On the 25th floor of DUO, you can drink in a jaw-dropping panorama of downtown Singapore, with its endless expanse of glass buildings shooting up into the clear blue sky. Some will see a priceless view, but Ole Scheeren sees only ugliness.
“We’re just looking at a machine,” frowns the architect as he studies the sprawl of skyscrapers. “An economic machine to generate accommodation for profit. These are inert, self-referential buildings.”
Downtown Singapore is made up of solitary towers (mostly homogenous glass structures), each indistinct from its neighbour. In stark contrast is the almost esoteric DUO, not least because it towers over Kampong Glam’s rows of shophouses at 50 storeys high, but in part due to its sleek concave profile and dynamic honeycomb facade.
“In Singapore, skyscrapers are unavoidable because your land is so scarce and your density so high that you can only build vertically,” says Scheeren. “But it would be a big miss of an opportunity to simply build two towers with all the problems of isolation that they create, not to mention wasting the space around them.”
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The 47-year-old’s crusade to reinvent the pervasive skyscraper culminated in DUO. But he insists he didn’t want to create a building that merely looked different; he wanted one that also did something different.
“We needed to develop a building that was less purely functional — one that served its purpose but was still beautiful. Singapore has always competed to be Asia’s most liveable city. But what does it really mean to be ‘liveable’?” he muses.
“Singapore, like many other Asian nations, suffers from a huge amount of generic architecture that has for too long not questioned these qualities.”
“Liveability” is one word Scheeren emphasises tirelessly in his opening salvo of DUO. With a lesser architect, it runs the risk of coming off as a trite buzz phrase, but the design maestro clearly walks his talk.
Walking beneath DUO’s long shadows at midday, it’s easy to observe how smoothly the constant stream of office workers and tourists flow through its grounds, unimpeded by columns or walls, and how concrete blends seamlessly into a fresh, pleasing spread of greenery — a testament to Scheeren’s vision of a building that integrates into the landscape yet retains its identity. Within the office and retail spaces that occupy the building, including the 342-room Andaz Singapore, denizens appeared untroubled by the tropical heat. After all, DUO has inbuilt natural sun shading and an energy-efficient climate control system.
When the plot of land that was to become DUO opened for development in 2010, it sounded like an architectural nightmare. Wedged between a slew of uncomplimentary buildings — and at the receiving end of The Gateway’s razor-sharp pointed edges — the space was canned as a no man’s land, just waiting for the nth faceless skyscraper to sprout up. But where others saw challenge, Scheeren saw opportunity: An opportunity he seized by the foundations.
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“Very often in architectural briefs, there are lots of functional or economic requirements, but there are no social, urban or artistic ones,” says Scheeren, checking each point off on his fingers. “Architecture stands in service to society. It’s not enough just to fulfil predefined briefs about a space. People must, first of all, be happy to be there.”
Scheeren is keenly aware that he undertakes a massive responsibility each time he accepts a project — not just to his clients, but to hundreds of people and families that will call his building “home”. This is in addition to permanently altering the urban landscape of the city his work resides in.
An example is the emblematic CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, which showcases Scheeren’s deconstructionist mentality. Instead of partaking in the endless competition to build the tallest skyscraper in the Chinese capital, Scheeren bent the towers back into themselves, producing a cantilever bridge to connect both buildings and create the illusion of a continual, endless loop. The result: A dynamic structure that offers onlookers a different profile from every angle.
Scheeren’s architectural oeuvre is not limited to cityscape-changing projects. He has also dabbled in smaller-scale ventures, such as an intimate floating cinema in a Thai lagoon, and a fast-food concept for American delicatessen chain Dean & DeLuca, all of which bear his signature trailblazing streak.
With the rugged handsomeness of an actor and steely eyes that seem to pull apart every object in a room, little fazes this unflappable German. But probe into his offbeat brand of design, and a different side of Scheeren emerges.
“I’m not interested in abstract architecture that compromises function. I’m not interested in ideas that may be great,but will never see the light of day. I am interested in building and making things real,” Scheeren says, punctuating his thoughts with ardent gestures. “It’s not easy to build a building, but it’s much more complex to build a good idea.”
What remains at odds with Scheeren’s scrupulous need for order and reality is his hot-headedness and constant craving for adventure. This extends beyond his personal life — Scheeren lives out of suitcases across three continents — into his professional undertakings.
This is the same man who, the night before his classes at London’s prestigious Architectural Association started, drove across several borders to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam. Then only 24, he demanded to meet the firm’s founder Rem Koolhaas, who gave him a job. A year later, Scheeren quit OMA to resume his studies.
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He would return, of course, catapulting through the ranks to become partner at the age of 31. After a storied 15-year career, Scheeren set up his eponymous Buro Ole Scheeren in 2010. Buoyed by the imprimatur of his solo enterprise, he went on to make his indelible mark on a string of Asian cities, conjuring up groundbreaking (and sometimes controversial) buildings across the continent.
Scheeren’s architectural imaginations, like his life, move at breakneck speed. A common critique is that they are too outlandish, too alien, or too “weird” (said Chinese President Xi Jinping of the CCTV Headquarters).
But Scheeren has remained steadfast. With millions of square feet under his belt, Scheeren staunchly stands by his ethos, which revolves around his desire to design buildings that do more than just exist.
“My buildings are unique, but their uniqueness doesn’t just come from how they look,” he says, glancing once more at the skyline of indistinguishable glass towers. “It’s because I make them do something different. They are buildings that care about different things, and that care about the people who will live inside of them.”
As the lunchtime traffic winds down in the cool confines of DUO, Scheeren’s gaze shifts to the people moving, working, and living within it. “Architecture is not built to be built; it is built to be lived in by real people,” he reiterates. “And that’s the best thing about it.”