Archiprix International Beijing

On Monday April 16 the opening of the Archiprix International exhibition took place in the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition Center. The crowd puller of the event was Ole Scheeren (OMA) who treated the big gathering of foreign architects to a lesson in CCTV for beginners. A report from our China correspondent.

When I visited the CCTV site in early October 2006, work had just started on the structure above ground. Hundreds of Chinese workers were busy on 18 hectare-site in the centre of Beijing’s Central Business District. Tension was high. Would OMA manage to finish the project in time for the Olympic Games in 2008? TVCC looked lost in one corner of the site. Now, five months later, two steel CCTV legs tower above the fences, and the covering on TVCC is going up.

China is the egg by Andreu, the nest by Herzog & de Meuron, the Ren proposal by BIG, the harbour by de Architekten Cie. and the Linked Hybrid by Steven Holl. At the same time, the West is desperately trying to set up an engaged dialogue with the Chinese architecture scene – examples of this can be seen in the IFOU conference (Delft-Tsinghua), DOMUSchina, Urban Body Workshop (TU Delft) and Archiprix International. In these exchanges The Netherlands is playing a leading role.

During the opening of the exhibition of the world’s best graduation projects, Mr Shi Nan (Urban Planning Society of China) spoke of the importance of exchange. After all, exchange teaches foreigners more about China and can contribute positively to China’s progress. Gerard Steeghs spoke on behalf of the Dutch embassy. He noted that architecture is the most important Dutch export product after windmills and Van Gogh, and he placed OMA on a par with successful Dutch export firms like Shell, Heineken and Unilever. Rem Koolhaas, he added, was the King of Cool and he proudly claimed that OMA, UN Studio and MVRDV are making a healthy contribution to the development of architecture in China.

Ole Scheeren presented the story of CCTV in a careful and dutiful manner. This led to the painful conclusion that OMA’s CCTV communication strategy has reached an awkward impasse. To make a long story short; the lecture was a mishmash of reflections plucked from the Great Leap Forward and Content. China, Beijing, the skyscraper and the role of the Chinese architect passed by uncritically. Scheeren described the form and organisation of CCTV as a response to the question what an Asian skyscraper should be, namely one that engages with the city in a new way. The building as such should express an engagement with a district where 300 skyscrapers are under construction over a period of twelve years, for a television broadcaster with 250 channels, for the 10,000 staff of CCTV and with 100,000 m2 of public programme.

The division of the initial programme into CCTV (400,000m2) and TVCC (75,000m2) was necessary to strengthen dialogue between both, and as such had the advantage to gather everything in a single building. The CCTV building houses all media studios, news studios and programme production, while TVCC houses a hotel, visitor centre, theatre and exhibition spaces. OMA’s ambition is to turn CCTV – the building that is, though maybe it also means the broadcasting organisation – into a media machine that is not structured in a hierarchical way but sets up a direct interaction between public and media. Scheeren emphasised the role of the collective in this endeavour so to give visitors and occupants the impression of being involved in the development of a new reality.

The lecture only became intersting when Scheeren explained the single element he still controlled: the CCTV façade. That can withstand all sorts of weather conditions. The Beijing air pollution is legendary, a thick blanket of cloud usually hovers over the city and the foggy air is full of tiny dust particles. It makes architecture look ugly, according to Scheeren. The CCTV façade therefore mocks the Gods: solid on the outside and transparent inside. As is the custom in China he finished up by listing some site statistics. The concrete for the foundations was delivered by 750 freight trucks, work continues 24/7, and somewhere between 5000 and 10,000 workers will have been involved in the construction, executing the schemes of 60 architects and 120 engineers. The building, emphasised Scheeren, is being shaped through collaboration between different cultures, and not just within the design team. Therefore OMA sees China no longer as an opportunity but as a place where it really can produce architecture for China and Asia, as the office’s recent projects in Shenzhen and Singapore prove.

Given the prominent position played by Ole Scheeren both within OMA and in the construction of CCTV, I was left feeling a little abandoned and empty by his promotional talk. I wonder who would be able to sketch a ‘genuine’ picture of the realisation of CCTV over recent years by taking us behind the scenes. What is the reality of the construction process in China, of dealings with the government, of the enforced collaboration between OMA and local architecture firm ECADI (East China Architecture & Design Institute Shanghai), or of the alterations and changes made to the design during the construction of CCTV and TVCC? That exchange is needed in order to understand the reality of the construction process in China.