Just as many of New York City’s most iconic landmarks rose in breathtakingly brief succession a century ago, Beijing has been re-inventing itself since 2001 with a rush of showstopping buildings by internationally renowned architects: Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s National Stadium, Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid complex, Rem Koolhaas’s China Central Television headquarters, and Norman Foster’s Terminal 3. On the eve of a controversial Olympics, Kurt Andersen sees China’s true promise in a more enduring spectacle of daring commissions, bravura engineering, and creatively humanistic design.
Beijing is flat and sprawling and smoggy and jammed with traffic and nearly all new, which is why an American friend who’s been working there for the last couple of years calls it “the People’s Republic of Houston.”
When it comes to urban analogies, though, New York City actually seems more apt. Beijing’s historic core—the area with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the main national government buildings, and some of the few remaining hutong neighborhoods—contains 1.3 million people in its 24 square miles, almost exactly the same as Manhattan; fully urbanized Beijing closely tracks the five boroughs of New York City in area and population; and the greater Chinese capital is about the same size as metropolitan New York.
But having just visited for the first time, I realized that what early-21st-century Beijing even more deeply resembles is New York at the turn of the 20th century. That’s the moment at which modern New York was inventing itself by showstopping leaps and bounds—swallowing adjacent cities and towns and farms, booming in population, and erecting what would become its defining landmarks.
The parallels are uncanny. Beijing’s population has doubled during the last 30 years, just as New York’s did between 1880 and 1910. The first great river span, the Brooklyn Bridge, was built in the 1880s, and New York’s first subway line opened in 1904. Beijing’s dominant piece of urban infrastructure—its five concentric Ring Roads, which loop around the city—was begun in the 1980s and has just been finished. Beijing’s new subway system—100 miles built, 250 more to come over the next seven years—is proceeding apace.
Architecturally, today’s New York is primarily an artifact of that earlier turn of the century. Indeed, most of New York’s greatest iconic buildings sprouted in one breathtakingly brief period. Between 1902 and 1913, the city got Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, and both the Flatiron and Woolworth Buildings—and within the next two decades the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center. The rich, state-of-the-art metropolis that suddenly emerged was this country’s swaggering announcement to the world—Hey, get a load of us!—that the American Century had commenced. The 1939 New York World’s Fair was an exclamation point.
Just as today Beijing is hosting the Summer Olympics and entering its own modern architectural golden age. During the last 30 years, China’s economy has grown sixfold. Like a classic nouveau riche, eager to impress the Establishment of which it has just become a member, China is bragging about the sheer scale of its new go-go monuments: Lord Norman Foster’s new, $3.8 billion terminal at the Beijing airport is among the largest buildings on earth, Rem Koolhaas’s headquarters for China Central Television will be the world’s second-largest office building after the Pentagon … and so on.
Meanwhile, within a hundred yards of the new Ritz-Carlton are brand-new Fendi, Coach, Prada, Gucci, Brooks Brothers, and Moschino stores. A 15-minute walk away, occupying a floor of a high-rise, is a new restaurant called Le Lan, designed by Philippe Starck with a global-Victorian-clutter aesthetic reborn for this strenuously hip era: Venetian-glass chandeliers as well as huge industrial pendant lights, a giant video screen in a gaudy ancien régime picture frame, glass display cabinets containing bags of dried beans, Indian religious pictures, stuffed birds, and leather-bound books.
The new gloss of consumer-culture lifestyle luxe isn’t wall-to-wall, however. This is still China. The streets may be filled with Audis, but peddlers walk among the slowed cars selling live turtles. While images of Mao and artifacts of the Cultural Revolution are treated as ironic kitsch by the Chinese hipster class, the 20-foot-high portrait of the Great Helmsman overlooking Tiananmen remains an earnest die-hard vestige of the personality-cult days. And yet, on the opposite end of the square, an enormous Apple store is set to open this summer.
A Whimsical Super-colossus
But anyone can spend. (Just look at Dubai and Qatar.) And anyone can hire superstar architects. (Ditto.) The astounding thing about the glamorous new buildings in Beijing is just how brilliant and original some of them are—dazzlingly, radically excellent. Not since Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Spain opened, 11 years ago, has any large-scale new architecture been this thrilling. And as splendid as the Bilbao Guggenheim is, it’s (merely) an art museum, and something of a precious, rarefied work of art itself. Whereas the two unquestionable masterpieces of the new Beijing—the airport and the TV headquarters—are building types central to everyday life, and building types that very seldom turn out better than mediocre. These days there is generally an inverse contemporary relationship between scale and architectural quality: the bigger a building is, the harder it is to make wonderful.
