I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence.
Through redefining the relationship between people and architecture, Ole Scheeren is reconceiving the notion of shared spaces.
Architect Ole Scheeren is reinventing the high-rise. Forty-four years old and originally from Karlsruhe, Germany, his far-flung career has taken him from the Netherlands to New York, Singapore and China. His firm has offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and now Berlin. Most of his recent projects are located in Asia, where he specialises in distinctive tower blocks that are as much about the inside as the outside.
First held in 2008 as a “festival dedicated to celebrating and sharing architectural excellence from across the globe” the World Architecture Festival annually attracts the most important figures in the industry to discuss the future of building design. One of its regular guests is German ‘starchitect’ Ole Scheeren, who previously spoke at the event and was shortlisted for one of the coveted awards. Singapore has hosted the Festival since 2012, and GROHE remains its founder sponsor.
Scheeren first visited China 24 years ago due to “an intuitive interest”, he tells GROHE. “Asia is characterised by extreme urban density. More than 50 percent of the world’s population live in cities, and China is leading the pack. In the past decade the question of how to re-envision human existence in those dense environments is at the centre of my work, as I’m confronted with it on a daily basis.” His work in China coincided with “a new openness” – the economic boom that followed Deng Xiaoping’s reforms brought about a process of high-speed modernisation. “Prompted by this condition, China had to confront itself much more acutely with the question of the future and how to deal with things differently, because the way that things were was simply not working for them. And of course that is a very exciting context for an architect to work in,” he says.
As director of the Chinese branch of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA office, Scheeren created the iconic headquarters for Chinese state television, the CCTV building, which heralded a new era in Chinese architecture. “CCTV was built at the moment when Beijing had become a member of the WTO and had won the Olympic Games, and it felt like China was stepping onto the global stage. We thus reimagined the skyscraper away from its hierarchical disposition to something that was all about a giant collective. And that was the core idea of the CCTV.”
A key driver for his practice is the evolving question of how people inhabit different spaces, what their experiences and psychology are and how this relates to the psychology of the space. This has led to a number of residential projects such as The Interlace in Singapore, Maha Nakhon in Bangkok and 1500 West Georgia in Vancouver, which interweave transparency and structure, the public and private. “If you look at examples of my work, I’m really interested in the question of how we can integrate privacy with a higher degree of communality, a sense of being together and sharing things,” he notes. This is particularly true of The Interlace, a ‘vertical village’ of intersecting horizontal blocks that are stacked in hexagons to form an open, plaza- esque environment, a reversal of housing typology and a reinvention of the monolithic housing block. The project has attracted such acclaim that it has been nominated for the World Architecture Festival in Singapore in November 2015.
“WE WANT TO GIVE A CITY A SILHOUETTE THAT EXPRESSES LIFE”
Exterior and interior space are inseparable in Scheeren’s buildings. “The basic question that connects all my projects is how can we open up the mute shaft of the tower in large-scale architecture? And how can we break its scale into components that speak about human occupation or its usage? We want to give a city a silhouette that expresses life,” he says. “The emotional effect that a building has on people both in terms of looking at it from the outside and experiencing it from the inside are closely interconnected. We do most of the interior design for our buildings, and for me it’s an integral part of our work.” Of course, one would expect this to be reflected in Scheeren’s home, but this is not the case: “For most of my life I actually lived in very small and completely anonymous, barely functioning apartments with only a mattress on the floor and a big table for my work. I travel enormous amounts – I’m hardly ever at home, which means that you can’t afford to have many possessions because it immediately starts to limit your mobility,” he says.
The 1500 West Georgia in Vancouver interweaves the public and private.
Through his work process, Scheeren reconciles the cultural, environmental and urban contexts of his commissions alongside his client’s needs. The task then becomes “how to push it to a point where it becomes relevant beyond itself, where it starts to address the greater context of the public domain of the city”. In contrast, his favourite building is a structure that is almost invisible – the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, where the fundamental structure of the universe is under investigation. “I’ve never been there, but I find it incredibly fascinating as a structure, and that has nothing to do with the architecture.”
Scheeren’s father was also an architect, and some of his first memories are of the long corridors of the university his father taught at, and of the architectural models he found there. “At 14 I was at my father’s office designing for his projects. At 21 I got my first commission. Someone gave me this project and I executed it,” he grins. His early career was spent with Rem Koolhaas’ renowned OMA studio in Rotterdam. His decision to work there, he says, was because Koolhaas was then the only architect who positioned architecture in a social context. “I went there because I was seeking a dialogue with him. I think there were very few people at the time who were driving that dialogue. Today is a different story, almost everybody talks about almost everything,” he says, wryly.
Ultimately, Scheeren’s believes that architects are essential for navigating the challenges of an increasingly urbanised world where building is driven by the demands of capital. “As an architect I’m looking at ways how to break open the structure of buildings – be it a skyscraper or any other type – and to reconnect them with the city, to find spaces to carve out of these projects, and give them back to the public domain. And this increases the value of the project, because it attains meaning for the city and for the public,” he says. However, he notes, “We have to be brutally honest about how limited we are. And at the same time we have to be completely optimistic, and believe in the possibility to make a change, because otherwise you cannot work, you surrender before you have even started.”