Squaring the Circle

Project Description

Squaring the Circle

by Aric Chen, Apr 22, 2010 [View PDF]

The rise of Ole Scheeren, Rem Koolhaas’ playmaker in Asia, is proving that Beijing is now architecture’s main game


Architect Ole Scheeren is sitting in his spacious white office on the 29th floor of a high-rise edging a thicket of high-rises in the Central Business District of Beijing. It’s a hot afternoon in July, and outside his window, with its vast panorama of the still-booming Chinese capital, the global recession feels like some other planet’s problem. Below Scheeren is the Third Ring Road, its traffic-clogged, dozen-plus lanes lurching towards the gravity-defying behemoth known as the CCTV tower.

With the possible exception of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, no other building has become as iconic of China’s architectural ambitions as the CCTV tower. Set to become the HQ of China Central Television, the country’s state television broadcaster, when it opens later this year, it’s not so much a tower as a spinetingling conceit: a 234m-tall pair of glass-and-steel angles that, flouting impossibility, touch in mid-air. Designed by Scheeren and his boss, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the building has already secured its place as one of the most significant buildings of the century. It’s the project that made Scheeren’s name, and the reason he moved to Beijing.

But today, Scheeren seems keen to distance himself from it. ‘After I did this,’ he says, grabbing a one-foot-tall model of the CCTV building, ‘I wanted to do something as different as possible.’ With practised flair, he puts the model down. ‘And so I did this,’ he continues ‘ this’ being a model of a project in Shanghai. Made to the same scale as the CCTV mock-up, it is ridiculously tiny – not much bigger than his thumbnail.

For Scheeren, it seems, life is a series of inverse efforts to swim against the currents of convention and expectation. You know me for designing gigantic buildings? I’ll do a miniscule one instead. The West is making forays into China? I’ll have China as my base, and make forays into the West. Still a partner of the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the trailblazing firm co-founded by Koolhaas in 1975, Scheeren is charged with overseeing the practice’s Asian projects and newly opened Hong Kong office from his Beijing HQ And increasingly he is calling the creative shots.

For starters, there is the Shanghai project, scheduled to open this spring. When Crystal CG, the Chinese digital animation giant, asked Scheeren to wrap its cluster of five post-industrial buildings with a new, unified façade, Scheeren realised that installing the cheapest curtain wall would still cost double the project’s budget. ‘I told them, “What you gave me is completely impossible,'” he says, adding: ‘So I accepted the challenge.’ Scheeren’s solution was to preserve four of the buildings and demolish the fifth, inserting a metal mesh-clad structure in its place.

Then there is his upcoming Scotts Tower in Singapore, a 36-storey luxury residential high-rise that defiantly thumbs its nose at convention: it looks as if four glass towers are sliding up and down its central core. Having now done upscale residences, Scheeren wants to tackle affordable housing, too. Also in Singapore, his proposed Interlace development of 1,040 flats in Gillman Heights is a seemingly irregular stack of massive boxes, all carefully calibrated to optimize daylight, airflow, cost and communal space.

Alongside a theorist’s knack for inventing words say, ‘complexification’), Scheeren has a wonky fascination with analysis and research, speaking frequently in flow-chart fashion while summoning an intricate databank of percentages and ratios. In true OMA style, his process is a highly rationalised one that, churned through the algorithms of a rebellious world view, produces buildings of irrational daring. The aim is nothing short of questioning everything we think we know about buildings – how they are organised, conceived, used and interpreted in order to achieve a new environment.

Perhaps the most striking example of this, and Scheeren’s biggest, post-CCTV project, will be MahaNakhon tower, now breaking ground in Bangkok. At 77 storeys, it will be Thailand’s tallest building when finished, a soaring skyscraper whose smooth glassy surface will be broken by a spiralling gash that reveals a three-dimensional, pixelated interior carved with terraces. The design, which has been controversial in Thailand, seems to be both generating an eroding at once – a techno-geological illusion.

‘Ole approaches his work so that each project is different,’ says Sorapoj Techakraisri, the developer of the building, which will include high-end boutiques and restaurants, Ritz-Carlton-managed apartments and an Edition hotel, part of a new brand from Marriott and New York hotelier Ian Schrager. ‘His work is completely original,’ adds Schrager. ‘He’s doing all of the hotel’s public spaces, which won’t be like anything you’d expect. And I want him to take it a step further and reinvent the rooms.’

While OMA projects such as the CCTV complex and the forthcoming Taipei Performing Arts Center are jointly credited to Koolhaas and Scheeren, all of these latest commissions (which are still under the OMA umbrella) bear Scheeren’s name alone. Although overwhelmingly associated with Koolhaas, OMA has long presented itself as a firm that gives younger partners a degree of autonomy. ‘Rem is someone who can inspire you,’ says Scheeren. ‘But he also gives you space.’

Scheeren, now 39, was born in the city of Karlsruhe, in south-west Germany. His father was also an architect but, as Scheeren tells it, it was at the age of 18 that he understood where his future lay. That year, Koolhaas won a competition to design Karlsruhe’s Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie, a new media art centre. The proposal was never built but, after attending the Dutch master’s lectures in the city, Scheeren was won over. ‘I thought, perhaps rather naively, “This is the only person I’d ever want to work with,'” he recalls.