The conventional wisdom among Americans is that “everything changed” on September 11, 2001. For the Chinese, the last half of 2001 was a world-historical turning point, too, but on the glorious upside: China was finally admitted to the World Trade Organization, and Beijing beat out Toronto and Paris to host this summer’s Olympic Games. When cities like London are awarded the Olympics franchise, the local reaction tends to range from passing satisfaction to mild dread, and New Yorkers’ civic displeasure over losing the bid to host the 2012 games was almost inaudible. For the Chinese, it’s hard to overstate the self-regarding jubilation prompted by the International Olympic Committee’s choice. For the former sick man of East Asia it was the Sally Field moment (“I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect … and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”). Joining the W.T.O. was more consequential, no doubt, but being permitted to stage the Olympics meant to ordinary Chinese, viscerally and unequivocally, that their country had arrived.
Even before the government spent $40 billion on the venues and new highways and subways, Beijing already had Olympics DNA in its urban genome. At the heart of the city is the sunbaked, low-rise, pharaonic vastness of Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, flags and banners everywhere, queues and slow-moving throngs of well-organized tourists, uniformed young men showily goose-stepping. And given how much of Beijing already consists of gated, densely packed clusters of mid-rise apartment buildings built the day before yesterday, the 42 Olympic Village dormitories are essentially just one more northerly extension of the existing urban fabric.
A mile and a half from the Village is the principal piece of Olympic architecture, the National Stadium, where the major track-and-field events and the soccer final will take place, as well as the opening (August 8th) and closing (August 24th) ceremonies of the Games. Its architects are the Swiss Pritzker Prize winners Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, whose other work includes the Tate Modern, in London, and a new building of multi-million-dollar apartments at 40 Bond Street in New York’s East Village. The stadium’s entire outer shell is a helter-skelter steel web, an un-Swiss indulgence of architectural id on a mega-scale. The steel ribbons that form the stadium’s wrapper and much of its structure are three-and-a-half-foot-square tubes; at the top of the stadium bowl, where they fold inside and disappear, the rim of the oval is not a straight edge but dramatically parabolic. And so people were calling it the Bird’s Nest even before construction began; the nickname is now the de facto name.
New stadiums tend to be one of three types: meagerly decorated cylinders without architectural ambition (see: Shea Stadium), office-parky, poor-man’s-Albert-Speer boxes (see: the New Meadowlands), or nostalgic simulacra of old-shoe pre-modernist ballparks (see: Busch Stadium, in St. Louis). The Bird’s Nest is different, entirely functional in the necessary stadium ways (91,000 seats, unobstructed sight lines, V.I.P. boxes, camera positions) but also a singular, highly engineered object reminiscent of history’s greatest World’s Fair icons—the Unisphere and observatory towers from New York in 1964, the Trylon and Perisphere from New York in 1939, and Eiffel’s tower from the Exposition Universelle in 1889.
The Bird’s Nest has the whimsy of a super-colossal Claes Oldenburg sculpture, fun to look at and slightly trippy to approach and enter. It’s one of those strokes of genius that seem obvious the moment they’re done well: if sport is play, except somewhat crazed and supercharged, why shouldn’t a sports venue be playful in a somewhat crazed, supercharged way? Starting now, this will be the most recognizable stadium on earth. (My Chinese stadium guides had one slightly worried question: they wanted to know if I thought the seats were big enough for … Americans.)
But the Olympics are only one small piece of Beijing’s architectural efflorescence. Steven Holl, who at 60 is on the very short list of Americans likely to win a Pritzker Prize during the next few years, has three projects under construction in China, one of which, nearly finished, is a residential-and-retail complex in eastern Beijing, just beyond the old central city. The project’s Chinese developer calls it “moma.” How come? “Don’t ask me,” says Li Hu, Holl’s smart, sharp, 35-year-old Beijing-based partner. “It’s silly.”
