It was in 2008 that the German architect Ole Scheeren designed Beijing’s monumental CCTV Headquarters with Rem Koolhaas. Now, the international firm Buro Ole Scheeren (which has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Berlin) has built the new Guardian Art Centre, a hybrid cultural institution and a custom-built auction house. Located between Beijing’s Forbidden City and its bustling shopping district, its structure comprises a floating glass ring, nested stone volumes and perforated grey basalt which give a nod to China’s past, while also looking towards its rapidly developing future. ART+AUCTION spoke to Scheeren about the project.
How did you want this building to interact with Beijing’s existing architectural character?
I’m quite familiar with Beijing and with its architecture having made another contribution with CCTV, which is a very different building — all about the future and the new CBD. The Guardian Art Centre is at the opposite end of the spectrum: very close to the Forbidden City, so as close as you can get to China’s past. While it is overtly contemporary, it is an architecture that relates to memory and history, considering how to integrate this meaning and reconcile the past and the present. It works with elements of scale, materiality, texture and layered abstracted meaning, which in many ways infiltrates the architecture and contextually defines it.
Would you say that Beijing’s architectural landscape looks toward the future at the expense of acknowledging the past?
I wouldn’t say that, necessarily. A lot of the building that has taken place in China over the past two decades focused on constructing new things. That has to do with the speed and magnitude of change when a society is going through a radical transformation. Along the way, not only was there no time to deal with and reflect upon those issues, it was also not the main concern. I think it’s extremely important for a place to look in multiple directions: to look forward and also backwards, so as not to forget the past. This project deals with the past but not in a sentimental or picturesque way. It seeks to create a synthesis between those different time zones and the differences that they imply. The building incorporates two scales simultaneously: the bottom is a series of grey basalt sediments that pile up and create layered elements that reflect the Hutongs and the historic city, which is adjacent to the project. At the top floats this large volume — a big ring — that is a giant courtyard element and which reflects the scale of the contemporary city and the neighboring buildings that have been constructed in recent times. The super position of the synthesis between those two things very precisely embeds the project in those contextual relationships.
How integral is architecture to the experience of an artwork?
How might it shift our physical, emotional and conceptual relationship with art? Spaces do have an emotional quality. Architecture is very important, not just as physical matter, but also as an emotional spectrum that you create through the spaces. In that respect, there is a very strong relationship between the architecture and the artwork that it contains. It’s also important that the architecture leaves space for the artworks (sometimes specific and sometimes neutral space) as the experience of one is directly related to the other. I think it’s important that we recognize the emotional power of space and also the emotional responsibility of space. I’m interested in the question of “how do we want to live?” That means everything — not just housing. It means: how do we want to work; how do we experience art; how do we reflexively position ourselves as individuals, but also relate to the public domain and the larger social context? Architecture plays an important role in that.
Various architecture firms made pitches before yours was selected to design the Guardian Art Centre. What were the challenges of this project?
There was indeed a history and a long period of time through which many architectural proposals were made for the site, which were all rejected by the planning and preservation committee. When the client came to me, it was almost with that challenge to say “here is an extremely complex situation because it is so specific and meaningful to Chinese history and addressing those issues in an appropriate way.” That was the really exciting challenge for me. I wanted to demonstrate my understanding of the city and also of this culture that I’ve dedicated a significant part of my life to, finding a specific statement vis-a-vis all of that within this specific location. It’s a great completion of my involvement in Beijing
You’ve described the approach to the Guardian Art Centre as acknowledging the hybrid state of contemporary culture. In your opinion, how has contemporary culture shifted over the past 20 years, and how should museums — how does this museum — accommodate this change?
Something that has happened in society as a whole is that things have become more interconnected, both through contemporary means of technology and also culturally — one is an effect of the other. I believe that there are many more hybridized positions between domains, which were more contrasted in the past. Our world has really become far more interactive in that sense. For me, that means that any particular form — as well as the understanding of the space that contains these art forms — has to acknowledge the state of hybrid reality that has emerged. This building is one that no longer pretends to define art as a completely elitist “pure version”: it actually hybridizes the space through acknowledging the realities that have long invaded, if you like, and in a positive sense have become part of the world of art and culture. High art merges with happenings, events and all kinds of possibilities. Every museum today holds events that maybe 30 or 40 years ago could have been considered highly inappropriate in that context. We’ve really tried to create a big culture machine that ranges from the high-end presentation of the purest art form to an event machine. All of that is mixed with a lifestyle component of hotels and restaurants.
What about the Guardian Art Centre’s location in an area that brings together culture and commerce: what are your views on whether art has been reduced to another form of consumption in the 21st century?
In principle I believe that diversity in itself is a positive thing. To look at the multiple possibilities of having art as something very pure and abstract, but also as something very lively and integrated into life. Its own reality as an economic system. There is an art market and this is an auction house, so there is trading of art. It commercializes things and assigns value to things and thereby preserves things. So I think this building being at the intersection of two roads in Beijing — one having a strong cultural connotation and the other being probably the most famous retail street in China — and being an auction house at the crossroads of art and culture is simply a very fitting location which mirrors those actual conditions.
— This article appears in the May 2018 edition of ART+AUCTION.