While Flickr-surfing, I stumbled upon some recent photos of OMA's CCTV building, currently under construction in Beijing. I've been meaning to write a bit about the project since seeing last winter's small MoMA show on its construction, as I see its construction and eventual completion as an important moment for contemporary architecture. While I do think it's a bit premature for a project that isn't yet half-built to merit a show at the Modern, I must say that this project nonetheless stands to be one of the most significant architectural accomplishments in a generation. It will certainly solidify Rem Koolhaas and his OMA as the most effective architectural enterprise in terms of shepherding a design from concept to completion. And while there are definite ethical and political questions that are—and should be—raised when a firm like OMA takes a job like this for a client like CCTV in a country like China, I am [almost] convinced that the project's architectural merits will ultimately outweigh these concerns.
The sheer magnitude of the project is astounding. The foundation and base of the structure required the longest concrete pour in history, and this project has single-handedly spiked the global price of steel. What impresses most, though, is not necessarily its height or overall footprint, but rather the immense logistical and programmatic complexity involved in its realization. The project truly, once and for all, validates Koolhaas's "Bigness" manifesto include in 1995's S,M,L,XL, in which he theorized an architecture "beyond a certain scale" that would have the "potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility." His claim that "only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields" seems now like a kind of preemptive manifesto for the CCTV project. If nothing else, the building's construction is a moment of remarkable—if fifteen years delayed—consistency between theory and practice.
I do have some reservations, though, before I embark on some sort of Paul Goldberger-esque eruption of praise for Mr. Koolhaas and his Beijing exploits. It cannot go unmentioned that the client in this particular case is a state-owned media organization whose prime function, one could say, is to broadcast the official message of the Communist Party. It's a paradox, of course, that the state-owned media organization is a de facto extension of the Party apparatus intent on curbing freedoms of speech and press. This is all as thinly veiled as the symbolism of CCTV's logo: while its typeface echoes that of CNN and, by extension, the American mass media, the organization's acronym ominously and perhaps more significantly evokes the dark realities of a surveillance society. I'm sure none of these ethical dilemmas escape Koolhaas; indeed, this is precisely the kind of tension he relishes. A self-proclaimed proponent of "surfing the wave" of global capitalism, Koolhaas has time and again delineated a strategy of embracing dominant power structures, working within them, and attempting to effect some measure of change from the inside. Certainly this approach, like the Bigness business, represents a (post-Modernist) reaction against old-school avant-garde strategies of opposition and resistance. But one cannot help but wonder if Rem rushing into the arms of the Chinese government is nothing more than an opportunistic architect fishing for a big commission.
Still, I waver. The critique of Koolhaas for his so-called wave-surfing is well-deserved yet also overblown. It's important to recognize that Koolhaas—along with his partner Ole Scheren, whom I understand to be the main protagonist behind this particular project—really stands alone among his starchitect peers as the only one to really engage his architecture on a critical level. Unlike so many huge commissions that fixate on formal invention and structural acrobatics, I'd like to believe that OMA's architecture at least attempts to address or comment upon (if not quite solve) problems and challenges facing contemporary society. And for that, OMA deserves credit.
You've probably noticed the schizophrenia of this particular critical endeavor. It's indicative of a schizophrenia within the project itself, a tension between the acceptance of and resistance to the status quo. It is this dynamic tension which gives OMA's work the bite that is so rarely found these days, especially in high-profile commissions by big-name architects. One only hopes that once the project is done and the client moves in that this rhetorical bite translates into an operational metamorphosis that produces some kind of social or cultural improvement. Otherwise, what's the point?
As a final side note - I think the place where Koolhaas had his real fun with this project is actually not the looped CCTV building, but rather the adjacent TVCC. This structure programmatically seems more interesting, for two reasons. First, the high-rise hotel (Rem's first, I believe), with its enormous atrium carved out of the center, directly evokes the oeuvre of John Portman, a hero of Rem's, and no doubt a primary inspiration for his Bigness manifesto. The image above, which shows the atrium before the enclosure is built, could pass as any number of Portman hotels. Second, the base of the tower, which includes a kind of carnival of all sorts of public, cultural, entertainment, and performance programs clustered under a single, enormous, shed-like roof, proposes a densely packed, extremely interior urbanism—kind of like the IIT student center project on crack. Instead of an interior landscape of campus walkways linking different functions of a student center, the TVCC base is essentially an interiorized city of cultural monuments packed next to each other. Should be interesting.