction, film and architecture. A piece of architecture is a kind of fiction where you imagine how people will live, use or inhabit a building. It is about their experiences, their emotions, their stories, their being in it that becomes a very defining part of the fantasy that a project ultimately is.”

Is it like making a movie? “I am not a film producer, although I have done a few short films. I think there is a certain parallel between these genres. There are architects that understand architecture as sculptures — as objects. I am less interested in architecture as objects; I am more interested in architecture as tools for stage sets or as an environment for things to happen in.”

In this respect, his decision to join Rem Koolhaas seems inspired. Some years ago, after he had finished high school, Scheeren saw some of Koolhaas’ works. It resonated with him and he saw something in that style of architecture that drew him.

As his hazel eyes light up, Scheeren elaborates: “His is an architecture that is about the exploration of concepts and potentials. To simply speculate on how buildings could function completely and differently and how buildings could in a way transform the possibilities for those who live in, use or occupy them.

“This was the first time I saw something I could really relate to and, I think from that point onwards, I wanted to work with him. But, I first had to learn more. It was at this moment that I decided to study architecture. I studied, and I worked … I did a number of things for a number of years until one day, I thought, it was time. I drove to Rotterdam and walked into the OMA office. And, that was it.”

Undoubtedly, Scheeren made the right choice. Koolhaas, the 65-year-old Dutch architect, started out as a scriptwriter for movies before becoming a journalist. It was only in 1968 that he decided to become an architect, and he shook the foundations of the industry with his designs. Some of his memorable works include the Seattle Central Library and the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin. In 2008, Time magazine named Koolhaas one of the 100 World’s Most Influential People.

Dream works
Where most architects harbor lofty ambitions of someday doing their very own dream project, Scheeren wants none of that. “I don’t have a dream project,” he says with a smile. “I have a lot of dreams. What I am looking for are opportunities, in which there is an ambition to not simply repeat a status quo or fu lfil a set of predefined intentions … but situations in which a client, the context and architect can come together to think about what more we could give, what more we could generate, what more we could do differently and how we could improve or increase the potential in things.”

The projects, he adds, could be tiny or huge, private or public. “If you look at the projects I’m working on, they are very diverse, from residential to television station, fashion, theatre [and] many other things. Each project can profit from the lessons of the others. Each context can certainly benefit from developments in the other fields, so I think this cross-referencing works.”

In short, don’t expect to spot a building and easily label it a “Scheeren”. He eschews the idea of being pigeonholed in one style. He avoids branding because he thinks branding something ultimately means you are stuck in a mould. This leads to “a fixed perception of who you are and what you do and, at this point, everyone wants you to do the same thing over and over again”, he says.

Scheeren sees each project as a form of communication – to communicate the ambition of the client to the public. He makes it a point to work closely with his client on how to position a project and what the “essence” of the project is about, right down to naming the project. And, that is probably how the name The Interlace came about – conjuring up an image of interlocking themes that blend and do not clash. It is precisely because of the unusual way Scheeren approaches his projects and the way he sees architecture that make us — and those who bought a unit at The Interlace — glad that he exchanged a recording studio for an architect’s studio.