The Man with the Impossible Plan

Project Description

The Man with the Impossible Plan

by Luke Crissell, Apr 23, 2006 [View PDF]

Aged 35, Ole Scheeren is the brains behind the most complex building ever made. Luke Crissell meets architecture’s new star. Portrait by Ken Schles

Even at eight in the morning, Ole Scheeren is perfectly groomed. He’s the kind of man who can, and does on the occasion of our first meeting, wear a tailored, calf-length Ann Demeulemeester wool coat of such iridescent, confident whiteness that it causes almost everyone he passes to turn and stare. But that is not the most extraordinary thing about him: what’s more impressive is that the age of just 35 he is the architect in charge of the project to complete what is arguably the most complex building ever designed.

If all goes to plan, the building will open its doors in Beijing’s Central Business District just over two years from now. By then, that part of the city will be almost entirely complete – an architectural constellation sparkling with the glittering realizations of projects commissioned immediately following the announcement that the city had won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics. But even in such company, the China Central Television (CCTV) building will be awe-inspiring.

Although at 234 meters it won’t be one of the tallest buildings in the world, CCTV will be both one of the largest and one of the most avant-garde. Its main structure, a pair of towers which lean and fold through 90 degrees at the top and bottom to form a giant loop, will house approximately 10,000 workers. It, and the Television Cultural Centre, which is being simultaneously constructed immediately behind CCTV, will contain, among other things, recording studios, ballrooms, digital cinemas, exhibition halls, an international broadcasting centre, a 1,500-seat theatre, and a five-star hotel.

It is one of the most ambitious building projects ever attempted and will, on completion, become a figurative symbol of contemporary China. A literal, dynamic force that promises to open up the country to the world, starting with the Olympics which will be broadcast in its entirety from the building.

Scheeren ‘s involvement with CCTV first began in January 2002 when the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) – the celebrated Dutch design firm founded by Rem Koolhaas in 1975 and of which Scheeren is a partner – won a worldwide competition for the building. He then became the man in charge of the more than 400 people – architects, engineers and designers – who have worked on the project since.

Right now he is sitting in front of me in a café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, drinking black coffee and regarding his cream cheese- laden bagel with a slight repugnance.  Even after his experience as lead designer and project director of the Prada shops in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, did he not find the CCTV job a big jump for an architect his age?

“I’ve been asked before how someone my age runs a project like CCTV when you would only expect someone in their 50s or 60s to have the experience,” he says. “But people forget this project does not have any prototypes, so the typical notion of ‘knowledge’ does not apply. It’s a process of continual re-evaluation and re-learning your working methods, and I think you need to be young enough to withstand the physical pressure of this. I’ve faced the question of my age a lot and in the end the only way you can really answer that is by acting. By showing and proving that your proposals actually make sense and what you suggested is actually working.”

For as long as he can remember Scheeren has been operating on a level far beyond his years. Born in Karlsruhe, in the south west of Germany, to an architect father, he says he practically grew up in architecture school. By the time he was 18, he had established a small studio building models for local practices. Then, shortly after he finished high school at age 19, he completed his first independent project – the conversion of a building into a fashion store. (When he eventually joined OMA several years later, he was the only person in the office with any experience of retail design.)

But, Scheeren says, the combination of an architect father and an architecture background was precisely what convinced him that he wanted nothing to do with the profession. He wanted to rock out instead. “I was in a couple of bands, and would jam around a lot,” he says, a smile cracking his acutely featured face. “All I wanted to do for a while was music. I absolutely did not want to be an architect.”

It took Rem Koolhaas, the man who would eventually hire Scheeren, to changes his mind. OMA had won a competition in Scheeren’s hometown to design a new centre for art and media technology, and the young man was impressed. “When I say the project completely struck me,” he recounts. “I felt connected with it in an almost inexplicable way. The building had enormous potential that I felt for the first time expressed what I had been looking for. I had the feeling that if something like is possible then maybe it’s actually worth doing architecture. And seeing Rem speak just reinforced that. I remember thinking, ‘OK, maybe at some point in my life I would like to work with that guy.’ It was at that moment that I decided to study architecture and go and look at buildings, try and understand what it was about.”

To hear him tell it, Scheeren’s quest for architecture took him across pretty much the whole of Western Europe; he would cram his athletic, 6ft 2in frame into his tiny car and drive off for days at a time.

