Following the announcement of the Shenzhen Wave – future headquarters of leading Chinese telecoms company ZTE and arguably one of the first major office developments to debut since the pandemic – we talk with its architect Ole Scheeren about moving from biophilia to ‘bio-realism’, thinking about interiors through the lens of urbanism and the extent to which architecture can promote innovation.

Has the pandemic brought the same reevaluation of the role of the workplace in China as it has across other countries?

OLE SCHEEREN: I think the degree of change created by the pandemic may, in certain aspects, be more radical in the Western world. In Asia there already existed a number of attitudes and, let’s say, a level of discipline towards collective health that are appropriate to daily life during a pandemic. People were quite used to wearing masks, for instance, and that plays into why they have not entirely lost belief in the workplace.  However, I would say that the status of the workplace is and was changing and I think that the mistake would be to completely reconsider that trajectory based on one pandemic.

Rather, COVID-19 has brought pre-existing discussions about the future of work to greater public awareness. The Shenzhen Wave already embodied a number of different qualities that have only become more relevant in the current context, from flexibility of space to access to nature and the idea of the office as a place that is as much a social catalyst as it is a place of pure productivity. What is so important is that we approach the problem that the pandemic presents for the workplace with a positive attitude, not merely imagine it now as a site of new restrictions and problems and dangers. Of course the event brought a new level of scrutiny to what we are proposing, but we were very quickly able to prove that the fundamentals that we had set up within the project were able to address those questions.

The project places a great emphasis on exposing its inhabitants to nature. Do you think we’re seeing an evolution and elevation of the way in which we think about biophilic design in the workplace?

I think we could almost talk about a new sense of ‘bio-realism’. It is about the reality of these concepts rather than their use within marketing speak or deploying them as decorative additions that act as a kind of placebo. I do not believe in green furry edges and a bit of planting stuck to a vertical wall to hide a problem. It’s about asking how nature and the natural environment should merge with the places we inhabit to build one habitat. If you look at my projects over the past decade and a half, nature plays exactly that role.

I do not believe in green furry edges and a bit of planting stuck to a vertical wall to hide a problem

The way the industry currently thinks about sustainability can cause confusion here as it somewhat means we end up using nature as an alibi. Being able to check all the necessary boxes in order to achieve some kind of certified rating often has little direct impact on how a building feels, how it's lived in, and what quality it actually offers to its inhabitants and users. The challenge is that the role nature plays can’t really be subject to a purely numerical computation; it requires a much more complex understanding of the larger algorithm that defines the potential of an environment.

The project is positioned as being able to promote ‘innovation’ within its host organization. To what extent can architecture actually achieve this?

I do believe that space has a psychological-emotional spectrum that can have a great impact – that space makes you feel in certain ways. But there's also the physical, organizational and programmable aspect of space that can simply set up possibilities for different types of events to happen. I think architecture has an incredibly important social component in which it can foster and almost even agitate its user, acting as a social catalyst for people to come together in a spirit of exchange. Because of the isolation the pandemic has brought, everybody has become acutely aware of what we can now achieve remotely thanks to digital tools, but also of all the things we still can't achieve with them. 

A key part of the design seems to be its flexibility of programme. Does that create any trade-offs in, say, the building’s internal coherence or ability to generate a sense of place? 

Office buildings are supportive of certain forms of identity, both on an individual level and with regard to the wider company. If there’s an iconic image that you can generate and then attach an identity to, that allows you to release control on other levels. You see this in the Shenzhen Wave with the creation of several huge stacked floorplates, each one a hectare large. These provide a great degree of flexibility and amorphous potential. Working at that scale, the way we think about the interior is more akin to urbanism than traditional office planning. What that means is that we do not need to prescribe what happens in such a granular way, but rather develop a catalogue of possibilities that can evolve over time. This is not about simply relinquishing all agency; you need to understand the mechanisms governing how that space will be renegotiated by its users.

The paradigm shift is in thinking of the users as inhabitants rather than "employees", and creating a territory that evolves to meet their needs in life rather than just work

The analogy of the city is again useful, inasmuch as you have a competing series of factors that govern the growth and dynamics of an urban space, guided by, to an extent, infrastructure. But it’s not something over which one entity can exact complete command. It think that principle will become increasingly important to workplace design because, as in all areas of life, people want to be able to define the parameter of their own space. This extends to how we define the integration of various social and hospitality programmes. Developers need to move beyond merely providing a set of isolated amenities, such as a gym or a cafe. Rather it’s about creating the provision for fitness, wellbeing and culture in a more complex and holistic way. The paradigm shift is in thinking of the users as inhabitants rather than ‘employees’, and creating a territory that evolves to meet their needs in life rather than just work.

That last point seems to link with the tendency towards evermore ‘porous’ office spaces, where the border between the public and private programme starts to erode. Is that evident in this project?

There’s certainly a dissolving of boundaries. The Shenzhen Wave addresses its urban context through the way in which we’re lifting the building off the ground to create a huge public space underneath that acts as its first interface. That allows for a porosity of the masterplan, progressing through to the adjacent waterfront and a large park. We have a series of cultural and hospitality functions also embedded in that landscape via the project’s second, downward waveform.  I think it's the fluidity of the wave space that not only traverses but maybe also conceptually transgresses those conditions of public and private and starts to fuse them together. This is where the power of even an overtly formal gesture can be very important; here it embeds the notion of a borderless system in the users of the space, and I think that can have a strong impact on the reality of what might happen there.