Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oppressive Glee in Beijing's Koolhaas


Stalking the city.
Stalks of steel poking up like weeds

We saw previews of it during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

A controversial new building, ostensibly for China's state television company, that looks like no other structure on Earth. Chinese officials hoped it would be completed before the games, but only now, in the summer of 2011, is it readying to open.

Well, as open as the Chinese government well let it, since the building is going to be headquarters for the Communist Party's crushing mass-media propaganda machine.

China Central Television's New Home

Some critics stop right there and say that's reason enough for any self-respecting architect to have shunned the commission.

For myself, I have to admit that on a purely aesthetic level, part of me admires Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Building. As far as a wow-factor is concerned, it could be the coolest superstructure ever built. Squatting 50 stories above the capital of China, it looks like what a conventional square-shaped building with a courtyard would look like if you pulled up one end of the building and left it hanging in the air.

Without a doubt, it's the most unconventional skyscraper ever built, which isn't necessarily a compliment to the Chinese government. Like a cartoonish nouveau-riche social-climber, they've brashly commissioned wildly expensive and flagrantly inefficient buildings all over their country during the past decade. They've flattened entire neighborhoods of historically beloved, quintessentially sino-urban hutongs. They've also resettled over one million people to build the world's largest dam, and engineered a sleek bullet train to wisk people between brand-new central China cities in which nobody even lives yet.

Hardly any of their projects would have gotten off the ground in the world's current democratic, market-driven republics.

And it's this social manipulation on such an staggering scale which can be captured, at least in part, by the CCTV Building. As imposing as it is impressive, Beijing's celebrated trophy by Koolhaas embodies all that's still wrong with China.

On the one hand, Koolhaas' design draws people to it in wonder and spectacle. The Chinese government does this wonderfully itself, as witnessed by its dizzying economic opportunities and its execution of history's most lavish Olympics ever.

On the other hand, though, the building's design could be explained as Koolhaas taking a shape of contortions and hammering human elements into it. Kind of like communism does, using power, domination, and control to remind people inside who's more important.

Not themselves, but the structure around them.

Picking Apart the Design

In the CCTV Building's exterior, we have an undeniably fascinating form of haunched pillars and a dramatic V-shaped prow. All of this requires an intricate structural system that, inevitably, defies conventional spacing and order. While the load-bearing elements in less-daring buildings can be less visible and, therefore, less of an interference with interior spaces, with Beijing's Koolhaas, the structural elements take over and dominate both the exterior and interior. They let people pass through, but they're ever-present, and imposingly so.

Splayed across the sleek glass walls of the exterior lays a black grid of steel structural supports, looking as if Spiderman's web got stuck on it, and some strands have already blown off. Perhaps Koolhaas intends for them to assure people going inside that he did his engineering homework, but it comes across as an afterthought to fortify the building in case of an earthquake.

Inside the CCTV confection, structural elements trump the purpose of space and, in some cases, even the execution of function. And while Koolhaas has made a remarkable attempt to incorporate these stubborn structural elements in his edgy interior designs, they also serve as an incessant reminder that the building is more important than the people inside it.

Enormous load-bearing poles appear to poke haphazardly through spaces from floor to ceiling, rudely interrupting the space, and dressed up to look like some sort of artwork or embellishment. It's like he had these beams running through otherwise usable space, and he tried gluing some sort of wallpaper on them to contrive some justification for them not being tucked away in an unobtrusive corner. After a while, however, I suspect his attempts to try and hide or apologize for the invasion of structural elements will become as tiring and frustrating as the propaganda that will be churned out of these spaces.

Comical Perspectives?

Seen from several bocks away, the CCTV Building morphs into some kind of klutzy cyclops lurching around the city, appearing to step over smaller buildings and the hordes of people and cars scurrying around like ants.

Very domineering, vigilant, and totalitarian.

Since that matches the character of his client, Koolhaas fulfills one of the basic requirements of any architectural commission: getting paid. But to the extent Koolhaas has simply played into the nefarious hands of his client, it could be considered a dismal monument for defeatist architecture.

Except, surprisingly, for a few Chinese culture critics who have developed a plausibly libidinous perspective based on what they suspect could be a subversive Koolhaas theme. Although most tall skyscrapers have a phallacized characteristic to them, some Chinese architects - perhaps miffed that their foreign peers have won all the big commissions - see in Koolhaas' design the explicit figure of a woman on her hands and knees.

For his part, Koolhaas has emphatically denied any pornographic overtones to his sculpturesque design. Unfortunately, he's been far more defensive of his complicity in the construction of an edifice whose functions could lead to human rights abuses.

Perhaps this cold, calculating narcissism is lost on an elite architectural community increasingly consumed by nihilistic pluralism. After all, Koolhaas isn't the first architect to dehumanize his craft. And it must be difficult to walk away from the billions of dollars China spends on these projects.

Symbolism Befits China More

As impressive as Koolhaas' CCTV Building is, however, how much more impressive would it be sitting in New York City, London, or even Tokyo, where the will of the citizenry and the logic of capitalism means more than it does in Beijing?

After all, any totalitarian state can build something like the CCTV Building if it's got the money. Meanwhile, I'm willing to celebrate the fact that Koolhaas' design in Beijing says more about the Free World than China realizes. Even if developers in the United States or Europe could pull off the myriad zoning and environmental logistics inherent in such a project, could they find a client or banker willing to spend so much money on what is essentially a whimsical pretension?

Having the world's coolest building is one thing. Having it so aptly portray its owners' motives and the tasks to be done inside of it, regrettably, is disconcerting.

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