Ole Scheeren balances creativity and innovation with his understanding of the concept of space in Asia, writes Jacqueline Tsang
For someone who is as known for his architectural genius as he is for his good looks, Ole Scheeren is surprisingly down-to-earth. Dressed in a simple blue shirt and jeans, the man behind some of the most stunning structures in the world is remarkably subtle and soft-spoken.
The only indication of his considerable stardom is his ease in front of the camera, a result of countless photo shoots over the years and, assuredly, there will be even more to come, as the German architect's new projects - The Interlace, MahaNakhon, DUO and Angkasa Raya - are scheduled to launch over the next few years.
His latest projects, like the majority of his works, are located in Asia, and Scheeren traces his attraction to the region back to his trip to China two decades ago, when he decided to spend three-and-a-half months in the country.
"I wasn't interested in the tourist version of China. I disappeared into the country … I wanted to make sure I was not safe," he remembers. His friend had warned him that he should prepare himself for the trip, and Scheeren dutifully started brushing up on his Lao Tzu, but it wasn't until the architect set foot on Chinese soil that he realised that wasn't quite what his friend meant.
"[The experience] catapulted me into a totally different reality of the world; in an almost brutal way, it extracted me from the context of my upbringing … from thinking that this is how personal space works," he explains. "You struggle with the dilemma of discovering that your perception of the world may not be true. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life."
Three years after his trip, Scheeren joined architectural firm OMA and, as the years went on, he became increasingly interested in Asia.
After a series of events that included a short stint in Thailand and winning a design competition for China's CCTV headquarters in 2002, the architect finally moved to Beijing in 2004 and started work on executing the monumental CCTV design, a project that Scheeren was at once excited and apprehensive about. "[I felt] an acute responsibility for what we had proposed, to carry it through and to make it happen in the way in which it was intended," he says. Scheeren was particularly sensitive to the practice of simply importing designs created with a Western culture and audience in mind, with the assumption they would find a home in a completely different context. "I had a very fundamental disbelief in this. I felt that I wanted to come and do things from here rather than from the West," he explains.
How, he wondered, does one integrate ideas into a local reality, to understand a culture enough so that the design would be innovative yet relevant? This is precisely the balancing act that fascinates Scheeren and runs as a common thread through his architectural designs. "It's an interesting road you take, when you come in as a part-outsider, when you think from the outside. The issue here is how much you can think from the inside to make it connectable to the local people," he says.
"The projects that I've done represent a series of attempts to really look at a particular context and understand its rules, as well as its psychology. How do we understand it and explore what is possible? Can we cross-fertilise, and test if things that work in one context can succeed in another? This working in between different worlds is something that I'm very interested in."
This philosophy worked especially well in Beijing at the time, as the capital was entering what Scheeren called "the most intense phase of the boom". He attributes this phenomenon to a combination of the country's emergence as an economic superpower, its joining the World Trade Organisation, and its victory at the 2008 Olympic Games. It was this momentum that led to a push for innovations and advances, particularly in architecture. "It was probably this particular historic moment that allowed for a project, such as CCTV, to happen. Five years earlier, and even now, this project would have been impossible," Scheeren says. "There was a mixture of both euphoria and the belief in progress and change that was quite unique. There was such an energy and force, an enormous amount of positive thinking that isn't quite there any more."
Far from this being a lamentable fact, however, the architect says that this slowing of advancement is proof that the country has realistic expectations. "This is a complex process, more cyclical than linear," he explains. "The euphoria made lots of things happen that otherwise never could, but it's equally interesting when there's time for second thoughts. In relation to the rest of the world, things are still moving quite fast, and there's still an enormous amount of things to be done, to be accomplished, to be rethought."
For the 15 years Scheeren was with OMA, he helped create some of the most awe-inspiring buildings in the world. These projects spanned from the United States - where he designed the Prada flagships in New York and Los Angeles, among other developments - to Taipei, where OMA's design for the Performing Arts Centre becomes concrete reality next year.
Since Scheeren set up his own firm, Büro Ole Scheeren, in 2010, with a few notable exceptions, such as the floating Archipelago Cinema, his projects have been much more Asia-centric, with DUO and Angkasa located in Singapore and Malaysia, respectively, and a number of other developments planned for China.
Scheeren acknowledges that the appreciation for design and art in China is growing, but that it requires a certain amount of controversy, even at the risk of upsetting those who prefer the status quo.
"Any true sense of appreciation can only be based on knowledge and understanding, and to create this basis of understanding you need questioning - to question the norms and the possibilities that exist," he says. "When it comes to the architectural scene in China, the hope can only be to explore new possibilities and push boundaries, so that in the end you make a somewhat relevant contribution to a place."
Even with the large number of headline-worthy developments in the works, Scheeren is showing no signs of stopping. With The Interlace set to launch next year, MahaNakhon shortly after that, not to mention the much-anticipated Angkasa Raya and DUO buildings, the prolific architect is already hinting at another project in the pipeline - one located near Beijing's Forbidden City, no less. After all, he says, "The most exciting project is always the next one you're going to do."