Architect of Beijing's CCTV HQ is back with city centre art and design hub
Ole Scheeren tells Christopher DeWolf how he sees the Guardian Art Centre like a Chinese puzzle
Other architects had tried and failed. For 18 years, the site at the corner of Wangfujing and Wusi streets had seen 30 proposals come and go, each bedevilled by the height restrictions and commercial pressures on one of the last major building sites near Beijing's Forbidden City.
Then finally there was a breakthrough in the form of the Guardian Art Centre, designed by German-born, Beijing-based architect Ole Scheeren for China Guardian, a 22-year-old auction house. Construction started in 2013 on the 34-metre-high complex, which will house an auction house, exhibition space, educational facilities, a hotel and restaurants.
"It's the largest and most radical reinsertion of the art scene into the centre of Beijing," says Scheeren.
"Everything has migrated out to 798 [Art Zone] in the suburban exodus. Refocusing it in the very centre could be very exciting for the city itself."
This is Scheeren's second major project in Beijing, the first being the controversial CCTV Headquarters he designed with Rem Koolhaas while working at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture). That took him to the Chinese capital more than 12 years ago, but in 2010 Scheeren parted ways with OMA, and founded Büro Ole Scheeren. Since then, the practice has steadily built a diverse portfolio of projects ranging from skyscrapers in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to artists' studios in Beijing.
Guiding all these projects is a desire to stretch the boundaries of conventional building forms and typologies. "We're in the role to challenge our clients, not only to supply architecture," says Scheeren.
In the Guardian project, he says he has designed a building that reconciles its disparate surroundings: centuries-old hutongs on one side and blocky commercial architecture on the other, not to mention the Stalinist chinoiserie of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) nearby.
"What I really wanted to think about was how the project could address, and maybe even resolve, this everlasting tension between history and modernity," says Scheeren.
"How can you build in a historic context without historicising? How can you be radically contemporary without neglecting the layers of history and meaning in a site?"
His solution was to create several different buildings in one. The lower half comprises pixel-like structures, loosely assembled like a pile of bricks, which reflect the low-slung courtyard houses of the adjacent hutongs. This was a technique used by a proposal for another art centre on the same site, by Beijing architect Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, but Scheeren's version goes a step further by imposing a hollow rectangular structure on top of the hutong-inspired mass, mimicking the hefty scale of the commercial buildings on Wangfujing.
"Beijing is a monumental city," says Scheeren. "Things are large, and there's a heaviness to everything. It sits very firmly on the ground." While he wanted to acknowledge that sense of grandeur, he also wanted to reflect the intimate scale of Beijing's hutongs. "The art centre has a transitional quality," he says. "It has a presence but also a subtleness to it. To me it's a very understated sense of monumentality."
That philosophy also shaped the building's textural facade. The lower levels are perforated with holes of varying sizes, which create a pattern resembling Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, a 1350 painting by Huang Gongwang, which was famously split in two when one of its owners tried to burn it to take it with him to the afterlife. In 1949, half ended up in Zhejiang province; the other half in Taiwan.
"There's the softness of the Chinese landscape," says Scheeren. "The painting unfolds in its entirety around the four faces of these pixels. It gives it this interesting tactile quality; it becomes a filter that brings in light, and, at night, it will glow. It gives the building this soft, textural quality."
By contrast, the boxy upper half of the building is surrounded by projecting window boxes that resemble bricks from the outside and traditional Chinese window screens from the inside.
Unlike NAMOC across the street, which seeks to impress through gilded roofs and imperial-style embellishment, Scheeren wanted the Guardian Art Centre to adopt a more humble approach.
"The brick is a symbol of civic society," he says. "The hutongs are built from brick, and the hutongs represented the business elite, the cultural elite, the intellectual elite."
This ethos of approachability continues inside, where Scheeren wants to reflect how art spaces have given up their "purity" to become as commercial as they are cultural.
"Every museum has been invaded by its museum shop," he says. "Many activities in the museum are no longer truly art-related, but very few have made a real statement out of this. An auction house is partly about preserving culture and partly about commercialising culture. Why don't we take that and declare this building a hybrid of art, culture, events and lifestyle?"
The core of the building is a 1,700-square-metre, column-free exhibition space that can be reconfigured in various ways.
"It can accommodate almost any function you can imagine," says Scheeren.
Around and above the exhibition space, inside the oddly shaped "pixels", are offices, restaurants and gathering spaces. The hollow rectangular structure on top contains a hotel, while the courtyard contains a garden and a small building-within-a-building that is home for educational facilities. Because the building's height is capped at just under 35 metres, storage and back-of-house spaces burrow deep underground.
Scheeren says construction has progressed up to the top half of the building, which is slated to open in the middle of next year.
"It's a very complex building, like a Chinese puzzle the way everything is tightly packed in," says Scheeren. "Technically, it was very difficult to accomplish, but it makes it this very exciting compression of diversity."