The Mahanakhon, a new 314-metre skyscraper in Bangkok, is Thailand’s tallest building. Yet as a piece of high-rise architecture, it is a powerfully ambiguous piece of work. Running in a spiral from the bottom of the building to the very top is a canyon of corrosion, as though King Kong has run his giant fingernail across its glass façade. At the bottom, where it meets the street, it cracks into a series of ledges and terraces, and there is another small building which appears to be a fragment of the big one. Soaring high above the apartment blocks and office towers around it, the Mahanakhon nevertheless appears to be falling apart.
It is the work of Ole Scheeren, a 46-year-old German and one of the rising stars of international architecture. Scheeren has built his career on an audacious approach to high-rise design. In 2015 he completed the Interlace, a residential complex in Singapore containing 1,040 apartments. Many architects, faced with the challenge of fitting that many flats into a tight urban space, would have built vertically. But Scheeren upended convention. He made a set of 31 blocks, which he tipped on their sides and stacked on top of each other like Lego bricks. The result has a kind of boyish charm. Like the Mahanakhon, the Interlace displayed a childlike delight in knocking things over and piling them up again. The playfulness of his buildings is important to Scheeren. “I think it makes them more approachable,” he says. “But it’s not random playfulness. It’s always based on what it achieves.”
In 2016, more skyscrapers were built than in any previous year. Scheeren has watched this growth spurt with alarm. It’s not that he objects to height in principle – after all, it’s an efficient way of accommodating a lot of people on a small piece of land, an imperative which gets ever stronger as more people move to cities. It’s just that he finds most of this development bland, repetitive and isolating. “There is this complete divorce between these buildings and people’s lives,” he says. “Their scale exceeds what is comprehensible to the human eye, so you can no longer tell quite how big a building is or how many people are in it. For me it isn’t even architecture. They’re just boxes with graphic designs stuck over the top to hide the truth behind.”
Scheeren is one of a number of architects who have been rethinking the high-rise in recent years. Herzog and de Meuron’s 56 Leonard Street, a residential tower in Manhattan, looks like a teetering stack of boxes which appears ever more precarious the higher you go. The Folie Richter, a proposal for Montpellier from MVRDV, a Dutch firm, is also a jagged agglomeration of parts. They owe a debt to Habitat by Moshe Safdie, an Israeli architect who in 1967 piled discrete concrete apartments into a gigantic condominium in Montreal, combining the intensity of skyscrapers with the individual spaces of suburban housing.
The Mahanakhon is among the most exhilarating designs in this vein. Each of the blocks running up the side corresponds to an individual space, and the “pixellation” of the façade creates hollows and overhangs for balconies and gardens. The fragmentation at the base means that as you approach the building from the street, you are faced not with a sheer glass wall but with terraces covered in cafés and restaurants. The playfulness of his approach is intended as a social catalyst: the stacked blocks of the Interlace created courtyards on the ground and communal gardens in the air, just as the fracturing of the Mahanakhon creates a multitude of spaces for people to mix and mingle. “The image it creates is about occupation,” Scheeren explains. “It’s an attempt to celebrate the people within the structure and broadcast that back to the city.”
This idea has animated Scheeren’s architecture from the beginning. He was born in Karlsruhe, in southern Germany, in 1971. “Karlsruhe has the most extreme Baroque city plan on the planet,” he says. “There is the castle in the middle, like the sun, and the streets go out like rays.” He found its formalism oppressive, boring and divorced from modern life. Then, in 1989, the Centre for Art and Media, a museum and cultural institution in the city, held a competition to design its new building. One of the entries was from Rem Koolhaas, founder of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), an experimental firm in Rotterdam. When Scheeren saw it, he says, “something weird happened.”
For a classical town like Karlsruhe, Koolhaas’s proposal was shockingly new. The eastern façade was draped in a translucent metal mesh, onto which footage from inside the building would be projected, along with advertising, train information from the station next door and television news. Rather than compartmentalising the various functions of the building – exhibitions of contemporary art and media, a theatre, a lecture hall and editing studios – Koolhaas tried to integrate them so they could compete with and influence one another. The building represented an architectural battle between Karlsruhe’s classicism and Koolhaas’s futurism. Koolhaas lost. The project was never built thanks to objections from city planners. But to Scheeren it was a revelation. “I saw architecture that engaged society, and I thought that if architecture can do that then perhaps it’s worth becoming an architect.” Five years later, after completing his studies in Karlsruhe and Lausanne, he borrowed a friend’s car and drove to Koolhaas’s office to ask for a job. Koolhaas took him on as an intern.
