Rising from the lowish architecture of mosques, old shophouses and office buildings in the Bugis-Kampong Glam area are two sleek, unmissable buildings.

They are Duo Tower and Duo Residences, though, as with any buildings with unique silhouettes, they may acquire another nickname: “Tetris”, for instance, for the way that parts of the structure jut out dramatically like the outlines of jigsaw pieces.

Both eye-catching towers are part of Duo, a mixed-use development that opens next year. Demand for the residential units has been strong. So far, about 95 per cent of the 660 apartments at the 99-year leasehold project have been snapped up.

When sales started three years ago, about 468 units out of the 540 units that were released were bought in three days, with most of the buyers being Singaporean.

The architect behind the twin towers is Germany-born, Beijing-based Ole Scheeren, who was in town for a site visit. A rising star, he is the man behind The Interlace condominium in Depot Road, another dramatic Jenga-like property with 31 blocks of apartments stacked in a twisty, hexagonal arrangement. It won the World Building of the Year, the top prize at last year’s World Architecture Festival.

The Interlace
The Interlace condominium by CapitaLand Singapore was named World Building of the Year at last year’s World Architecture Festival, the Oscars of the architectural world.

Those who read the gossip columns may also find his name familiar as he had dated Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung for almost five years.

Meeting The Straits Times at the Duo show gallery in the Marina Bay area, he turns up impeccably dressed in a black suit. In addition to his work, Scheeren is often noticed for his chiselled, handsome looks. At 45, he still looks boyish.

He speaks intensely about his work, in an accent that hints at his German roots. Echoing what he said in a TED talk last September, he says architecture is about “story-telling”.

“You need to be able to imagine the story of everyone who (uses) the building,” he says. “For me, architecture is also the fantasy of what people may do when they enter the building, how they may feel and what emotions you want to trigger.”

So what is the story behind the 26,688 sq m Duo? It is a mixed picture.

On the one hand, it is a commercial venture on the posh end of the scale. In the 39-storey Duo Tower, office spaces take up levels four to 23, with the remaining floors above occupied by the 342-room Andaz hotel, the boutique brand by Hyatt Hotels Corporation.

The Duo Residences tower next door rises up 49 floors and houses 660 residences, from one- to four- bedroom units and penthouses.

When units first went on sale, the average selling price was about $2,000 a square foot and the highest price per square foot (psf) achieved was $2,600 psf for a studio apartment.

But there are softer aspects to the development as well, such as its proliferation of green spaces and the promotion of an active lifestyle. For example, to encourage office workers to cycle, there are bicycle lots and shower facilities in Duo Tower.

A sky terrace garden on the eighth level also allows cubicle rats to decompress and get some fresh air, and an observation deck at the top promises stunning views of the Singapore skyline and Kampong Glam area.

Duo’s public face, no doubt, is the Duo Galleria, a 56,000 sq ft retail and dining area. Though it is fundamentally yet another shopping area in mall-saturated Singapore, the galleria stands out for having generous outdoor spaces, including a naturally ventilated plaza filled with trees and water features. The space will be open all day to the public.

Duo, which has a gross development value of $4 billion, is by M+S, a joint venture set up in 2011 between Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and Malaysian investment fund Khazanah Nasional.

Before Duo got off the ground, the grassy patch that was once in its place was a “no man’s land”, in between a series of old and new buildings that no one would step foot on, says Scheeren.

He says: “It was important that this project would not be another object added to the collection of disconnected and unrelated things.”

Instead of walling the structures up, he left Duo open on all sides. Those who use the office building can head outside to gardens on the high floors and gaze upon Kampong Glam’s old architecture, while the open plazas give a generous view of the neighbouring Parkview Square.

Scheeren, who grew up in the south-western German city of Karlsruhe, has been pushing boundaries since his days at Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

At 24, he joined the Rotterdam-based firm and rose quickly under the mentorship of its Dutch co-founder Rem Koolhaas. He eventually became a partner and director at the firm, leading projects such as the Prada Epicenters in New York and Los Angeles.

He later became the director of OMA’s Asia office in Beijing and moved to the Chinese capital to oversee the high-profile China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters project, which he designed with Koolhaas. In 2010, he set up his own firm, Buro Ole Scheeren, while he still had ongoing projects with OMA, one of which was The Interlace project in Singapore.

As much as he gets praise for his out-of-the-box designs, he also has his detractors. The CCTV headquarters, for example, is a polarising work. Beijingers have been known to be derisive about the twisted structure – the two linking towers have a 90-degree twist at the top – and call it “Big Pants”.

In 2014, China’s president Xi Jinping named the building as one of the offending designs in the country. He called for an end to such “weird architecture”.

Scheeren is unfazed. “As you push the boundaries and go beyond the status quo, there will be an element of provocation. When it’s not what people know, there will be questions. But I think it’s a positive aspect of the work to provoke a dialogue of what things are, should be or could be.

“We get so much more positive feedback than criticism that I can also quite easily live with it. Of course, there can be uninformed criticism which is always less interesting. But there can also be interesting criticism – and this is simply part of a dialogue of taking things forward.”

Although he has been based in Beijing for the past 12 years, he sheepishly confesses that his command of Chinese is “non-existent”. Buro Ole Scheeren has four offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Berlin, with about 70 staff in total.

Scheeren says he wanted to be based in the region to be closer to the action. “At that time when I made the decision to headquarter my practice in Beijing, almost every single international architect made his architecture at home in the West and sent things over for execution.

“I wanted to be an active part of the context itself and design for Asia, from Asia. It’s allowed us to be intimately connected to everything we do.”

While he is starting to amass a collection of iconic buildings, he often goes back to visit his earlier work. When he was in Singapore last week, he visited The Interlace too.

Scheeren, who comes here every few months, says: “It’s very important to go back to the building and see the true reality of people living there. When you’re designing for people who will use the building, it’s not about me determining their stories – deciding what they can or cannot do with it. It is creating a stage set, an open tableau for people to be inventive themselves. That’s a lot of fun to see.”

Adapted from The Straits Times.