The thinker

Project Description

The Thinker

by Geoffrey Eu, Sep 10, 2011 [View PDF]

With a signature intellectual style that emphasises the relationships between spaces, Ole Scheeren has made a dramatic impression on 21st century architecture.

ARCHITECT Ole Scheeren is connected – and committed – to Asia in more ways than one. He was just 21 when he arrived in China for the first time in 1992 – a long way from Karlsruhe, his hometown in Germany, and even further in terms of bridging the cultural divide. He spent several months travelling around the country on a trip that had a lasting impact on him, but Scheeren was also destined to make a major impression on China – and architecture in the 21st century.

Ten years later, Scheeren was back in China, as a senior designer in OMA (The Office for Metropolitan Architecture), the modernist firm founded by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and partner in charge of a landmark project – the headquarters of the China Central Television Station (CCTV) in Beijing, whose main building is shaped, amazingly, like a geometric loop, symbolizing interconnection and promoting solidarity among the station’s personnel.

The CCTV building was finished in 2008, although its occupancy was delayed by a fire in an adjacent building, also designed by OMA. Scheeren moved to Beijing for the project and he has remained there since starting his own practice – Buro Ole Scheeren – about a year ago. He also has an office in Hong Kong (where he is a visiting professor at Hong Kong University) and is currently working on projects in Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere in Asia.

In Singapore, Scheeren is working on The Interlace, a large-scale residential development near Alexandra Road. Meanwhile, his innovative design for The Scotts Tower, featuring four stacks suspended from a central cross-shaped core, was a victim of the economic downturn – it has been revamped and reworked by another firm. MahaNakhon, a 77-storey tower with a distinctive pixelated spiral design, will be the tallest building in Bangkok when it is finished in 2014. One of Scheeren’s latest projects is a high-rise development in central Kuala Lumpur.

Now that the CCTV building enjoys top billing on the world architecture stage – described by critics as one of the most important buildings of the 21st century – Scheeren has been accorded superstar status, which suits him well, given his dark locks, good looks and penchant for wearing black. It doesn’t hurt that he’s dating HK actress Maggie Cheung either.

Still, Scheeren, 40, isn’t likely to get caught up in all the hype, and he was both enthusiastic and expansive during a recent interview in Singapore. He’s a serious thinker with a deep intellect and an enlightened, socially responsible view of how people should live and work. There is an almost poetic quality to his thinking, as evidenced by his firm’s mission statement, which is written in verse form. It begins: ‘we like to build and we believe in reality but we also believe in possibilities’.

Being in the right place at the right time was fortunate, but Scheeren took the opportunities that came his way and turned them into something career-defining. He says that initial visit to China in 1992 was a major catalyst. ‘I had the impulse that here was this incredible country that I knew nothing about – even today people in the West know nothing about China.’

For over three months, Scheeren got a feel of an emerging country by travelling to remote villages and sleeping in worker dormitories when there were no hotels. ‘I experienced something that in a very fundamental way changed my life – it was different to what you grow up to believe as a European child,’ he says.

‘It broke my upbringing and also liberated me from my upbringing. It was an incredibly intense experience – I connected with the country and stayed connected – 10 years later we were invited to take part in the design competition for the state TV tower.’ He says: ‘It was a time when China was emerging on the world stage – there was this incredible momentum of the New China, an incredibly exciting moment. We managed to capture that moment in some way with a design that is both about the future and at the same time says something very specific about the scale, of Beijing as a city.’

He adds: ‘It was a project that tried to redefine what a skyscraper could be. The skyscraper – a typology that had been invented in the West, has been adopted by Asia as its own symbol of triumphant modernization. The story of this project was an exciting way to re-engage with Asia.’

Scheeren says he felt a strong responsibility at proposing a radical design, adding that the finished building has not been altered ‘a single centimetre’ from the original proposal. ‘It’s not a project you can judge purely on architectural terms because it’s embedded in a political-economic envelope,’ he says.

‘I wanted to break with Western tradition, the idea of doing something at home and then sending it over. This building is more of a model of involvement and true collaboration – architecturally, we achieved a shockingly huge amount of what we set out to do.’

He adds: ‘This process of dramatic change and modernization in a country cannot be entirely linear – there are moments of great challenges.’

Scheeren’s relative proximity to Singapore means he passes through quite regularly. He describes the country as ‘one of the most powerful tropical environments, with an acute sense of civilization – I’m fascinated by the continuous battle between nature and mankind.’ He says there is a certain level of gentrification among landscapes here that he would like to un-tame. ‘I’m bored by a landscape that is manicured and artificial – all of its power is taken away.’

There are interesting moments in architectural history here, says Scheeren. ‘Currently, Singapore suffers to some extent from doing too well, it’s a period when everything tries to look as spectacular as possible but fails to ask the true questions – it’s a moment to be unfashionable and try to ask fundamental questions,’ he says. ‘I tried to ask that with The Interlace – it represents a dramatically different take on the condition of housing here. Singapore has become a vertical city, a collection of towers which are individually more or less successful – but there is a failure to address the spaces between those buildings.’

Scheeren’s design philosophy involves constantly looking for ways for users to engage with his buildings. ‘I see buildings as something with a public responsibility,’ he says. ‘I am fundamentally interested in public accounting, how we can make a building relevant to the public, not just as an object but as a container of life.’

He says he believes in designing buildings that are specific to their locations and ‘not transferable from one place to the next. They are also specific to the respective psychologies of the space.’ He adds: ‘It’s not just about making people comfortable, it’s about provoking new things. The new is unusual, and also challenging. We’re challenging ourselves by finding alternative – and sometimes better – models for how we live.’

Scheeren remembers the exact moment when he decided to – like his father – become an architect. He was 19 and on his way to a classical singing class when the revelation came. ‘I realized I had to do something about it – I stopped looking at publications and used my free time to just go and see architecture,’ he says. ‘It is important not to predigest information but to go and see the real thing.’

Scheeren spent two years travelling to many countries, he says. ‘China came at the end of that – I had the impulse that I simply had to get out of my comfort zone so I threw myself into worlds that I knew very little about.’ He moved to various cities in Europe and the US before landing at OMA in 1995. Several years later he was back in Asia and working on the CCTV design.

‘For me, this once-in-a-lifetime project was liberating,’ says Scheeren. ‘It give you a confidence, this project with extreme scale, extreme complexity, it simply gives me the confidence that I am prepared for many things to come – it helps to make you calm and focused.’