Can Ole Scheeren's Unconventional Architecture Change the World?

With his work in Asia, the architect has reimagined the skyscraper for the interconnected age. Is the rest of the world ready for his unorthodox approach?

The top is down on the white Porsche 911 Carrera S Ole Scheeren is driving as we move fast through the hills of Los Angeles. In a crisp white collar and Prada sunglasses over his model-like good looks, the German architect and head of the global architecture firm Büro Ole Scheeren doesn’t have much time. He’s here for about a day, on a short stopover between projects situated at opposite ends of the earth.

Scheeren is on something of a perpetual world tour, dropping in on his firm’s three offices across Asia and in Berlin, and visiting the inventive buildings it has recently completed in Bangkok, Beijing, and Singapore, and the others soon to rise in Vancouver, Vietnam, and Frankfurt. Now 47 and with a sprinkle of gray in his close-shorn beard, Scheeren is constantly cycling through each location, living out of his luggage, stopping just long enough to replenish his supplies. “I’m so much on the move that the notion of a traditional home makes no sense,” he says, accelerating up a curve near L.A.’s Griffith Park. “Once you have nothing, it’s very freeing.”

The sprawling landscape of L.A., with its one-story bungalows and gated low-rise mansions, is unlike the type of architecture he’s been known for. The bulk of his firm’s high-profile work is on the scale of hyper-dense Asian cities, where massive buildings are called on to serve many roles and users. Scheeren’s work has embraced this flexibility, combining residences and offices with community spaces, public plazas, and natural habitats, all bundled into deliberately sensational structures that have, in a very literal sense, bent the rules of the 21st-century skyscraper.

As a counterpoint to skyscrapers that compete on the cityscape with their vertiginous ambitions and strict hierarchies of value (with the best views, and thus, the better properties, up at the top), Scheeren’s buildings take a problem-solving approach to maximizing community and sustainability, often with unorthodox aesthetic results. In Asia, where densely populated hubs demand a diversity of functions within tight spaces, Scheeren has made his reputation on wringing more out of each project. Now, he’s hoping the rest of the fast-changing world is finally ready to adopt his unorthodox approach. ...