Ole Scheeren gilds Asian cities with fantastic towers: unconventional, highly conceptual, but at the same time light and open. Now the German architect aims to make his mark in the West, too.
Ole Scheeren’s handshake is so firm it almost hurts. Asked how he’s doing, he replies with a broad grin and a single word: “Excellent!” But as soon as the conversation turns to his work, architect Scheeren tempers his great vitality with equally great circumspection. He stresses every word as though speaking at a philosophical seminar and couches every statement in qualifying language: “I think,” “maybe,” “but also” or “not necessarily just.”
In his younger years, Scheeren likely held himself back with such reservations: Should he become an author or an architect like his father? Complete his studies and earn a good degree or go into practise as soon as possible? Design buildings, exhibitions and shops or entire districts? Stay in his hometown of Karlsruhe or go out into the world?
Into his early 30s, Scheeren’s biography reads like a continuous zigzag – with only one constant, his mentor, the Dutch star architect Rem Koolhaas. While still at school, Scheeren was fascinated by Koolhaas’ bold design of the ZKM Center of Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe. At 24, he started work at Koolhaas’ OMA office in Rotterdam and later returned there again and again after various digressions.
Then in 2002 came an end to his wavering: Scheeren became a partner of OMA, moved to Beijing, and in the following eight years devoted himself principally to the realization of a single building: the new headquarters of China Central Television, CCTV. The building is not just enormous in size – it was designed to accommodate a staff of 14 000 and is the second-largest office building in the world after the Pentagon – but with its two sloping towers meeting in a wedge at the top, it has an unprecedented shape that caused a sensation with Chinese architects, politicians and the population.
In 2010, Scheeren finally set up his own office and continued to lead the Southern Asian projects he had begun at OMA. A project particularly close to his heart is the Interlace residential complex in Singapore aimed at providing more affordable housing. The CCTV headquarters, says Scheeren, was a “special,” the “symbol of a very particular time during which China stepped onto the world stage and a new era began.” In contrast, the Interlace has prototype potential.
The building’s design is unique, consisting of 31 apartment blocks stacked diagonally in an open honeycomb structure. It’s a daring concept but it comes with a clear benefit: No one here can you look straight into a neighbor’s window. At the same time, the blocks are arranged in such a way that they provide ventilation and shade for the gardens, terraces and pools they enclose. The Interlace won the World Building of the Year award in 2015.
The Interlace is representative of Scheeren’s personal agenda: He wants to push the limits of what’s doable even further, but – unlike his mentor, Koolhaas – to strictly avoid polemics. For Scheeren, all that counts is that a building should benefit its occupants and users as well as its urban environment. “I think we need to go about our work with an enthusiasm for life,” he postulates, “buildings like the Interlace were initially outside the norm and deemed impossible by the administrators of the rulebooks. But we made them possible – because we weren’t content to abide by their rules.”
A further example of this is the DUO project recently completed in Singapore, which was commissioned by the very first joint venture between the governments of Malaysia and Singapore. Scheeren did full justice to the complicated symbolic signifance of the venture by building two adjacent towers that reach out to each other with their facing, cantilevered protruberances. The slender, higher tower accommodates apartments while the smaller, broader tower houses offices and a hotel. “Of course both countries wanted to know which building represents which of them. But my reply was that I would never tell them. The project is about a dynamic togetherness and not about you being this one and you being the other. For a moment, everyone was shocked, but then there was relieved laughter.”
With their multiply concave, curved walls, the towers open up not only to each other but also to the neighboring buildings. “It’s not just a question of achieving a positive, dynamically readable relationship between two individual parts,” Scheeren comments, “but their coming together reorganizes the whole context and has symbiotic effects on the neighborhood. The site was originally a plot of no man’s land between two buildings that had simply been erected there, entirely unconnected and with no context or urban plan.”
For me, it’s all about creating intelligent architecture with a positive attitude that doesn’t indulge in cynicism.
