China puts Twist on traditional Skyscraper

Project Description

China puts Twist on traditional Skyscraper

by Calum Macleod, Jan 16, 2008 [View PDF]

BEIJING — As Beijing races to radically redesign its skyline for the summer Olympics, one of the most striking new structures is the headquarters for China’s national TV broadcaster. It’s billed as the second-largest office building on Earth — second only to the Pentagon.

China Central Television (CCTV), the venerable voice of the communist government, will occupy one of the world’s most cutting-edge buildings.

Last month, CCTV celebrated the formal joining — or “shaking hands” — of the two leaning legs of the building that have defied gravity for the past three years of construction, and critics for far longer.

At 54 stories tall, the more than $600 million headquarters is far from setting a record for height. The Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan holds that title with 101 stories until the Burj Dubai skyscraper in the United Arab Emirates is completed with more than 160 stories and snatches it next year.

“You can only lose that race,” says Ole Scheeren, the German architect-in-charge of the new CCTV headquarters. Instead, Scheeren, a partner with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, says they reinvented the traditional skyscraper by turning it into “a tube folded in space.”

The structure “breaks every single building code in China,” a beaming Scheeren says, but still won the official go-ahead for construction. “The approval authorities were not able to judge if it could function, so the government formed an expert group of the 13 most senior structural engineers — the people who wrote the codes!”

The green light came in 2004, one of several high-profile victories for the Western architects who have turned China’s capital into a playground of experimentation.

Scheeren says the CCTV headquarters, when complete, will be “the second-biggest office building in the world after the Pentagon, in terms of useable floor area.”

Despite repeated protests by local architects, huge, asymmetrical designs of glass and steel by Koolhaas’ Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and others have been plopped amid Beijing’s Stalinist government buildings and the golden-tiled imperial city.

City makeover

Winning the Olympics has spurred Beijing into spending $4 billion on stadiums and improvements to the airport and subway, more than double what Greece spent on the Athens Olympics in 2004. The massive makeover magnifies one of Beijing’s headaches — dust from hundreds of construction sites adds to the chronic air pollution.

In 2007, Beijing’s new look included the opening of the space-age “Eggshell,” the French-designed National Theater just off Tiananmen Square.

Olympic projects nearing completion include the “Bird’s Nest” and “Water Cube,” nicknames for the Swiss designed main stadium and the Australian-designed swimming center. In August, visitors will fly into the swooping new terminal at Beijing Capital Airport designed by British architect Norman Foster.

The CCTV building is the one that will “blow the minds” of American visitors to the Olympics, says site project manager David Howell of San Francisco.

The 10,000 people who will work there won’t move in until Oct. 1, 2009, to coincide with the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic of China.

“There are many new projects coming on line in Beijing, and each has an exciting concept, but this one has more power,” says Howell of the U.S. firm Turner International. “It has generated a lot of conversation, which is good for architecture.”

CCTV’s costly new home kicked up protests from several Chinese architects and divided opinions among ordinary Beijingers. The design “is a fundamental mistake. It’s too strange, does not suit Chinese perceptions of beauty and makes people uncomfortable because it is not straight,” says leading critic Xiao Mo, an architectural historian.

Xiao says foreign architects don’t understand China’s complex culture, while native architects lack sufficient confidence in their own culture. The result is free-form projects such as the CCTV building and the “Eggshell” — two “strange and shocking designs” that are “stains on Chinese history,” Xiao says.

Howell acknowledges the negative local reaction. “Over time, things soften. It will be embraced by the Chinese,” he predicts.

Vertiginous views

On the bridge where the two leaning legs of the office building meet, an additional 11 stories will go up, with nothing but the Beijing smog below. People with vertigo should avoid the glass floor Scheeren plans for the viewing deck 525 feet above the city’s bustling Central Business District.

“I wanted views both horizontally and vertically,” Scheeren says. “Being 30 meters (99 feet) up feels more frightening, but at this height, it’s so abstract that I find it calming,” he says.

Laborer Tian Yanping, one of numerous workers in China’s building boom, says the height doesn’t bother him. On the structure’s overhang, Tian, a migrant worker from Henan province, says he is “very proud” to have risen with the project, floor by floor. He says the salary of $275 per month, typical for migrant laborers, is “OK” for the risks of working on the skyscraper.

China’s construction industry is a major contributor to the more than 100,000 deaths in the country last year from workplace accidents, according to the State Administration of Work Safety. There have been no casualties to date at the CCTV building, Scheeren says.

Scheeren hopes the “new symbolism” of his building will inspire change in a society obsessed with symbols.

The design will have CCTV employees working together in a “loop of interconnected activities,” while the senior management’s offices will be “somewhere in the middle,” not at the top, as “we are deconstructing the classical hierarchical system,” Scheeren says.

“I couldn’t imagine it going up anywhere else,” the architect says. China is a “combination of willpower, enthusiasm and courage that could not converge similarly anywhere else in the world.”