Burn After Building

by Bert de Muynck

From Art Forum

TVCC was never a very lucky building. The public counterpart to one of the most ingenious and brutal buildings constructed in this era—Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s China Central Television headquarters—it seemed always secondary. Since the start, first in the iconic digital rendering, and later in the actual photographs of the site, TVCC has been obscured, partially visible through the hole that is CCTV’s most famous feature, literally lying in the shadow of big brother. On Monday night, owing to a strange twist of fate and a couple of superpowered firecrackers, it came out of that shadow, if only by going up in flames.

Rem Koolhaas, Ole Scheeren, and Office for Metropolitan Architecture, TVCC (Television Cultural Center), 2009, Beijing. All photos by Bert de Muynck.

The real problem was that TVCC, which could have been built anywhere, had the misfortune of being located next to a building that could not have been built anywhere but in today’s Beijing. Few ever understood what the building actually was doing on the site; for every hundred words written about CCTV, one was written about TVCC. The building, which was to house a 1500-seat theater and a Mandarin Oriental hotel, always came across as an afterthought, a sloping sideshow to the cantilevered loop. Growing out of necessity rather than inspiration, the boot-like building was described as a form of “cake-tin architecture” proving that “charm can be generated on a big scale from heterogenous elements.” But for Koolhaas and OMA, it was where the genius of CCTV spun off into formula and even shtick. Even its name, which reverses the letters of the mothership and stands for “Television Cultural Center,” seemed a bit too predictably OMA in its linguistic play.

News of the strange and tragic fate of TVCC made its way around Beijing and the world last night, first by Twitter and SMS, then by blog and youtube and the Chinese video sites. CCTV, like all the state media, kept quiet on the story in anticipation of a party line, even as thousands of Beijingers turned the East Third Ring into a pedestrian promenade, their cameras registering every spark with a strange mix of disbelief and intrigue. Around them, fireworks exploded desperately as New Year revelers attempted to get one last shot off before the clock struck twelve and pyrotechnics were once again illegal after a two-week holiday. The moon was full. Celebrity bloggers in the crowd included Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (who long ago threw his hand in with OMA rival Herzog & de Meuron, working on the Olympic Stadium), as well real-estate magnate and SOHO China chairman Pan Shiyi (who must just have been glad not to be watching one of his own buildings burn).

The morning after, the whole area around the construction site was guarded by police. Crowds gathered at corners and on sidewalks, pointing their fingers, gesturing at how the fire fell through the roof. News that one fireman was killed fighting the blaze was released. Seven others were sent to the hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation. Walking around the area, one was immersed in a strange architectural experience, feeling something happening, but wondering exactly what. More fingers point to the façade. For a second one might have thought they had spotted an an audacious stuntman climbing the façade of CCTV. The armed police march their patrols, sidewalks are closed, traffic diverted. For all its devastation, human loss and years spent in negotiation over the construction of the building, its interiors, its management, for all of its tragedy, there is a strange beauty to the building as it stands now, like a burnt-out Olympic torch next to a glimmering ring. TVCC’s façade seems to be crying. It is bumpy and, finally, textured. Walking around it the morning after the fire, one could only wonder how long it will stand, and what its potential collapse might mean for architecture. Would this become a perverse Pruitt-Igoe, and thus a deflation of the modernist dreams CCTV has been said to re-embrace? Will the grassroots transmission and narration of the catastrophe stand more as proof of the clarity and empowerment of the people’s media—a phalanx of tweeters and bloggers and amateur videographers—above and beyond the state machine for whom OMA so controversially designed these buildings in the first place, and which for now still insists on a miniscule official press release and forbids photographs from running in the newspapers?

“PR Rotterdam” is the message I receive when I contact TVCC’s project architect asking who is talking about this unfortunate event. After that I ask him if anyone in Beijing can comment. A simple “No” follows. I stop my inquiry, look around, see the people discussing, clustering, stopping, registering, picking up cameras and binoculars. For the past few years I have been circling the area quite often, registering the progress, watching the demolition of its surrounding neighborhood. The exact date of the coming together of the two CCTV towers had been subject to such extreme secrecy that it seemed to happen occasionally, just over a year ago. No real proof seems to exist of that moment, save for the built proof that it happened. Today, I am seeing the proof that something else has happened, that architecture is vulnerable, subject to natural forces. It is a bizarre apotheosis of a two-week holiday, characterized mainly by relentless firework explosions in the winter air.

At the same I can only think about the “Fighting the Flames” spectacle Rem Koolhaas described in Delirious New York. “Fighting the Flames” was a daily event on New York’s Coney Island which consisted of burning the same city block over and over again. The block as actor. Koolhaas wrote, “The entire spectacle defines the dark side of Metropolis as an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it. Manhattan is the outcome of that perpetual neck-and-neck race.” Without any question CCTV has defined the dark spectacle of this Metropolis. But it was his little strange brother who didn’t possess the ability to avert the disaster and has thus paid the price for Beijing’s neck-and-neck race with architecture.

Bert de Muynck is a Beijing-based writer and architect, and co-director of MovingCities.

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