The architects, devoted to rhetorical seriousness when it comes to their work, call it the Linked Hybrid: “hybrid” because it contains 750 apartments, a hotel, a movie theater, shops, cafés, a school, and so on; “linked” because the eight main buildings of the complex, aluminum-covered towers 20 to 25 stories high, are connected one to another at the 20th floor by enclosed bridges. Everywhere in the world, most new apartment-tower complexes are architecturally dull, like public housing projects in luxury drag. The Linked Hybrid, on the other hand, true to its nerdy name, has an enthusiastic Erector Set complexity, and only gets more interesting as you wander through. It’s a deeply ingenious piece of architecture, rich with ideas and virtuoso engineering.
For starters, Holl and Hu are modernists but haven’t enslaved themselves to the dogma of 20th-century rectilinearity and symmetry. They have arranged the eight main towers in a loose ring and slightly rotated the two on the western end to open up downtown city views for occupants of the other buildings. Nor are the eight buildings identical slabs: they vary in height, and several have cantilevered three- to five-story sections that jut out into space, and, along with the skybridges, all of which run on the diagonal, give the complex a playful, invigorating visual energy. The central plaza won’t be the usual empty, landscaped-but-desolate space: it will be filled with water, with two additional species of building—the freestanding movie theater (China’s first art house) and cylindrical 11-story glass hotel—rising from it like islands.
Every roof will be covered in planted greenery, and the 660 geothermal wells drilled beneath the underground car park are to supply most of the heating and cooling. At the junctions of the bridges and the apartment buildings will be the commercial spaces, the cafés and shops and gym—and inside one supersize bridge an 82-foot-long lap pool, a kind of re-invention of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio 5,000 miles east, 500 years later, and 200 feet higher. The apartments are handsome, and yuppie-luxurious. They’ve also doubled in price during construction. A 1,600-square-foot two-and-a-half-bedroom unit is now selling for close to $1 million, maybe half what a comparable pad in Manhattan would cost but at least twice the price of the same apartment in, say, Omaha. And this in a country where average incomes are 5 or 10 percent of ours.
How Can This Be?
If you hired naming consultants to confect a brilliant brand for a contemporary global-design genius—We wanna connote science, modernity, dream states, stylishness, architecture—you couldn’t do better than “Rem Koolhaas.” He acts the part (speaks Dutch-accented English, exhibits an unwillingness to suffer fools, radiates a sense of urgency) and looks it, too—a skinny six feet five, with the face of a trickster elf and the bearing of some great, skittish waterbird searching for prey.
Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, his 37-year-old partner at the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (oma), conceived the extraordinary Chinese Central Television (CCTV) headquarters in 2002. Koolhaas says that only 21st-century computer power permitted it to be designed and built. “Even 10 years ago,” he told me at his Beijing office, “you couldn’t do it, given the sheer time of computing required.”
That’s the kind of thing Gehry used to say about his warped and crumpled forms. However, as you approach Beijing for the first time, idly scanning the cityscape, the main CCTV building grabs your attention in a very different way. It’s singular and freakish, but rather subtly so—you don’t quite understand, at first, why your eyes have locked on it.
Part of it is the weirdness of seeing a familiar form at such a scale, another Oldenburgian jolt: it’s an arch in the middle of a city, but almost five times as tall as the Arc de Triomphe. Then you notice that it isn’t a regular arch at all but a surreally transformed one—its high-rise “legs” are turned away from each other, and tilt at six degrees from the vertical, one leaning northwest and one southeast, which means the piece of building that connects them at the top isn’t straight but L-shaped … requiring that the high-rise right angle of the L—how can this be?—cantilever horizontally out in space. It’s like an Industrial Light & Magic digital effect made gratifyingly real. It’s the urban future the way it was supposed to be.
Other very large buildings are lollapalooza one-liners—incredibly tall, fabulously shiny, idiosyncratically faceted or decorated—which you essentially “get” the moment you spot them on a skyline. But the wonders and pleasures of CCTV reveal themselves gradually. Because of its puzzle-like (but not fussy or undignified) geometries, it looks very different from different directions and distances. Only as you get close do you realize that it has an eight-story base connecting the legs of the arch at ground level—an L-shaped chunk that angles in the opposite direction from the L in the sky … in other words, the building is not, in fact, an arch at all but a continuous, zigzagging rectangular tube, a three-dimensional Möbius strip.
