Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Koolhaas, Bigness and Beijing

April 24th, 2012 · 1 Comment

The Master of Bigness by Martin Filler in the May 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books is well worth a look for two good reasons. One is the publication itself, the NYRB, which is always worth a look. Two, it’s a very good piece on Rem Koolhaas and his architectural team at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), who have invariably changed the face of Beijing, whether we like it or not, with the construction of the controversial CCTV Headquarters Building, the prime draw of the complex of OMA-designed buildings that dominate the east side of the Third Ring Road in the Central Business District (CBD). Scheduled to open sometime in 2012, it’s domination of the CBD will not be lost to the proposed construction of a few more handfuls of typical skyscrapers.

To understand Koolhaas’s conception of Bigness it is best to read his own words, a piece written in 1994 and aptly titled “Bigness,” published in Koolhaas’s and Bruce Mau’s doorstop book  S,M,L,XL. A copy of the essay can be found here. To distill it into a few words – even though the piece is not long – is not something that I’d attempt doing, though a snippet will give you some notion of where Koolhaas is going here:

The absence of a theory of Bigness–what is the maximum architecture can do?–is architecture’s most debilitating weakness. Without a theory of Bigness, architects are in the position of Frankenstein’s creators: instigators of a partly successful experiment whose results are running amok and are therefore discredited.

Because there is no theory of Bigness, we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know where to put it, we don’t know when to use it, we don’t know how to plan it. Big mistakes are our only connection to Bigness.

But in spite of its dumb name, Bigness is a theoretical domain at this fin de siecle: in a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility. Only through Bigness can architecture dissociate itself from the exhausted artistic/ideological movements of modernism and formalism to regain its instrumentality as vehicle of modernization.

Bigness recognizes that architecture as we know it is in difficulty, but it does not overcompensate through regurgitations of even more architecture. It proposes a new economy in which no longer “all is architecture,” but in which a strategic position is regained through retreat and concentration, yielding the rest of a contested territory to enemy forces.

It is worth noting again that this piece was written in 1994. What has become OMA’s boldest signature piece is the CCTV Headquarters Building,  the prime shaker in the trio of buildings that define the complex. The other two buildings are the TVCC, aka Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which spectacularly burned on February 9, 2009, and the Service Building, the low profile “central energy center” of the complex. Filler describes it thusly:

What is likely to remain Koolhaas’s most controversial commission is now nearing completion in Beijing: the 4.2-million-square-foot China Central Television Headquarters, begun in 2004 and now at least three years behind its original estimated occupancy date, with an estimated cost of more than $800 million. (A disastrous 2009 fire, which destroyed the OMA-designed hotel next to the giant structure, was largely responsible for the delay.)

The glass-and-metal-skinned Beijing behemoth is basically a pair of slightly inward-leaning L-shaped towers on two opposing corners of a vast square, and joined at the top by a breathtaking right-angled cantilevered overhang that imbues the composition with gravity-defying bravado. The horizontal and vertical elements interconnect in a continuous series of eight segments, a snakelike circulation system quite unlike that of any other office-and-broadcasting facility.

With a plethora of bizarre new architecture engulfing them, baffled Beijingers have devised a new architectural lexicon recalling the wry coinages long perfected by witty Berliners, who, for example, have dubbed the glass dome of Norman Foster’s Reichstag renovation of 1992–1999 die Käseglocke (the cheese cover). Thus the two-legged CCTV colossus has become colloquially known as da kucha(big pants crotch). In trying to preempt a sarcastic nickname of this sort, officials wanted to get locals to refer to the CCTV building as zhi chuan—knowledge window—a pretentious choice that backfired because of its close homophonic echo of zhi chuang—hemorrhoid.

But whatever moniker people adopt, one can predict that they will be beguiled by the highly unusual and equally controlled tourist route that is being built through the CCTV nerve center. Visitors will be able to navigate the premises in one nonstop loop while never disturbing day-to-day activities, a sure-fire public relations coup that will confer a bogus semblance of transparency on what of course is anything but an open operation.

