Ole Scheeren is the head of all Asian operations of OMA, the ground-breaking Dutch architecture firm led by Rem Koolhaas. Scheeren moved to Beijing in the mid-'00s to supervise the building of CCTV, the highly-publicized state television building. The last time I spoke to him was two years ago for a feature in PIN-UP and at the time he seemed under pressure to finish the project in time for the Beijing Olympics. With only minor interior work on CCTV remaining, German-born 38-year-old Scheeren is now concentrating on OMA's newest venture in Asia: MahaNakhon, a spectacular tower in downtown Bangkok, whose design is entirely the brainchild of his Beijing office. MahaNakhon is far from being a generic office tower: the glass and steel shaft is broken up by little pixel-like units revealing themselves to be apartments, terraces, and balconies that spiral around the building from the top all the way down to the ground—something Scheeren also understands as a nod to the architectural diversity in Bangkok and that of the country as a whole. At 1000 ft. MahaNakhon will be the tallest building in all of Thailand... and if Scheeren has his way, it will soon also be the one contemporary building that country will be most proud of.
FELIX BURRICHTER: How did you start working on MahaNakhon?
OLE SCHEEREN: I met the client, Sorapoj Techakraisri, a few times in 2007 when he was looking for an architect for this new development he was starting to work on. He is very young but his family is deeply engrained in development in Thailand, although they mostly operate on a relatively simple and residential level. Sorapoj is part of a younger generation of Thai people that were partly educated abroad and return home with a lot of ambition to completely change the game. He had that dream to build a really meaningful project for Bangkok, or even for the entire country. So he was looking for an internationally experienced architect who would also really understand the local situation. And I lived in Bangkok for a couple of months in 1999, so I already had a particular insight into the city.
FB: Can you describe the project?
OS: What's really great about the project is its location. The area is Bangkok central business district and it's a very dense part of town. But it is also located directly adjacent to a sky train station. In fact, it's so close that you can cross the bridge from the platform of the sky train and enter directly into our project. If you know Bangkok's notoriously intense traffic, the sky train makes it so much easier to get anywhere. We wanted to build a project that wouldn't only have a symbolic meaning for the city—as a visual landmark—but really become a place for people to go to and hang out and identify with, so that adjacency with Bangkok's Sky Train is very important. The project is meant to have a civic meaning and even fulfill a certain role within the Thai psyche. When we presented the design for the first time there were huge crowds that incredibly curious. The overall feeling is, "Finally something is happening. We have been waiting for it for such a long time!" Bangkok is so ready for it.
FB: It's interesting you mention the Thai psyche. Did that have any influence on the design?
OS: I think that the starting point was really to make a project that is about activity and connectedness and the ability to occupy space in multiple ways, which I think is a very predominate quality in tropical Asia, and particularly in Bangkok. The city has many contradictory elements that co-exist in a non-conflicting way: There are buildings that look like robots, that look like UFOs; there is a building that looks like an elephant; there are buildings that are Louis XIV-style. And if you look at MahaNakhon, it is at first a very simple square-shaped tower, 300 meters tall. But I started to basically erode the tower to carve out a helix of a pixilated three-dimensional volumetric movement that would open up the top of the tower, break it open, and introduce a much smaller scale: rooms, terraces, balconies, and residencies that fire up and down the tower. And as you get to the lower portion of the tower where it encounters the base it starts to softly cascade into terraces that encounter the ground. In a lot of the program descriptions that part is called retail but that's not entirely accurate because it's not just for shopping for clothes. It's a space where people can go and spend time and hang out, an outdoor atrium of opposing terraces that are vertically stacked and which consolidate into a large public plaza.
FB: So it's a fragmentation of the traditional tower and its base?
OS: Yes, it's really projecting the activity of the tower towards the city but simultaneously picking up the energy of the city and let that inhabit the tower, all the way up to the top where there is an open sky deck, at about 300-meter height. We put all the mechanical equipment somewhere else, so you really have perfectly flat roof and a spectacular 360º view over all of Bangkok.
FB: When you started running OMA in Asia, you worked mostly in China, specifically Beijing. How is working on a project in Bangkok different?
OS: The contradictory identity—the future and the past, the gentleness and the brutality, the intensity and the tranquility always co-exist. Bangkok really a city of enormous contradiction like almost no other place in the world and I find that it's a very energetic place. And on top of that you're working in the tropics, which you certainly don't have in Beijing!
Felix Burrichter is Editor/Creative Director of PIN-UP.