Thursday, November 23, 2006

Towering Ambitions

Ole Scheeren of OMA is driving the world’s largest architectural project, Beijing's CCTV+TVCC

by Alex Pasternack

Important architects tend to look and sound as ostentatious as their designs, which is why you may not immediately recognize Ole Scheeren. The angular 35-year old German was sitting in a coffee shop in the Central Business District recently, wearing a shirt with an open collar, a pair of jeans, a day-old beard on his schoolboy face, and none of those self-consciously eccentric glasses by which architects are sometimes known. Discussing his latest project, his speech was unassuming, thoughtful, and curious; he even arrived early. He hardly seemed, in other words, like the lead designer behind the CCTV Tower, the hulking loop of a building that, two years from completion, has already become both Beijing’s controversial new icon and the world’s biggest architectural marvel.

“If you would preoccupy yourself with feeling so great about what you’re doing, there is an implicit loss of criticality vis a vis what you’re doing,” he says in his light, clean European accent about CCTV going to his head. “And in the case of this project it would be a fairly fatal to the momentum. It requires total attention at every point at time. There’s very little time to think about it.”

Nor does the project give Scheeren much use for the sort of rhetorical flourishes for which architects, like his famous Dutch mentor and co-architect on the project, Rem Koolhaas, are sometimes known. And when Scheeren does say things like “this may be the most complex building ever built,” he’s not kidding.

Since it was approved in an orgiastic moment of development in 2002, the 450,000 square-meter glass and steel China Central Television headquarters literally twists the conventional skyscraper into a gravity-defying three-dimensional trapezoid in the impossible style of M.C. Escher. Nearby sits a companion building, the public-oriented Television Cultural Center (TVCC), which resembles a cubist boot. They’re a feat of architectural gymnastics (and careful diplomacy) that has left many confused, worried, or downright disbelieving. One might just be just as incredulous about the architect’s age.

“Being 35, in a lot of professions, you’re a grandfather already, but in architecture you’re seen as being young,” he says. Raised by an architect-father, and harboring building aspirations early on, “in a way I have the feeling that I started quite early, so I don’t feel quite that young anymore.” But, how prepared could he be to manage a team that at one point exceeded 400 architects and engineers? When I marveled aloud that this project would be the biggest, in terms of scale, that he or OMA had even built (his last project was a triplet of Prada stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), he replied with a slight grin: “Actually, it’s one of the largest buildings ever built.”

Scheeren isn't worried about his relative lack of experience. “First, you have to ask what type of experience is relevant to run a project like this. It’s a project that exceeds the scale of anything done so far, and so experience is not valid in the traditional sense,” he says, without a note of pretension. “And it takes an enormous energy that you can hardly generate in your 60s,” an age group that Koolhaas recently reached.

“The point is to say you don’t know how it works, and don’t know how the context works, and to develop a structure that allows change within the process.” It turns out that that sort of radical thinking informed the design all along, from its hastily-imagined loop to the lattice external steelwork that supports the building. But such uncertainty—and at such cost, with an initial reported budget of $700 million—didn’t sit well with either critics or the authorities. A year after a contract was signed, the government ordered a review of all new buildings, and (so rumor went) the television building was to be taken off the air. For one and a half years, the CCTV construction site sat untouched. When the cranes rose again, following a rigorous official review, the budget had reportedly grown to $1.2 billion. But Scheeren wasn't fazed.

“The thing is, we never stopped working on the project,” Scheeren says. Continuing work in offices in Beijing, Rotterdam and London not only helped to maintain the schedule, Scheeren maintains, but also preserved precious morale, which is hard-won in a profession so vulnerable to the kind of political shifts and opaque bureaucracies which are rife in China.

But Scheeren also acknowledges that such a daring design could not have been undertaken anywhere but in Beijing, with its racing-car economy and cosmopolitan aspirations. This is not to indicate that China is a “wild east,” a vertiginous playground for foreign architects to test-drive their imaginations, he says. “I find that repulsive.” On the contrary, China’s progressive architectural vision and ambitious plans have placed on the architect a particular burden and opportunity: nothing less than helping usher in a kind of revolution-through-design. “It’s not a condition you can take lightly,” he says of building in China. “It’s a chance to make yourself part of a progressive environment.”

To be sure, the CCTV project—with its radical shape, recreation areas named the “fun belt” and the “fun palace,” and a section specially designed for visitors—seems an unlikely undertaking for one of the world’s largest propaganda machines, and a government famous for concealment. This (disturbing) irony hasn’t gone lost on Scheeren. Indeed, he practically revels in it.