OMA is an architectural hot house. It attracts many of the brightest young designers from around the world and then pushes them to the limit. Part of the pressure comes from Koolhaas’s temper. He is known to shout and scream if a staffer’s work is lazy, dull or late, and there is always pressure to produce original material. Many people who joined around the same time as Scheeren couldn’t hack it. “There was a high turnover of staff,” says Rory McGowan of Ove Arup, the world’s leading firm of structural engineers, who has been working on OMA’s buildings for 30 years.
Scheeren climbed the ranks quickly. When he was 28, the firm was commissioned to design flagship stores for Prada in New York and Los Angeles. Koolhaas asked Scheeren to take the lead. Looking around at other designer boutiques, he found them aloof and depressing. The Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue in New York, designed by John Pawson, a British minimalist, was “a space against people and not for people. It was a space that was only beautiful when nobody was in it and especially when nobody touched anything. And I thought, I don’t want to create a temple of death, I want a parlour of life where shit happens.”
In Prada’s New York store, he took a deep scoop from the floor to create a half-pipe. On one side there were steps which doubled as raked seating for a stage secreted on the opposite slope, which would fold out for concerts, talks or screenings. He covered the walls in collaged wallpaper with all the busyness and jazz of city living. In Los Angeles, he removed the store front completely, including Prada’s logo, creating something more akin to an open garage than an expensive shop. The stores were as much about performance, public space and culture as they were about retail. The projects’ success elevated Scheeren: shortly after he became a partner at OMA. He was only 31.
If Prada was a big step forward, the next one was huge. In 2002, OMA won the competition to build a new headquarters for China’s state broadcaster, CCTV. Their proposal was one of the most ambitious ever devised. The structure was to consist of two towers of glass and steel leaning precipitously towards each other and fused by a cantilever jutting into mid-air 700 feet up, like colossal L-shaped Tetris blocks jammed together upside down. Thanks to the horizontal sections at the top and bottom, this was a giant loop rather than a traditional skyscraper, containing 5m square feet of office space, accommodating 10,000 people and costing $800m. Such were the structural challenges of its folded form that, three weeks before the competition deadline, the team working on it still didn’t know how it would stand up.
Koolhaas needed someone leading the project in Beijing. Scheeren, never one to underestimate his own abilities, put his hand up; Koolhaas, always one to give his juniors responsibility beyond their years, accepted. Scheeren’s career had hardly prepared him for dealing with the project’s complexities. From the beginning, doubts swirled around it. European critics lambasted it as a shrine to an organ of state propaganda, Chinese critics balked at the expense, and the authorities in Beijing questioned whether its outlandish design could withstand the earthquakes that rock the city.
CCTV opened a decade later. Koolhaas and Scheeren were credited as co-architects. The New York Times’s critic, admiring its brave reimagining of high-rise construction, hailed it as “the greatest work of architecture built this century”; residents of Beijing mocked it as the “Big Pants”, owing to the towers’ resemblance to a pair of giant robotic trousers; and President Xi Jinping, lacking the colourful demotic of the locals, simply called it “weird”. But however CCTV was received, Scheeren’s work on it marked him out as one of the most ambitious architects of his generation, and he used the attention it brought him to set up on his own.
Architects have to play the long game. Although Scheeren started his firm in 2010, only now are its first independent projects coming to fruition. Along with the Mahanakhon, which he began when he was at OMA, he is completing two other buildings this year, which marry the ideas of social space he developed with Prada and the scale of CCTV. One is the headquarters for China’s oldest auction house two blocks from the Forbidden City, which consists of a glass box sitting on top of a set of smaller structures in grey stone, their colour and size intended to mimic the hutong houses of old Beijing. The other is a pair of high-rises in Singapore called Duo Towers. They combine curvaceous façades which enclose a central plaza with angular outcrops creating high terraces.
So far Asia has been more receptive to Scheeren’s buildings than Europe or North America. His proposal for a cultural centre in London’s Olympic park, the Olympicopolis, was shelved. That’s a shame. The brief was to house offshoots of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Sadler’s Wells, the Smithsonian and the University of the Arts. Scheeren decided to combine them all together in a set of stacked volumes connected by stairways and bridges high in the air. As with Koolhaas’s building in Karlsruhe, the idea was to mix the artforms so they could influence each other. It was beaten by a more conventional design which will house each in its own building.
But Scheeren is now bringing the style he developed in the East back to the West. He has recently announced his first project in Europe, an apartment building in Frankfurt which will re-use the skeleton of an office block from the 1960s. After stripping it back to its bare bones, Scheeren will then plug in a series of overlapping and overhanging floors. Vancouver’s waterfront is also getting a Scheeren building, a tower with several long, horizontal sections extruded from its side and extending out over the street, as though someone playing Jenga has tried to pull pieces out and lost heart before completing their move. More than any of his previous structures, this one resembles a game. It may be his most playful yet.