Overturning the Norm

Ole Scheeren, the architectural genius behind the 2015 World Building of the Year, explains why he rejects the conventional and how his buildings support greater quality of life for people.

Issue: Oct 2016

German-born, Beijing-based Ole Scheeren is the architectural brains behind The Interlace, which was crowned World Building of the Year 2015.
German-born, Beijing-based Ole Scheeren is the architectural brains behind The Interlace, which was crowned World Building of the Year 2015.

While many architects aspire to create something different, few are as bold as Ole Scheeren. The 45-year-old German-born, Beijing-based architect effectively changed Singapore’s skyline when he designed The Interlace.

“We basically toppled the towers,” he said during a recent visit to Singapore.

“We wanted to overcome the ‘strait jacket’ of the tower where people live in vertical isolation. With The Interlace, we turned the vertical into the horizontal and stacked them in large, hexagonal grids to form huge courtyard spaces. Buildings are for people but architecture today focuses too much on shapes and silhouettes and too little on how people want to live."

“My buildings are borne of an ambition to achieve a quality of life. In creating them, I ask questions about how things work in this particular space, both functionally and emotionally. If my buildings look unusual, it is because they are answers to such questions, rather than a pure shape-finding exercise,” he asserted.

Completed in 2013, The Interlace is a vertical village of 31 apartment blocks stacked in a hexagonal arrangement to create diverse communal spaces for its residents.
Completed in 2013, The Interlace is a vertical village of 31 apartment blocks stacked in a hexagonal arrangement to create diverse communal spaces for its residents.

While The Interlace has been lauded by the global architectural community as a “trailblazer” and was crowned “World Building of the Year” at the 2015 World Architecture Festival, it has also attracted its fair share of naysayers. Scheeren accepts this as inevitable.

“As we push boundaries and challenge the status quo, there is always some provocation involved. We don’t expect everybody to immediately understand everything. That is why dialogue and communication is very important,” he said.

Architecture in Asia

“It is very exciting to be an architect in Asia today. Europe is more about preservation than newness so it is more difficult to intervene radically there. Asia, however, is quite the opposite. Many things are changing and I feel there is a greater commitment to renewing and rethinking things here,” said Scheeren, who chose to relocate to Beijing in 2004.

“I knew, early on, that I didn’t want to export my work. I want to work for Asia, from within Asia. Design is very contextually specific for me. To be able to experience a place on a personal level has always been absolutely critical. Since I was young, I distrusted any form of mediation of reality. I did not want to look at books or photographs of architecture. Instead, when I was 18, I used all my savings to buy a small car. I drove around Europe just looking at buildings. That taught me a lot about understanding spaces not only in an intellectual way, but also psychologically. There is an emotional element to space that books and photographs cannot convey — it’s the feeling you get when you step into a space,” he explained.

With his mastery of space and familiarity with Asia, what does Scheeren think is the greatest challenge facing the region today?

“High-density living, for sure. With people flocking to the cities, the challenge is how to maintain quality of life; how to create a built environment that also respects the ecological and social environment. I think Singapore deals with this issue quite well. The pressures are obvious, given its limited size, but Singapore has developed a very interesting system of governance through the Urban Redevelopment Authority and its policies. The introduction of sky terraces and outdoor spaces, for example, is a smart, strategically planned approach. On our part, we created The Interlace as a prototype for high-density living in Singapore.”

Indeed, at The Interlace, one often forgets that 1,040 apartment units occupy the eight-hectare site. This is largely due to clever spatial planning and design, which opens up many communal areas with distinctive themes to cater to the diverse needs of its resident community.

After toppling the tower format with The Interlace, Scheeren has since gone on to “dismantle” it in his latest work. The MahaNakhon in Bangkok, Thailand, which was completed in August this year, is an astounding 77-storey skyscraper that resembles a three-dimensional ribbon of architectural pixels. It is impossible to imagine what the architect will come up with next, but one thing is for certain — Scheeren will continue to defy convention and reshape the way Asia lives, works and plays.

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