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Ole Scheeren: the architect changing the face of skyscapers

by Richard Lord on Apr 6, 2018 in Architecture , Top Story
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For the April 2018 issue of Perspective Magazine, Richard Lord sat down with Ole Scheeren to talk about his work with Rem Koolhaas, the need for architects to engage closely with China and his disruption of the traditional form of skyscrapers in his search for interconnectedness

This is an excerpt from “Sky connector", the cover article from the April issue of Perspective magazine. To continue reading, get your copy of Perspective.


German architect Ole Scheeren the man behind a global collection of mind- warping buildings designed to encourage interaction and interconnectedness – most famously the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing – seems to have been destined to go into the profession.

Born in 1971 in Karlsruhe, Germany, to an architect father, he has been immersed in the subject his entire life and says he knew early that it was what he wanted to do. "There was a feeling that Iwas so close, that I already knew so much, and a belief that there was an opportunity to do something meaningful, maybe make a contribution."

"I'm very emotionally against the idea of architects sitting in Europe and coming up with designs for China; I don't feel it's a productive model."

Inspired from a young age by the work of Rem Koolhaas, he decided he wanted to work for Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and he eventually did so in 1995 after driving from Germany to Amsterdam, turning up at OMA's office and essentially demanding to be taken on. "It was a thought I'd been carrying with me for maybe five or six years, but I waited until I was ready," he says. "Then I woke up in the middle of the night and I was ready. I went the next day. When I did it, I had no doubt."

In the meantime, Ole Scheeren made a life-changing trip to the country that would eventually become his home, China, when it was still largely closed to foreigners. "I flew to Hong Kong, went through Shenzhen – which at the time was nothing, just a few construction sites – took a boat to Guangzhou, and then into the depths of the country. Once I got past Kunming, I often didn't know where I was. It changed my life in ways I couldn't have foreseen. It broke down all of my assumptions about the way the world works, and liberated me from my European up bringing. And I found I could survive things I didn't think I could. It's something I've carried through to today."

He returned to China after he took charge of OMA's Asia operations in 2002, moving to Beijing in 2004. The main reason, of course, was CCTV, "but also to really involve myself in the context", he says. "I'm very emotionally against the idea of architects sitting in Europe and coming up with designs for China; I don't feel it's a productive model."

CCTV Building, Beijing by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren  Photo: Iwan Baan

CCTV Building, Beijing by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren
Photo: Iwan Baan

He was immediately inspired by China's commitment to development. "China did not simply have an imposed will that was forcing people to do something. I had a real sense of development and ambition at all levels of society. Every person on the street had an acute belief in the future."

Typically for his work, the 465,000sqm, US$800-million CCTV building, popularly nicknamed the Big Trousers for its unique, Escher-like offset-square shape, is supposed to encourage interaction, its endless loop emphasising collaboration rather than the isolation of the skyscraper.

"It filled me with confidence that I could tackle anything," he says of the project; he set up his own firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, in 2010. Its latest project, Beijing's Guardian Art Center, the new headquarters of China's oldest art auction house, China Guardian Auctions, has been built in a context about as different as possible from CCTV's hypermodernism: it sits right next to the Forbidden City. A museum, event space and cultural centre, it's also close to the commercial centre of Wangfujing, a contrast that's resolved by a lower section with a fine-grained appearance referencing hutong architecture, with a giant modernist floating box atop it.

Guardian Art Center by Ole Scheeren Photo: Iwan Baan

Guardian Art Center by Ole Scheeren
Photo: Iwan Baan

His personal long-term commitment to China, says Scheeren, made working in such a culturally sensitive environment easier. "It's never been perceived as an opportunistic act. There was a degree of respect for our work because we took the project and the context seriously."

In fact, 30 previous designs for the site had been rejected over the past 15 years for not sufficiently respecting the historical context. "The client made it clear that for him, the cultural legacy was the most important thing. He really wanted to do something that had meaning. I translated that into a building that linked the ancient and the modern city."

It's a manifestation of Scheeren's ongoing desire to get away from the building as object, and think about how it frames space, and how it shapes the activities of the people who use it. His nickname in Germany, Herr der Türme, or Lord of Towers, is ironic considering his deeply equivocal relationship with the skyscraper as a building typology; a lot of his best-known projects are about specifically avoiding putting skyscrapers where they might be expected, or disrupting the traditional form of the skyscraper. There's CCTV, which he describes as "a very fundamental take on the issue of verticality and skyscrapers that pursues an idea of interconnectedness".

Exterior details of the Guardian Art Center by Ole Scheeren  Photo: Iwan Baan

Exterior details of the Guardian Art Center by Ole Scheeren
Photo: Iwan Baan

But there's also MahaNakhon in Bangkok, Thailand's tallest building at 314m, with its vivid spiralling diagonal slash of terraces and balconies giving it the appearance of a Lego model with some pieces missing, or a building halfway through being transformed by a CGI disintegration effect. And there's the 268m Angkasa Raya in Kuala Lumpur, a vertical reimagining of a city featuring four floors of greenery madly burped out halfway up; the forthcoming Empire City in Ho Chi Minh City is not unlike a curvier remix of the Kuala Lumpur building. Also there's The Interlace, a 170,000sqm, 1,040-apartment residential development in Singapore, which he designed for OMA, that replaces the expected skyscraper with a hexagonal grid of piled-up volumes, maximising views, providing sun protection and creating internal communal spaces that interconnect, with more green areas than the site had before it was built.

 

This is an excerpt from “Sky connector", the cover article from the April issue of Perspective magazine. To continue reading, get your copy of Perspective.

 

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