TWISTED MONOLITH

TWISTED MONOLITH

Ole Scheerens MahaNakhon Tower in Bangkok

BY ANJA FAHS

(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)

An endless sea of lights spreads all the way to the horizon. From up here, you have the feeling that you can see to the end of the world. The view from Thailand’s second-highest building is absolutely breathtaking. In Bangkok, the spectacular “King Power MahaNakhon” skyscraper, as it is now officially known, immediately became one of the city’s most striking architectural landmarks. MahaNakhon basically means “large metropolis” and is hence perfectly named for Thailand’s capital. The tower is the vision of German architect Ole Scheeren and rises up to a vertiginous height of 314 metres. Its glass façade has an unmistakable sculptural profile with a three-dimensional band of setback and protruding elements, so-called pixels, which spiral up from the ground floor to the very apex of the structure. This gives the building the appearance of a twisted Rubik’s cube – an architectural work of art! If you look down from more than 300 metres, you see the Bangkok Skytrain like a little toy train gliding through this megacity, and the headlights of the cars on the city highways are only perceptible as tiny glowing dots. Shimmering silver, the mighty Chao Praya River is visible in the distance, with the boats barely identifiable. 

The completion of this extraordinary building was recently celebrated with the opening of the MahaNakhon Observation Deck. The public and, of course, Bangkok’s 20 million tourists will be able to enjoy the spectacular 360-degree view from 314 metres. In addition to the observatory on the 74th storey, visitors can look forward to a breathtaking viewing platform on the 78th floor, as well as to one of Southeast Asia’s highest rooftop bars. The visitor highlight is a huge sheet of glass that juts out from the top floor of the building, seemingly hovering 300 metres over the city. This 4.5-by-17.5-metre glass walkway is called the “Skytray” – an exhilarating experience for height-accustomed visitors, as it offers a bird’s-eye view of the city below. 

“The idea behind MahaNakhon was to take the life of the city and bring it up the tower in a dramatic, spiralling movement,” says Ole Scheeren, principal of Büro Ole Scheeren. “Even the very top of the tower is surrendered to the public, so there is not only a public square at the ground level, but human activity rises along the pixelated shaft to the top floors of the building, which are given back to the public domain. It is a project that is strongly embedded in the city and the public realm, and expressively proclaims itself as an active part of it.” 

From a distance, the striking profile of the building looks like an incomplete structure, a tower that is still being erected. Ole Scheeren sees this as a kind of “geometric erosion”, which creates living spaces. These areas – partly protruding and partly set back from the façade – are terraces and balconies. But also floating living rooms with spectacular views. These elements are designed to unite the outside world and the interiors of the building. 

“The building is an exploration of bringing the inside and the outside closer together and creating living spaces that float high above the city,” states Ole Scheeren. “You can step out onto the terraces and transition to the open air, as people in the tropics live in a fluid state between interior and exterior spaces. We are literally carving those possibilities into the tower and make these qualities accessible at staggering heights.” 

In addition to the Tower, the 150,000-square-metre complex comprises the public MahaNakhon Square, along with spaces for shops, cafés and restaurants with lush gardens and terraces over several levels, 200 luxury apartments and a
boutique hotel with 150 rooms. Ole Scheeren has designed some of the most remarkable buildings in Asia over the past few years. For many years, he worked at OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) for the Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas – initially in Rotterdam, then also in Asia following stints in other places. Koolhaas also designed the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Centre for Art and Media) in Ole Scheeren’s home town of Karlsruhe. In 2002, Scheeren became a partner at OMA, moving to Beijing in 2004 where he spent the following
years focusing on realising one building: the new headquarters of the China Central Television, CCTV. A building designed to house 10,000 employees. After the Pentagon, this Chinese structure is deemed to be the largest office building in the world. This was the first of what was to later become a typically unusual series of skyscraper forms for Ole Scheeren – light and open, but simultaneously extremely conceptual. Here, two towers lean towards each other and merge in a perpendicular, 75-metre cantilever at the top. Ole Scheeren sees the CCTV Building as a symbol of a period in which China appeared on the world stage and was entering a new era. 

