When we watched in awe as TVCC, a Rem Koolhaas-designed hotel, went up in flames a month ago -- apparently the work of an errant firework -- Beijingers weren't just watching one of the most spectacular building infernos in recent history, a disaster that cost a firefighter's life, millions of dollars in damages, and perhaps sky-high pollution levels. It was also easy to see it as a vivid omen -- as auspicious a symbol of China's coming year as the Olympic flame was of its triumphant ascendence to the world stage last year.
But to pick up a theme that's becoming popular these days, what if this pyre of economic and architectural ambition were actually fertile ground for rethinking how cities grow, in China and elsewhere?Stunning statistics about China's urban growth have become as familiar as they are difficult to comprehend. The country has built twenty new cities a year for the past two decades. According to one Chinese expert, while it took Britain 120 years, the US 80 years, and Japan more than 30 years to grow from 18% to 40% urbanization, it has taken China just 22 years. As Koolhaas noted in Content:
Statistically, the Chinese architect is already the most important in the world: (s)he will build the most. Burdened by speed and obligation, without the intellectual infrastructure to rethink the project of modernity, (s)he is in an impossible situation — changing the world without a blueprint.
Few symbols of that rapid change are as obvious as Koolhaas' own new headquarters for China Central Television, of which TVCC is a part.
While it is tempting to discount projects like CCTV as a kind of architectural provocation, I don't think Koolhaas and his brethren are a cynical bunch. Quite the contrary, Koolhaas sees the CCTV as a radical approach not just to high-rise architecture but to using architecture to introduce more openness into the state's apparatus.
Similarly, on an urbanism level, the building has been posed as a Utopian intervention, a small city onto itself that encourages a hierarchy-flattening "culture of congestion" -- one of Koolhaas's urban criterion par excellence -- and offers a freaky new scale and shape that could rewrite ideas of public space and communication.
Early on, Koolhaas defended the project before critics at Tsinghua University. As he later wrote, "A pact between the two sides — a coalition of the unwilling — could easily close a possibility that had just been opened. A refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense could foreclose China's architectural potential."
But Beijing already has a great source for architectural potential, a template for healthy congestion and a vibrant urban texture. It's written in the 500-year-old hutong, the labrynthine alleyways that still course through much of the center of Beijing.
Whether the template needs to be written or not, the hutong is fast being erased to make way for super-buildings like CCTV. As a result, "the city has gained glamour and glitz; it has also lost its soul," writes Thomas Campenella, a professor of urban planning and author of an excellent book on China's urban growth, The Concrete Dragon, at Obit Mag.
From the start, Koolhaas himself recognized the importance of the hutong to the city's urban fabric, and touted the CCTV project alongside a "preservation" plan for the area. Eventually the idea fell by the wayside, the victim as much of
Mike Meyer, author of the The Last Days of Old Beijing, a wonderful paean to the city and its hutong, recently found an opportunity to defend this endangered urban form: Hilary Clinton's February visit to China. The woman who argued that it takes a village to raise a child might well recognize similar socially-enriching aspects in the hutong -- aspects that have been lost to large-scale housing complexes, wide streets and imposing architecture everywhere, and especially in Beijing. Writes Meyer at NY Times' Room for Debate,
To rationalize their destruction, city officials call these neighborhoods slums. They are not. As blighted as their single-story courtyard homes may be — most lack central heat and toilets — the hutong do not cause pathologies, but instead foster the type of civic life absent in Beijing's high-rise apartments, partitioned by security guards, fences, multilock doors and a lack of public space.
Clinton's interest in fostering better dialogue over energy efficiency and sustainable development in China and the US is clear. Why not seek a discussion on sustainable urbanism too? That could be a chance for the US to share valuable lessons from a century of city building at a time when China needs it, and an opportunity for us to learn new tricks too. Meyer continues:
Planners and officials here often insist, with rightful indignation, that "we have every right to make the same development mistakes that America did."
Mrs. Clinton could correct that perception with a visit to the hutong the way her husband galvanized AIDS awareness when he hugged an H.I.V.-positive girl at a Beijing speech in 2003. Photos of that encounter still circulate, and AIDS prevention is one of the few positive issues that link Sino-American exchanges. Smart growth could be another. By placing the same importance on development as the countries apply to trade and security, China can learn from the United States' planning mistakes, while also showcasing its huge investment in national infrastructure — airport expansions, bridge-building, high-speed rail projects
Rethinking how we all design buildings for and in cities -- I mean architects, planners, officials, citizens and developers -- is an especially valuable enterprise now considering the global pause in construction, which has given us a chance to stop and reflect on some wild projects (hello again, Rem). And its a good time too given all the stimulus package money going into new infrastructure in China, the US, and elsewhere.
Owing to its sheer size and its owner, China's TV propaganda maker, the CCTV headquarters is an easy target in discussions about the health of Beijing's development. But this building is only one of thousands rising across China that turn their backs on good ideas like the hutong in favor of sensational steel and glass. No matter how cool object buildings can be, their relevance to the city at large in China is dubious at best. Whether the CCTV building will be able to make good on its commitment to openness, to public space, to an improvement of the urban fabric around it, will be determined when it opens late this year.
For now, the fire at the headquarters can be read in many ways, as many different symbols. Perhaps the most productive one, and one that Rem Koolhaas might well appreciate, is the blaze's reminder that our attempts to dazzle the city with new architecture must also cope with the city's own dazzling realities.
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