On the Sunday morning before May Day, Koolhaas was in his uniform of black pants and long black leather jacket, loping at high speed through the construction site of CCTV’s double-height 37th floor—the belly of the cantilevered section and “the point of maximum structural complexity in the whole building”—half leading and half ignoring a small group of European and American visitors. He was the only person in sight without a hard hat. Suddenly he darted right, away from the group, past a 12-foot hole in the floor that will become a glass-covered observation port. “Rem, Rem,” two of his alarmed assistants shouted after him, “careful—they’re welding over there!” He swerved, but didn’t stop.
A journalist before he became an architect, Koolhaas has always been one for issuing critiques and manifestos from left field. In his zany, romantic book, Delirious New York, published 30 years ago, he celebrated Manhattan as “the 20th century’s Rosetta stone … occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper), utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the U.N. Building), and irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall).” One of his cartoony drawings in Delirious showed a skyscraper bending over and wrapping around the Williamsburg Bridge. And since winning the Pritzker Prize, in 2000, he’s maintained his bad-boy cred by taking up “Kill the Skyscraper” as a slogan. Rarely does an architect’s published theorizing deserve much attention. Yet with the CCTV project Koolhaas, 63, has actually realized those fever dreams.
Once you’re inside the complex, the main building keeps shape-shifting. To stand under the great cantilevered overhang—that is, beneath a 12-story building floating several hundred feet overhead—is an uncanny experience, architecture as magic-realist spectacle. “This is not about ‘spectacle,’ ” Koolhaas snarls when the term comes up. “I hate that word.” That’s because it usually describes the architecturally meretricious, including super-tallness. CCTV contains almost as much floor space as the Empire State Building and Ground Zero’s forthcoming Freedom Tower combined, yet it’s less than half as tall as either one. You can take in the whole complex without being forced to crane your neck and gawk straight up. What’s more, as you look at the 49-story CCTV from across the street near its sidekick high-rise (which will contain a huge CCTV studio, two cinemas, and a 300-room Mandarin Oriental Hotel), the Gargantua visually disassembles itself into three distinct, modest-size buildings—the base, the south tower, and the north tower.
“It has a delicacy despite its size,” Koolhaas says. “It’s something that’s not really a tower, but three-dimensional, so it defines urban space.” This is a wonderful trick—to make such a stupendously large structure visually manageable, almost gemütlich, at close range. A boon for pedestrians and neighbors, and also, maybe, a paradigm shift in P.O.V. for the people who’ll work inside when it opens next year. The fact that the building bends over and twists like a yogi means that the 10,000 TV workers who inhabit it, unlike the occupants of any normal high-rise, will be able to see much of the hive they’re inhabiting. “By being aware of other pieces of the building,” says Scheeren, Koolhaas’s co-designer, “people will experience their collaborators.” How interestingly … Communistic.
Of the nine rival designs submitted in the CCTV competition, all but one were straight high-rises. “Asia now has more skyscrapers than the West,” Scheeren says. “We could’ve built a lot taller.” For most big buildings, “height is the only way to declare their character—and since we started, the absurdity has become more extreme.” Every couple of years, the new World’s Tallest Building is declared. “We asked, ‘What could a skyscraper be a hundred years later?’ ”
There are intriguing similarities between CCTV and Holl’s complex. Both are multi-function hybrids, and both architects have broken down huge buildings into smaller, more human-scaled pieces. Neither is explicitly “Chinese” in style. Both have prominent high-rise cantilevered sections projecting dramatically through the sky on the horizontal, and provide long public circuits through their entirety. Both were built on large former factory sites but reject the gated-community superblock model of urban development, harking back instead to Rockefeller Center, trying to be bustling cities within a city. Maybe future architectural historians will see these as telling features of Early Chinese Renaissance style.
The Airport from Imax
My flight to China landed at Terminal 2, so I didn’t make it to Lord Foster’s brand-new Terminal 3 until my last day in Beijing, heading home. In contrast to CCTV, there’s nothing jaw-dropping about the exterior. Sleek and elegant and gigantic, sure, but just an airport.
Appearances deceive. Inside, the place is both fabulous and sublime, an epic realization of the lucidity and suave, airy, well-machined grandeur to which postwar airports always aspired—Saarinen’s TWA terminal at J.F.K. is a cute, first-draft scale model—but never quite achieved. (Note to self: next time, book flight on airline assigned to Terminal 3—i.e., Air Canada, Air China, United.) Taking the shuttle from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 is like going on a theme-park time-travel ride, whisked from grotty old Communist China to the bright, shimmering World of Tomorrow in 15 minutes flat. And it’s a perfect illustration of the speed with which history and architecture are moving in China, since the “old” terminal opened only in 1999.
