The architect behind provocative designs like The Interlace in Singapore and MahaNakhon in Bangkok answers critics - and talks about how Asia can lead the way in building cities that change the way we interact.
SINGAPORE: He was just 18 when he drained his savings to buy a tiny car in order to drive across Europe, scoping out buildings and spaces while analysing which designs worked and which did not.
That experience challenged the way Ole Scheeren thought about architecture, making him one of the most influential architects today who is finding new solutions to high density living.
The German-born 45-year-old is the brains behind some of the most talked-about buildings in Asia, including the China Central Television Station (CCTV) building in Beijing, the Mahanakorn in Bangkok and the Angkasa Raya in Kuala Lumpur - all of which sport unusual designs which, he says, represent how we can find better ways to live in the city.
The confrontational nature of his designs makes people either love them or hate them, and has even drawn comments from President Xi Jinping, who described his CCTV building as “weird architecture”.
In Singapore his project The Interlace - a large-scale residential development by CapitaLand and Hotel Properties which won World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival - directly opposes the “straitjacket of the tower”. Instead, 31 apartment blocks stacked hexagonally form dynamic outdoor spaces for people to interact, a veritable “vertical village”.
Says Ole: “When I was young I took one fundamental decision which is that I mistrusted any mediation of reality - I did not want to look at photographs or books about architecture. I wanted to see the real thing."
“Some things look really good in a photograph but when you get there, it’s totally different... To feel what happens to you when you enter these spaces taught me a lot,” he adds. Perhaps putting himself in unfamiliar places was his way of breaking out of the mould of his early years spent at his father’s architecture firm, in his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany.
ASIA ON THE CUSP
Just a few years after he went around Europe, Ole set off again - this time to backpack across China in 1992, when it was still a largely unfriendly place for tourists. He passed through remote villages and visited cities like Shenzhen when it was on the cusp of becoming the major financial metropolis it is today.
“There were a few small construction sites but no city... but at the same time you could feel the enormous energy that was there and that a lot was about to happen,” he recalls.
When this energy was unleashed, it brought a slew of foreign investment into China, and along with it, top architecture firms that were clamouring to ride the wave of the property boom.
One of them was Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where Ole was a partner from 2002 to 2010.
The CCTV building in Beijing, which Ole Scheeren designed in collaboration with Rem Koolhaas while at OMA. (Photo: Büro Ole Scheeren group)
The construction of OMA’s CCTV building brought Ole back to China. And, in 2004, he made the decision to base himself in Asia permanently.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia at The Interlace, he talks about confronting the greatest challenge for Asian cities - high density living - as an opportunity for architects to rethink how to build our urban spaces.
Has basing yourself in Asia been changed the way you think about design?
I do try to spend as much time as I can in the places that I design for. To get the feel of a place is absolutely critical. Most Western architects sit in the West and literally export their work.
I thought this was an incorrect approach to things. I think that design is very contextually specific - so our buildings are very precise answers to location and culture.
The first time I came to China was 1992… it had a huge influence on me. It was such an intense encounter with this culture. It confronted me with how different the world was compared to where I grew up, but it became an entirely liberating experience and I think it connected me to this part of the world.
What is it about Asia that keeps you wanting to work here?
Europe is such a well developed and fixed structure that is much more difficult to intervene radically. Asia in general is partly the opposite - there is more commitment to renewal and to rethinking things. It is very explicitly asking the question of the future.
That in itself is simply a very exciting concept for an architect to work in because you can really think about new ways of living, new ways of working, new ways of designing structures.
What issues should architects and urban planners of today be thinking about?
I think the greatest challenge is to deal with the enormous density and the influx of people coming into the city, but at the same time, using it as a challenge to discover a quality of life within that.
What is more important is creating a social environment - thinking about how we can really construct a city not only as a built fabric but really as a society.
A rendering of the MahaNakon in Bangkok, a project by Ole’s firm Büro Ole Scheeren. It is set to be the tallest building in Thailand when completed. (Photo: Büro Ole Scheeren group)
Why is it important for architects to think about these issues?
Buildings are for people… so to imagine how people would feel in buildings, the psychology of people, is very important.
I think too much of the construction business is concerned with pure profit… and too much of architecture is concerned with the purely iconic, with shapes, and silhouettes.
My buildings are really born out of an ambition to achieve a quality of life. They are not created as an idea of shape or pure object, but they are asking the question - how do things work in there? Both in a functional way but also in an emotional or psychological way.
Having said that, you are known to design buildings with very iconic shapes - some people even give your buildings nicknames, like “giant underpants” for the CCTV building. What is your response?
The reason why the buildings look unusual is because they are answers to these questions rather than a pure shape-finding exercise. I think people's joy or need to call things names is not necessarily something bad, and I think you have to look at these things with enough humour - an element of dialogue and communication is very important.
But of course, as you push boundaries, there is also always a bit of provocation included in that and you cannot expect everybody to immediately understand everything.
How has a building like The Interlace provided an alternative living space?
The Interlace is an explicit prototype... which overcame the straightjacket of the tower where people live in vertical isolation and disconnected from each other.
The huge courtyard spaces are there for the communal life. You have a very public ground where more people can meet, where you can engage in a larger sense of public activity.
One of the public shaded courtyards at The Interlace. (Photo: Kim Wong)
If you look at the outdoor spaces, we not only introduced a lot of greenery but we also strategically opened the building to be penetrable to the winds. We placed water bodies along those wind corridors to have the evaporative cooling create micro-climates.
I believe that with intelligent design - and you do not always need to employ a lot of technology for that - you can augment the quality of spaces in an environmental way to make them more usable and more livable.
Has fengshui ever influenced your work, especially when working in countries like Hong Kong and China?
I have often spoken to fengshui masters and I think there are aspects of it that you can rationalise. There are other aspects that are simply about the question of: You enter a room, why does it make you feel good or bad?
Fengshui is also about things being in their proper place and things in a way configured correctly.
Duo (a mixed development in Singapore's Kampong Glam area) is a good example of that. The building opposite is a very pointed, blade-like building. People considered this site almost unbuildable because of this conflict of the blade hitting the site.
I conceived a strategy to design a building around those things, and actually carve everything problematic out of the allowable buildings volume. So were able to turn a highly problematic situation into something very positive.
The Duo Residences and Duo Tower, a mixed-use development along Beach Road designed to offset what's considered negative fengshui energy from the building on the far left. (Photo: Büro Ole Scheeren group)
Duo is near its completion soon - but it’s in a very different location, and a very different concept from The Interlace. What can we expect?
The interesting situation of the Duo project is that it was an insertion into a fairly derelict urban context. It was almost a piece of no man's land located between two buildings that had no real relationship to each other. To the side of it is Kampong Glam, one of the really interesting historic places of Singapore.
But all these pieces sort of had no way to relate to each other. I was interested in designing a building that would reorder and reconfigure the urban environment… and be a social catalyst for the area.
The entire ground floor is basically a huge garden, completely open to the public 24 hours. There will be multiple pathways that will connect the underground subway stations and underpasses to the different Bugis areas - the busy restaurants, and the historic area.
If you could go back in time and speak to any architect, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I think it would have been very interesting to talk to the planners of Rome. Rome was the first mega city in the world, and it was the first urban conglomeration that exceeded 1 million people which for that time is an almost unimaginable figure.
The strategic understanding of both infrastructure - because it was about how to bring water to places - and the social context - because it was as much about the games and entertainment as the mechanical infrastructure of the city. It would have been a highly interesting discussion to see how that was planned and thought of.