Ole Scheeren was 20 years old when he decided to backpack across China. Born and raised in Karlsruhe, Germany, Scheeren knew nothing about the country until he spent three months trekking through Chinese cities and countryside. “It was extremely liberating,” he says, 24 years later. “I realized that the world was completely different from what we were taught in our European shell.” He didn’t pick up the Mandarin language, but he did acquire a passion for the culture—one that persisted as Scheeren built his design career in New York, Rotterdam and London.
More than two decades after his initial visit, Scheeren now numbers among the most successful local architects in China. In Beijing, where his eponymous firm is based, Scheeren’s latest project, the Guardian Art Center—an auction house, exhibition space and luxury hotel complex—offers a progressive alternative to the ahistorical excesses often designed by Western architects in China.
At a moment when foreign practices design much of China’s most prominent and wildly extravagant architectural projects, Scheeren is finding success through subtlety. His Guardian complex in central Beijing is the most highly anticipated building under construction in the Chinese capital since the CCTV headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture, opened there in 2012. Above: Ole Scheeren won the joint first prize—along with Bjarke Ingels and Rem Koolhaas—for his design of the Axel Springer media campus in Berlin.
In fact, Scheeren designed both structures. A partner at OMA until 2010, he had moved to Beijing in 2002—inspired by his youthful escapades to return to China—to open the firm’s office there and lead the CCTV tower project. With construction finished, he split from OMA and opened his own practice, Büro Ole Scheeren, going on to design a number of mixed-use developments in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The Guardian project is his first major building in Beijing under his new company. Above: Scheeren designed the Archipelago Cinema, a temporary, floating auditorium on the Nai Pi Lae lagoon off of Kudu Island. Photo by Piyatat Hemmatat.