Most other large airports are, for various reasons, hard to use or to like. They have made themselves into shopping malls with long, banal corridors to and from the gates. They have expanded without any big idea or vision, kludgily, over time, making themselves more and more inelegant and incoherent. They are designed and managed by people with no real interest in delighting travelers.
Terminal 3 is different. As an arriving or departing passenger, you quickly enter magnificent common spaces—which despite their size don’t mystify or paralyze. There’s directional signage, of course, but the manifest clarity of the architecture itself also orchestrates circulation, nudging and pulling people in the directions they need to go. While airport architecture often defaults to a disorienting and claustrophobic casino mode, the inmates of Terminal 3 can always and everywhere gaze outside, taking in vistas that both re-establish bearings and lift the spirits. Walking from the parking garage to the main terminal, one passes through a vast, serene, underpopulated, and altogether heavenly hall with a sloped glass ceiling. (Cue the Brian Eno soundtrack.) Glancing down from the enclosed pedestrian bridge that passes over the long, long crescent of roadway hugging the airport, a sight that one has seen a thousand times—lines of taxis and buses picking up and dropping off—is weirdly beautiful.
It’s like the best of the grand old-fashioned train stations, the coherence and communal liveliness all the more remarkable given the size of the place. Think about being inside Grand Central in New York or Union Station in Washington. A big part of the reassuring pleasure of those stations is the transparency of their structures: you practically experience them in cross section—from the central halls, you can see how they connect up to the mezzanines and down to the train platforms—so you get an automatic working sense of how the pieces fit together from side to side and top to bottom.
That’s the way Beijing’s Terminal 3 works. Within the main hall there are three levels stacked wedding-cake-style, and each level is visible from the other two. Instead of the usual opaque airport labyrinth of isolated corridors, more than a dozen open pedestrian bridges span the space, one of many ways in which the architecture becomes a kind of map of itself. And, again, the views to the outdoors aren’t accidental or stingy, but beautifully staged, as if by an auteur who considers the raison d’être of an airport—aviation—as a glorious subject: the view out to the tarmac and jets through the giant canted floor-to-ceiling windows is like Imax.
“Cost engineering” is the term of art for the budget cutting that eliminates the inessential design features of building schemes before they’re built. Beyond its big-picture brilliance, Terminal 3 is exceptional for the wealth of details that weren’t cost-engineered out. The result is visual pleasure of a refined, integrated, perfectly modern kind, the opposite of the ostentatious starkness that gave so much cutting-edge architecture a bad name in the last century.
Architectural modernism, which since the 1960s in the United States has often seemed like wishful retro nostalgia or mere exercises in glam style, has in today’s China an authentic resonance. Indeed, as the ism founded by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe approaches its 100th birthday, Beijing’s Terminal 3 is among the handful of masterpieces that justify the century of hoopla.
The architectural ambitions of all these new buildings posed engineering challenges, some of them unprecedented. On the Linked Hybrid structure, the steel bridges—the links—had to be fabricated on the ground exactly below where they were needed, then lifted straight up into place. It was a little scary to build the Holl towers’ cantilevered protuberances—several stories of steel jutting straight out 30 feet away from the supporting structure, with no concrete core and no scaffolding from which workers could weld the steel.
And the CCTV building required everyone to go deep into engineering terra incognita. Breathless visionary architect versus nay-saying pragmatist engineer is the stereotype, but since 1988 Koolhaas has worked closely with the celebrated structural engineer Cecil Balmond, deputy chairman of Ove Arup and Partners, the big London-based global engineering firm. (In Beijing, Arup also worked on the National Stadium and Terminal 3.) For CCTV, Balmond and his Arup colleagues were involved in the design process “from the first moment,” Koolhaas says. “They were always around.”
Koolhaas summarizes his approach to design and engineering in a way that sounds gnomic and Zen: “We try to articulate the problem instead of focusing on solving the problem.” But when he and Scheeren explain how CCTV came to be, the aphorism makes perfect sense.
First they settled on their basic, mad notion of the form: topsy-turvy L’s (or twisted M’s or folded Z’s) in which the tops of each of the two uprights would make their 90-degree turns, extend hundreds of feet horizontally, and then meet in midair.
