Pointless Race for Height

Project Description

Pointless Race for Height

by Markus Miessen and Matthew Murphy, Jun, 2004 [View PDF]

Ole Scheeren, you are a partner of Rem Koolhaas and director of OMA. As partner in charge, you are running their biggest project to date, the China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV). How does the involvement with a project of such political scale influence your day-to-day life?

The involvement with this project has maybe generated a need to be more eloquent – to be clear about why we are doing this, and what we are participating in. It demands some kind of continuous justification, both in front of yourself, but also in front of others – many, especially western journalists raise the question if one should work in a country that still in no western-style democracy. So it becomes almost a question of political position. It is the choice to participate in a process of change and to support a country that is finding its way in a non-western framework and context. It is maybe the question of how to take some responsibility – even if architecturally – to symbolize such change and draft an idea of the future. And it also simply means spending a lot of time in Beijing and China.

We are interested in the history of the competition. There were rumors about SOM getting politically involved, claiming strong US interests in order to realize their scheme. Which were the preferred proposals and why do you think they were chosen?

The competition was actually a very stringently organized process. Great attention was given to the correct and transparent proceedings, and a partly international, partly Chinese jury assessed the entries from ten competitors around the world and selected three schemes – from ECADI (East China Architecture and Design Institute) based in Shanghai, from Toyo Ito, and ourselves as the winning proposals. The statement of the jury was very clear and nominated our proposal in first place, but a project of this scale obviously attracts attention of a particular scale in itself. So it is not too difficult to imagine certain interests being pushed behind the scenes by well – established firms and nations. I think we were actually quite naïve in terms of political context in that sense, but maybe rather totally committed and engaged. Both Rem and myself stayed for extended periods in Beijing after the competition, to communicate about the scheme, be present for the client and authorities, but also to immerse ourselves in the local situation and learn more about a city and place that had just chosen our design as part of their own future.

How did the client get involved in the design process? The development of the project seems to be exceptionally fast, so one is wondering if – on the political level – you might have been able to bypass particular policies or formal procedures such as conventional planning applications?

Because the project started as a competition, the client was involved in the architectural design process during the conceptual stage only by actually choosing our scheme from all the entries. But obviously after that, we went through a very intense process of analysis and refinement of the scheme in terms of its programmatic contents, and the optimized distribution and allocation of the broadcasting functions in the building. We regularly went to Beijing for workshops, about every month, and the client came many times to our offices in Rotterdam. In terms of approvals and planning procedures, we actually did not bypass anything, but went – like any other project – through all the required stages. If you look at the speed in which China actually produces architecture, the overall time frame doesn’t seem so exceptional – it is maybe more the building’s actual scale and complexity that make the project a real challenge. But as part of the approval procedures, we also had some delays, not so much because of particular issues, but more because the project became part of a nation-wide debate on large-scale projects and investments. With the changing political leadership a new consciousness vis-à-vis the country’s spending policies came about, and actions to slow the overheating economy. So many large projects funded by public money were being reassessed, for example also the Olympic projects. But CCTV received full government approval in the end, partly because it is directly funded by CCTV themselves: their advertising revenues of a single year actually cover the cost of the total construction…

…the CCTV scheme is the only project within the Central Business District (CBD) with government involvement. As a link between the government and the city it creates a new political and cultural framework. How did that influence the process of the project?

This link in some ways presents a challenge and an opportunity – it inscribes the state in the actual planning of the CBD, by means of a project that occupies a total site area of almost 20 hectares… Our design proposes to realize the project not as a merely corporate or representational entity, but to exploit its capacity as a contemporary media organization and as an active part of the city – almost in the sense of a public institution. The 600.000 square meters of program include more than 100.000 square meters of public functions, and beyond their architectural containment and articulation, we were looking for a way to render the entire site a somewhat public terrain. We proposed a landscape that, while allowing CCTV to maintain certain security concerns, would allow the people to enter and exploit the site. A large media park in the south-eastern part of the site extends the CBD’s central green axis and forms part of the public life of the city.

OMA has created an iconographic landmark. In OMA’s latest publication, CONTENT, one can find numerous statements concerning the ‘loop’. Realistically speaking, how does the urban proposal differ from conventional high-rise architecture and how does it challenge the latter? Did you try to be particularly Chinese?

