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Why One Of Europe's Top Architects Decided To Set Up Shop In Beijing

The Bejing Olympics was an occasion for China to show off its new architectural gems. One of the most original was the China TV building, a curious rectangular vertical loop designed by the German architect, Ole Scheeren, who has chosen to plant roots in

Ole Scheeren, China's new favorite architect
Ole Scheeren, China's new favorite architect
Wang Jun

BEIJING – Eight years ago, just as he was breaking through in the New York architecture world, Ole Scheeren had two choices: either stay on in New York where he'd been plucked to design one of the Ground Zero buildings…or head for Beijing. He chose the latter, setting off for the Chinese capital to launch the construction of what would be one of Beijing's signature new buildings, the China Central Television (CCTV) Station headquarters.

The decision would change his life. He has since decided to settle down in Beijing, which is where he also got to know his companion Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung.

The day I met up with him, Beijing's pollution was particularly wretched. The city was submerged in a yellow sky. The air quality as monitored by Beijing's American Embassy showed 387 mg of particles per cubic metre, above the hazardous level.

"Why do you want to stay in such a God awful place? You don't have to live here to work on Chinese projects," I pointed out.

But Scheeren is convinced of his choice. "This is an ever-changing city," he said. "There's a culture of change here. It's a good thing for an architect… To be able to help this city develop in the right direction."

After two years of design work for the CCTV project, Scheeren quit his international studio OMA, and set up his own firm in Beijing, where a team of architects and interns of all hues and origins are busy working on countless new projects.

Live in it and build it. This has always been Scheeren's approach. Before settling in China, he had lived and worked in quite a few places, including Southeast Asia. "I always live in my own apartment and commute like the locals," Scheeren says. "I like to take time to know a city, accept the local culture instead of imposing my own inherent attitudes."

Scheeren says the best way to get to know a place is to travel it by foot. "Imagine that you take a whole day and walk in the same direction. You won't need to pay attention to a particular destination, or to look where you are headed, so you can concentrate all your energy just observing what you see on the way," Scheeren says. "For an architect, this is like taking a walk across the topology of a city. You are able to see the texture of a city."

Part of the scenery

Scheeren can be spotted around town at occasions that are not always architecture-related. At the fifth anniversary party of a Chinese magazine, at the preview of China Guardian Auctions, at an exhibition of Beijing's 798 Art Zone, or catching a live rock band.

He is leading a lifestyle as if he were in Europe. He has played in a band, he loves photography, and he has shot videos too. He says if he ever quits architecture, he'd definitely like to be a film director. "My work has to do with all of these fields. Maggie (Cheung) adores art too. We go to lots of exhibitions," he says. "I'm lucky not having to strictly separate my work and my private life."

Though based in China, he works across Asia, including Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. The Malaysian capital's Angkasa Raya project has been a focus for the past 18 months. He spends a lot of his time there. "Kuala Lumpur seems very different from Beijing, but in fact it's a multicultural crossroad. Apart from Malay culture, there's also Chinese culture," he notes. "Compared with other Western architects, the fact that I have lived in China for eight years gives me obvious advantages."

Of course, he also has projects coming up in Beijing, including a workshop for a Chinese artist, a public art center and a contemporary museum. "It won't be long now before the Chinese are going to enter real estate development in Europe," he says. "Being a European who has lived in China for awhile, I should be well-suited for these projects." One more opportunity he wouldn't have had if he'd stayed in New York.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Devin Huang

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