So: how do you build that? “It was impossible to solve the structure in the conventional way of plugging together parts,” Scheeren recalls. They kept thinking. “What if we thought of this as something continuous—as a tube, [with] an exoskeleton?” As Koolhaas says, “It’s weird for a building but not for other domains—like bridges.”
Then the engineers began generating the drawings that graphically display the load-carrying stresses on a proposed structure, which in this bizarre building varied enormously from place to place—and became extreme at certain points, such as where the bottoms of the towers meet the base and where the tower tops bend over.
“First,” Scheeren says, “we asked, ‘Should we make all the steel maximum strength?’ ” That is, follow the chain’s-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link rule? No. “That would mean too much steel. Second we asked, ‘Should we make each piece of steel different,’ ” depending on exactly where it would go in the structure? No again: too complicated and expensive. Then they came up with “the third option: to make a kind of net that densifies where necessary”—places where the loads would be most intense—“and opens up in others.” This, according to Koolhaas, “was the eureka moment—doubling and halving the steel” as necessary.
And the corollary eureka moment was to expose that net of steel: the building’s decorative exterior of seemingly random diamond shapes of varying sizes is formed entirely by those structural steel beams. So, notwithstanding the dreamy postmodern sculptural shape of the building, form strictly follows (and reveals) function.
Making the scheme work required engineering of extraordinary intensity. Arup conducted separate computer models to predict how each of the 10,078 steel beams could buckle or fail, and ran each of those failed-beam scenarios on four different pieces of software to cross-check the results. To further vet the design, CCTV and the government convened a special oversight committee of top Chinese engineers—as Scheeren says, “the people who had written the codes we were breaking.”
By the time construction began, at the end of 2004, Scheeren had moved to Beijing to lead oma’s 180-person architectural team, half of whom were Chinese. “You need to be there,” he says, “to argue, to explain. No one is really an expert in what we are doing. ‘Can it stand?’ ‘Is it possible?’ This was a project that couldn’t just be designed in Rotterdam and handed off.”
The two vertical pieces were built with slightly less tilt than they would ultimately have, to let gravity do some of the work: as they went up they naturally began to lean toward each other, so that on the morning after last Christmas they precisely met. To hear some oma architects describe the occasion, it sounds like the fraught, fingers-crossed moments of the first nasa spacecraft dockings, in the 1960s. Yet, according to Koolhaas, Mr. Sangfroid, “in the end it was not that difficult.”
If You Can Make It Here …
Okay: so I guess I’m an apologist for China.
Of course I wish that the regime in Beijing, the one that has in just three decades so astonishingly transformed the world’s biggest developing nation, would be pragmatic enough to release the three dozen journalists and hundred-odd Tibetan human-rights protesters and hundreds of other prisoners of conscience, and end the nightmarish mass “re-education” programs to which hundreds of thousands of others are subjected. Of course I wish the regime would permit a free and independent press and do away with its “great firewall” that blocks politically incorrect Web pages. Of course I wish it would dial down its depradations of and demonizing disrespect for the Tibetans. And persuade the Sudanese government, its partner in the oil business, to stop brutalizing Darfur. And deal with the horrific environmental consequences of modernization. And crack down on copyright piracy and the export of contaminated products. And so on and so on.
But as big-power misbehavior and unsavoriness go, are these really so unprecedented? Especially given how far the Chinese have progressed on every major front in so short a time? The U.S. is not morally equivalent, but we should be careful about throwing stones—maybe our house isn’t all glass, but it has a lot of large windows. In Saudi Arabia we too are in the oil business with inexcusable tyrants whose bad behavior we don’t seem to do much to moderate. Back in booming 19th-century America, businessmen pirated British and European books like crazy, and sold adulterated foods. The pollution in Beijing is probably as bad as you’ve heard, but after smog first appeared in Los Angeles in 1943, it only got worse for several decades—and Beijing’s mass-transit system will soon be much more like New York’s than L.A.’s. Let’s recall too, for instance, the status of African-Americans at the time that the U.S. hosted the Summer Olympics in 1932. When a friend of mine, a former Washington official, met a few years ago with a very senior Chinese leader in Beijing to discuss economic issues, he proudly tossed in what he calls his “Richard Gere rant” about Tibet. The Chinese minister responded with a calm speech that included several (and, to my friend, persuasive) allusions to America’s historical treatment of American Indians—who, by the way, have a stronger case than the Tibetans in terms of land theft and genocide, and whose fraction of the U.S. population today is three times that of the Tibetans in China.