“Once I was creeping around this house in Switzerland, trying to get as close as possible, and this old lady busted me. I thought I was going to get told off. But she called me in and made tea and we talked for 12 hours,” he recollects fondly. “She told me this story about how she had never really wanted her house like it was but she had met this architect who had totally changed her life. She had wanted something traditional but he offered her a concrete cube. At first she had resisted it but eventually agreed and she’s never been happier. It’s slightly romantic story, maybe, but it resonated because the piece of work embodied something that this architect had believed in. It fascinated me.”

Inspired, Scheeren would eventually study with the lady’s architect in Lausanne for a year. “We had the biggest fights you can imagine, but I think I learned more from him than any other teacher,” he says.

He certainly learned more from him than from the teachers at the Technische Hochschule Karlsruhe, which he attended for two years. “It was basically them telling me certain things that I wasn’t allowed to do yet,” he says. “Then they erased my name from the end-of-year publication – I was the only one missing – and they said: ‘Oh, there must have been a problem with the computer system.’ Then they gave me my models back, which were all destroyed, and said, ‘Unfortunately they fell off the shelf.’ But they didn’t dart not let me pass.” Scheeren relocated to London, but on the eve of his first day at another architecture school, he decided that wasn’t going to be for him either.

“I was lying in bed and I realized that right now was the moment to go and try what I had always planned,” he says. “So the next morning I called the school and told them I wouldn’t be attending, had my friend ship my stuff back to Germany, flew back, borrowed a friend’s car, drove to the OMA office in Rotterdam and said: “I want to work here.”

On paper it sounds ridiculous. But to hear it from Scheeren, in his unfaltering, Germanic-inflected voice, it sounds like the most obvious thing in the world. Listening to him talk about architecture, it’s hard to imagine he could ever have done anything else. So enamoured is he with his subject that when we leave the café two hours later, his coffee and bagel will be left practically untouched. He is articulate and self-assured, but at no point does he come across as supercilious, or condescending. It’s not hard to imaging him turning up at the headquarters of one of the most respected architectural practices in the world, wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the day before (“I was totally broke and had to stay at this youth hostel in the city the night before and left everything in the car apart from my portfolio; the next morning, when I came downstairs, everything had been stolen”) and demanding to speak to Koolhaas.

“I ended up showing him my portfolio and there was a section I had designed for a building in Germany that was similar to a house Rem was designing in Bordeaux,” Scheeren says. “He looked almost shocked. Anyway, they had this competition they were working on and they just decided to throw me on to that, and we ended up winning it. I stayed for a year and a half.”

But as suddenly as he had arrived, Scheeren decided to leave. “The exchange wasn’t really taking place to the depth I had expected so I told Rem I needed to go away for a while.” H e came to New York and worked for a time with graphic designers 2×4 before returning to London to study at the Architectural Association. While there, Scheeren worked on an urban strategy for Vauxhall so vast in scope it took him 30 minutes just to explain the basics of it to me.

After being called back to lead OMA’s Prada project, Scheeren stayed on and was made a partner in early 2002. He has since shifted his base to Beijing, and in opening an OMA office there has set a precedent for Western architectural firms, “To declare Beijing as a base for operations is to make a much bigger commitment to the place. I think we’re at the forefront of defining China as not just a market, but as a place that is extremely interesting in itself,” he says.

Since its inception OMA has been synonymous with Koolhaas, but as younger partners like Scheeren begin to lead increasingly high-profile projects, the media have been quick to hail the “death of the father”. I called Koolhaas for his opinion on this. “I wanted to focus on teamwork, and on collaborative efforts. Regardless of my insistence that it’s not only my so-called ‘talent’ that is talked about, there is a hysteria for ‘star’ architecture. But I am, and have always been, insistent that this is a partnership. The notion that it is a single man creating all this work is utterly absurd.”

For his part, Scheeren says: “The media are very much persona-focused and there is often one name everyone sticks to. And very often nobody mentions OMA but only Rem’s name when they are talking about certain buildings. But it’s not the same anymore.”

With CCTV, OMA looks set to redefine the traditional notion of a skyscraper, and it couldn’t be more timely – the number of skyscrapers being built in Asia has recently surpassed that being built in the US. As for Scheeren, while he clearly has no interest in propagating his own myth, you get the feeling that if a new generation of architects are going to ascend to “star” status, none are more deserving of it than him.