Many western architects are attempting to make their names with ambitious, oddball schemes in Asia – things they’d never have a chance of building in a recession back home – but Ole Scheeren is going the other way. After working as partner in charge on the shockingly massive headquarters for Chinese state TV (CCTV) in Beijing, Scheeren stayed in the Chinese capital and set up his own practice. “I’d been through China in ’92,” he tells me in the lobby of a Singapore hotel, “and the trip changed my life, it dismantled the whole structure of my European upbringing.”
Scheeren speaks like this, with huge charm, about life-changing events and moments of clarity. “Architecture,” he tells me, “has to be about desire. About wanting something, an emotion, a sensation.” This curious blend of the confessional and the enthusiastic, bound with a glue of pragmatic logic, is not the way architects usually talk. It is difficult not to warm to him.
Born in Germany, now resident in Beijing and the partner of Chinese movie star Maggie Cheung, Scheeren is one of architecture’s brightest talents. Sharp, articulate and engaging, he has a talent for explaining huge complex designs in simple but memorable language. He has mastered the particular cocktail of instantly arresting imagery and persuasive ideas that convinces you he is delivering a new vision for the city in each proposal – the trademark of his former employer Rem Koolhaas. He also has the slightly gaunt look, delineated cheekbones and wired disposition of a movie star that, combined with his relationship and his unusual status as a westerner in China, has made him a Hong Kong tabloid staple.
“Living with that attention is very difficult,” he says. “We walk out into the street and within 30 seconds it’s mayhem. It turns you into a very private person.”
However, Scheeren is beginning to attract attention for the right reasons: his extraordinary designs. The most recent is for the Angkasa Raya, a tower for downtown Kuala Lumpur on a prominent site beside the Petronas Towers. Before our interview I’d visited the construction site of a massive residential complex in Singapore called “The Interlace”. It looks like a game of Jenga gone bad, a massive pile of supersized blocks resting on each other in a seemingly random configuration, as if thrown down by the gods. This unusual configuration allowed Scheeren to create a development that has great urban presence yet exerts itself far less aggressively than a conventional tower of the type rising all over the city.
In Bangkok Scheeren is building “The MahaNakhon”, a 77-storey skyscraper (it will be the tallest in the city) that appears to be pixellating and breaking up and which, as it nears the ground, disintegrates into a mess of glass cubes: a neat visual trick to avoid the monotony of the boxy tower with straight glass walls. The design facilitates the creation of balconies and terraces through the tower’s height, while allowing the structure to become more fluid in the way it meets the city’s bustling streetscape. The breakdown of the building’s geometry echoes perfectly the chaos and buzz of the streets below.
For Kuala Lumpur, meanwhile, Scheeren has designed a hybrid type all of its own. “You have the Petronas Towers,” he tells me, “so if you build a single tower it’s going to have trouble competing. But then you can’t build twin towers because that’s already been done.” His solution is Angkasa Raya, a slightly precarious-looking stack of irregular blocks interspersed with a horizontal band and with a gap through its centre. The complex formal arrangement eschews the usual format of a podium containing a garage and a tower atop it – instead, glass walls to garages and ramps add levels of complexity, a mixed circulation system.
Each building uses something of the particular Asian urban ground conditions and amplifies it. It is a remarkable trio of structures for an architect still only 40 years old. I asked Scheeren how he’d done so much so young. “My father was an architect in Karlsruhe and I started working for him when I was 14 to make a little money,” he says. “When I was 18 I set up my own model-making workshop in the basement and then, at 21, I received a first architectural commission, a boutique.
“But I’d never thought I’d follow my father into being an architect,” he continues. “I used to make models and take photographs of buildings and then there came a moment when, in really looking at a building, I could feel something, the emotion of the creator. That was the first time I felt there was a real possibility here.”
There followed a peripatetic existence, beginning with a stint as a graphic designer in New York before Scheeren “became aware of Rem [Koolhaas]’s work and felt connected”. There he found himself with the brief of rebranding Prada’s worldwide stores and ultimately as partner in charge on the CCTV building, arguably Beijing’s most visible landmark. I asked about his attitude to the commission – this was, after all, a new HQ for the Chinese propaganda machine.
“The energy in Beijing then was innocent,” he replies. “That project would have been impossible to build two years earlier or two years later – China had got the Olympics and joined the WTO. You could feel the pride at things changing and a country moving forward. More dramatic change happened in that period than for a long time before or since. The clients at CCTV were young and they described the building as a vehicle for change, for accountability to the public: CCTV wouldn’t be able to hide any more.” And is he happy with the result? “It has grown into an object in the city,” he says, “but not yet an organism in the city.”
How, I ask, is he intending to address that problem of integration into the city with his own new buildings? “At the MahaNakhon,” he replies, “there is an exhibition space open so the site is already established as a place. In Kuala Lumpur we’re trying to mix up traffic and people, bring the life of the streets into the tower just like at CCTV – we tried to make the most public TV building in the world with people able to walk through TV studios.”
Does he, I wonder, feel at home in Asia?
“I’ve been in Beijing eight years,” he replies, “and I’ve come to really like the place. Previously all the ideas were generated in the west and exported to the east. I really care about the idea that we live in Asia and the ideas emerge from there.”