If over the next few decades China doesn’t become substantially less evil, then fine—hate, excoriate, condemn. But let’s not completely conflate our national self-interest with self-righteous moral judgment. For now I’m mainly buying the Western architects’ position, as self-justifying as it may be, that engagement is the better alternative.
I asked Rem Koolhaas if he and his colleagues had qualms about building not just in China but also for the state-controlled communications apparatus. “ ‘Qualms,”’ he said, “is not necessarily the word. We thought about whether we should take the risk. But China is so important, we all have a stake in its development.”
If the Chinese are deferring to and succeeding at the highest levels of global architectural taste, that’s one more way they’re acceding to the liberal global order. If today they are applauded by foreigners for daring to build world-class masterworks, mightn’t that increase the chances that tomorrow they’ll seek our approval by loosing the muzzle on domestic dissent?
The regime is still Orwellian, but not, of course, monolithic, and Ole Scheeren argues that oma’s work in China is strengthening the hand of the more enlightened, progressive members of the elite. “There was a faction in CCTV pushing for more democracy” and modernity. “That was an important argument in convincing ourselves to engage.
A thirtysomething Chinese professional woman who has lived in London (and sometimes drives around Beijing in her mother’s Mercedes) told me that the Koolhaas building’s extravagant form represents a big break in the public self-image of the Chinese establishment. “Some people,” she says, “think the CCTV building is too groovy for CCTV.” (Yes, she used “groovy” in the contemporary quasi-ironic fashion.) But Scheeren and Koolhaas say that the most radical and challenging aspect of their scheme is not the way it looks. The design feature that gave the clients serious pause is the interior openness: a public circuit extends through the whole loop of the building and consumes a quarter of the total floor area. Civilians will be able to wander more or less at will, peering into broadcasting studios 24-7. “It’s a good thing,” Koolhaas says, “to introduce public access to this institution at the heart of the Chinese establishment.”
If CCTV and the other new buildings are tacit commemorations of the dizzying last three decades of progress, then maybe the particulars of the current architectural moment—hugely unorthodox designs by foreigners—will encourage China’s leaders to continue taking big risks in the interest of making, uh, great leaps forward. Or so it’s possible to hope.
The managers of CCTV were “willing to stick their necks out” and approve oma’s groundbreaking design, Koolhaas thinks, for the same basic reason other Chinese clients are hiring international artiste architects and giving them their heads: “It’s the ages of the decision-makers. In the U.S. and Europe, the typical age of decision-makers for public institutions, it’s 50 to 70. Here, it’s 30 or 35, people at the beginning of life. They have a sense of adventure.”
And in the Chinese system, given its undemocratic nature, once the relevant enlightened despots embrace modernity, growth, and the cutting edge, the everybody-has-an-opinion accountability of Western societies isn’t there to peck visionary schemes to death. With China’s annual economic growth rate of 10 percent or more, three or four times that of the U.S., everything has to keep moving. There’s simply not the time for too much second-guessing of how a building ought to look; each realm is the province of its own experts, and architects are experts, so go build.
China is at that sweet spot in development when labor costs are still low but real-estate prices and technical and aesthetic standards have risen relatively high. Construction of the CCTV complex, for instance, is running about $130 a square foot, a third of what it costs to build an ordinary skyscraper in the U.S.—and about a ninth of the square-foot cost of New York’s Freedom Tower.
If contemporary Beijing is like New York City a century ago, it couldn’t be more different from New York now. Consider Ground Zero. In 2002, Koolhaas declined to enter the competition to plan and design the new buildings to be built on the World Trade Center site—he chose to go for CCTV instead. Today, the 16 acres in Lower Manhattan are still a hole in the ground, with the foundation for a single building barely laid, no compelling vision for what will be built, and the whole process still sputtering along fractiously and inconclusively. The three other high-profile multi-billion-dollar projects pending in New York—Moynihan Station, the West Side rail-yard high-rises, and Gehry’s Atlantic Yards project, in Brooklyn—are struggling to stay alive. Since 2001 in Beijing, meanwhile, Terminal 3, CCTV, the Linked Hybrid, and the Olympics venues have all been designed, commissioned, and built. It’ll be up to our children’s generation to decide if this is—was—the beginning of the Chinese Century. But on the ground in Beijing, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.
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