Beijing Buildings Go Bold for Games

Project Description

Beijing Buildings Go Bold for Games

by Mure Dickie, Dec 16, 2007 [View PDF]

Beijing buildings go bald for Games
But dramatic, new architectural structures that take headlines abroad are being criticised at home, writes Mure Dickie

In a carefully choreographed pre-dawn operation last weekend, the huge sloping twin towers of Beijing’s new CCTV building were bolted together to create what will eventually be a 70·metre long overhang at height of 160m.

It was, says architect-in-charge Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), a moment of “early-morning intimacy”, for the steel towers, which each weigh somewhere around 50,000 tonnes.

Critics, however, see little intimacy either in the new CCTV building or in the raft of other architectural behemoths taking shape across the Chinese capital ahead of next year’s Olympic Games.

Buildings such as CCTV, the newly completed titanium-domed National Centre for the Performing Arts, and Olympic venues such as the tangled-steel “Bird’s Nest” stadium designed by Swiss architects Herzog $ de Meuron are making headlines around the world.

But Yu Kongjian, professor of urban planning and landscape architecture at Peking University, says they set a bad example of wasteful construction in a resource-poor developing nation.

“They are really too much… It’s the wrong direction for China.” says Prof. Yu. He thinks the country needs to move towards a more restrained, ecologically oriented approach to architecture instead of creating a “dramatic, abnormal, Monumental landscape”.

Other Beijing residents have more prosaic complaints. “Nine out of 10 Chinese hate the CCTV building,” says a senior manager at state-owned flag carrier Air China. “It looks like it’s going to fall down.”

Such worries reflect in part the sheer audacity of many of the capital’s new architectural icons. The 160m-high overhang of the CCTV building is part of a design that Mr. Scheeren says could not have been achieved even five years ago.

The operation to link CCTV’s two legs highlighted the engineering challenges posed by its design. To avoid locking huge stresses into what is one of the world’s largest buildings, workers had quickly to bolt the towers together in the pre-draw chill when temperatures across the structure were at their most uniform.

The irregular steel frame of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium would also have been impossible without advanced computer modeling, according to Arup, the engineering design services company that has been working on many of Beijing’s highest profile projects.

The huge, free-standing dome of French architect Paul Andreu’s performing arts centre and its surrounding artificial lake and submerged entrance are also technical feats that worry local counterparts used to more conservative styles.

For Chinese leaders, approving such ambitious designs was a way to underscore their nation’s emergence as a modern and cosmopolitan power, a message that will be driven home when Beijing hosts the Olympic next August.

But Xiao Mo, a retired architecture researcher at the China Art Academy, says officials have gone too far in trying to impress next year’s visitors. “If guests come to see me it’s okay to clean up the house and get the kids to put some good clothes on, but I shouldn’t throw out my table and chairs, buy a new sofa and end up suffering money problems,” Mr. Xiao says.

Like other local architectural experts, he is upset that many of Beijing’s most striking new buildings are the creation of foreign designers, without any obviously “Chinese” features.

For some the structures are also emblems of the capital’s embrace of huge development projects forced through by an authoritarian government – and the attendant destruction of its traditional narrow lanes of single-storey courtyard houses.

But the new buildings are also winning supporters. Media commentary about Mr. Andreu’s performing arts centre was largely hostile before government censors clamped down on discussion of the project. But many visitors to the centre on Beijing’s arterial Chang’an Avenue appear pleased by its futuristic form.

“It’s very pretty, especially at night when the lights are on,” says Dong Yidong, a retired worker strolling around the structure on a recent afternoon. A newspaper vendor with a stall in the shadow of the CCTV building says: “People will probably learn to love it in time.”

Wu Huanjia, professor at the School of Architecture at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, says the CCTV building is a welcome symbol of China’s willingness to embrace change.

“Beijing is always changing, and that’s nothing to be afraid of.” Prof Wu says.