Absurdity, Allegory and China

The Kingdom from another angle.

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A Year and an Hour On

August 11th, 2009 · No Comments

Two photos of the CCTV project

A few years ago we spent several weeks in Tuscany, mostly and delightfully in Florence, with several days in Orvieto and a week in Cortona. We returned to Florence for our flight back to Paris, and unfortunately were booked on Meridiana Airlines and spent more time in Florence than we had initially planned, which included being accidentally front and center in a near-riot when the plane was inexplicably canceled “due to weather” on a bright, sunny afternoon when our flight seemed to be the only one affected by the inclemency. Flying into Florence from Amsterdam on Meridiana, my Bose headphones and I were deemed imminent threats to the safety of the airplane by a pair of very pretty attendants, a male and female, which made for an unpleasant evening hop across the Alps. (If this carrier is still in business, I recommend that you avoid them at all costs. We booked them again later in the year, and had an even worse experience as we were bussed through a snowstorm to Pisa while other Meridiana planes to Paris departed from Florence. For a darkly humorous piece on Alitalia Airlines have a look here. Nearly everything that happened to Mr. Totten w/Alitalia, happened to us with Meridiana. If you have plans to fly to Italy, pay the extra money and go with a carrier that is not Italian. Both of our main carriers from Beijing to Europe were international carriers – KLM and Air France – but the connecting flights to Florence were with the the worst airline I have ever experienced.) In our final day in Florence – the inevitable “we’ve got to get gifts to take back to China” last minute – we wandered into a small tourist shop not far from the Duomo where we met a woman who spoke a bit of English. She asked us where we were from, and when she learned we lived in China it was as if we’d tapped a charged vein of high-pressure bile. She tried to find the right English words, though it was a bit of a stumble, until finally she said, “They never die! They never die!” and then launched into a bilingual diatribe about how the Chinese who had come to Italy were taking away jobs, setting up illegal small factories, packing them illegally full of relatives and cheap labor while undercutting traditional manufacturers. Italians were losing jobs. She also explained that when a Chinese person with official Italian documentation passed away, the deceased somehow lived on, the documentation passed on to someone else, ergo her sarcastic comment about Chinese immortality. The comment that “they never die” stuck with me, as both a dark anecdote and a deeper EU warning.

I visited Beijing this past weekend, which happened to be the first anniversary of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I wanted to get some photos of the CCTV project, since I’d done the same in the early morning hours of last August 8th (2008), and had spent the night of August 7/8, 2007 wandering the muggy streets of Beijing taking photos for One Night In Beijing, a photographic project documenting Beijing one year before the opening of the Olympics. Though I did not get any shots of the CCTV Bldg in August 2007, this year the date called me back again, albeit with a bit less enthusiasm than the previous two years. Curiously, both mornings (2008 and 2009) started out fairly grim – wrapped in a heavy humid haze – though this year it remained a color-bleeding wash for the remainder of the day, whereas last year’s air was clearer even though it remained hot and humid well into the evening – who can forget the clutch of world leaders dreaming of the least sultry breeze last year as they mopped their brows during the Olympic opening spectacle, especially Alexander Putin who the whole world watched as he began a conduction of a five-day war with Georgia from his hot seat in the Zhang Yimou de Bird’s Nest.

We watched the show from a flat near Guomao, and were fooled into looking north/northwest out the window when the television (CCTV, of course) cued us to the fireworks ripping in a highly choreographed pattern through that other part of the city. I assumed we didn’t spot them because we were too far away, not knowing at that moment that it was Flashed for TV viewing, producing a faux “live event” much like CCTV does the news.

What better way to start the first anniversary of the Olympics than a slow circumambulation of the CCTV project site, which now sports a hulking charred mass that looks more like the Olympic Torch than the intended Mandarin Oriental Hotel. (Last year before the Olympics opened I had jokingly speculated that the main leaning wedge-headed building was actually an Olympic Torch stand. Little did I know that I was a half-year and couple meters off.) I would love to know what’s going on behind the scenes where there are, no doubt, highly charged meetings between insurers, Mandarin Oriental, CCTV and whoever else took it deep in their pockets. The tight security around the fiery story and the future of the rusting hulk eclipses the safety measures that were obviously not in place on the evening of February 9, 2008 2009 when CCTV fired up their very own building and became for a short time, literally, the major polluter in China.

