The Sky’s the Limit

Project Description

The Sky’s the Limit

by Rowan Moore, Sep, 2013[View PDF]

Architect Ole Scheeren worked with Rem Koolhaas for fifteen years, then cut loose – designing imaginative high-rises and cultural projects from his adopted home in China.
Rowan Moore reports. Photographed by Ralph Mecke.

Are you writing about his brains or his looks? Asks Tong Kooi Ong, a tycoon behind some spectacular building projects in Southeast Asia. We are talking about Ole Scheeren, the architect to whom he has entrusted the design of skyscrapers in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, in preference to famous names like Zaha Hadid, Norman Forster, and SOM. It’s a reasonable question, since Scheeren has plenty of both brains and looks, and journalistic interest in him is not always confirmed to the former. Google his name, and you will be offered “Ole Scheeren new girlfriend.”

At the age of 42 he has already done more than most architects achieve in a lifetime. While working for the mesmerizing, world – famous Rem Koolhaas, he was partner in charge and co-author of the huge, impossible – looking headquarters of China Central Television, reviewed two years ago in The New York Times as an accomplishment that “maybe the greatest work of architecture built in this century.” What is certain is that is the definitive contemporary icon of central Beijing, its Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building: asymmetrical, sculptural, and stirring, like the disembodied legs of an imaginary beast or colossus.

Scheeren is someone who puts himself in the middle of what is most new and challenging in the world, and makes himself part of it. He has chosen to live and work in China, a country that inspires wonder, bafflement, and a touch of fear in observers from outside-that promises to be the power of the future but has yet to divulge quite what future it is proposing. Other Western architects are fascinated with China and other parts of Asia – for the opportunities, the scale of construction, and the buzz of change – but like to fly in and out, returning to more familiar environments back home. German-born Scheeren, who has lived in Beijing for the last nine years, relishes his immersion in the strange new world forming there.

“I am a European,” he says, “but embedded in, and complicit with, this context.”

We are speaking in a whiskey bar reached across a parking lot and up an escape stair behind the Beijing Chaoyang Theater, the sort of place you know only after a long acquaintance with the capital. It is none too glamorous, a long, narrow space with bottles gleaming in the dark, and with slightly mysterious private rooms opening off it. The barman is polite but distant, and everyone is left to mind his own business. It is a place of intimacy within an often harsh and impersonal city that also allows visitors anonymity. It suits Scheeren well.

He set up his office, Buro Ole Scheeren, only three years ago but already has under way those buildings for Tong, as well as another tower that will be Bangkok’s tallest. In Beijing he is designing a cultural center, a skyscraper, and, on the edge of the city, a ceramic-clad studio for an artist who also collects objects, ancient buildings, and rare birds and fish. With strange protruding “nozzles,” it looks like a pixelated creature from a 1980s video game. The Interlace, a project he worked on for Koolhaas’s OMA, is nearing completion in Singapore-an apartment complex of multistory oblongs stacked up precariously like children’s building blocks.

This is a portfolio most architects his age would die for, and his progress to this point has not made him universally popular (there is now a froideur; for example, with his ex-boss Koolhaas). But despite Scheeren’s workaholic professional life, he finds time to befriend artists, musicians; and filmmakers. He has collaborated with the writer Douglas Coupland (who, he says, has long been “my hero-I loved the apocalyptic beauty of his world”); also with the Thai director Joe Apichatpong, a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. And then there are those looks, which people who meet him can’t help bringing up: lean, dark, precisely defined in jaw, nose, and cheekbones, severe except for something liquid in the eyes, which he chooses to complement with a steady supply of well-laundered white shirt.

He is an improbable accumulation of attributes and achievements, and his external image is one of intimidating purpose, ability, and self-belief. Closer up, Scheeren is more uncertain, and more likable for it “He doesn’t have an arrogant aura,” claims Apichatpong. “He is very humble.” For all his promise of a great future as a force in architecture, this is also a vulnerable moment. He left Koolhaas’s practice in 2010; though he says “there is probably no one in the world who believes more than I do in what Rem is about,” in the end there was “too much second-guessing what the master would want … instead of thinking for yourself and being able to stand by your decisions and actions.”

Sharing of credit has been an issue, with Scheeren insisting that The New York Times publish a correction after their laudatory piece on CCTV omitted any mention of him. Legal agreements have been put in place, which, says Scheeren, are “clear and unambiguous: Rem and I are joint and equal co-authors of the project, while the commercial copyrights rest with OMA.” But now he has to prove himself alone, unsupported by his former boss’s ideas and experience, accumulated over decades. Scheeren’s aura of glamour and lack of shyness in promoting himself expose him to accusations of hype, which his as-yet-unrealized buildings will have to dispel. It is a time of vertigo — but vertigo is something on which he thrives.

