Reinterpreting history: Büro Ole Scheeren's Guardian Art Center

Büro Ole Scheeren / Words Francesca Perry

Ole Scheeren may have established himself at Dutch architectural giant OMA, most prominently as project architect for the Beijing CCTV Headquarters, but since setting up his own practice in the same year that was completed — 2010 — he has been making his own mark in the global architectural landscape.

Büro Ole Scheeren currently employs 75 people. ‘I like that it is not too big,’ Scheeren enthuses. ‘It means I can be very involved in projects.’

Ole Scheeren. Photo Credit: Buro OsOle Scheeren. Photo Credit: Buro Os

This year sees the completion of three schemes for the practice: Beijing’s Guardian Art Center, (see previous pages), along with DUO in Singapore and MahaNakhon in Bangkok, Thailand. In November of last year, Scheeren also announced the Empire City project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It’s safe to say, with head offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, this German architect’s practice is firmly focused on Asia.

Having lived in China to work on the CCTV project (‘It was important to have a physical, as well as mental, presence there,’ he explains over tea at the Berners Tavern in London), Scheeren built networks in the wider region. In 2013, he completed The Interlace in Singapore — a large-scale residential project started while still at OMA. After that, more work kept emerging in Asia, so it made a lot of sense to base the practice there.

Now, however, he says the practice ‘wants to re-engage with the western world’, as its portfolio becomes increasingly global. Three years ago it opened a Berlin office — and it is now ‘preparing for a presence’ in the USA. In September he announced his first project in Europe — Riverpark Tower in Frankfurt — and new work in Vancouver is also on the horizon.

There is a London project in the pipeline too but he can’t be pinned down on it.

‘It’s exciting to be at that point where we’re engaged in those multiple realities and locations,’ he explains. ‘I have lived and worked in three continents. There are things we’ve learned as people on the ground in all those places. It’s incredibly important to spend time in the places where you build — to understand the context, both physically and psychologically. We build for people so we need to understand their everyday lives.’

Scheeren sees his work in Asia and Europe as responding to two very different contexts. ‘There is a radical newness in Asia — a radical invention of the future,’ he says. Rapid growth means previous models are no longer fit for purpose, and there are, he adds, ‘a lot of large-scale projects emerging out of the context of not much being there’.

It’s different in Europe, he says: ‘A lot of things are already here. There is a lot of substance which has meaning that architects need to negotiate.’ Scheeren describes this ‘western condition’ as ‘taking the givens and reinterpreting them’.

This is exactly the task he has set himself in Frankfurt with Riverpark, which was announced in September. A 23-storey, riverside, Seveneties, brutalist office building (‘Its enclosed heavy aesthetic speaks to its time,’ says Scheeren) will be transformed into a spacious, bright, 220-unit, residential tower, with panoramic views across the city by 2020.

Duo Singapore comprises two towers connected by a landscaped ground-floor public plaza, which Scheeren describes as a ‘civic nucleus’. Photo Credit: Iwan BaanDuo Singapore comprises two towers connected by a landscaped ground-floor public plaza, which Scheeren describes as a ‘civic nucleus’. Photo Credit: Iwan Baan

This is no small task, and Scheeren admits that the challenge of converting outdated office space to future-friendly residential property, as well as overcoming the prescriptive architectural aesthetic, is a steep one. But it seems this challenge is also an opportunity. He says: ‘It was important to demonstrate that we could do a retrofit, as well as big new buildings.’ He sees the approach as ‘smart reuse’, promoting urban sustainability through ‘courageous reinterpretation’.

Practically, this is to be achieved in five steps, he explains. First, the facade will be stripped off. The original building consists of four bulky columns at the corners with freespanning square floor plates — not your average residentialfriendly set-up. Next, Scheeren will open those corners up to bring in light and reduce the sense of bulkiness. The lowermost and uppermost technical floorplates, which are not habitable, will then be taken out. The lower floors will be replaced — but not the upper ones. Instead Scheeren will add an entirely new volume on top.