What is not mentioned in this piece is the client, China Central Television (CCTV), the “enemy forces” to which Koolhaas, OMA and architecture must yield. While what goes on inside the building remains a mystery — interior changes that have been made to the original design remain shrouded in the ‘brand’ silence — one obvious external change that sticks out like the outsized head of a colossal roofing nail left unashamedly proud is the circular helo deck–the welded ill-fitting skullcap that dulls the impact of the symbolic threat of the work. The decision to plop it atop the structure is indicative of the client’s ignorance of what it really is they’ve purchased and have had built, as well as missing the point in how I imagine they would like to be perceived: they blunted their pummeling weapon! Their pseudo-imperial we’re-all-engineers-and-know-what’s-right arrogance is characteristic of official overbearing China, a ruling low class that elevates utility and cheapness above all other considerations. “We know what the Chinese people need, and what they need is a silly circular cap atop the unforgivingly rectilinear icon that hovers over their heads like some medieval weapon. It’s to mirror the shape of the sun. It’s feng shui. It’s a Kongzi cap. It’s what the Chairman, in all his waxen decrepitude, would have wanted if he’d lived this long. He still guides us.” They’ll say some such shit like this. And say it with a straight face. Lying, after all, is an art they’ve mastered.

The helm-boys just can’t NOT fuck up good space, and they’ve proven, without a doubt, that they’re champs at making bad cartoons. They’ve incompetently botched it all up. Beijing — nearly the entire city, and especially the concrete field of the Maoist monument to gigantism, Tian’anmen Square, with its fringe of pre-Legos block buildings (“We built the Great Hall of the People and those history/cultural things in ten months, and the Maosoleum in only six!” Really! … That long?!) — has been and continues to be an ongoing pillage. From September 30, 1949 — the day Mao “laid the foundation stone” for the Monument to the People’s Heroes — forward the Party has done their muscled best to uglify Beijing, capped by their macabre Olympian effort to turn the capital into a caricature of a real city once they scored the 2008 Games. Is this sort of incompetence an effect from a philistine pre-disposition for destruction? I don’t believe so. It’s just simple crass ignorance, unharnessed greed and a lack of any significant urban vision that drives them. It’s as if nearly every implemented decision has been made by a committee of urban illiterates who believe self-interest and foreign bank accounts will save them.

But it’s not as if there haven’t been people here fighting for a more consistent, respectful development of this great city, because there have been and the battle has been hard. Most of them, if not all, have essentially been, at best, blown off by those who’ve had no idea how much they didn’t/don’t know, by those who have lived and ruled by the diktat that the crudeness of political agendas draped in abstract ideals bereft of meaning always trumps good sense and aesthetic sensibility. Think of this whenever you’re stuck in traffic on the Second Ring Road, atop the old city walls that were torn down. The official greed and corruption that has driven Beijing’s most recent development has done it’s best to eviscerate a city and its history. Luckily for Beijing, the native Beijingers, a rowdy, expressive bunch, still give their city the flavor it so well deserves, even as so many of them have been and continue to be displaced to the fringes of the city, closer to Tianjin and Hebei province than they are to where they once lived. Those with the cash have taken the center, which is the recipe for disaster in China.

Though we have watched the anguished gutting of Beijing as urbanization continues to rock the population, we won’t know how much the original design of  the CCTV Building has been victimized by the ham-handed (and hame-headed) whims of key players within the Ministry of Truth. It looks as if we will find out, at least a bit, once the highly controlled public visitors loop is finally opened sometime later this year. We’ll probably be able to view about 1% of the total volume of the building, which is still a higher percentage than we glimpse of the machinations of the CPC. I guess we should be happy with just a peek.



Tags: architecture · Beijing · CCTV · CCTV fire · Koolhaas · photo

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 monnoo // Dec 5, 2012 at 10:21 am

    the text snippet from “Bigness” is strongly biased (Koolhaas refers to his Delirious New York as a source of the latent theory), and by means of the second quote it is just propaganda. The fact of the hammer does not blame its inventor for all the murdering that have been committed by using it as a tool for killing.
    The malicious interpretation provided by the text above is only acceptable as the modernist’s humiliation.
    A cure for this disease you may find in the architectural section of “the putnam program”.

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