Scheeren’s designs show a desire to break with the predictable glass shafts-sealed, impervious and plain boring-that rise in their thousands in Asian cities. His towers erode and break up, and allow tropical vegetation to interpenetrate with the hard stuff of building. With a certain nerveless bravado, he likes to hang blocks of apartments in the air and remove support at exactly the moment where you might expect it to be most needed.

In his own life he shows a similar willingness to cut himself off from the ground, to remove himself from the familiar and the reassuring. He likes risk and confrontation – he told Singaporean developers, for example, how dreadful he found their city’s architecture. “The fact that he’s decided to base himself in Asia,” says his friend and collaborator Apichatpong, “shows that he’s really open to surprises … to making himself a little transparent.”

His adult life has seen a series of radical scene changes, as if in a movie. Born and raised in Karlsruhe, Germany-“the middle of nowhere,” he says-“I felt the urge to immerse myself in the place I knew least about.” So, in 1992, he made his first trip to China, wandering over three months in places unknown to tourists-sleeping, for example, “in a dormitory with 200 construction workers.” He didn’t speak the language, and, unable to read signs, “I literally did not know where I was.” He prods me and sniffs me, in imitation of the reaction he prompted among Chinese who had never seen a European. “People would fall over because they couldn’t take their eyes off me.”

“I ended up feeling completely shattered and deconstructed. I had two nervous breakdowns, But I learned that everything you learn in school in Europe is not necessarily true. The trip took away Western preconceptions as to what you’re entitled to in terms of personal space, and a completely fake idea of individuality.” In China, he say, he saw a culture of “togetherness rather than differentiation.”

His father was an architect, and Scheeren experimented with writing and with singing in a hard-core rock band before accepting that he might also design buildings. At 24, he went to Rotterdam, knocked on the door of OMA (which stands for the Office for Metropolitan Architecture), and asked for a job. He got it but left after a year, moving on to study and work in London, New York, and Bangkok, his “first experience of a tropical city,” where he discovered “how people can make amazing stuff out of nothing.”

Then came a caIl from Koolhaas: “What are you doing in Bangkok?” And could he drop everything and come back to Europe in three days for a meeting with Miuccia Prada? She wanted to work with OMA on new stores and on changing the image of her brand, and Koolhaas had decided that the 28-year-old Scheeren, who did not obviously have the relevant experience, was the right person to lead the 30-strong team that would design new stores in downtown New York and Rodeo Drive.

In this breakneck series of adventures, with which he chose to spend the 1990s and his 20s, Scheeren displayed what remains for him a persistent habit: making an abrupt stop and entering an entirely new world. He also showed an unusual ability to unfold his life and career without a known destination- to drift-but in a highly organized and purposeful way. He tends not to know what is coming next but wastes little time in finding out.

The next decade was dominated by a single work, CCTV, and Scheeren installed himself in Beijing to make sure it turned out as intended. “We lived for it every day,” he says. “We gave it relentless care.” He explains his motivation: “China had changed me; what could I do back to it?” Here was something vast and vastly complex, the headquarters of the state television company of the most populous country in the world, subject to every imaginable political machination.

“It was such an impossible and implausible thing for us to try,” he says, but Koolhaas and Scheeren chose to multiply its complexity, to lay difficulty on difficulty: They decided the building should not be a conventional tower but an angular loop, a square-sectioned tube bent to form a portal, a giant frame for the sky. They ordained that multistory chunks should project into space, in defiance of the conventional logic of building anywhere, and especially in the earthquake zone in which Beijing stands. It required a team of hundreds to design it. A few years previously its construction would not have been possible, as the computer technology necessary to handle it did not yet exist.

The CCTV project also caught a moment in the rapid transformation of China when “people were tremendously enthusiastic and full of hope for the future,” says Scheeren. “The beauty of the environment was that it was completely nonjudgmental…. I had the best time clubbing in my entire life because it was a huge bunch of kids just so happy to party. There were no bouncers, no attitude, no aggression. It was incredibly pure.” Scheeren says that the country has become more cautious since, and CCTV would never have started at any other time; “architecture is enormously connected to timing: There are moments when things can happen.”

In February 2009, during Chinese New Year, fate intervened. It was shortly before the opening of a hotel next to the main building, also designed by OMA, and clients and contractors decided to celebrate their achievement with a fireworks display of extraordinary- in fact, illegal-power. Hubris, rule-breaking, and bad luck conspired to set the hotel ablaze and postpone the completion of the entire project. “Twenty people went to jail,” says Scheeren, “and some are still there. Including one without whom the building would never have happened; he burned down his own glory. It was a great personal tragedy. In the life of an architect,” he adds, “it’s a fairly dramatic moment to see seven years of your life, in which you have invested 100 percent, go up in flames.”

