The Modern Day Fountainhead

Project Description

The Modern Day Fountainhead

by Aiko Stevenson, May, 2011 [View PDF]

A modern day Howard Roark, German born Ole Scheeren evinces the brilliant architect portrayed in Ayn Rand’s cult classic ‘The Fountainhead’. One of the most groundbreaking architects of our time, Scheeren decided leave Rem Koolhaas last year to strike out on his own. Inspired by the notion of ‘fantasy’, he now hopes to redefine the realm of modern architecture by revolutionizing the way we live within its spaces.

Ole Scheeren is perhaps best known for his avant garde work on Beijing’s CCTV (China Central Television Station) Headquarters. A monumental arch made up of 100,000 tonnes of steel, it had to be fused together at dawn to ensure that the metal was cool enough so that it wouldn’t crack. Today it towers over the Chinese capital’s skyline in a radical reinvention of the skyscraper.

The son of an architect, Scheeren landed his first commission at the age of 20. He went onto join Rem Koolhaas at his Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in 1995 and seven years later he achieved the status of partner within one of the world’s most distinguished architectural firms. During this time, he oversaw several high profile projects in Asia including the CCTV Headquarters and the futuristic launch pad for setting up his own practice, Buro Ole Scheeren last year. Based in Beijing, Hong Kong and London, the firm is committed to Asia and the region’s increasing importance in the world of architecture and design.

Interview with Ole Scheeren

F: How did you get into architecture?

OS: My father is an architect and I grew up involved in it before I could walk. I started to work in my dad’s office when I was 14 and got my first own commission when I was 20. But there was a period of time when I thought the last think I want to do is become an architect. I was interested in literature and music, and played in a few bands. But then I realized that I was probably too bad at that and that architecture held an incredible potential.

F: You were a partner at OMA with Rem Koolhaas. Why leave?

OS: 15 years with Rem was a really great period of time that allowed me to realize many extraordinary projects. 12 years ago, we did the Prada epicenter stores in New York and LA and then I have been leading the project for the CCTV television station headquarters in Beijing. But I reached a point in my life when I realized that I wanted to work in full independence and it just felt like the right time to go on my own.

F: What are the key differences between working for yourself and working for OMA?

OS: There are significant differences in that OMA has been around for a very long time, therefore it is relatively clear as to what it is. Starting a new company, there is an openness about where I can take the practice and an openness in the opportunities that are available to us. OMA is a very large business with all the advantages and disadvantages of a big firm. We are smaller and more agile, more personally focused. And we are based in Asia.

F: What are you working on at the moment?

OS: There is an exciting mix of projects. We are currently bidding for an invited competition in Singapore that is a sizeable development, but that is confidential for the moment. We are also working on a mixed use 260 meter high tower in Kuala Lumpur. And there is also a studio for a Chinese artist in Beijing. He is a painter and an antiques collector. It will be a very contemporary studio that positions itself within the context of his collection of Chinese historical artifacts, antiques and landscape. And we are working on a cultural institution in Beijing. We want to pursue working at different scales from the very small to the very large and create a broad mix and contrast of projects. I am fascinated by the notion of complexity. Large-scale projects lend themselves to that. Small-scale projects have a different aspect of complexity where every little detail counts. I like to move between these different worlds.

F: In your career, which project have you enjoyed working on the most? Why?

OS: CCTV was certainly the most exceptional project, a rare opportunity. It was an incredible confluence of historical conditions with a particular timing and we were very lucky to be there at the right moment and imagine and ultimately realize this vision of China’s future.

F: When OMA got the commission to design CCTV you moved to Beijing and focused your work on Asia. How has that affected your approach to design?

OS: I’ve been living in Beijing for nearly 7 years now. Living and working in China has affected a lot of things. It has affected me as a person. I first came to China nearly 20 years ago and travelled around the country for three and a half months. I came out of pure interest; it was rather an instinct or some kind of realization. Not many people knew anything about China then. Today China is in every second headline. This experience was the beginning of my connection to China, though 20 years ago I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that I would be where I am today.

F: What are the key differences between designing in the East and the West?

OS: The West has achieved relative degree of maturity and sophistication. But with it also comes stagnation as it has become an essentially risk averse society. It feels like it is more concerned with maintaining its status quo than imagining the future. Asia on the other hand is going through a dramatic period of growth and modernization and carries a very different psychology, geared towards change and reinvention.

F: Czech architect Jan Kaplicky was said to have been disappointed with the physical reality of his designs. Have you ever experienced this?

OS: I am deeply fascinated by reality. I am fascinated by how abstract thoughts can be transformed into reality and how reality is transformed by those thoughts as they become real. I think architecture is about maneuvering between those two contradictory worlds. It is very important to develop a radical idea, but to implement that idea and translate it into reality is a far more challenging issue. We are interested to identify opportunities to develop new architectural prototypes and push boundaries, to move on from how things are typically done and seek new possibilities.

F: Some people have criticized buildings like Beijing’s CCTV for wasteful construction. In a world of dwindling resources, what do you think is the future of architecture?

OS: Upon closer look, CCTV is actually a surprisingly efficient structure. It uses a lot of material but is important to realize that it is also an incredibly large building which offers a huge amount of usable space. The amount of steel per square meter is no higher than the average of a skyscraper in Beijing, despite the building’s highly unconventional shape.  As architects, we need to be continuously aware of our responsibility towards the usage of material and environmental resources.

F: Do you plan to work on anything in Hong Kong in the near future? 

OS: I am definitely interested to work on something in Hong Kong. It is a very exciting city that could add some exciting architecture to its cityscape.

F: What inspires you in life?

OS: The fantasy of how things could be is what excites me. It’s not so much about only the buildings themselves, it is about what happens inside and around these buildings, about people’s lives, it is about how architecture can ultimately create and accommodate social structures.