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Interview: Ole Scheeren

A former partner at OMA, where he built the CCTV Headquarters, Ole Scheeren set up his own practice in Beijing last year. For this issue on Emerging Architecture, Will Hunter caught up with the 41-year-old designer as he reveals his plans for a 268m-high tower in Malaysia

This site for the Angkasa Raya skyscraper stands opposite Kuala Lumpur’s famous Petronas Twin Towers: how are you responding to them?

It’s a question of how you can coexist with ‘power’ architecture. The existing surroundings are clearly from the early ‘icon’ age: where the taller and the richer they were, the better. While you might be critical of them architecturally, you also have to recognise that these twin towers have an incredibly important national role. Everyone is proud of them, as they put the country on the map. But that was 15 years ago, things have moved on. Malaysia’s political leadership has changed, the sensibility has changed. What is interesting for me is how to express this new era next to the old one.

What was your first response to the pragmatics of the brief?

That the site is very small. The project has a construction area of 140,000 square metres and the effective plot ratio for the site is 14. To put that in perspective, the 300m-tall Mahanakhon Tower I did in Bangkok was a plot ratio of 10 and CCTV’s is three. So this is an exercise in extreme urban densification − almost as far as you could actually push it. The brief sought two buildings: one for the client and one for the previous owner. They had to replace the existing tower at the same size.

But there were several problems: the site simply isn’t big enough; two towers can’t hope to compete with the twin towers; and, finally, how do you make two buildings with separate identities in a city of individual towers all trying to do the same? What strategy did you come up with? Malaysia has a diverse culture: there is a strong Muslim part and a strong Chinese part; many other parts that coexist in a pretty harmonious way. The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has launched as his slogan ‘1Malaysia’ to articulate a sense of unity. Could we think of a building that is able to express − partly formally, and also in terms of its content − the country’s multiplicity? One that embodies a true mix of things: activities, functions, cultures, even religions. Why don’t we simply take the programme − one part offices for the client; another for the replacement; and residences − and give each its own entity?

What are the architectural implications of this approach?

We made three main blocks and interspersed the public stuff between them to create a building that is very different to everything around it, but also one that has multiple relationships within it. At ground level, there are two traditional options: parking or retail blocks. Both divorce the building from the city. We have taken the street’s constituents − people, cars, green, retail − and spiralled them through the building, like a double helix. Inside, as you look through the atrium, you see shops, a lobby, but also suddenly cars, so there is a parallel reality, which is exactly what you have in a city, but everyone thinks it is impossible in a building.

It seems you have made a lot of effort to bring vegetation into the project. I wanted to give spaces to nature to reclaim the architecture. So instead of having a dead podium with two towers, and a planting strip around it, we pulled the nature into the open spaces and layers and rooftops and gardens. If you add all the green spaces together, it is 87 per cent of the site, many times what is stipulated. The planting itself provides shading again and gardens for people to use, and it’s also a question of social sustainability. If a building isn’t used, then is doesn’t matter if it’s environmentally sustainable.

What environmentally sustainable aspects are there?

In the tropics, the most important thing to avoid is the sun. I didn’t want a building with slick corporate curtain walling, so I designed a shading system. Each bay gets its own shading, optimised for sun angles and view directions, which develops an expression for the overall building. As a texture it is interesting, but it also gives us 40 per cent savings on the solar gain and we can then reduce massively the air-conditioning systems. At the top of the building in the residential component, we have made a very tall, naturally ventilated atrium.

We’ve done all the CFD [Computational Fluid Dynamics] studies to show that simply through passive air movement there is cooling and fresh air. We have minimised the cooling loads of the building and integrated it into the tropical reality as much as possible. It will be an interesting space as the atrium is always connected to the outside through windows, so there’s light and air, and a series of gardens.

How does the structure work?

There are 25m cantilevers, 180-200m in the air. We have brought as many columns as you can through the three blocks; then there are two points where transfers or raking columns bring the forces of the cantilevering volumes back into the structure.

Do you know how the project has been received in Malaysia?

The client sent me to see the Malaysian Prime Minister. I drove out to this incredibly impressive and totally intimidating palace, and showed him the presentation, and he was really incredibly interested, because it is a piece of architecture that does embody some of the political ideals or shifts that they are trying to make. And it is his era vis-à-vis the previous one, which was about power and very simplistic messages. So suddenly a commercial development shifts onto a totally political agenda, because it addresses the city, the public and the whole culture.

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