“[Building] CCTV was seen from the beginning as a tool for change from inside the company,” he says, alluding to a cadre of risk-taking “younger people leading CCTV, lying beneath the skin of the older generation,” who championed the design. When he talked about the building recently at an exhibition in its honor that he curated at the Courtyard Gallery and soon to move to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Scheeren practically avoided discussing the design, focusing instead on what the building’s open layout might mean to the everyday Beijinger, and for a 21st century China. “It’s a change that exists beyond the realm of architecture. I’ve always been interested in that.”

Indeed, dramatic change and breadth have been the motif of Scheeren’s work as much as his life. It was an early introduction to the profession through his architect-father and his first commission at age 21 that initially burned him out. For a while, playing rock music seemed more appealing. “You’re so close to it, it’s uncomfortable,” he says of his architecture pedigree. Things changed when he heard a presentation by Rem Koolhaas, whose own interests beyond architecture (he had once been Holland’s most promising young screenwriter) reignited Scheeren’s interest. “I realized that someday I wanted to work with him.”

After butting heads with teachers at the design academy in his home town, the south-west German city of Karlsruhe (“They were impressed but not in a pleasant way…At the end of the year, all my models were destroyed with the excuse that they fell off the shelf”), Scheeren decided to continue his studies in London. On the first day of school however, he found himself driving to Rotterdam, where OMA’s main office is located, in a friend’s borrowed car. It mattered little that when he woke up at a local youth hostel, he found his car ransacked: he marched over to OMA with all that remained, the clothing on his back and his portfolio.

“In retrospect, it’s hard to figure out how it all happened,” he says as he stares at the table, slightly smiling. “Maybe I had the feeling that I had nothing else to lose.” Koolhaas threw Scheeren onto a project that seemed on the verge of failure, with two weeks until deadline. The 18­-hour days paid off, he says proudly. “It was the only competition oma had won in a year and a half.”

But the restless Scheeren left OMA almost as quickly as he had arrived, taking a graphic design gig in New York, and reenrolling at school in London. But he stayed in touch with his mentor-cum-colleague Koolhaas. When the designer Muccia Prada called on OMA to design some new boutiques in the U.S., Koolhaas called Scheeren. “I never wanted to go back to Rotterdam,” he says, “but the project was so intriguing.”

When OMA bid on the CCTV project in 2002 (declining an invitation to make a proposal for Ground Zero), Scheeren made his biggest shift yet, from designing clothing boutiques to constructing one of the largest buildings in the world.

Having relocated to Beijing that year, Scheeren discovered that the first challenge was figuring out how to explain the wacky design. The initial model for the building, which, cast in plaster, looked more like a deranged sculpture than a television headquarters, proved unimpressive to some of CCTV’s leadership. “It’s a very direct, literal culture and that’s an issue that you have to deal with when you enter the realm of conceptual issues,” Scheeren says. He and Koolhaas scrambled to build a more literal, transparent model, and weeks later a contract was signed.

Aside from not having enough time to study Chinese (“it’s the biggest frustration of being here… My plan is that before the building is finished. I need to get a whole step ahead”), Scheeren is still adapting to the process of constructing buildings in China, which “at such a breathtaking speed, cannot happen in a fully coherent matter.” But he hopes to inspire some change, too.

“I think part of the role of architects coming to build here is not only to bring a different sense of design but to try to step back and urge them,” planners, developers, clients and contractors, “to open up more lines of communication.” Scheeren says he aims for slower, careful consultations when proposing projects, like his successful bid for a new Beijing Books Building and a Prada “epicenter” store in Shanghai (When we met, Scheeren said OMA’s chances to renovate the stock exchange in Shenzhen were “promising.”)

Though the CCTV Tower’s exterior design work is essentially complete, and the first floors have started to peek above the scaffolding, Scheeren and his 20-person Beijing office have shifted to working on the building’s interior. And then there’s the job of still convincing people that the building is actually going to be built.

“Many people still don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Scheeren says, with some exasperation, but also a bit of delight. The truth is, neither can he.

“You think it can’t happen. And then you finally see the piles being driven into the ground, and the steel rising,” he says, with a faint smile. “These are the only moments that you believe that it is really happening.”

this article was published in that's Beijing magazine (tbjHome), August 2006

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