German architect Ole Scheeren moved to Asia to design for Asia

German architect Ole Scheeren has received both praise and criticism for his buildings, but he believes they help spur dialogue on architecture

Rising from the lowish architecture of mosques, old shophouses and office buildings in the Bugis- Kampong Glam area are two sleek, unmissable buildings.

They are Duo Tower and Duo Residences, though, as with any buildings with unique silhouettes, they may acquire another nickname: "Tetris", for instance, for the way that parts of the structure jut out dramatically like the outlines of jigsaw pieces.

Both eye-catching towers are part of Duo, a mixed-use development that opens next year.

Demand for the residential units has been strong. So far, about 95 per cent of the 660 apartments at the 99-year leasehold project have been snapped up.

When sales started three years ago, about 468 units out of the 540 units that were released were bought in three days, with most of the buyers being Singaporean.

  • Bio box

    1971: Born in Karlsruhe, in south-west Germany

    1985: As a son of an architect who taught at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, his childhood is immersed in the business. By the time he was 14, he is able to make models and do simple designs.

    1986-1990s: By the time he finishes high school, he opens his own studio for model-making. He also tries his hand at playing and singing in rock bands. At 18, he listens to lectures by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who co-founded the Rotterdam- based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

    1995: The night before he was to start classes at the prestigious Architectural Association in London, he leaves for Rotterdam. He turns up at OMA's office and demands to see Koolhaas for a job. He starts working for the firm. He later completes his studies at the Architectural Association.

    2000: Wins the Royal Institute of British Architects President's Silver Medal, given out to a graduating architecture student for having the best design project

    2002: Made a partner at OMA. The firm wins the job to build the China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, which Scheeren designs with Koolhaas.

    2004: Moves to Beijing to oversee OMA's work on the CCTV tower from there.

    2010: Leaves OMA and sets up his own practice, Buro Ole Scheeren. Continues to work on The Interlace condominium project in Depot Road, the first built project in Singapore for both Scheeren and OMA.

    2015: The Interlace by Scheeren and OMA wins World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival.

The architect behind the twin towers is Germany-born, Beijing- based Ole Scheeren, who was in town for a site visit.

A rising star, he is the man behind The Interlace condominium in Depot Road, another dramatic Jenga-like property with 31 blocks of apartments stacked in a twisty, hexagonal arrangement.

It won the World Building of the Year, the top prize at last year's World Architecture Festival.

Those who read the gossip columns may also find his name familiar as he had dated Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung for almost five years.

Meeting The Straits Times at the Duo show gallery in the Marina Bay area, he turns up impeccably dressed in a black suit.

In addition to his work, Scheeren is often noticed for his chiselled, handsome looks. At 45, he still looks boyish.

He speaks intensely about his work, in an accent that hints at his German roots.

Echoing what he said in a TED talk last September, he says architecture is about "story-telling".

"You need to be able to imagine the story of everyone who (uses) the building," he says. "For me, architecture is also the fantasy of what people may do when they enter the building, how they may feel and what emotions you want to trigger."

So what is the story behind the 26,688 sq m Duo?

It is a mixed picture.

On the one hand, it is a commercial venture on the posh end of the scale.

In the 39-storey Duo Tower, office spaces take up levels four to 23, with the remaining floors above occupied by the 342-room Andaz hotel, the boutique brand by Hyatt Hotels Corporation.

The Duo Residences tower next door rises up 49 floors and houses 660 residences, from one- to four- bedroom units and penthouses.

When units first went on sale, the average selling price was about $2,000 a square foot and the highest price per square foot (psf) achieved was $2,600 psf for a studio apartment.

But there are softer aspects to the development as well, such as its proliferation of green spaces and the promotion of an active lifestyle. For example, to encourage office workers to cycle, there are bicycle lots and shower facilities in Duo Tower.

A sky terrace garden on the eighth level also allows cubicle rats to decompress and get some fresh air, and an observation deck at the top promises stunning views of the Singapore skyline and Kampong Glam area.

Duo's public face, no doubt, is the Duo Galleria, a 56,000 sq ft retail and dining area. Though it is fundamentally yet another shopping area in mall-saturated Singapore, the galleria stands out for having generous outdoor spaces, including a naturally ventilated plaza filled with trees and water features.

The space will be open all day to the public.

Duo, which has a gross development value of $4 billion, is by M+S, a joint venture set up in 2011 between Singapore's Temasek Holdings and Malaysian investment fund Khazanah Nasional.

Before Duo got off the ground, the grassy patch that was once in its place was a "no man's land", in between a series of old and new buildings that no one would step foot on, says Scheeren.

He says: "It was important that this project would not be another object added to the collection of disconnected and unrelated things."

Instead of walling the structures up, he left Duo open on all sides. Those who use the office building can head outside to gardens on the high floors and gaze upon Kampong Glam's old architecture, while the open plazas give a generous view of the neighbouring Parkview Square.

