Architect Ole Scheeren, a creator of Beijing’s CCTV tower, constructs another building for the city—the headquarters and gallery for one of China’s largest art auction houses

WHEN ARCHITECT Ole Scheeren designed Beijing’s China Central Television headquarters, which opened in 2012, it was an ode to the future, a bold, cutting-edge skyscraper seemingly folded in two. His latest Beijing effort, the Guardian Art Center—a hybrid museum, auction house and hotel—is something subtler, taking many of its cues from China’s past.

Local efforts to do so haven’t always been particularly adroit: A drive through Beijing reveals, for example, numerous concrete buildings topped with incongruous pagoda-style turrets. By contrast, Scheeren says, with the GAC, “we wanted to infuse a sense of Chinese culture without being too literal.”

The new building sits at Beijing’s symbolic heart, less than a mile from the Forbidden City, in an area still dotted with single-story courtyard homes and narrow hutong lanes. The neighborhood’s intimate scale is evoked in what Scheeren calls the “soft feathering” of small, cubelike volumes clustered at the GAC’s base. The structure’s monolithic upper level, which plays off the city’s contemporary skyline, has a rectangular layout that’s a nod to courtyard architecture, while the glass rectangles lining its facade are meant to echo the brick of the hutong.

The German-born Scheeren, 46, is based in China, where he’s worked for the past 15 years, though he travels frequently to Berlin, London and the U.S. In 1995 he joined OMA, the firm of architect Rem Koolhaas, with whom he designed the CCTV tower. Since founding his own practice, Büro Ole Scheeren, in 2010, he has focused mostly on Asia, with large projects in Thailand and Malaysia, though the 70-person studio has recently expanded its work in Europe and North America. The GAC marks his second major project in Beijing.

Built at a cost of more than $300 million, the building will serve as the headquarters for China Guardian Auctions Co., the mainland’s oldest auction house. It was commissioned by Chen Dongsheng, chairman of one of China’s largest insurers, who founded China Guardian in 1993. He had been impressed by news clips of international auctions that aired periodically on Chinese television in the late 1980s, particularly the 1987 Christie’s London sale of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. “The most important thing we can do is give art value,” says Chen, whose insurance company is also the largest shareholder in Sotheby’s . Since its founding, China Guardian has played a role in developing the country’s art market, which is now the world’s largest.

Opposite the building stands the National Art Museum of China, opened in 1963 during the Mao Zedong era. Chen—who is married to one of Mao’s grandchildren—would like his building to achieve a similar stature. “I want it to be a legacy,” he says. “In a hundred years, it will be an art museum. In two hundred years, it will be an art museum.”

Scheeren also has high aspirations for the new building, which he hopes will bring art “into the city from the periphery,” offering a different kind of museum in a city where spaces are largely split between government-backed institutions downtown and private galleries on the outskirts. The GAC was designed to be public-facing, says Scheeren, with 42,000 square feet of exhibition space, multiple restaurants, a bookstore and a 120-room hotel catering to both a Chinese and foreign clientele. “A building can’t change anything—it’s a building,” he says. “But I also believe that as architects, we have to be optimists—we have to believe in possibilities.”

Much has changed, Scheeren notes, since the ebullient era when he began work on the CCTV tower, in 2002. At the time, China had recently joined the World Trade Organization and Beijing had won its Olympics bid. The energetic mood was captured in the architecture, with buildings erected in the shape of everything from eggs to coins. “There was so much speed and development,” Scheeren recalls. Now, he says, architects in China are more reflective.

Working on the GAC, Scheeren says he tapped into the knowledge he’s gained over the past 15 years, designing a structure that’s appropriate to the neighborhood’s historical context but also aims to bring new vitality to the area. “For me, this building has an understated monumentality,” he says. “Despite its angular geometry, there’s a softness to it, and it connects to its surrounding context. It’s important we bring architecture back to the human level.”