Ole Scheeren is no stranger to tall buildings. A former partner at OMA, he led the design and construction of CCTV and TVCC Towers in Beijing. He founded his own practice in 2010 and Büro Ole Scheeren now has offices in Hong Kong and Beijing. The firm is currently at work on what is expected to be Bangkok’s tallest tower. Recently, Büro-OS unveiled plans for 1500 West Georgia Street in Vancouver, a blocky, residential high-rise developed by Bosa Properties.
AN’s West Coast Editor Mimi Zeiger spoke to Scheeren about how the new project and lessons drawn from his global skyscrapers might impact Vancouver’s skyline and the city’s urban landscape.
Mimi Zeiger: The high-rise 1500 West Georgia Street in Vancouver is your firm’s first North American project. The “City of Glass” has long had a relationship with the Pacific Rim and your recent work has been in China and Malaysia. In regards to towers and cities, what are the lessons that you’re taking from Asia and how they might apply to North America?
Ole Scheeren: Vancouver is a very interesting landing point coming from the East. It is also an environment that resonates with a number of issues. Having worked in Asia for a decade, I had a lot of opportunities to really investigate the typology of the tower and look at it in a multitude of different ways and different functions, and to really analyze both its problems and its capacities.
For example, as a visiting professor at Hong Kong University, I taught a masters course entitled Core Values. It was about the things that fundamentally matter in architecture, but it was also very simply and specifically about building cores. The purpose was to understand how the structure of cores dictates ultimately the confines of architecture—it’s the dirty truth of buildings that architects never really speak about and never want to deal with.
Everybody is excited by creating silhouettes, shapes, and facades, but I thought if we really want to intervene into the true qualities of architecture, we have to start with the core.
This Vancouver project is really the result of ten years of intensive work and thinking about the tower.
It seems that skyscrapers are in vogue these days. We’ve seen a lot of these pencil towers going up in New York and there’s a super high-rise going up in Los Angeles. How do you see the tower as both an architectural mode as well as an economic model?
Essentially, a tower is an economic model—the vertical commercial multiplication of a little piece of land. It’s very important to understand how those economic models around the tower really function, because if the things we design don’t work economically, nothing works. So, I’m interested in navigating a true understanding of architectural and social ambition on one hand, and the realities that dictate the making and the production of architecture on the other.
And how does that play out in Vancouver?
The tower is constructed out of a series of modules that are both structurally very efficient and custom tailored around very livable apartment spaces. Instead of a simple vertical extrusion, each module is basically 90 degrees against itself, to create a complex and interactive system of surfaces and spaces. It also creates a series of large-scale terraces on the projecting crossbars that are, of course, spaces for inhabitation and add a whole new dimension to the verticality of the tower.
It strikes me that this requires a new approach to the structural system. What needed to change within your thinking about skyscrapers from a structural point of view in order to conceptualize this kind of work?
So, instead of just thinking of the tower as a centralized core, then surrounded by a generic office floor plate, in this case, the core is actually conceived together with the floor plate extensions along the building’s two major axis.
You could think of it as a giant X, which creates a very stable base configuration. This allows us to be playful with the corner modules that no longer have to perform a primary role in the infrastructure of the building. Therefore, if you look at the footprint, all of the four corners are lifted off of the ground, minimizing the space that the building consumes on the ground.
We were then able to give more of that back to the city and to the public. There’s a public space that can host a whole number of events, animated and activated by the café and community space area adjacent to it, and also a public gallery and, an element that could be a theater, an event space, a lecture hall, or a restaurant.
How do you approach public and social spaces?
There have been many dreams in the history of architecture of architects believing to do something that is good for the people, which turned out to be rather the opposite at the end of it—the whole crisis of public space in modernity or in a postmodern era, where spaces try to dictate certain behaviors or qualities that of course never really worked.
We have to be very careful in terms of what spaces we offer and I believe in the psychology of spaces. We have to understand the psychology of a place or of a culture and what kind of spaces we insert into that culture.
This is not very fair to Canadians, but Canadian culture versus Malaysian culture are two totally different things. Was there something specific within the Vancouver lifestyle or social arena that you were designing for?
Vancouver has a very explicit outdoor culture. It’s about going to the park, about going to the mountains, about being on the water. It’s a culture that seeks the outdoors and again and again the dialogue is about natural environment. It is also very democratic and that determines the social environment of the city. But I think architecture has done very little to engage that aspect. This tower is a way to reactivate that and incorporate that as a spatial reality. For example, this same tower, to put it into Beijing, I think would simply not work and would not make any sense.
No, it wouldn’t.
Answers cannot be the same everywhere. They have to be very specific to the context.