Following this, fully glazed ‘panoramic plates’ will be inserted throughout the building to reinforce a sense of horizontality and create uninterrupted views, interspersed by garden-like terraces. Finally, Scheeren will sculpt the top volume so the building will be identifiable and expressive, becoming a landmark for the city. ‘Frankfurt has a tradition of skyscrapers with a very articulated crown,’ he explains. He describes this final design as ‘a lighter floating stack of horizontal elements on the facade which speak of connectivity between inside and outside’.

Internally, Scheeren has designed a more efficient core (‘Towers are determined by their cores’, he says), thus regaining space in the building and adding an economic driver for the project. There is also a modular system for apartments, creating flexibility for people to determine their own homes.

At ground level, the building connects to a surrounding plaza through an undulating pavilion. ‘We didn’t want to design in isolation,’ Scheeren says. ‘We care about the relationship to the surrounding urban realm. We celebrate the building as an active component of the city, and of togetherness.’

Büro Ole Scheeren revealed plans for the Empire City project in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2017. Photo Credit: Buro OsBüro Ole Scheeren revealed plans for the Empire City project in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2017. Photo Credit: Buro Os

his holistic, contextual approach is something Scheeren tries to bring to each of his projects. Often his practice designs landscapes to integrate with his buildings. This was the case with The Interlace in Singapore, where Scheeren created all of the landscaping, including green public realm on multiple levels. ‘Nature is an important domain of life,’ he comments, reflecting on why he is so keen to embed it into his projects.

He has continued this with DUO Singapore, two sculptural towers connected by a public plaza and Scheeren’s first project in Singapore since The Interlace. He sees the landscaped ground-floor plaza of DUO as a ‘civic nucleus’. He explains: ‘I wanted this to be a 24-hour public space, not a gated community.’ The building’s orientation is optimised to the angle of the sun and wind, and its curved shape channels air to create cool microclimates in the shaded outdoor spaces.

A joint venture between the Malaysian and Singaporean governments — the first such collaboration on a built project — Scheeren sees it as a symbolic development. ‘It hopefully marks the beginning of positive collaborations between the two countries,’ he says. He also worked with artists from both countries to create artworks for the gardens.

The architect describes the role of DUO’s two towers as that of ‘repairing the fabric of the city’. The development is envisaged as a core part of Singapore’s wider redevelopment of the Ophir-Rochor district, in the northern part of the city-state. At a grand total of 160,722 sq m and with an exterior marked out by a hexagonal pattern of glazing, DUO is home to offices, residential units, a five-star hotel and a public observation deck, and is linked into the city’s metro network, the MRT, via its basement.

The Interlace in Singapore, which Scheeren began while still working at OMA, was completed in 2013. Photo Credit: Iwan BaanThe Interlace in Singapore, which Scheeren began while still working at OMA, was completed in 2013. Photo Credit: Iwan Baan

Scheeren’s MahaNakhon, a striking 77-storey skyscraper in central Bangkok which is Thailand’s tallest tower, also boasts a public observation deck, alongside Ritz-Carlton residences and an Edition hotel. The vision was to create an ‘unfinished skyscraper’, says the architect. His method of achieving this is what gives the building its unique, and yet very Scheerenesque, aesthetic. What would otherwise be a simple rectangular tower, glitches as it seemingly dissolves into pixelated forms in a spiralled path up to the top.

The practice has described it as ‘a three-dimensional ribbon of architectural pixels that coils up the tower’s full height’. Scheeren believes the pixelated cutaways reveal the ‘life’ of the city and of the building, through introducing a human-scale, urban grain of habitable forms, where residential units and their verdant terraces can be found.

MahaNakhon in Bangkok dissolves in a pixelated spiral to give the impression of what Scheeren describes as an ‘unfinished skyscraper. Photo Credit: Pace MahaNakhon in Bangkok dissolves in a pixelated spiral to give the impression of what Scheeren describes as an ‘unfinished skyscraper. Photo Credit: Pace

Looking through the architect’s projects, it is clear to see a recurrent motif of stacked cuboids and pixelated forms — but the architect insists that form follows function, instead of being a leading force. ‘My buildings don’t emerge out of an aesthetic desire,’ he says. ‘I’m interested in what buildings do for the people that live in them and use them.’

This understanding of and attention to the lived experience — led by situating himself in these very places — is a common thread uniting Scheeran’s projects. As his practice globalises, it will be interesting to see how this local sensitivity continues to be achieved

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