Part One of a ? part series: The Ole Scheeren lecture

Thanks to my colleague Al, I’ve been able to get a copy of the final conclusion to one of the dissertations I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Here’s a couple of sections taken from the author’s final summing up. Firstly, on the topic of the architect’s character:

Who do we think we are?

Who do they think we are?

The disparity between what architects think of themselves and how they are seen by others is obviously very marked. It is quite disturbing to someone involved in architecture, how unaware people are of architects and architecture, but heartening that they are actually interested. I think this disparity is becoming less, with initiatives that give architects human approachable faces again. However, the public cannot help but see the contradictions which face the profession, the legacy and historical model of the brilliant egotistical genius, which architects understandably find difficult to give up and the progressive politically correct model which is more of a sympathetic team player. The results of the psychological tests mentioned in Chapter One state that the most talented and successful architects follow the first model, however to gain the respect of colleagues and the public in general the pressure is on to become all inclusive and empathetic. These two models seem to be mutually exclusive. As visionaries architects have a social responsibility to forge the future and to do that they need have supreme confidence, but also be approachable and human.

Secondly, on the public’s view of architects:

People seem to have this impression that architects are all rich! Any architect would laugh at this. Many people are genuinely surprised when they hear how little most architects actually earn. The architects we see on television, the Richard Rogers, the Zaha Hadids, are wealthy, not necessarily through their architecture, but the public aren’t to know this. The fictional architects we see are usually in slick, cool apartments, but then the Hollywood version of anyone makes them more shiny than the reality!

I think the universally accepted acronym required here is LOL.

So there are three architects in a bar, and not one of them can get their credit card to authorize so they can pay the bill (this isn’t a joke with a punchline, this was me and two friends one night last week). After fifteen minutes of failures we suggest to the manager that we’ll come back with cash later – there’s somewhere we have to be and we daren’t be late. Up the hill and over the concrete collar, along Margaret Street and up the well trodden steps; we stumble into the lecture room at the school of art with minutes to spare. Ole Scheeren from Rem Koolhaas’ office, OMA, has flown in from Beijing to give a talk on their CCTV project and the bill for a couple of bowls of pasta would have to wait.

For the next hour and a half I sat at the back of the room bathed in the light from the screen of my PDA, desperately trying to take enough notes and cursing every time I had to write the letter y (have you ever tried to write the letter y on the Palm OS?).

I’m going to post them here relatively untouched but wrap them in a few other words to give them some coherent structure. The sections in italics are what I took down during the talk. It seems worthwhile making this distinction between then and now, although the reason for this eludes me as I’m typing this sentence.


Ole told us that he would talk about two projects: CCTV which was at a scale that relates to a community and the cities on the move exhibition which was more about intervention/interaction with community. OMA has been working in Asia for 7 years and in that time they’ve had to learn about new attitudes to space, specifically how to tackle the residual and dysfunctional spaces. A key lesson for them has been the fact that in Asia, what we think to be impossble is plausible.

The history of OMA starts with Delirious New York and then there was a jump after SMLXL. Since then they have set up a second company called AMO which, as the title suggest, is a research company or thinktank whose interests could be described as a mirror of the real act of construction and architecture.

Their most recent book Content is an investigation of seminal architectural developments against the context of history.

China has a population growth rate of 67 people per hour. The 10 great building projects were designed and built in 1 year. Beijing has 7 ringroads.

OMA had to choose between bidding for the redesign of the World Trade Centre or the CCTV project in Beijing. They chose Beijing. The brief they were given for the new Central Business District (CBD) had a vision for 200 towers. Despite the fact that the office had begun off the back of the work in Delirious New York that studied the history of the American skyscraper, all their past work has been predominantly horizontal. CCTV seemed like a good opportunity.

The proposed CBD has little to do with the density issues described in Delirious New York, here it is about the tower as a symbol of power. The East now has more towers than the West.

CCTV delivers 250 TV channels. It receives 30 million yuan from the government each year but pays out 80 million in tax. The client could fund the project with the money generated in 1 year. A project like this is perhaps possible because the attitude to progress and success is different because the people in powerful jobs and positions are all in the 30 something age range. The building will total 600000m2 and will also be opening to public and will require a split between the public and private. Media facilities around the world have experienced splitting up of departments due to digital technology negating the need for a physical connection – the proposal for CCTV reverses that condition.

The form of the building is defined by a loop of solidarity; it’s an organism with circulation that connects almost endless communal spaces. The building will house a community of 10000 staff, its foyer will process 15000 people everyday (the extra 5000 are an estimate of public visitors) and they will be channelled by the layout of ‘fingers’ that shape the space on the ground floor.

* click *

The structural diagram for this deformed tube has to take into account massive differences in loading over the different parts of the building. Rather than try to solve this with a uniform solution, the amount of structural elements simply increase or reduce where necessary and their size and alignment respond to the site specific conditions. The rational conditions result in a visually irrational structure.

Industrial pollution* creates a heavy mist in the air of Beijing that makes architecture look bad. Ole and his team noticed that the buildings that looked best in this environment were those still under construction and hidden behind scaffold and protective sheets. This became the inspiration for the fine mesh panels that will cover the surface of CCTV.

(* I think there were also some natural factors for this mist, but I didn’t get chance to make a note of it)

The project has taken 60 architects and 110 engineers over 2 years to complete. They’ve begun on site and one of the last shots Ole showed was taken by him a couple of days earlier – stood at the bottom of a 33 metre deep hole that has been carved out of the earth to receive the building.

The odd clicking noise midway through those notes is the sound of my brain beginning to work. More about that later. For the moment I want you to think about how all the above notes are, for the most part, a series of indisputable facts.

The remainder of the lecture looked at the exhibition Ole and Rem had curated called Cities On The Move. After that I got stuck in with the first question, but you’ll have to wait until the next entry to find out what I asked.

Links: 1, 2 and 3.