Ole Scheeren’s Architectural Dialogue

Project Description

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Ole Scheeren’s Architectural Dialogue

by Emma Crichton-Miller, Nov 18, 2011[View PDF]

The Latest Project From the Rising German Star Brings Together the Social and the Structural.

In 2008, when all eyes were turned to Beijing for the Olympics, one building seemed to epitomize the new China. Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest stadium was undoubtedly a brilliant, graphic statement. However, it was another daring building, completed in 2009, that became the country’s quintessential icon—the vast, angular China Central Television Tower, which looks like a three-dimensional Chinese character in some radical new script.

Architect Ole Scheeren led the project for the Asia branch of Office for Metropolitan Architecture, the celebrated Dutch architecture and design practice, from 2002.

Now principal of his own firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, the German architect is hoping to replicate that success. Last week, Mr. Scheeren revealed his design for a landmark tower in Kuala Lumpur, the first major commission for his practice, which is based in Beijing and has an office in Hong Kong. The 268-meter-high Angkasa Raya tower, created for Malaysian property developers Sunrise Bhd., will combine offices, a hotel and residential units with diverse retail and leisure businesses. At its base, in a gesture that required the rewriting of the city’s planning laws, open-air floors connected by spiraling ramps allow pedestrians and cars to access shops. “Those open bits,” Mr. Scheeren says, “act like an urban sponge, to soak in the city activity, to soak in the public and the green, and mix it all up as it is in the cityscape and then project it back out as an image of liveliness and undo the muteness of the skyscraper that is always a homogenous totem.”

Above, three separate, multistory blocks will house businesses, linked vertically and horizontally by further bands of public space. “Malaysia is one of the most diverse cultural environments,” he says. “So I proposed a building composed of different elements that mutually support each other yet are separate…. It stands out very much from its context and yet it can establish multiple harmonious relationships with the surroundings.”

To be located opposite the Petronas Twin Towers, the 1998 symbol of Malaysia’s global ambition, the design has been embraced publicly by Prime Minister Najib Razak as emblematic of a newly inclusive, culturally diverse Malaysia. “The result is a remarkable piece of architecture, with a design concept that portrays a truly urban and dynamic Kuala Lumpur, while intelligently displaying the Malaysian spirit of oneness,” says developer Tong Kooi Ong.

“There is no point in trying to compete with [the towers] in their own terms,” Mr. Scheeren says. “It is about doing something that is at once respectful but at the same time offers different qualities, and maybe withdraws itself from a statement of power and shifts things to a more inclusive idea of city and culture at large.”

In March 2010, with three further significant Asian projects for OMA under his belt—the Scotts Tower and the Interlace building in Singapore, and the MahaNakhon in Bangkok—Mr. Scheeren set up on his own with long-time OMA collaborator Eric Chang. Eager to pursue “opportunities within central parts of Asian metropolises that can have an impact on the city,” Mr. Scheeren argues there has been a global shift in design. “Architecture used to be all about working from the West for the East,” he says. “Then it was about going to the East to work for the East. The next stage for me is to project back the experience we have gained here.”

Mr. Scheeren, now 40 years old, was immersed in architecture from childhood. The son of a professor of architecture at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Germany, he says, “I basically grew up in the architecture school where my father was studying and teaching.” By 14, he was making models and designing in his father’s office. By 19, he was running his first construction sites. By the end of high school, however, he had had enough. Mr. Scheeren was set on being a musician. But attending three lectures by Rem Koolhaas, who had just won the competition to design the Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media, ZKM, changed his mind. “I saw the project that OMA had done and it struck me as something I hadn’t seen before. I felt that is the way back into architecture for me,” he says.

Studies in Karlsruhe and Lausanne, Switzerland, culminated in Mr. Scheeren winning a place at London’s prestigious Architectural Association. The night before he was due to begin classes, he made an impulsive decision. “I suddenly woke up and thought, it’s time. I rang the school in the morning and said, ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t come.’ I took a plane back to Germany, borrowed a car, drove to Rotterdam, walked into OMA and said, ‘I want to work here.”‘ They hired him. Already evident were his “unstoppable commitment, motivation and energy,” that fellow architect Alex Warnock-Smith says continue to define him. After a year and a half, Mr. Scheeren moved to New York, where he worked in a graphic-design studio, and then to London, where he completed his postgraduate studies at the AA. He then returned to OMA, where he became a partner, and was project director of the Prada shops in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Underpinning all his work was the idea that “the built substance is a tool to do something, not an end in itself,” he says. “Yes, I am very interested in beauty because beauty is part of the sense, but I am not interested in those traditional definitions of architecture as material, light, space. These are our tools, but these are only tools to do something to us. Ultimately, I do believe it is a social question. I am interested in how a project can engage a specific context, how it can attain a meaning for the people that use it, inhabit it, or look at it.”

With projects in China, Singapore and Malaysia, the East has given Mr. Scheeren a diverse platform to explore these ideas. As he says of Angkasa Raya: “I do not believe in architecture that suggests the same answer everywhere…. It should be formed out of an understanding of a very complex mix of issues—culture, people and their psychologies and habits, history both recent and past, but also the future. It is dangerous to look at this building as a political gesture, but it is interesting that it is capable of both inspiring and resonating with that kind of agenda.”