Scheeren opened his own office in Asia in 2010. Since then he has brought to completion numerous award-winning projects including the Interlace in Singapore, an ambitious residential complex made up of 31 apartment blocks stacked in a hexagonal geometry. Once again, the remarkable conceptual ideas behind the design are revealed, as one clear benefit of this novel form of a honeycomb structure is that residents can’t see through their neighbours’ windows. This guarantees privacy – an absolute rarity in overcrowded Asian megacities. The blocks are grouped around lush green courtyards and pools, offering residents true quality of life within this urban environment. To ensure that these green spaces also provide an oasis in the tropical heat, it is important that the buildings generate breeze and shade. Here, Scheeren’s office makes use of intelligent environmental strategies, based on detailed wind, solar and daylight studies to create a pleasant microclimate. By stacking the apartment blocks, the design also generates multiple horizontal surfaces which are populated by extensive roof gardens and landscaped terraces. Together with the expansive courtyards they create a total green area equal to 112% of the site. The Interlace was named “World Building of the Year” in 2015. “For me, what counts is that a building benefits not only residents and users, but also the surrounding city”, explains Scheeren. 

This is very clearly the case with the MahaNakhon complex. There is a public square in front of the main tower, accessible for all those seeking a place to relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok’s chaotic streets. But it has also been designed as a space for both spontaneous and planned cultural events. Opposite is the so-called “MahaNakhon Cube”, a smaller building with just seven storeys. 

“The pixelation of the tower extends to the ground, where the building gradually dissolves and generates MahaNakhon Hill, a series of cascading indoor and outdoor terraces that evoke the shifting protrusions of a mountain landscape”, says Ole Scheeren. With its seven floors, the MahaNakhon Cube reflects the terraces of the hill and is home to a multi-level shopping centre with direct bridge access to the neighbouring Skytrain station. The complete city façade of the cube accommodates a media wall. It functions as a digital interface, underlining the interaction between the building complex and the adjacent city, and is used for real-time projections, the weather forecast and movie programmes. For ten years, Ole Scheeren and his team of architects in Thailand worked on the MahaNakhon complex. The building has garnered worldwide recognition, winning the Best Mixed Use Development Thailand for the Asia-Pacific Property Awards 2015/16, Best Condo Development for the South East Asia Property Awards 2014 and Best Luxury Condo Development for the Thailand Property Awards 2014. 

But Ole Scheeren and his team are not only active in Asia – meanwhile, he operates offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and now also in New York, London and Berlin. In addition to this, he has other interests: for instance, he develops hotel concepts and is working for the US gourmet food chain Dean & DeLuca. But he will now be focusing more on Europe and America. Here, Scheeren now wants to apply what he has learned in Asia to other regions. This means that, in future, he will be spending even more time travelling around all three continents. “I remain fascinated by the willingness of Southeast Asia to initiate change at breakneck speed. But I do not want to build on the same scale in Europe as in Asia, I would prefer to showcase all the things we can do with existing structures”. And he is demonstrating this admirably with his first European project: in Frankfurt, he is transforming a concrete tower into an elegant residential building. The completion of the “Riverpark Tower” is currently scheduled for 2022. 

buro-os.com

OLE SCHEEREN

Ole Scheeren (1971) is a German-born architect and the principal of Büro Ole Scheeren. Büro Ole Scheeren is an international architecture firm focusing on architecture, urban planning, interior design and research. With offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, New York, London and Berlin, it designs and implements ground-breaking building projects and urban developments across the globe. Prior to founding his practice, Scheeren was director and partner at the Dutch architecture firm OMA in Rotterdam. 

Picture credit © Buro Ole Scheeren


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