The Hometown Prodigy

Ulf Meyer
17. Januar 2023
The Duo Towers in Singapore are meant to “symbolize Malaysia and Singapore.” (Photo: Iwan Baan © Buro-OS)

It was a long time ago, but people still remember the moment when Rem Koolhaas and OMA won the competition to design a large media and culture center in the German city of Karlsruhe for the newly established ZKM (short for “Zentrum für Kunst und Medien,” or Center for Art and Media). That was 1989. Three years later Koolhaas’s cube was scrapped and the decision was made to instead reuse some abandoned factories that were used for the manufacturer of ammunition. While this made perfect sense in terms of adaptive reuse, it left the city with the feeling of having missed out: People in Karlsruhe are still mourning the fact they never got a great cultural center designed by a famous “starchitect.” 

Now the halls of the former ammunition factory house a big solo exhibition on Ole Scheeren, one of Koolhaas’s most prolific disciples. Together with Winy Maas, Bjarke Ingels, Ma Yansong, Joshua Prince-Ramus, Jeanne Gang and other former OMA architects, Scheeren is carrying on the “Koolhaas school of architecture” to the far corners of the globe.

Ole Scheeren at the opening Ole Scheeren: Spaces of Life at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, 2022. (Photo: Felix Grünschloß)

While Scheeren has made a name for himself designing big towers in East Asia, he is not a very well-known architect in Europe. This exhibition is designed to change that. Ole Scheeren: Spaces of Life “provides a stage for the sculptural buildings” designed by his office, Buro-OS. This wording might come from the press briefing, but that’s exactly what the exhibition does. Large-scale models, giant photo poster walls, an impressive timeline of the whole oeuvre — all are well-designed, chic and flashy. As much in reality, the slick objects in the show appear to follow the “bigger is better” mantra. Colorful diagrams, an essential element of any Koolhaas-school building, jazz up the boards and explain the concepts behind the buildings. A hundred small-scale 3D-printed models are lined up along a 42-meter-long timeline, but the Olympian spirit of “I designed X-million square feet of floor space in just Y years“ has fallen out of style.

Key projects like CCTV in Beijing and Empire City Towers in Ho Chi Minh City are portrayed in the atrium as giant totems devoid of any urban context. (Photo: Felix Grünschloß)
A timeline sets the chronology of projects by Scheeren at OMA and Buro-OS. (Photo: Felix Grünschloß)

Communist countries such as China and Vietnam seem to be especially eager for Scheeren’s flashy towers. Floor plans and interiors come across as an afterthought; what matters most are a stunning shape and instant recognizability. While these are virtues in contemporary architecture, they are not the only ones. Chinese president Xi Jinping banned “weird architecture” in 2018. Is Scheeren’s architecure already the child of Temps perdu?

The Interlace, completed a decade ago in Singapore and still Scheeren's most famous building, grabbed attention for its straightforwardness and its lack of fear in repeating some mistakes made in mass housing in the 1960s. The volumes are stacked to create roof gardens and courtyards; the circulation is interlaced with social spaces where the inhabitants can meet. Scheeren’s later projects are more in line with what a nouveau riche real estate market demands. His three most talked-about projects — MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok, DUO Towers in Singapore, and Guardian Art Center in Beijing — all date from 2018. That year may be either the climax or the turning point of his career. The years since do not favor large, fancy, global, all-air-conditioned closed concrete towers and boxes, no matter how twisted they are.

The Interlace, Singapore (Photo: Iwan Baan © OMA Ole Scheeren)

Scheeren, born in Karlsruhe in 1971, made a name for himself with high-rise buildings. He could be a German “starchitect,” but he is not focused on Germany and Germany is not focused on stars. Scheeren interprets his architecture as a “body or a stage on which life unfolds.” “Beyond functionality,” he wants his buildings to “activate the imagination, fantasy and emotions.” His motto is "form follows fiction,” a quintessentially postmodern sentence. He also says, "We need the spectacle.”

The show at the ZKM is Scheeren’s first major solo exhibition. It looks great in the atria of the former factory, designed by Philipp Manz in 1918 and refurbished by Schweger + Partner in 1997. But it is not always clear which designs should be credited to OMA (Scheeren’s former employer), or engineer Cecil Balmond for that matter, and which ones Scheeren designed independently. Scheeren established Buro-OS, now with branches in Hong Kong, Beijing, Berlin and London, only in 2010. 

The Taipei Performing Arts Center, also designed during Scheeren’s tenure as director of Asian projects in OMA’s Rotterdam office, is only shown as a little model, like a side note of the exhibition. In Germany, Scheeren was supposed to convert the former Union Investment tower, built in Frankfurt in 1977, into luxury apartments called Riverpark Tower. Scheeren would have given the tower some big balconies and added new penthouse floors. The exhibition does not mention the project, which is now on hold. 

Empire City Towers in Ho Chi Minh City (Image © Buro-OS)

If concrete towers seem passé, Scheeren argues for “social sustainability” when he says, “it is important not to reduce the idea of sustainability to a simple formula. Saving resources doesn't help when we're building buildings that people don't want to live and work in over the long term.” Recently, embodied energy has become the talk of the town in architectural circles. In an interview Scheeren himself described the effect of this new era on his work: “I am part of a generation that saw opportunities in global networking. I've lived in ten countries. For a time I didn't live anywhere, I traveled back and forth between cultures. The idea of connecting was in the foreground. We had 25 nationalities in my company. Now we live in a time of nationalization that reverses things.”

Ole Scheeren: Spaces of Life is on display at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe until June 4, 2023.

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