When we last caught up with Ole Scheeren, (W*133), the architect was on the cusp of leaving the cradle of OMA – not that anyone suspected this at the time. The Dutch studio’s landmark Chinese project, the CCTV Tower, was substantially complete and Scheeren’s name was closely associated with some of OMA’s most eagerly awaited projects, including the MahaNakhon tower in Bangkok and the Taipei Performing Arts Centre. As creative divorces go, the split didn’t make headlines with outrageous claims for alimony or allegations of stylistic infidelities. Instead, Scheeren quietly slipped its moorings, to continue to work on some of these well-advanced megastructures and quickly acquire a few other substantial projects.
Two and a half years later, and Scheeren has effortlessly assumed the mantle of studio leader, with a new letterhead, an endless supply of crisp white shirts and a globe-spanning portfolio (and itinerary) that threatens to eclipse the schedule of his mentor. But where OMA is explicitly a globalised firm, deploying rhetoric and research in the name of new architectural paradigms, Büro Ole Scheeren has emerged out of Asia, primed to make the leap from East to West. This initial focus is unsurprising, given Scheeren’s extensive experience of living and working in the region, but it has shaped the line-up of projects that formally launch the studio. These range from the racked and stacked blocks of The Interlace apartments and the side-hung Scotts Tower in Singapore, the greebled façade of the MahaNakhon in Bangkok, to the Angkasa Raya tower in Kuala Lumpur, sited up against the Moorish detail of Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers, but a thousand miles apart in conception and delivery.
Scheeren’s work resists categorisation. For the architect, variety is a crucial part of his studio’s identity. ‘It was important to me to open the practice with a range of different projects – it’s the range that makes things so interesting,’ he says, from a site visit in Bangkok, en route to his Beijing studio, via an earlier stopover in Singapore. Like many exponents of the new avant-garde, Scheeren is unafraid of the visual language of high modernism; indeed, many of the buildings developed by Büro-OS resemble the International Style on steroids, with their fragmented façades, casual structural gymnastics and juxtaposition of glassy geometric simplicity with rifts, ripples and shears.
Büro-OS has had to navigate the valley of expectations between rendered vision and built reality with more delicacy than most contemporary studios. CCTV has been on the design radar for a decade, with the first images emerging in late 2002. Although the building appeared to be complete by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in truth the tenants, China’s state TV station, have only just moved in after a complex fit-out. Scheeren is playing a long game and it’s only now, two years after the studio was set up, that he is sharing projects as they approach completion. The transition from OMA to Büro-OS has resulted in a more explicit definition of authorship for many of the projects in his portfolio. Among the first to be won under his own name was Angkasa Raya. According to Scheeren, ‘it marked a relatively significant step’ in the evolution of the studio.
With three major projects on site, the studio also has smaller projects in the works, most notably a studio and gallery space for a leading, but publicity-shy, Chinese artist. ‘It’s a very personal project,’ Scheeren explains. ‘It’s his very specific world meeting my own world – a house that places artistic space alongside a context of literal Chinese-ness.’ The artist is a compulsive collector, not just of art. The entire context of the new structure will be assembled from his personal stash of traditional Chinese structures and landscape elements, creating a highly concentrated experience of the country’s long tradition of art, design and landscape.
On a much larger scale, plans for a new Beijing auction house are nearing completion. Designed for the country’s leading home-grown auctioneers, the project occupies a prime site off the commercial and cultural axes that run close to the Forbidden City. Both of these projects are in the final design stage, while the Bangkok tower is now taking shape after a spell of inaction, and The Interlace is rising fast above the low hills in the west of Singapore. ‘Many of these buildings have an explicitly tropical context,’ says Scheeren. ‘The question is how you build in a place where nature is so dominant and beautiful, and where people live very differently to other climate zones.’
On the screen, this scattering of projects, from high to low rise, small to large, appears rather disparate and disjointed, but what unites them is Scheeren’s concerns about architecture’s broader social role. Although Asia has been his focus for many years – Scheeren has lived around the region for nearly a decade, ever since relocating with OMA – the typologies that emerge from Büro-OS are stylistically disparate but focused, laser-like, on their immediate context. ‘How can a building be relevant beyond its occupants?’ the architect asks, and it’s clear that this social concern is the key bridge that links his work to the European modernism of three quarters of a century ago, rather than any stylistic concerns. ‘There’s a sense of psychology at work: how do people live, how do they behave in these buildings?’ he asks. ‘A number of people in the studio also have degrees in history, sociology, psychology. We try to really bring local knowledge and perspectives to our projects.’
There is an overarching sense of anthropological exploration at work in the Büro-OS portfolio. As Scheeren himself acknowledges, ‘We’re at the stage where I still have the luxury of being personally engaged with projects. I enjoy spending time in locations and getting a real feel for them. It’s really a goal to keep the practice at a scale where I can continue to do that.’ Furthermore, he is all too aware of the pitfalls – both in terms of presentation and in approach – of digital architecture. ‘There’s a relatively big rift between my generation and what came after. I grew up in an analogue world. I learned to draw, to build models and to build houses by hand, I worked on a construction site for a long time…There is something very real about architecture, it’s not all digital. But China is more manual; the West has turned very digital in the absence of built realities,’ he says. Nowhere is this more evident than in the construction of CCTV. ‘The way it was designed clearly took advantage of local conditions, labour and material costs. We also designed it entirely out of locally sourced Chinese materials and steel grades, which all had an impact, technologically and aesthetically. But the building clearly exceeded these qualifications.’
Maintaining a portfolio that runs from skyscrapers to studios has its benefits. ‘You can engage in very specific issues of craft, how things come together. They’re also about individual psychologies, not communal psychology. You can react very precisely to an individual, their tastes and fantasies,’ Scheeren says. The Büro-OS Archipelago Cinema is another modest but high-profile work. First seen in a cove on the Thai island of Koh Yao Noi, it’s currently being reconstructed for the 13th Venice Architecture Biennale, where it will host the premiere of Against All Rules, Horst Brandenburg’s documentary about Scheeren’s past six years in practice. ‘The cinema is less of an architectural project, more an intervention in the landscape. It is a narrative about creativity,’ says Scheeren.
The architect frequently returns to this idea of an architectural narrative, implying his buildings are about facilitating the way people live, rather than shaping them. ‘It would be foolish to claim not to still be influenced by European modernists in some way,’ he says, ‘but I don’t want to sound nostalgic or retro when I talk about these things. It’s about ambition, about the impact on our society, rather than a formal concern.’ In the next few years, the seeds currently being sown in the fertile urban landscape of Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and China will grow into a more global approach. ‘After basically a decade in Asia as an onlooker, I am now acutely complicit with this part of the world,’ Scheeren says, ‘but it feels like the right moment to orient myself back to Europe and re-engage with the West.’