Made In China

Project Description

Made In China

Published in A+U special edition, 2004
By Ole Scheeren

China Central Television
Television is relatively young in China – since the first broadcast in 1958, CCTV has developed rapidly and is today one of the largest television stations in the world with 15 self-produced channels. It has become an organisation of the superlative and is planning to broadcast more than 250 channels on completion of its new building…

CCTV is the voice of China, editing – and censoring – but also driving forward the transformation process and opening up of this country. On its path, it is carefully manoeuvring between change and retention of existing principles.

A young new generation in their early thirties and forties are taking increasingly charge of the company and pushing forward the process of modernization. The declared aim is to become the BBC of China, and the many publicly accessible functions of the new building program point towards a democratization of the institution. With the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, CCTV has set itself a deadline for the implementation of a multitude of changes – and for becoming the icon of a new contemporary China.

Designing a skyscraper today inevitably confronts the architect with a whole range of questions. Is it a typology that has become the ultimate tool of financial speculation, enslaved to economics and devoid of contents? Is it nothing more than the constant and monotonous repetition of a piece of land in vertical direction, whose only aim is the profitable multiplication of the value of the ground, and whose only means of expression are reduced to striving for absolute height and dominance of the skyline of a city? Is nothing left but the self-referential quality of a vertical line, which desperately seeks (to compensate for the lack of) identity, with a decorative top sprouting a flower, pagoda style or modernist composition? Is “the higher the better” all that remains?

The invention of skyscrapers about one hundred years ago in the United States was followed by an unstoppable spread towards the East. After the promise of surprising programmatic variety in its initial incarnations (Manhattan), the skyscraper became emptier and emptier – and was finally adopted by Asia as the ultimate symbol of its modernisation at the very moment of its conceptual implosion. About twenty-five years after the West had ultimately stopped thinking about the city and its needs (the last relevant book on urbanism was probably written in the late Seventies), the number of skyscrapers built in Asia recently surpassed that of the United States. It seems about time to no longer treat this typology as a commercial export product (and subject it to the apparently irrevocable laws of Central Business Districts as their ultimate model), but instead to re-think the skyscraper as a potential for new urban manifestations…

Participating in an effort that ‘dares’ and that is pushing forward towards a hopeful and glorious future is perhaps a more responsible task than working in the context of establishment and conservative order. At the same time, it raises many questions and has to be carefully looked at in conjunction with both a path (of the country), which is not without contradictions and obvious dangers, and an opportunism (of the architect), which surely requires critical questioning – or at least consideration.

How can one claim to understand a country that one travelled for the first time twelve years ago and in which one now has spent two and a half years living and working? Is it at all possible to know a country that is changing and developing with such breathtaking speed? I would like to mention just two of the many aspects, which to me appear relevant in conjunction with our work and understanding of this context:

The history of China embraces thousands of years of continuity, but also successions of radical transformations – dynasties, revolutions – and a fascinating ability to embrace change. It seems to be somewhat unburdened by a characteristic all too common in the West: regret. The western spirit has long practised sentimental and dramatic thoughts about the past – in contrast, China appears to have a willingness and ability to courageously face up to new situations and work enthusiastically towards an idea of progress – even if these radical changes imply the sometimes brutal erasure of past conditions. (In this sense, it is perhaps a truly “architectural” country, for architecture has always implied not only the aspect of building and creating, but also that of destruction and replacement.) However, an awareness of historic values and their preservation is growing and more and more frequently the question of how to deal with existing structures is raised. Not least due to new international attention, spurred by China’s entry in the WTO and the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the protection of the built fabric has suddenly become a subject of discussion. And there is no doubt that it is equally important to be involved not only in the modernization, but also in strategizing the preservation of parts of the city.

The presence of contradictions – or rather their apparently incompatible coexistence – is another aspect, which determines the specific situation in this country. The ability to see contrasts as a kind of belonging, as a whole without the reciprocal resolution of the individual parts, holds tremendous opportunities. The merging of socialist State control (and coherence) with the dynamics and productivity of the market economy – a mechanism that withdraws itself from our common methodology of analysis and assessment – suggests a potential alternative to the models of pure takeovers of Western systems previously adopted in socialist states.

Risks are inherent – central control paired with untamed financial dynamics – yet the emerging hybrid also creates new dimensions of visionary scope and quality.

A design like CCTV would be simply unthinkable in the economic and psychological straitjackets of the west – not only its fundamental ambitions, but also its programmatic functions would fail to find their coherent connection. Fragmented into individual parts and subject to laws of what seems financially and typologically “appropriate”, the production studios would be hidden in the inexpensive, industrial parts of town, administration and management be located in the skyscraper-dominated financial district, and the creative guys moved to the “hip” areas… and architecture would inevitably become an insulator between the different departments of the company. In a global society that is undeniably subject to an ever-increasing atomization of social realms and to an ongoing fragmentation of production processes, the sudden possibility of a return to concentration, proximity, and a sense of community as organisational form seems a challenging alternative…

The coexistence of all functions involved in the process of television-making in one single building allows administration and management, production studios and news departments, research and training divisions, technical areas and broadcasting centres to enter into a continuous dialogue – not only reminding all parts of each other’s existence, but clearly illustrating their mutual dependence: a system, in which the ‘heads know what the hands are doing’ – and vice versa. There are hierarchies – of managers and workers – but the building is not simply broken down into different sections, but a loop of communal circulation with associated social areas, canteens and meeting rooms exploits the shape of the building and promotes direct exchange and contact between the departments. The organisation is more continual than vertical: the top floors of the skyscraper – normally reserved for the board and leadership – are accessible to all employees in the ‘Staff Forum’.

It is not only the 10,000 people, which will work in this building – in their concentration, density and 24-hour activity – who turn CCTV into an organism with a range of specific characteristics. There are also structural, organisational and maybe even formal principles, which give this building the character of a living organism, differing in many ways from traditional architecture. Some kind of new utopia, partly social, partly constructive, reclaims ground from the seemingly rational territories of the global market economy… And it is a scale whose overwhelming size has reached a critical mass beyond the simple addition of its individual components: Bigness.

In the context of a media organisation such as CCTV, whose productions are omnipresent, yet virtual (television), and whose production processes will soon also be virtual (with digitisation leading to ever-increasing fragmentation and isolation – until the actual spatial environment becomes almost completely irrelevant), architecture suddenly assumes a new meaning: the symbolic manifestation of the place of (reality) production. While most existing television stations around the world tend to be mute buildings, with no relationship to place or public, CCTV will signify the presence of media and information – it will be a window looking out into the world and its façade will project a contemporary iconography to the city and its people…

For a project of this magnitude, it is not unusual to stir controversy – for letters to be written to the prime minister; for a Chinese Internet community with maybe 200,000 members to passionately discuss the pros and cons of the building; for a building of this scale to be a matter of politics rather than purely a question of architecture; for many rumours to abound concerning the future of the project… but also for many workers, thinkers and protagonists to uncompromisingly dedicate themselves to the project with every personal effort, to promote the argument, organisation and finally the realisation of this vision: When, shortly after the award of the competition, one of the world’s best known offices (said to be the Masters of the Skyscraper) tried to reverse the decision through their high-level political contacts and instigate a ‘coup’, the client’s project director went to his superior with his resignation letter in his hand.

In January, after a year of meticulous work and rigorous scrutiny, an expert panel of the country’s 13 most senior engineers formally approved the structural design and declared the project safe and feasible. And now, after the State Council’s final approval in early September, we have broken ground and started construction…