A Star Across Divides

Project Description

A Star Across Divides

by Christopher Dewolf, Aug, 2015[View PDF]

German-born and Beijing-based architect Ole Scheeren has carved out a name for himself with his work on iconic buildings in Asia. His firm designed the new headquarters for mammoth auction house China Guardian, and he’s now setting his sights on taking his innovative ideas back to the West.

A lot has been said about starchitects – that coterie of international designers whose names are as famous as their buildings. The reality is there isn’t much day-today glamour in the profession: for all the romance of creativity, architecture is mostly the work of shepherds coaxing a sometimes fickle, lumbering beast to its final destination.

But it’s hard to deny the star quality of Ole Scheeren, an architect who helps maintain the profession’s lustre. A former partner of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and now the head of his own Beijing-based practice, Büro Ole Scheeren, he had a lead role in the creation of the iconic headquarters for China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing, which he designed with OMA co-founder Rem Koolhaas.

Almost anyone who follows architecture will know his name. Others might recognize his chiselled features from red carpet appearances with Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung (an actress who has also received international acclaim), whom he dated for several years.

Sitting next to the window at Sevva, the swank lounge on the top floor of the Prince’s Building, Scheeren takes a sip of sparkling water. He is now 44, but he could pass for a decade younger, his youthful features belying the stress that comes from a career in the demanding upper echelons of the architectural world. “In some ways it was all a grand miracle, but there was also a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’ve lived an extremely intense life.”

Architecture has been a part of Scheeren’s life since he was born in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe; his father was an architect who taught at a local university. “I dismantled all the student models I could find in the first years of my life – perhaps it was some guilt that led me to rebuild them later,” Scheeren jokes. He began working in his father’s studio when he was 14, but the long hours of drudgery were not appealing. “I decided I never wanted to become an architect.”

Then he met Rem Koolhaas, the iconoclastic founding partner of OMA, whose broad-minded, intellectual approach to architecture has made him one of the most influential architects of the last century. “He was the only architect I could work for,” says Scheeren. “[With him], it was as much about understanding society as it was about producing built objects.”

In 1995, after graduating from the Architectural Association in London, Scheeren showed up at OMA’s office and talked his way into a job. Koolhaas assigned him to work on the facade of a shopping mall, but before long, Scheeren was leading the design of flagship boutiques for Prada in New York and Los Angeles.


In 2002, Scheeren was made a partner at OMA. That was also the year he moved to Beijing to oversee OMA’s work on the CCTV tower. It was a game-changing project, not just for Scheeren, but for China, ushering in an era of architectural experimentation (or adventurism, depending on your point of view).

Shaped like a jagged, deformed arch, the tower exists as a continuous loop, a rebuke to the height-obsessed skyscrapers of the new millennium. It has a beguiling, shape-shifting quality that makes it look different from each vantage point. Above all, it is unique – which is not something that can be said for many buildings these days. “It embodies a specific moment,” says Scheeren. “It could not have happened anywhere else, at any other time.”

By the time the tower was completed in 2012, Scheeren had already parted ways with OMA. “After 15 years of collaboration, we have now decided to work independently,” announced Koolhaas in 2010, in a statement that betrayed no hint of animosity.

“I started the whole Asia business for OMA, sort of on the back of CCTV,” says Scheeren. He speaks precisely and assuredly, but it’s hard to ignore the sense that he feels he wasn’t given proper recognition for his work. In a 2012 profile, German news magazine Der Spiegel called him “the forgotten architect”, and Scheeren has made his feelings known when he believes he isn’t given the credit he deserves.

Writing in the Harvard DesignMagazine, critic Christopher Hawthorne recalls how Scheeren once phoned him after he wrote about the opening of the Prada flagship in Los Angeles. “He was upset that his name did not appear in the Times article until the 14th paragraph of my story,” wrote Hawthorne, who added that he ended up seeing Scheeren’s point, and had “among the most productive conversations about architecture” Hawthorne had ever had.

