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Aug / Sep 2016
Sky’s the Limit

WRITER: Stephy Chung / CNN IMAGES: Büro Ole Scheeren

Ole Scheeren’s MahaNakhon is now Bangkok’s tallest skyscraper. CNN Style producer Stephy Chung interviews the German architect inside his ‘unfinished’ skyscraper, a pixelated 77-story building slated to open later this year.


Did anything surprise you as MahaNakhon was built? Do you find yourself at this stage, still trying to adjust its design?

I’ve always felt that I have a strong ability to see things, and to see them quite realistically. At large, there are very few things that are surprising in the sense that the design is ultimately projected. There’s a lot of images, visualisations and models that show how incredibly close reality ends up being to those produced visions. At the same time, the beauty of architecture and physical production is that it’s a process that never quite stops – you do have to pay attention to the very end. You have to live the idea to the very end and if you’re not attentive along the way, many things can happen and many things do happen. You have to keep your overall vision intact, but also to be able to rethink things as new scenarios and situations emerge.

With its pixelated façade, MahaNakhon looks almost as if it’s being censored from the Bangkok skyline. Can you tell us more about the design itself.

One thing I believe is important and actually has a great quality is a sense of complexity, diversity or variety. My sense of space is one that is not simplistic but I believe in the interest of space and also the power of space to do something to the people that inhabit it. If you look at MahaNakhon, there’s so many different ways in which you can inhabit or experience the building. You could be hiding in some of its pixels, or revealing yourself in some of them. You could stand on top of it (there’s a 360-degree view observation deck), or go through the very public terraces on the ground. There are so many different moments in it, and that’s something I’m interested in -- to give people the choices and freedom of an environment that leaves things open, that doesn’t determine everything for everybody.


The 45-year-old German architect Ole Scheeren was formerly the partner and director of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA office in Beijing and Hong Kong before he went solo in 2010.


Your work is strongly inspired or connected to the cultural context and location of the cities in which you build. Tell us about your relationship with Bangkok and how the city influenced MahaNakhon. 

I lived in Bangkok in the late 1990s. I was there to co-curate one of the largest exhibitions at the time called ‘Cities on the Move’. After the Asian financial crisis, Bangkok was full of abandoned buildings under construction – I called them skeletons. We catalogued them. There were 254 of these unfinished towers that were all about the vision for the future that would never come to be. It was a tool for me to develop an acute sense of the fabric of the city and the ability and the psychology of the people that lived there. To some extent, the city revealed itself to co-exist between the presence of an incredibly strong past and the commitment to a very futuristic and fearless relationship to urbanity. To this day, I think this tension remains and being a part of this dialogue between past and future was quite a strong inspiration for this building.

How often do you find yourself on-site?

I’m there every four to six weeks, sometimes even more often. I follow my projects very, very closely. I really like going on-site as well as walking around the city and seeing how the building looks from different vantage points. I usually go with the construction crews, with my people, and we go through and discuss things and see how to solve upcoming issues and what to focus on. But, sometimes it’s very important to be alone, in a way, to subtract yourself from any conversation or discussion and subject yourself to the full emotional spectrum of experiencing something.


MahaNakhon has the unconventional appearance of a glass curtain-walled tower with a cuboid-surfaced spiral cut into the side of it. 


We’ve met up an interesting moment – where parts are finished, or just about to finish and I wonder if there’s a sense of parting that you feel, during this transition of concept to construction to eventually, handing it over to the client and to the people that will eventually use the space? 

I don’t really have this sense of letting go or parting so much because when I design a building, I never design it for myself to begin with. I design it for the people that will own it, or inhabit it, or work in it. For me – that notion is there from the beginning. That sense of giving is extremely important to even be able to create it the way we do. And I still very much live with the buildings that I’ve done. I still go quite regularly to all of them because I’m also very interested to see what happens to them, because ultimately I’ve designed them for other people. I’m interested in seeing how they live it, how they use it, what they do to it. For me architecture is not a dead sculptural piece of matter, material and life. It’s a space for life, a space for living. And that’s the beauty of it.


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