Of course, there are rumors and rumors of rumors, but, unsurprisingly, there is no real news. But there is the TVCC building, sorely standing charred and rusting in the gray Beijing summer haze. The last I heard was that Rem Koolhaas claimed that the post-fire building is structurally sound and will continue on, albeit as a renovation project. And the only other bit of news was that the opening of the wedge-head has been postponed until October 2010, perhaps shooting for the grand opening to coincide with the 61st anniversary of Liberation, rather than the intended and more fortuitous 60th birthday party, which will happen in 50 days (October 1, 2009). I don’t think that we can expect any official fireworks displays in the Central Business District (CBD) on Shi Yi, though I would like to see another digital display projected onto the window-clad rectilinear monster club. I assume they can somehow blot out the helipadded beanie, though, then again, perhaps they won’t see the need to. It is, after all, their building, and they’ve paid more than three times the original budget, with a current conservative price tag running more than 20 billion yuan, hardly the original 7.6 billion that had people in delirious trembles earlier in the decade.

The first time I posted concerning the CCTV HQ complex (January 1, 2008) I referred to this project as a joke, not meant as a blow-off of inadequacy, but rather as a real (though dark) joke: one with an origin and a plan, a hooklineandsinker to be swallowed, and an intended victim as the target of the punchline, even though I wasn’t sure whose name was on the joke.

I … understand[ing] this structure more as a joke. A good joke, no doubt, and a well-engineered one, too, but it’s hard to figure out whose joke it is. Is it OMA’s on China, China’s on OMA, or China and OMA’s on the world? At any moment of any day I can choose any one of the above, as long I am comfortable with accepting that it is, in fact, a joke. And I seem to be coming around more to understanding it not as just another joke, but as the next Joke, the one that will never muddle and sputter into cliché, unless, of course, it falls down and takes out the flyover at Guanghua Lu, which could be phenomenally disastrous if it happened during any of the stuttered and extending rush hours.

The essence of a joke is in the beauty of the telling, and someone has told a beauty here. But does anyone get it? The problem is it can’t be gotten until someone claims it as their joke, which will then, once and for all, set the true tone and punch of it, let us know who the butt really is. But determining ownership of the really big jokes, especially the ones that cost big money in countries that try their best to wish away hundreds of millions of their disenfranchised comrades, is tricky Business indeed.

It has now become an even bigger joke, one that has become even more obviously literal and less metaphoric than even I could have ever imagined. The deeper question that needs to be asked is when does a joke stop being a joke and morph into low-browed cliché? Obviously in this case the decline began on February 9, 2009, the night the TVCC went up in spectacular fire and smoke. But each day it sits idle and rusting is another day that Beijing continues to poke itself in its eye with their very own thing that won’t die.

There is continuing chatter that the building cannot come down, that it is a counterbalance and, therefore, inexorably joined at the hip to its big and very leaning brother. I continue to have no opinion on this. If, in fact it is, I can imagine that the structural integrity of the TVCC, as Koolhaas claims (I do have an opinion on this: I think he’s probably right!), will be the deciding factor to grow this thing into something other than a hotel, since customers will be hard to come by after such a sensational and well-documented fire. I imagine it could be a very fun bungee jumping venue, a wild elastic ride among the counterweights.


What a difference a year makes. I saw no point in shooting color, so I chose, as I so often do, to go black-and-white to photograph the joke that just can’t seem to ever die even as it proves itself to be a horribly bad joke. Perhaps somewhere someone is knitting a large red robe.

Below are two photos, one on the morning of August 8, 2008 and the other, last Saturday morning, August 8, 2009, taken from nearly the same spot beneath the Chaoyang Lu flyover of the East Third Ring Rd. (click photos for larger version)

CCTV HQ complex, August 8, 2008, 6:58 AM

CCTV HQ complex, August 8, 2008, 6:58 AM

CCTV HQ complex, August 8, 2009 7:56 AM

CCTV HQ complex, August 8, 2009 7:56 AM

In my early morning walk-around the most obvious lack was the acreage of barren billboards along the East Third Ring frontage road, as well as along the high billboarded wall on Guanghua Lu (which is currently plowed up for construction and a place to be avoided by all, even walkers, especially after a rain). Apparently the political advert space has been bare for quite a while now. In the lead-up to the Sixtieth I imagine that they will soon be covered with the latest message from command central. Any guesses? Waiting with smog-choked breath.

More photos here.



For more on the CCTV HQ continuing saga see Joel Martinsen’s post at Danwei on a small fire on the roof of the main building, as well as a local protest over relocation compensation issues by those in the building beside the TVCC, shown in the photo above.

Tags: architecture · Beijing · billboards · CCTV · CCTV fire · Koolhaas · Olympics · TVCC

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