CCTV was finally put into use in 2012, though the public route through its interior is not yet open, which means its main power is external, an inescapable, enigmatic presence as you travel around Beijing, both in its actual form and repeated on garish posters as a symbol of the city. It keeps appearing and reappearing, unmistakable even when seen in fragments, insistent but hard to read, and always changing the perception of the more humdrum blocks around it.

Scheeren’s main base is his studio, which is located in an all-white, all-rectangular development complex in the center of town that resembles a hospital but is popular with architects and designers. Here his own office is glass-walled and orderly, with handsome models of buildings spread about, overlooking the workshop where his 50-strong staff toils, as he does, from early to late.

Otherwise, he likes to travel all over Beijing: Riding taxis around the icy city in midwinter, he takes me to hospitable crevices in its geology of multilayered highways and repetitive blocks. One is an outstanding duck restaurant, where he introduces me to the questionable pleasure of eating those delightful birds’ leathery feet; another a tiny Japanese sushi bar, where we face a man chopping tuna with forensic precision.

He likes Beijing for Beijing “brutally unglamorous,” which is striking, given that the external Perception of Scheeren is dusted with a certain amount of rarefied style. His life has brought him into contact with celebrities (the architecture-loving Brad Pitt, for example, who visited OMA’s offices and buildings in Rotterdam), but he professes skepticism about their world. “You find out that there are people who are decent,” he says, “and people who are not, and it has no relation to whether they are celebrities or not,” and he won’t be drawn as to which stars of his acquaintance fall into which category. The breakup, in 2012, of his five-year relationship with the film actress Maggie Cheung exposed him to the ugliness of gossip magazines. “That’s the horrible part of my life,” he says. “There is nothing not stupid about those magazines, nothing right.” It’s one reason he staunchly refuses to discuss his personal life now.

And for all the paparazzo interest that came with his relationship with Cheung, he is also someone who works eighteen hours a day, obsesses about detail, and will spend weeks immersing himself in building codes to discover unexpected opportunities in them. He would build all the practice’s architectural models himself if he had time – “Unfortunately, I’m good at these things … I want everything to be correct.”

“He is a fantastic storyteller,” says Tong, the businessman backing his Kuala Lumpur tower, “but he tends to come up with quite practical solutions. He solves problems. “The Chinese architect Wang Xiao’an, who collaborated with Scheeren on getting CCI’V built, says “he has a dream of architecture” coupled with a vigorously functional side. “He has his logic and knows what he’s doing.”

What interests Scheeren, beyond the fascination with his craft, is the crossover between different forms of culture. In March 2012 he created a project called Archipelago Cinema, which, pending the completion of the artist’s studio and those skyscrapers is the principal completed work to date of Buro Ole Scheeren. Created for Tilda Swinton and Joe Apichatpong’s Film on the Rocks Yao Noi festival in Thailand, it is also the most ephemeral. An invited audience of 120, among them Swinton, Apichatpong, Chloe Sevigny, and the MoMA curator Joshua Siegel, were taken by boat, at night, to an unknown destination.

They disembarked onto a floating raft, furnished with beanbags, from which they could watch projections of a 1903 Alice in Wonderland and a 1924 Peter Pan. Only when the shows were over did floodlights switch on, to reveal that they were in a breathtaking cove, flanked by 100-meter-high rock formations. Ancient geology was made to look as hallucinatory and insubstantial as images flickering on a screen. “We went on some kind of journey together,” says Apichatpong. “Cinema is about that, about getting lost in a dream … you are transported to your childhood memories.” Appearing and disappearing in an evening, it was a theatrical version of those escapes to other worlds that Scheeren likes so much.

Archipelago Cinema’s fame spread, and requests have been coming in from Tahiti, Cape Town, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere to replicate it. A reedition of the project at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale can fairly be called Scheeren’s biggest mistake to date, about which he is palpably embarrassed. Here the film shown was a celebration of Scheeren himself, as tedious and pompous as a feature-length car advert. It also gave little clue that works such as CCTV were not Scheeren’s single-handed creations. This episode suggests an unexpected insecurity.

It is presumably one reason Rem Koolhaas is not keen to discuss his former protege. A request to do so leads to this terse SMS: ROWAN, COMPLETE CONFIDENCE IN YOU AS PORTRAITIST… BEST, REM

Scheeren’s characteristic restlessness means that he is now thinking of working, and possibly living, in Europe again-he has been invited to compete for a project in Berlin, and I later catch up with him on a scouting mission in London. But, for now, he is as much at home in Beijing as anywhere, even if “home” for him is never something cozy and settled.

In his life and work so far, he encompasses both illusion and reality, dream and fact, storytelling and substance. His career combines the unarguable presence of CCTV on the skyline with the yet-to-be realized towers in Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, and Archipelago Cinema, which vanished almost as soon as it appeared. By the high measure of his own ambitions, he still has things to prove, but the will is most definitely there to do so.