The globe-trotting architect talks about buildings with purpose
It’s hard to pin down Ole Scheeren – his architecture as well as his career path seem both familiar and idiosyncratic. He established his practice after he left OMA in 2010, and thanks to his boundless ambition, Büro Ole Scheeren is emerging as a true global player. There is talk that he is tipped to design the £130 million home for the British Film Institute in Southbank, London, but he, along with his PR manager, remains diplomatic but firmly tight-lipped. Nevertheless, Icon caught up with him during one of his 24-hour stints in London to try and find out how he grows his large, cosmopolitan practice at a time of backlash against metropolitan elites.
ICON Last time we spoke was in 2012. Since then, your practice has completed the Interlace, which won Best Building at the 2015 World Architecture Festival. You’ve almost finished the 314m-tall MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok, started work on buildings in Beijing, Vancouver and Singapore. And you have opened new offices in Bangkok and Berlin.
OLE SCHEEREN And we’re preparing ourselves for America, too.
ICON How do you keep going?
OS In a way there was a strategic component to the office’s path, but also an organic one. Strategic in the fact that I’ve always been interested in positioning our work in an international context, even though it exists in a strong response to local conditions. We chose a very unconventional path of basing our company in Hong Kong and expanding westwards, rather than following the older, colonial model of starting in the West and going eastwards. The growth of the office came naturally as more clients came in and projects started to move westwards: our project in Vancouver is our first non-Asian project. We have several things in Europe and in the US in the pipeline, our Dean & DeLuca kitchen store concept will be rolled out primarily in the US as well. I set up an office in Berlin because it’s a great place for a creative practice. We also have a formal set-up here in London that we’ll be able to activate if and when work develops.
ICON Has the Brexit vote changed the way you think about London?
OS It’s interesting, because if we placed our bet on London or Berlin, we would have been either in or out, but with the two we can still embrace the whole. I’m sure Brexit will necessarily have an impact on the type of projects that we do though.
ICON What about the reputation, whether deserved or not, that you deal only with large projects?
OS That scale is more of a reality than a choice in Asia. It simply exists. My involvement with the CCTV Headquarters [in Beijing] certainly played a massive role in catapulting us into a scale that hardly existed before, and with that also the ability to understand and handle it. I’m interested in the potential and capacities of the large scale, but I’m also fascinated by the other end of it. We did a floating cinema in Thailand in 2012, and just recently we presented Dean & DeLuca at Design Miami.
Between these I designed a studio for a painter, and also a cinematographic installation for the Sharjah Art Biennial. The Guardian Art Center, currently under construction in Beijing, is a relatively compact project compared with the others. The projects we’ll be working on in Europe will range from medium to maybe even smaller scale. I am not interested for our work to fall into a certain bracket. It’s more interesting to move between the scales and continuously challenge myself to learn.
The 77-storey MahaNakhon mixed-use tower in Bangkok, completed in 2016
ICON In your larger projects, do you feel more of a masterplanner, or are you able to control the finer details as well?
OS We never just do concepts, we take all of our projects through to design development, and stay involved through construction documentation and even construction stages if possible. It is important to not just sell a quick idea and then get out of it and let it become whatever it becomes. Even if certain parts of these projects are fitted out by others, the spatial definition is so distinct that we still ‘own’ a large part of those interiors.
The reality is that we as architects no longer control the totality of our work. But we are not facadists – we are not sticking decorative surfaces onto predefined objects, we’re really defining and conceptualising the object, which itself is a strong expression of an idea and notion of how we want to configure things and how we want to live through and with space.
ICON In 2014, Chinese president Xi Jinping may or may not have implicated the CCTV Headquarters in his crusade against ‘weird buildings’ that have been built in China by foreign architects. ZHA’s Patrik Schumacher has also suggested that it’s getting increasingly difficult for his practice to operate in the county. Did this have any effect on your work?
OS I think the Western media has turned this story into a caricature, a kind of Cold War situation where you’re either on one side or the other. Fundamentally it’s a question of what architecture should or should not be. After a decade or two of the most enthusiastic output, it is a good moment to pull back and think about what does and doesn’t make sense and what is and isn’t good. I’m neither an opponent to that statement, nor its victim. The answer deserves and requires depth in the analysis and understanding of particular cases, and that depth may not have been applied at all points – I would insist on the CCTV being grounded both in a conceptual basis and in serious ambition, such that it exists far beyond those various categories that have been so lightly bandied about.
The project may have been too radical and might have pushed too many boundaries, so it will take time for it to gain acceptance. The Guardian Art Center can be seen as a statement, integrating a contemporary architectural object in a highly historically sensitive context. In fact, we designed this project long before this issue even came up, and once delivered, it will help us understand the bandwidth of possibilities. I see it as a proof of the seriousness with which we were committed to that context: the Guardian Art Center is meaningful because it opens up a new window for the future of contemporary building in the same city, opposite in approach to the CCTV.
ICON Over the past year, there’s been a popular revolt in the West against globalisation. You lead a global practice – are you worried by this trend? Do you feel you’ll be able to find like-minded clients?
The Interlace by OMA / Ole Scheeren, a 31-block ‘vertical village’ in Singapore
OS My architecture is not fearful, and my position towards the world is not fearful. I would like to make a differentiation between being fearful and being subtle and contextual. The latter two are good things, and not the result of being timid and hesitant. When we build in Europe, we will think about the European context, not in a passive, but in an active way and make suggestions as to how this context can be enlarged, enriched and pushed, to contribute positively to how we live. Some European clients might look at the work we do and think ‘this is ten times the size that we usually work with’. But this is needless – I have done small things, I am doing small things, I love small things.
ICON We didn’t delve into any specifics about the future work you mentioned.
OS Unfortunately, there is nothing we can disclose just yet. Of course, this is another reality we inhabit as architects, which is that we’re bound by confidentiality agreements to our clients and can’t talk about everything. We have things in the making in Germany and also in the UK.
The 186m-high DUO mixed-use towers in Singapore, due for completion this year
ICON If we meet again in five years, is there any dream project that you would like to have completed by then?
OS I’ll show it to you then … I’m always hesitant to pigeonhole ourselves. Five years ago, I couldn’t have told you that I would be designing for a chain of grocery stores, but then doing work for Dean & DeLuca has been an incredibly interesting experience, developed out of our European offices. Going to that scale requires a completely different contextual learning. But I would say that the fundamental ambitions of this work are not different from the big towers.
ICON So what is the fundamental ambition of your architecture? What would be your elevator pitch?
OS I systemically hate this: the idea of a unique selling point and being thrown and thrust into different simplified categories, but I think my work is about space and what space can contribute in the spectrum of potential human relationships. So I do see our work as a tool to open, enrich and enlarge the possibilities of the stories that people live in their environment. And at best we can create stimulation and stages for those stories that celebrate them, that make them enjoyable, that make them fun. It’s really a part of celebrating life rather than declaring architecture a sculptural object in its own right and as a dead piece of matter.
Stage, Scheeren’s store concept for Dean & DeLuca, launched at Design Miami 2016
Stage’s sculpted surface creates a ‘multi-layered food display system’