After finishing high school, Scheeren, who had begun working for his father at the age of 14, bought a second-hand Lancia Y10 and began driving around Europe, absorbing as much architecture as he could. ‘I knew I had to gain a better understanding,’ he explains. Meanwhile, he played in rock bands, built his first project, a retail conversion, and continued his studies in Karlsruhe and Lausanne. In 1995, Scheeren moved to London to study at the Architectural Association. But the night before classes were to begin, he made a drastic decision: ‘It’s time,’ he recalls thinking. The next day, Scheeren abruptly left London for Rotterdam. Showing up at OMA, unannounced, he demanded to see Koolhaas. His brazenness paid off.

Still, Scheeren remained restless. He spent over a year at OMA, followed by stints in New York, London (where he completed his studies at the Architectural Association) and Bangkok. In 1999, Koolhaas called Scheeren back to Rotterdam to work on the firm’s flagship stores for Prada in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco (only the first two were realised). Three years later, the young architect was made partner, and OMA won the commission to build CCTV.

Scheeren has what you might call the classic architect’s syndrome: a propensity for big, heroic visions tempered by the more humbling realities of realising them. More to the point, ‘he is a fast thinker and has an enormous curiosity that goes far beyond the field of architecture’, says Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London. In 1999, having worked with Koolhaas and Scheeren on the installation of the ‘Cities on the Move’ exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, Obrist invited Scheeren to work with him on the show’s Bangkok edition.

Taking over shopping malls, train stations and other unlikely locations, the exhibition fed, and was fed by, the frenetic Thai capital, turning the Asian hyper-city into something akin to a giant happening. Even now, Scheeren is still animated when talking about it. ‘It was an incredible model of complexity I felt compelled by,’ he says. Adds Obrist: ‘When we went to Bangkok, I saw Ole’s immense curiosity about Asia, which anticipated his move to Beijing years later. I could tell he had this desire to move to the centre, to spend some time not in the Western world, but to be there.’

Scheeren didn’t relocate to Beijing until 2004, when work on CCTV began in earnest. The move was as much a personal project as a professional one. ‘I wanted to see how I could change this environment, but also how this environment could change me,’ he says. ‘I also wanted to declare Beijing a creative centre from where we can think about other places, to think of Beijing as the hub, rather than a spoke.’

It may turn out that Scheeren was prescient. With the global economic slowdown accelerating China’s relative rise – the country is likely to surpass Japan this year to become the world’s second largest economy – it is clear the future will be increasingly defined in the East. In the context of such mega-projects as Zaha Hadid’s forthcoming Guangzhou Opera House and Steven Holl’s recently completed Vanke Center in Shenzhen, the mad rush into China by many Western architects has acquired greater urgency as work dries up at home. Meanwhile, an emerging generation of young Chinese architects is building at a pace their foreign counterparts can only dream of. As in other arenas, China’s unprecedented urbanisation, and the social and environmental challenges it brings, is shifting architecture’s centre of gravity towards Beijing.

For his part, Scheeren has in some ways become the ultimate insider in China. (Since 2007, he has been dating the actress Maggie Cheung.) On the other hand, he is somewhat off the radar, rarely mentioned in Chinese architecture circles. Keeping in character, it’s this ambiguous state – of being part of something, yet outside it – that Scheeren says suits him.

But in February last year, Scheeren was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight, and not in the way he would have preferred. On the last night of the Chinese New Year celebrations, workers on the CCTV site launched unauthorized fireworks. Sparks landed on the roof of the Television Cultural Center (TVCC), a 38-storey tower, designed as part of the whole complex that was to house a Mandarin Oriental hotel. While the CCTV tower was left unscathed, TVCC, still under construction, erupted in flames, killing one firefighter.

Scheeren was in Johannesburg at the time, but within hours he was on a flight back to Beijing. There, rumours began swirling: the fire was intentionally set because Mandarin Oriental, upset by construction delays, was about to pull out, making the insurance worth more than the building itself Then there was the ‘CCTV is Falling’ theory: TVCC acted as a counterweight to CCTV and had been so structurally damaged that it had to be torn down, threatening to tip the bigger building over. And on it went – though none of it, of course, turned out to be true.

Though hesitant to speak publicly about the fire, Scheeren allows that repair work has begun on TVCC. Meanwhile, after a lengthy delay, a 2010 unveiling for CCTV is on track. What’s more, Scheeren appears especially pleased about the impending opening of the Crystal CG project in Shanghai, to include a non-profit digital culture centre that Scheeren proposed. ‘One of the key struggles I see in China is that, while production is booming, the establishment is lacking a critical framework for what’s happening,’ he says.

To be sure, Scheeren sees himself as something of a catalyst in China. But how has Beijing changed him? After a long pause, he responds: ‘It’s taught me a lot in terms of understanding architecture as an incredibly complex interplay of multiple aspects. It’s embodied in an extreme way here that incorporates technical complexity, political significance, historical symbolism and cultural interplay.’ I’m a bit confused by his answer, until I realize he’s talking about CCTV. Indeed, for Scheeren, CCTV is Beijing.