Top Stories
Top Stories
Managing Asia

Once subject of Xi’s scorn, star architect blazes trail

Reporting by Christine Tan | Written by Sharanya Pillai

His distinctive architectural masterpieces dot the skylines of major Asian cities including Beijing, Singapore and Bangkok. But acclaimed German architect Ole Scheeren has faced his fair share of criticism, no less from the Chinese president himself.

When he was director and partner at the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Scheeren led the design and construction of Beijing's iconic CCTV Tower, working alongside the firm's founding partner, Rem Koolhaas.

While the skyscraper was named the Best Tall Building Worldwide in 2013, it was ridiculed as "big pants" by locals for its quirky three-dimensional structure, and prompted President Xi Jinping to call for an end to "weird architecture".

But Scheeren reckons that such controversies spur important conversations about the meaning and intentions that go into architecture, with the CCTV Tower being an extreme, yet "very good" example.

DuKai photographer | Getty Images

"You cannot expect to do something radically different and [want] everybody to immediately accept that," he tells CNBC's Managing Asia. "And that is an important part of our work, to start and seek a dialogue about what we do and why we do it."

One could say that Scheeren dabbled in architecture right from when he was a toddler. His father was then an architecture student, and the young Scheeren grew up in the school premises, toying with the students' models.

At the tender age of 14, he worked for his father's architectural practice. Just seven years later, he executed his first commissioned project, right from the "first handshake with the client" to construction.

"There was very early exposure and immersion in that world. And I guess it has ultimately had effects," he says.

The day before he was due to start school at the Architectural Association in London, Scheeren abruptly left for OMA's Rotterdam office, demanded to see Koolhaas and landed himself a job, later completing his education at the association.

Art on Squawk: When architecture meets art

That bold streak has been reflected in Scheeren's work since.

He is the brains behind The Interlace in Singapore, a residential development with a unique interlocking tier structure built by CapitaLand, that won the Building of the Year award at last year's World Architecture Festival.

He also designed the MahaNakhon, poised to be Bangkok's tallest building when it opens later this year. But Scheeren is uninterested in the race to build the next tallest building.

Rather, he hopes to tell stories through form. The MahaNakhon, for one, comes with an unorthodox pixelated facade, which Scheeren hopes will "reveal the small, granular life of the people inside that massive structure".

In 2010, Scheeren felt an urge to take yet another bold plunge.

Phichet Keng | Getty Images

That year, he left OMA and started his private studio, Buro Ole Scheeren. Since its inception, the studio has grown to include four offices - in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Berlin - and about 70 staff. Expansion plans in the US are underway.

But what remains unchanging is his attachment to Asia.

"My engagement with Asia has been so intense that there's of course no end to it," he says. "I've always seen myself not as a regional architect, but as an international architect who's able to transport values from place to place."

He insists that the flak he received from Xi was not just a critique of the state of architecture. Rather, he believes that the leader was urging designers to think more deeply about their work.

"[Xi] also made a very interesting statement, which has been less publicized, about the emerging similarity of all Chinese cities," Scheeren notes. "And he also made an appeal to really think a variety of identities and environments could be maintained in China."

"I think that is truly an interesting challenge," he says.

Follow CNBC International on Twitter and Facebook.