Profile Ole Scheeren

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Profile Ole Scheeren

by Alex Warnock-Smith, Sep, 2011 [View PDF]

On the eve of a major project announcement for Kuala Lumpur, former OMA partner Ole Scheeren talks to Alex Warnock-Smith about running his own practice and becoming the poster boy of Asian architecture, literally and figuratively.

Büro Ole Scheeren was launched in March 2010, with offices Beijing and Hong Kong and plans for one in London. As a former partner at OMA, responsible for delivering high-profile projects around the world such as the Prada Epicentres in New York and LA and CCTV in Beijing, Scheeren is used to being in the spotlight. His fame is perhaps greatest in Asia where he often features in celebrity photoshoots, even appearing in an in-flight magazine advertising his design for a sparkling new residential development in Bangkok city centre.

Büro-OS is a new venture for the bright young face of international architecture, an opportunity to address novel challenges in an ever-changing professional terrain. Scheeren lists a number of personal and professional motivations for setting up his own practice including a desire to be independent and to step out of the established context of OMA. He describes this shift as one both of continuity and duality: after seven years of heading up the OMA office in Beijing, he feels an intense engagement with Asia but Büro-OS is also born out of a desire to develop a more investigative architecture, and to pursue issue-based projects that address emerging needs and the pressures faced in Asian urban environments.

While Scheeren is keen to continue his previous work at OMA on high-end housing, low-cost housing, cultural projects and tall buildings, he is also interested in further developing his specific interest in strategic thinking and the design of complex organisational structures, applied to the particularities of different regions and their diverse psychological and cultural contexts.

The new practice is firmly embedded in Asia, which Scheeren believes sets it apart from other international firms. Rather than designing projects in the West and exporting them to the East, Büro-OS aims to reverse the flow. Its creative base is in Asia and that is where its thinking and production takes place.

Being Asia-based reflects optimism towards the changing global geopolitical territory and emerging economic power of the East, and allows him a more critical look back at the West. Asia is in a dynamic period of change, and offers a world of possibilities in which architecture and architects play a key role in transforming society.

Büro-OS is motivated by an open, questioning attitude and genuine optimism. Scheeren’s final OMA projects included The Scotts Tower – which moved away from the conventional tower archetype, with four apartment blocks suspended about a central core, and the 77-storey MahaNakhon, in Bangkok, Thailand’s tallest building. New projects of Büro-OS include a large-scale development in Singapore,  an artist’s studio/gallery in Beijing, and a mixed-use skyscraper in Kuala Lumpur.

Scheeren is keen to emphasise the critical aspects of his work: each building represents a radical re-thinking of expected architectural norms, and contributes to the wider transformation of its particular physical, cultural and urban context. MahaNakhon (or ‘Great Metropolis’ in Thai), was born out of an intense engagement with the cultural context of Bangkok, a ‘beautifully contradictory city, at once brutal and gentle, futuristic and set in the past’, which Scheeren has been involved with for a number of years. Scheeren realised that the only way to be radical within the architectural menagerie of Bangkok’s skyline was to be discreet, hence MahaNakhon’s sleek, glazed profile is disrupted by pixellated bands of terraces and skyboxes that spiral up the perimeter of each tower and reflect the pattern and form of the traditional Bangkok fabric, giving the impression of a tower that is ‘always under construction and constantly changing, being transformed by the people who are using it.’

MahaNakhon is being built immediately adjacent to a station of Bangkok’s elevated rail network, and the small scale grain of the city that inhabits the tower also erodes its base, creating terraces and valleys of smaller-scale public spaces, not included in more typical commercial developments.

The project exemplifies Scheeren’s ambition to extend beyond the confines of a brief and a set of regulations; Scheeren pushed the design further than the client’s expectations, with a series of open spaces designed to stimulate cultural activity and communicate the power of public space.

Scheeren describes his proposed scheme for Kuala Lumpur in similar terms: it is a  sixty-six storey structure that ‘pulls the whole streetscape of the city up, through and into the building’ and includes a multiplicity of mixed programmes – retail, restaurants, gardens, a food court and prayer rooms, reflecting the cultural span of Kuala Lumpur itself.

Scheeren is convinced architecture has the power to support and contribute to the city’s social, cultural and physical complexity. The MahaNakhon and Kuala Lumpur projects exemplify his interest in strategic thinking, working within and without the codes and regulations of a building to create complex organisational systems. ‘We’re not just about the image,’ Scheeren is keen to explain. ‘We’re looking for the critical and the radical within frameworks that can transform reality.’

Complex and transformative they may be, but Scheeren’s buildings are also visually spectacular and both the architect and his architecture are well on the way to achieving icon status in Asia. MahaNakhon and Scotts Tower are often seen in glossy advertisements for speculative real estate and on massive billboards on highways surrounding Bangkok and Singapore.

Scheeren is keen to dismiss the superficiality of the image and emphasise the seriousness of his work. ‘When I first stepped out, there was a shocking moment of incredible expectation… to fulfil all representational hunger. … I decided not to fuel the image-machine, but to take time to generate the beginnings of a serious body of work.’ That said, Scheeren deals with the contradiction between image and reality positively, seeing it as another productive duality. ‘It is part of our work to communicate, not just to produce; to generate understanding and to generate a reality for things to exist conceptually, not just physically,’ he states.

Scheeren displays a special kind of intelligence when explaining the creative challenge of working in the endlessly moving Asian context, and describes Chinese philosophy as a complex interplay of opposing forces that is hard for an outsider to comprehend or reject.

‘There is a wild mix of forces at play. Some that are incredibly shallow, greedy, flashy, but also many things that are profoundly deep, proud, serious and truly ambitious. You cannot divorce one from the other, but sometimes it is hard to judge which one dominates…. Our role is to identify the greater values in this and support what we see as depth and criticality.’

Reconciling dualities and inhabiting different personalities seems to be a defining feature of Scheeren’s approach to architecture and his position as a designer and a professional. His architecture and his public identity are at once iconic and everyday; image-based and real; positive and critical; commercially verse and intellectually complex.

Büro-OS already has a portfolio of projects that some more mature and established international firms would be proud of. In this sense, it does not feel like a young, unaccomplished firm struggling to cut its teeth and make its name. Whether Büro-OS and its projects will achieve the positive dualities of some of their peers – transforming local and regional contexts while also achieving international celebrity and architectural success – remains to be seen. But in the meantime, we are left with the unstoppable commitment, motivation and energy of a man who is well on the way to becoming Asia’s ‘thinking architect’. Let’s hope he doesn’t peak too soon.

Alex Warnock-Smith is co-founder of Urban Projects Bureau, unit master at the AA Housing & Urbanism programme, and a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton.