When he opened his practice in 2010, Ole Scheeren had the luxury of already being a rising star in the architecture world. The former partner of OMA made his name as partner-in-charge on landmark projects such as Beijing's CCTV Headquarters and the Interlace in Singapore, and has since made headlines with striking forms such as those in the MahaNakhon skyscraper in Bangkok, Angkasa Raya in Kuala Lumpur and DUO, again in Singapore. The unveiling of his latest design, the Guardian Art Center, is likely to get a lot of attention too - but for very different reasons to his previous projects.
The Guardian Art Center features none of the dramatic cantilevers and futuristic formal experimentation of Büro Ole Scheeren's other works. Instead the "hybrid art space" - located in the heart of Beijing, just a stone's throw from the Forbidden City - references the scale and materiality of the adjacent traditional buildings. The lower floors, containing an auction house and a museum with a 1,700 square meter exhibition-events space, comprise an aggregation of small "pixelated" blocks, clad in stone with a pattern of perforations derived from a 700-year-old Chinese landscape painting. Though the upper portion of the building, containing a 120-room hotel and a restaurant, is larger in scale, it is broken down by a facade of oversized glass "bricks," again a reference to the materials of the hutong next door and a "humble and non-elitist symbol in Chinese culture," according to the press release.
To find out more about this intriguing building, we spoke to Ole Scheeren, who assured us that in spite of its appearance, the Guardian Art Center is just as radical as his previous works. Read on after the break for the full interview.
Rory Stott: You've been living and working in Beijing for over a decade now; what does it mean to you to build a significant building like this so close to the city's historic heart?
Ole Scheeren: For me personally it's a very interesting counterpoint to CCTV. CCTV of course is a building that very explicitly and radically addresses the future, and it is located in a part of the city that is entirely dedicated to the future, in which essentially everything is new, and in which there was also very little old.
Now to work on this project that projects us into the very heart of the city and into this very meaningful context was a very exciting challenge, and an opportunity to demonstrate that we can also work in very subtle ways. It's a building that reacts to its urban context and also to that historic challenge and the question of how a building can be both explicitly contemporary and yet incorporate a sense of Chinese meaning that I think is in itself a big struggle of architecture here.
RS: One of the striking things mentioned by your press release is that the Guardian Arts Center has been in planning for four years. Was it difficult to get a building in such a sensitive setting right?
OS: Indeed, and the site actually has a very long and interesting history. Over 18 years several clients attempted to build something there; apparently over 30 designs were done by mostly Chinese - but also international - architects, that in some way all failed the challenge. They also say it's one of the last pieces of land of this scale so close to the forbidden city that can be built at all. It's a site and a project with a long history, and of course we were very excited that we were able to gain all the approvals and are now under construction with this project.
We started the project about four years ago, and after an initial year of planning there was also a very detailed and intense process of communicating the project with the authorities and gaining the approval based on a series of expert panel reviews of important planners and preservationists. A very important role in that was also our Chinese partner architects [Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD)] with whom we collaborated intensely to embed the project both architecturally but also in terms of its process in the local culture.
RS: A lot of your other projects involve quite radical forms - you touched on CCTV, and I was also thinking of projects like the Interlace as well. Was the more restrained nature of this project voluntary from the start or did you feel pressure from other stakeholders in the project to do something more restrained than you would normally do?
OS: It was really my sense from the beginning that this site required a very subtle yet still bold response to its challenge. I think there were a few key moves that in a way anchored the project in its context. The first step was to acknowledge that this site faces a dualism: on one side of it you have a large hutong, this courtyard house structure which was the historic fabric of the city, with this granular, small scale texture the hutong has; and on the other side, the modern city arrived, so there are buildings surrounding the site of a completely different scale, some of which also pose this question of Chinese identity - one of them for example still has little Chinese-style roofs placed on the massive volume of the building. I was interested in how I could resolve or synthesize this contradiction between these two time zones and these two scales.
So I conceived a building space which essentially contains all the cultural functions of the program as a sedimentation of small-scale elements that pile up on the site and that very directly relate to the scale of the adjacent hutongs to create the harmonious transition between the two parts. On the other hand I took the scale of the modern city, the contemporary city, and floated a larger volume on top of our building, which anchors the building with the scale of the modern city in a way that mirrors the scale of the building across the street and defines a very clear entry point into this very famous commercial street, Wangfujing.
RS: Another feature of the building that shows a mixture of things is the fact that it's a hybrid between an auction house that asserts its cultural authority with the museum attached to it, but it's also a museum which is supported financially by the auction house. It also has hotels and restaurants attached, so there's a lot of disparate functions that you had to link together somehow. What challenges did you find in linking these programs that wouldn't normally be combined in a single building?
OS: I think, beyond its architecture, what makes the building a contemporary statement is precisely its hybrid nature, and its acknowledgement of a kind of hybrid condition of the art space.
As you quite nicely said it's both an auction house with a museum and other support things attached, but it's actually also a cultural center and a museum, which feeds into lifestyle components and an auction business backwards. So it's this explicitly hybrid nature in which a series of conditions both merge and collide and energize each other, which I think in a very interesting way addresses the question of what a contemporary art space has become.
As most art institutions and museums can still proclaim a certain sense of charity, I think here in a way we're celebrating the opposite, and really generating a building that ranges from a museum-arts-center to an incredibly flexible events space, from conservation of the arts to commerce and trading of the art included in it - but then plugs a whole lifestyle component into this mix with the hotel and the restaurants, so that there's really a kind of cross-infiltration of these various programs. The hotel has direct access to the museum spaces inside the building, and of course the collections of the auction house and the museum will filter back into the hotel and other premises, so I think it will be a very exciting celebration of this hybrid nature of things today.
RS: Do you think that China is somewhere that is really pushing the boundaries with these sorts of hybrid spaces?
OS: I think China - and maybe parts of Asia in the larger context, but of course China - has been asking very radical questions with a view to what one could do in the future or how one could redefine things for the future. What was very exciting for me in the past ten years, being here and working not only for this context but within this context, was to establish a series of dialogs that were possible by being here with clients, and to identify a series of projects with which we could really push the boundaries. I think as you said, while some buildings of mine have taken on radical forms I think this building is radical in a very different way, in a programmatic way, while the form I think is explicitly sensitive.
RS: We've talked about the juxtapositions between the lower floors which are pixelated to match the scale of the hutong and the upper part which matches larger elements within the city. But then there's other things you've done, like the glass bricks which your press release refers to as a "humble" element - they are not on the lower part which maybe would match the more humble expression of the hutong, they are on the upper part. Why did you not make a clear split between one expression and the other, instead mixing different elements with these tensions together?
OS: I wanted to layer these things into the project in a more abstract way, and not exacerbate the tension between one and the other but really give a sense of fusion or resolve of this tension in the project. I think one could have been incredibly literal about it, and copied everything from one to the other but i think this is really not our job. With the project I'm much more interested in a kind of conceptual transferal of elements from one side into the other and seeing how we can in a way immerse the entirety of the project in layers of meaning.
So the texture of the brick I projected onto the upper, larger volume in order to break down its scale and give it this fine lattice texture and make the volume much lighter again, to counteract its weight. Of course brick itself is the material of the hutong - not only that, brick is a somewhat humble symbol of civic society. Much Chinese architecture borrows from the imperial; bold colonnades and very grand gestures and symbols to put yourself on the same level as the emperor, and of course that did not seem particularly appropriate.
If you look at the same texture from within the hotel rooms, this scaled-up texture becomes like a latticework of the traditional Chinese window, which was never a large open glass pane but always a sort of filtered condition as you look from the inside to the outside. So your view onto the hutong and the forbidden city in the background is filtered by this element and I think this interplay is a very important specificity that it generates for the building in this location.
At the base of the building in the pixelated portion, which is built in grey stone - again a material that color-wise resonates with its surrounding context and is a very calm and quiet material - the concept of this texture is so abstract that I couldn't have cut traditional windows into this. However there are areas of the building that require daylight, so the question was how could I bring daylight in but also add another layer of Chinese meaning to the building. There is a painting [Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, by 14th century Chinese artist Huang Gongwang] that the client had talked about as something quite important, it's an interesting story because it's a painting that got divided during the war. Now one part of it hangs in Taiwan and the other in Beijing, and there is this obsession of many Chinese art scholars that one day these halves would be reunited. He spoke a lot about this artwork and of course the auction house also deals primarily in traditional Chinese painting, so this notional landscape was a very important aspect. I took this painting and created an abstract screen out of it, and projected it onto the texture of the pixels, creating this perforation from it. With thousands of small lenses we developed a very exciting facade and beautiful facade system. Thousands of lenses create this cloud-like soft landscape texture that unfolds around the elevation of the pixels and in a way softens the geometric nature of them and injects a sense of detail and finesse that I think is also very important in how it anchors the building in its context.
RS: I was also interested in the painting you mention - specifically, I wondered whether that particular painting has another significance in the setting you've used it in. Cities in China are such a big topic right now, but that painting very explicitly is of a rural setting. Do you think that has any resonance with your design, or is it purely coincidence?
OS: Of course in the tradition of Chinese painting, landscape plays a very important role. But then also one very important painting portrays the transition from landscape to a city, so there are themes and subjects where I think both landscape and city and the way they relate to each other has been a topic for Chinese art for a very long time. To a certain extent, we are now doing something in a very abstract way, yet in a very similar way - where we layer landscape and city into each other, and through that we create a circumstance of conceptual openness that the building sits in.
RS: One of the big stories in China in recent months for architects has been the reaction to Xi Jinping’s statement against "weird buildings." Of course your design was already very developed before he said this, so his statement presumably had no effect on this particular design - but how do you think his statement will affect architecture in China, and how do you think your building will fit within this framework as architects move forward from this situation?
OS: I think in a way maybe this building can stand as a very good example for the opposite, for "non-weird" architecture, if you like. It's a building that deals very carefully and explicitly with where it's located, with its Chinese significance, and with many aspects that anchor it very strongly in its context and make it plausible in its context. I think while the building is strong and present, it is simultaneously humble and maybe even to a certain extent understated. If you know Beijing, Beijing is a very strong city, it's a very monumental city, things are of large scale and things also have a very interesting sense of gravity, there's a weight to them, to the way in which they sit firmly on the ground. If you look at this building, for me it is very much about Beijing, it has many of these attributes and it has a very understated sense of monumentality to it. I think all these attributes really make it a very good example for providing a precise reasoning for what it is and how it fits into the context of where it is.
I think this is a discussion that is timely, maybe, to have. I think for China it's a very important moment to step back and reflect on many things that were done, how they were done and why they were done, and of course also through that to be able to raise the question of how China may want to define itself in the future. It's interesting because in a way these comments of Xi Jinping were informal comments in an informal conversation that were taken out of context and pushed by the media to the point of where the debate is now. He also said something on a much more official agenda as he took office in the very beginning, which has been sadly much less publicized and debated: he said that Chinese cities had become increasingly the same, that they have lost a sense of soul and identity, and that he wanted to proclaim a new era in which China can think about what the local identity is. I think if you take those two together then it's actually quite a meaningful campaign, and I think in this context this is a very meaningful project.