The dominance of private capital, says Scheeren, is to blame for such wastelands. “Someone comes along, puts up a building here and does what they want, another puts his building there and does something completely different – and between them there’s nothing.” Intelligent architecture “that preserves a positive attitude and doesn’t indulge in cynicism” could help to prevent such segregation and at the same time even capitalize on the interests of capital, Scheeren believes. The more passersby are attracted by a building, the better it is for the shops and restaurants on its lower floors. But ambitious Scheeren is not content merely with an inviting facade. Instead, he makes the facade disappear at street level so that the lush green space outside the building continues inside it. It’s what Scheeren calls a “liquid landscape,” in which “the buildings dematerialize at the point where they come down to street level. The public space flows though them.”
In his next project, the highrise ensemble Empire City in Ho-Chi-Minh City, Vietnam, that concept will even be extended across several graduated levels reminiscent of terraced rice fields. For the green idyll to invite visitors to stay a while despite the tropical heat, the building must provide ventilation and shade. Scheeren’s office is using software simulations to test how architectural details can guide naturally prevailing winds and favor a pleasant microclimate.
Such playful care can only be taken because Scheeren’s office “has not maneuvered itself into a size structure that’s so massive that you can only work to preserve the structure.” He has a good 80 people working for him in Beijing, Hong Kong and Bangkok and recently also in Berlin and New York – “it’s not a huge outfit.” And when Scheeren says he will “probably have to grow a bit,” the emphasis is on “a bit” and “have to.” The Berlin branch is several hundred square meters in size. So far, most of the models on the tables loosely distributed around the room are of projects currently under construction or already completed. There are 15 people working here at present, but the place could accommodate 40 in the future.
That’s because a new phase of “reengagement” is beginning for Scheeren as regards Europe and America: “We learned a lot in Asia and now I’m interested to see how what has been learned can be applied in other contexts.” For Scheeren, that also means being personally on hand, as he was before in Asia. “I’ve never been the type to live in the West and just come over now and again to shake hands.” He plans to abide by the same principle in Europe and America and is now splitting his time three ways between the continents. The ability and willingness of Southeast Asia to “change things at a crazy pace,” continues to fascinate him. What attracts Scheeren to the Old World is the challenge of smoothly renewing structures that have become entrenched. He has no desire or ambition “to build in Europe on the same massive scale as in Asia, but instead, to show what we can do with what’s already there.”
The first project in Germany, the Riverpark Tower on the banks of the Main River in Frankfurt, is also not a new build but a conversion of a 1970s office block. “We are showing what incredibly positive and bold changes can be made to an existing building; how you can turn a hulking, forbidding concrete block into something really light, open and communicative.” The climate in Germany makes opening up a building in the way of the Southeast Asian projects unviable. So here, Scheeren creates luxury lofts with plenty of glass and terraces that face in different directions projecting from the core of the original building. A successful formula still has to be found for tower blocks that serve the community in colder climes – or something brand new will have to be developed. “In Asia, this highrise typology is inevitable, but of course, there is still a great deal that goes beyond it.”
Scheeren’s younger years may have been shaped by his constant weighing of options, his restless back and forth – but at 47, he has organized his life so that he can pursue all of his interests at the same time. He is developing hotel concepts, working to make “food a social experience” for the U.S. gourmet chain Dean & DeLuca, and in a pilot project in southern China, he’s posing the question, “of how in a wider sense, a new typology of living and working, mixed with quality of life, could look.”
That these projects are spread right across the northern hemisphere should be to Scheeren’s liking “Three continents in a month, at least ten cities, usually more – moving around so much is an enormous effort and also takes enormous energy because I am constantly confronted with new impulses and challenges.”And practically speaking, how does it feel to live with jetlag? “I just ignore it, simply don’t give it any space. Focus, discipline. The pace is so intense that it keeps itself going.”
Best of Scheeren
As director of the OMA in Beijing, Ole Scheeren led the construction project of the spectacular China Central Television headquarters, CCTV, in Beijing.
The Interlace apartment complex in Singapore was hailed as the World Building of the Year.
The MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok demonstrated that a skyscraper does not have to be a monolith.
Planned opening of the Riverpark Tower in Frankfurt. Scheeren’s first European project will transform a concrete tower.