The Starchitect

Project Description

ARENA MAGAZINE, SINGAPORE
The Starchitect

by Kenneth Tan, Apr, 2009 [View PDF]

Central Beijing is formed like a stadium.

It’s shaped by six ring roads that loop around the city. Within the Second Ring Road is where the important cultural and historical sites are; beyond the sixth, there is almost nothing of significance. And what’s the most important to China now, and perhaps for the world in the next century, is contained within the Third Ring Road, which is where the CCTV Tower sits.

This is also the street along which I am travelling, on my way to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) to interview the CCTV Tower’s creator, Ole Scheeren. His oddly shaped CCTV tower takes up the entire vista from the windscreen of the taxi. Angular with strong clean lines as though they bisect in midair, it looks like Paris’ La Défense remade by a chemically addled scientist.

Born in 1971 in Karlsruhe, Germany, Scheeren was brought up in the corridors of an architect’s office: His father’s. Educated at the universities of Lausanne and Karlsruhe, Scheeren graduated from the Architectural Association in London where he was awarded the Riba Silver Medal. In 1995, he joined OMA and a few years later, he directed the works for Prada’s epicentres in New York and Los Angeles. In 2002, at the age of 31, he was made partner at OMA, alongside renowned architect Rem Koolhaas.

The OMA office is sleek, as any international architectural office should be. Grey-and-white themed, it is only fitting that iMacs dot the tabletops. Install a bar counter, a DJ, some couches and you’d have Beijing’s best-designed chill-out spot.

I spot Scheeren from afar; he is sitting in a glass-encased office, typing away on his computer. And as I walk towards him, I pass his multinational staff — a Caucasian speaking French to a Chinese colleague, who replies in Mandarin. This is the United Nations of architecture.

A small smile, a firm handshake and a “could you give me a few minutes” are Scheeren’s greeting. His office is neat, yet there are signs that it has been well-used: The table bears pencil marks, blueprints lay in a corner and building models sit neatly on shelves. Some are conceptual work that would never touch the skyline. Others, like the CCTV tower, dominate it.

It isn’t a shrine where people came to meet and be impressed by past work. This is Scheeren’s workshop, where ideas become steel girders. This is where plans become reality.

Yet, the most powerful item in the room is the man himself. There’s a certain intensity about Scheeren that draws attention like a black hole. With his lean frame, he’s not big for a European. But he exudes a strong presence; it isn’t surprising if people come away thinking he’s much larger than he actually is.

I watch, from barely two metres away, as he clicks away at his computer. For all I know, he is oblivious to my presence, his mind obviously on towering structures, nuts and bolts.

Then he speaks. “I was actually convinced after high school that I never wanted to be an architect,” says Scheeren dryly, leaning forward into the table a few minutes after the interview got underway. He never seems relaxed, but at the same time, looks always at ease. Back in high school, he was the lead singer of several bands and was more preoccupied in the intangible arts of music and literature. There was hesitation in following in his father’s footsteps because, he says: “On one hand, there was a fascination with singing and writing and on the other, there was a clear realisation that architecture was an incredibly demanding environment, something that you could only do full-hearted.”

Yet, he was not afraid to take on the consuming profession. Even as a child, Scheeren was independent, a trait he picked up from having parents who both studied and then worked while he was growing up. “On the first day of primary school, I already had my own keys and would go home alone and sometimes prepare my own food.”

Which was why, when he decided to take on the profession, he was long prepared consciously, and perhaps sub-consciously. “When my father was studying in architecture school, he always took me, as a baby, with him. I basically grew up in the architecture faculty.” At an age when his friends were playing around with juvenile Lego blocks, Scheeren was busy studying real structural works. When his father set up his firm, he spent much of his time there and at 14, started designing simple things like an entrance lobby, or some bits of the company’s projects.

It was also in his youth that he discovered what architecture could ultimately be for him. When he was 10, he flew with a friend to New York City where he spent six weeks exploring the city. “The experience of this super city, of this monstrous derelict urbanity… The sense of how a place lives, what it is made of, what works and what doesn’t — I think this was really the beginning,” Scheeren muses.

This inspired him to travel to many countries in the world, to inhale the vibrancy of many cities. One of these trips would change his life. At 21, on a whim, he decided to take three months off to backpack across China. Unlike now, where every second headline on any newspaper is about the Middle Kingdom, Scheeren arrived when there was no open tourism, and when the Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC), the money that foreigners were made to spend, was still in use. He exchanged all his FEC, then walked, biked and bussed through the entire country.

“It changed my entire world view — all the European baggage of what I grow up with, how I thought the world was, and how I thought things have to be. I suddenly realised that everything can be entirely different. It was a totally liberating experience,” he recollects. Then exactly 10 years later, he’s come full circle, this time, liberating Beijing in the form of his architecture.

If there was but one word that could describe Ole Scheeren, it would be complex. Or maybe intense. Disciplined. Impulsive. Thoughtful. Perhaps idealistic. No, it’s impossible to pigeonhole the enigmatic architect. He declares the need for a dialectic methodology as “on one hand I need to be incredibly disciplined and coherent, and at the same time investigate the unpredictable and speculative.” To Westerners, this might be contradictory, but, “to the Chinese mind, these are actually complementary,” he says smiling.

