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Monuments without context

The ancient city's latest reinvention, fueled by the Olympic Games, mixes avant-garde design with authoritarian impulse.

August 03, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

BEIJING — Though it won't be finished for another year or so, the China Central Television headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is already a jaw-dropping sight. A giant Mobius strip of a skyscraper, CCTV consists of two leaning towers, each 51 stories high, connected by a pair of cantilevered arms. Its dark-glass exterior is wrapped in a net of steel webbing that thickens where the structure requires extra bracing and melts away where it needs less.

Stunt climbers may have been scaling Renzo Piano's New York Times tower in recent weeks, but CCTV does them one better. The building is itself a daredevil -- a massive contortionist, an elephant on a wire. Simply as an example of design prowess -- in the way it turns well-worn assumptions about skyscraper form almost literally inside out, and as a looming, sublime presence on the smoggy Beijing skyline -- the tower is a tour de force.

But what does its appeal say about the new Beijing, this once-sleepy, deeply historical capital city that has spent nearly a decade -- and a staggering $43 billion -- remaking itself in advance of the Summer Olympics? There the issue is murkier, fraught with questions about the relationship between design freedom and the political variety. New Beijing landmarks by Koolhaas and other famed Western architects, even as they may help pry open a closed society, also play a dramatic role as advertisements for the power and ubiquity of the state.

This was the surprise of my recent weeklong visit to Beijing. On earlier trips, I'd watched the dismaying, cancerous destruction of the city's tight-knit system of courtyard houses, linked by narrow alleyways called hutongs. (That destruction continues to spread, with the most dire predictions suggesting that as much as 90% of the hutong fabric, much of it more than six centuries old, will eventually be wiped out.) I'd spoken with local designers about how the decision to give so many prominent buildings of the Class of 2008 to Western architects sparked controversy and brought deep-seated Chinese fears about exploitation at the hands of foreigners back to the surface.

But I didn't anticipate that so many of the new architectural icons, for all the real daring of their engineering and form-making, would share such an imposing, old-fashioned brand of monumentality. Like nearly all capital cities, Beijing is full of somber and often grandiose tributes to state glory and former leaders, many grouped in and around Tiananmen Square. But its postwar housing and commercial architecture were often either bland or, in the case of the mirrored-glass office buildings with traditional Chinese roof decoration that sprouted along major boulevards in the 1980s and '90s, rather cartoonish.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Western architects and their party clients have extended the impressive, serious scale that was once reserved for government ministries and memorials to include, along with CCTV, stadiums custom-built for the Games, a new airport terminal by British architect Norman Foster and a national theater in the shape of a giant dome by France's Paul Andreu. The Beijing I visited this time around is a crossroads where avant-garde design meets autocratic taste -- where Rotterdam meets Stalingrad, with a touch of Brasilia thrown in for good measure.

Beijing has reinvented itself before, of course, most recently following the 1949 communist revolution, when Soviet advisors helped Chinese leaders replan the city, widening boulevards to suitably heroic scale and dropping smokestacks, those glorious symbols of industrial progress, into dense residential neighborhoods. And it has periodically gone about pulverizing its historical record as well.

But it has never been a center for innovation or experienced the kind of massive growth that it has in the last two decades, sending its outer edges sprawling endlessly in a pattern familiar to Southern Californians even as its Central Business District, home to CCTV and other bold towers, increasingly resembles dense, vertical Manhattan. When Deng Xiaoping famously opened China to market reforms nearly three decades ago, he made sure that economic experiments -- and new kinds of city-making -- happened in places distant from the capital. "Though economic reforms came from Beijing," Thomas J. Campanella writes in "The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World," "they were effectively field-tested far from the center of power."

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