Scheeren, who grew up in the south-western German city of Karlsruhe, has been pushing boundaries since his days at Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

At 24, he joined the Rotterdam- based firm and rose quickly under the mentorship of its Dutch co-founder Rem Koolhaas. He eventually became a partner and director at the firm, leading projects such as the Prada Epicenters in New York and Los Angeles.

He later became the director of OMA's Asia office in Beijing and moved to the Chinese capital to oversee the high-profile China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters project, which he designed with Koolhaas.

In 2010, he set up his own firm, Buro Ole Scheeren, while he still had ongoing projects with OMA, one of which was The Interlace project in Singapore.

As much as he gets praise for his out-of-the-box designs, he also has his detractors.

The CCTV headquarters, for example, is a polarising work. Beijingers have been known to be derisive about the twisted structure - the two linking towers have a 90-degree twist at the top - and call it "Big Pants".

In 2014, China's president Xi Jinping named the building as one of the offending designs in the country. He called for an end to such "weird architecture".

Scheeren is unfazed.

"As you push the boundaries and go beyond the status quo, there will be an element of provocation. When it's not what people know, there will be questions. But I think it's a positive aspect of the work to provoke a dialogue of what things are, should be or could be."

He adds: "We get so much more positive feedback than criticism that I can also quite easily live with it. Of course, there can be uninformed criticism which is always less interesting. But there can also be interesting criticism - and this is simply part of a dialogue of taking things forward."

Although he has been based in Beijing for the past 12 years, he sheepishly confesses that his command of Chinese is "non-existent". Buro Ole Scheeren has four offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Berlin, with about 70 staff in total.

Scheeren says he wanted to be based in the region to be closer to the action. "At that time when I made the decision to headquarter my practice in Beijing, almost every single international architect made his architecture at home in the West and sent things over for execution.

"I wanted to be an active part of the context itself and design for Asia, from Asia. It's allowed us to be intimately connected to everything we do."

While he is starting to amass a collection of iconic buildings, he often goes back to visit his earlier work.

When he was in Singapore last week, he visited The Interlace too.

Scheeren, who comes here every few months, says: "It's very important to go back to the building and see the true reality of people living there. When you're designing for people who will use the building, it's not about me determining their stories - deciding what they can or cannot do with it. It is creating a stage set, an open tableau for people to be inventive themselves. That's a lot of fun to see."


Scheeren’s works

GUARDIAN ART CENTER, BEIJING

For a new cultural complex for China's oldest art auction house, Scheeren has designed a structure that taps into its heritage and, yet, has a sleek, contemporary look. The boxy building is at the intersection of Wangfujing Street, one of Beijing's most famous shopping streets, and Wusi Street. Inside, there is a museum, event space and a 120-room hotel. Auction rooms are in the basement.

From the outside, you can see how the building is separated into two parts. The first is its base, comprising grey blocks that are seemingly clustered in a random manner. They have perforated openings that let light into the building. The grey tone is reportedly an homage to the nearby hutong neighbourhoods - old Beijing alleys that are lined with traditional courtyard residences that are usually in muted colours.

The second part is a rectangular ring that appears to be floating. Its hollow centre echoing the design of China's traditional courtyard houses, this portion will house the hotel and restaurants.

Scheeren's proposal was the first one accepted after 30 unsuccessful bids in the last two decades. The project is due to be completed next year.

ARCHIPELAGO CINEMA, THAILAND

In 2012, Scheeren, who is said to be a film buff, designed this temporary floating cinema on the waters of Nai Pi Lae Lagoon near Kudu Island, Thailand. Bringing back memories of old-school drive-through cinemas, guests took boats to the Archipelago Cinema. Surrounded by towering rocks, they lounged on a raft platform as they watched movies from a large screen set a distance away.

The floating structure was made of recycled materials and constructed by local craftsmen.

It was part of Film On The Rocks Yao Noi, a film festival curated by Palm d'Or-winning Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul and actress Tilda Swinton.

A version of the cinema was later installed at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2012. The Financial Times says Scheeren "created what must be the world's most dramatically located cinema".

MAHANAKHON ,BANGKOK


PHOTO: PACE

This luxury mixed-use skyscraper in the central business area of the Thai capital with a direct link to the Chong Nonsi BTS skytrain station has a pixelated design that spirals like a ribbon around its facade.

The look is actually made up of glass skyboxes that pop out at various depths to create terraces and balconies. The design feature gives occupants unobstructed views of the city and the Chao Phraya River.

The 77-storey building, Bangkok's tallest, is a mammoth hybrid concept. There is a retail component that spans many floors, restaurants, cafes and a 24-hour marketplace.

There are 200 serviced apartments operated by the Ritz-Carlton, while the Marriott International and hotelier Ian Schrager will open the 150-room Bangkok Edition there.

At the top of the building, there is a Sky Bar that spans three floors.

The building was designed by Scheeren's Bangkok office, together with its subsidiary HLS, and is scheduled to be finished this year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'An eye for the unusual'. Print Edition | Subscribe