But you’re European, and you’ve lived in Asia for many years now. Which culture do you identify with most, I ask. “I think at a certain point things, reach a level of complexity at which you can no longer give a singular definition to something. I have been exposed to different cultures in living in Germany, in the French part of Switzerland, Holland, then New York, London, Bangkok, China. I feel less attached to any specific culture, but rather, I am focused on whatever context I subject myself to. It gives me the possibility to discover the potentials of each environment, extract from it, and try to fuse them into a hopefully productive psychology.”

This amalgam of what makes up his personality extends even to his social life, which he says has no dichotomy between work and free time. “My friends are often people I also work with. And the people I work with often become friends. There is no longer that kind of tension between being at work and being off work.”

But one thing that seems to escape what he calls “the process of thought and production” or what we normally call “work” is his relationship with Chinese actress Maggie Cheung. He’s private about their relationship not because he’s shy to reveal such things but it’s something he’d rather I ask over a drink than a tape recorder. Besides, he truly believes it’s something people won’t be interested in.

But people do want to know, I counter, and he’s willing to go as far as to say, “She’s very important in my life, and we are very happy in our relationship. It is something I am totally focused on, just not in a public sense.”

And indeed, it was his work, first, that put him in the Arena spotlight. Actress girlfriend: Check. First hit on a generic Google search: Check. International recognition: Check. Are architects the new celebrities, I ask.

“To be honest, I’ve never asked myself that question, and probably I refuse to ask myself that question. I think as long as we do relevant work, it’s good. As long as what we do is meaningful, it’s good, and that’s the most important thing to focus on.”

As partner of OMA, has your work moved from designing?

When I started on the CCTV project at the very beginning, the project team was 60 architects and 120 engineers. And while the architects were in one place, a lot of the specialists or consultants were spread over many continents. I needed to coordinate everything, not only on the level of timing, coherence and the technical concerns, but obviously also the cultural and creative aspects.

How do you hold that many different personalities and energies together?

You have to imagine a process that can ultimately orchestrate such a group, and channel them into a particular direction to produce such a building. I have to, on one hand, step back and look at the project in its entirety, and on the other, have the ability to dive into particular details at any different point in time.

So how autonomous do you let your team be? Or do you like to handle every little detail?

I am extremely involved in every single aspect of a project. Yet I guess my primary role is to develop the concept of a project in the greater context and then define which direction it should take. Architecture exists both in the imaginative world of the concept, but also in the actual world of the built physical object. And that is ultimately composed of an infinite amount of details. So it’s really all about piecing both together.

From public to private buildings, such as the Scotts Tower you designed, do you feel your ideas will find acceptance more easily?

Each context has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. And I think China is an environment in which not everything has been tested yet, not every system has been developed. It is an environment that is incredibly open to developing new ways of doing things. And that bears a potential to do very unexpected things.

Miuccia has a reputation for being detailed. How was it like working with her?

Well, actually working with Miuccia was an incredible experience because it was one of the rare occasions to have an extraordinarily sophisticated client, and someone who has her own vision. You seem to describe it as instructive precision, but I think it was much more of a collaborative interest. Her intelligence meant that there were moments of very clear and precise interaction. But also, at the same time, she gave us a huge spectrum of freedom. Miuccia and I ended up two weeks in the store, on our knees, testing and experimenting how to bring the merchandise into this environment, imagining not only the space, but also the way that things would inhabit and interact with the space. Together, we liberated it from simply being a store; we made it a cultural space.

Was there pressure to accommodate?

I actually never wore a single piece of Prada the entire time we worked on the project.

Some Beijingers have taken to calling it the “Underpants building” because of its shape. How does this talk affect you?

Well, I think that’s rather funny. A project that stirs public debate is incredibly positive. Positive in the sense that it engages the public mind and makes people think about what architecture is, what it can be for their city, for their lives, for their environment. I think that this is the most important contribution that CCTV has made or still can make beyond its physical existence, beyond the fact that it is just an object in the city. It illustrates that architecture might not have to be what it’s always assumed to be, to function, or look the way it’s supposed or expected to look.

It certainly looks unexpected.

The building stands really as a symbol of collaboration between the Western critical thinking of architecture and a kind of Chinese sensibility, and both have really merged in the towers. It’s a building that the Chinese could have never thought of by themselves, and the Westerners could never have built. It was clear that this project posed the question: How could we, with our Western sensitivities create something together with the local culture?

When CCTV was calling for design proposals, The New York World Trade Centre project was also up for grabs, which OMA gave up to focus on the CCTV tower. Any regrets?

We did not for a second care about the question: Which one would be more prestigious, but simply which one would be of the greater potential, both architecturally and socially. There is really not a split second of regret, though it would be extremely exciting to do a project in New York at some point in time.

Can architecture change the world?

I think that would be way too optimistic a declaration. I don’t think we could ever be as arrogant as claiming that because a building is in the end nothing more than a container for people. But obviously, there is a hope that architecture can make a contribution to where things are going, to what is possible and to imagine what could be.