“He was like a diamond – very shiny but with a lot of sharp angles,” says Chiaju Lin, who worked with Scheeren when she joined OMA in 2006. For example, if people weren’t rigorously prepared for meetings, Scheeren would kick them out. “But after a while, I appreciated him. He trained me to be super-logical and precise,” says Lin, who now considers Scheeren a good friend.


Scheeren’s firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, which he launched in 2010, has a staff of about 50 people spread across Beijing and Hong Kong, with smaller outposts in Bangkok and Berlin. Scheeren’s portfolio has been nothing if not diverse. One of his first solo projects was an artist’s studio outside Beijing described by one journalist as “a Bond villain’s lair”.

He has also worked on collaborative projects, including a floating cinema called Archipelago Cinema anchored off the coast of Phuket fashioned out of rafts built by local craftsmen. The project, which was for a film festival in Thailand, was subsequently installed at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2012.

“You would arrive in this incredible space that you actually couldn’t see because it was so dark,” Scheeren recalls. “People then stepped onto this floating cinema and sat in this very softly kind of moving space. The screen goes on and you watch the movies and are captivated.”

Afterwards, the surrounding rocks in Phuket were floodlit, and they then “turned on the story of nature”. It was “quite a special experience,” Scheeren says, adding that the cinema could visit Hong Kong at some point in the future.

Scheeren says he is fascinated by the narratives that can take place in both architecture and film. “I’ve been long interested in cinematographic space, the way in which architecture can tell certain stories and [how] the people that inhabit it enact and live stories,” he says. “Maybe some of [the stories] are provoked by or conditioned by the space. I’m very interested in the psychology of spaces.”

For the most part, Scheeren has set his sights on bigger targets. He is particularly enthusiastic about The Interlace in Singapore, a recently completed residential project which he started while he was at OMA. Commissioned by CapitaLand Singapore to create a series of tower blocks, Scheeren flipped the towers on their side and stacked them at irregular angles to create a network of ground-level public spaces and above-ground terraces.

“It’s much more a prototype than a one-off,” he says. “Residential [projects] have always been regarded as a very unglamorous part of the profession, but I was interested because I wanted to scrutinize the typology of living.” He was particularly eager to subvert the tower-in-the-park model that has been replicated throughout Asia by creating something that was equally high-density, but with a more nuanced relationship to the ground level. “Both physically and psychologically, it creates community,” he says

Several thousand people now live in The Interlace’s 1,040 apartments in 31 six-storey blocks, which are stacked and connected like Lego bricks, sometimes rising to a total of 24 floors. Eight courtyards contain swimming pools and greenery, which can also be found on rooftops. Scheeren says the space is 12 per cent greener than it was before development, thanks to all of those elevated gardens.

Ideas from The Interlace have made their way to buildings with a more conventional vertical form. MahaNakhon, a hotel, residential and retail complex that will include Ritz-Carlton Residences and is set to be Bangkok’s tallest tower when it opens next year, appears to disintegrate into thin air, thanks to sections made of irregular pixellike cubes that contain balconies and gardens.

In Angkasa Raya, a tower slated to rise next to Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, Scheeren’s firm is combining a hotel, apartment tower and office block into one building, with sections linked by seemingly incompatible uses like a Muslim prayer hall and Chinese food court. Some of the floors are radically open, without windows or walls, in the mould of Herzog & de Meuron’s acclaimed Lincoln Road parking garage in Miami Beach. “It projects back public activity,” says Scheeren. “I want to break open the mute shaft of the skyscraper.”


In March, Büro Ole Scheeren unveiled its design of the Guardian Art Center, the new home for China Guardian, the country’s oldest – and the world’s fourth-largest – auction house. Located at the corner of Wangfujing and Wusi Streets, within sight of the Forbidden City, and currently under construction, the complex is “a radical reinsertion of the art scene into the centre of Beijing,” Scheeren says.

The city’s artistic heart has in recent years shifted to suburban districts such as the 798 Art Zone. The complex will contain exhibition space, restaurants, a hotel, educational facilities and an auction room.

It’s no mean feat, given the site’s restrictions. A 34-metre height limit means that many of the building’s facilities will be located underground. Scheeren was also concerned with the surrounding environment, which is dominated by blocky commercial blocks on one side and the low-slung alleyways of an ancient hutong on the other. “What I really wanted to think about was how the project could address, and maybe even resolve, this everlasting tension between history and modernity,” he says.

His solution was to create two buildings in one: a lower half that consists of pixel-like blocks that mimic the hodgepodge form of Beijing’s hutongs and a bulky top half that appears like a monolith from afar, but is in fact a hollow ring that contains a garden courtyard. At night, the entire building will glow like a lantern, thanks to small perforations in its facade.

“Beijing is a monumental city,” says Scheeren. “Things are large, and there’s a heaviness to everything. It sits very firmly on the ground. The art centre has a transitional quality. It has a presence but also a subtleness to it. To me it’s a very understated sense of monumentality.”

The site had seen dozens of proposals come and go, but Scheeren’s design was the one that got the green light. Beijing architect Ma Yansong of MAD Architects put forward a design for another art centre on the site, which also referenced the structure of nearby hutongs. “Of course, inevitably, any proposal there had to deal with the neighbourhood and the hutongs,” says Scheeren. “I would prefer to refrain from comparing them directly, but I think that at the end, if you look, there’s a very, very big difference
between the two schemes.”

The building is set to open next year and Scheeren says he had wanted to bide his time before revealing its design. “We’ve waited for a long time to show it and present it because we live in a world in which it’s all about quick release of images, that for the most part mean nothing,” he says. “It’s become so easy to make semi-realistic images.”


Given the recent backlash against architectural innovation in China, it’s almost remarkable that Scheeren’s design was chosen for a site so close to the political and spiritual heart of the nation. Chinese President Xi Jinping singled out the CCTV building for scorn when he delivered a rant against eccentric architecture in October 2014. Art should “be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles,” said Xi, though he did not elaborate on what kind of architecture should be built, beyond saying that they should not be “weird”.

Scheeren is wary. “It’s fundamentally a very healthy moment for China to stop and think,” he says. “You have to be careful if the campaign fails to distinguish between innovation and hideousness.” He’s optimistic that the controversy will blow over. “It’s distorted by a very hungry press,” he says, pointing out that Xi’s speech was not accompanied by any official policy announcement. “I believe it will settle.”

But Scheeren, who says he has divided his time between Beijing and Hong Kong for the past 12 years, remains committed to Beijing. “It’s interesting to be in a place that isn’t popular just because it makes life easy for foreigners,” he says, with a pointed nod out the window at the office towers of Central. He visits Hong Kong regularly to check up on his operations here, but he is frustrated that the city is not living up to its potential. Despite its intense, entrepreneurial energy, “there’s also something that stifles it – an adherence to perceived rules and regulations that inhibits creativity,” he says, pausing for a moment before offering a sardonic smile. “It’s a great place to wait for amazing things to happen.”

For now, Scheeren is thinking of ways to expand his practice – not physically, necessarily (“I’m happy to keep it pretty focused,” he says), but conceptually. He is intrigued by the growing importance of “social and collaborative enterprise” in the workplace, which will require new kinds of working environments. He wants to do more architectural research.

He is also looking West – back to Europe. It reverses the “original idea” of Western architects working in Asia, he says. Scheeren is well aware that Asian developers and investors have been keen on buying and developing properties overseas. “A lot will still happen in that direction,” he predicts. “For me, it’s interesting and exciting to be part of that, because I’ve been here for so long that I think I understand the clients here. I understand not only design, but maybe also how to communicate and how to work together. I think we’re really extremely well set-up to follow or take Asian clients to Europe and to the West and to work there together.”

Having worked in Asia during a particularly adventurous time in its architectural history, he finds himself looking back to the West with an eye for breaking through its reputation for architectural conservatism. “[Working in Asia], you realise you’ve learned to approach projects differently,” he says. “Most parts of the world are quite formulaic – there are cert ways that things just are in almost every place. We look with much more open eyes, a much more courageous acknowledgement of sheer potential.”

Spoken like a star, indeed.

Additional reporting by Maggie Chen