I think the project contributes two important alternatives to high-rise architecture: one is its spatial configuration and qualities, the other its programmatic and maybe even social aspects. In contrast to the generic skyscraper, which is an expression of pure verticality – ultimately condemned to the pointless race for height – the building defines a space and engages with the city and other structures around it. It is not left to be a mere needle seeking to compensate for its lack of identity through decorative facades or additions to the top in the shape of a pagoda, a flower, or a modernist composition. It is the shape of the building itself, and its functional configuration, that defines its identity. It is the loop, the continuous circuit of all functions of television-making, that both represents and expresses the unity of the media company, but ultimately also allows it to operate as a holistic system in which ‘brains know what the hands are doing’ and vice versa. It is a building that unites the normally dispersed departments of a media company and that orchestrates difference within itself. It is not a purely commercial exploitation of a piece of land, multiplied vertically, in repeating and undefined floor plates, but the loop is a specific connection of studios to administration, news to broadcasting, research and training, and allows all staff to gather in multiple parts of building. What is maybe Chinese about it is this sense of socially integrated structure, to some extent non-hierarchical, that bears aspects of the idea of the collective. This is obviously an ambition, but an ambition we are now working on for more than two and a half years in an incredibly intense process together with the client and our Chinese collaborators… One might think that this is an ideal that belongs to a political system of the past, but I think it is maybe part of an actual future.

In a project of that size, one wonders if conventional project experience is helpful or not. If one does not benefit from standard practice, how do you generate new working methodologies?

It is true that this project has demanded a rethinking of many aspects of the work and the working method. Its complexity lies not only in its sheer size, but also in a combination of that with a cultural ambition, an explicit dialogue between two cultures, and its specific technical propositions. The way in which architecture and engineering merge into an almost inseparable tandem is also part of this. The structure is probably the most precisely engineered building to date, and it would have not been possible to compute the performance-based analysis even a few years earlier. But to be engaged in building in a country and cultural context that changes with such radical speed, and that at the same time dares such enormous undertakings, is probably the main issue. It implies a combination of instability, novelty and demand that can no longer assume a stable and predictable working process. While experience remains a core concern, it here needs to be sided by an equally strong sense of intuition, and a continuous process of relearning. It is something like an ongong re-evaluation of all previous assumptions, recalibrating the proportional influences of all aspects – technical, political, economical, cultural – to adjust to an environment that at this point actually nobody really ‘ knows’. It can only be realized through an uncompromised commitment, from both sides. Our team of architects is more than sixty people strong, and the number of specialist engineers exceeds one hundred. The logistics of coordinating a single design team of this size across many countries and continents have required a both strict but also flexible organizational structure. But it is maybe already the scale of the project alone that demands to rethink architecture itself under a different aspect: not as design, but as what you don’t design, what is actually more an issue of planning than actual design. You have to accept that not all parts and pieces can be entirely predicted, but to develop strategies and guidelines within which actual conditions and future needs can be developed and accommodated. A building of this scale will never be a stable or ‘finished’ entity in itself –  some parts will most probably undergo modifications before the entire piece is even completed.

In the context of the Olympics, China is opening up and the CCTV project is part and parcel of this process. When the whole world will look at China, what will they see?

China’s path is in itself not linear and predictable, it explores new grounds within its hybrid formation between state-controlled coherence and dynamic economical enterprise that are hard to predict or even just evaluate from our own perspective. Its membership in the WTO, as well as becoming the host for the Olympic games in Beijing, has certainly propelled a development that embraces more and more openness and transparency – at the same time many serious issues remain. But there is a dedication to this process of modernization and a young new generation is starting to occupy the most crucial positions across the country. Right below the surface of the old political leadership, it has clearly identified goals and drives many of the actual changes within the system. It is this group of people that maybe carries the biggest stake in China’s future at this point, and it is also the people that we are working with for the CCTV project. But one shouldn’t forget that there has also been a shift in the actual leadership of the country, and a new political and also social agenda has already started to affect the development of many aspects – including architecture.

Ole Scheeren is partner and director of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam and is partner in charge (with Rem Koolhaas) of OMA’s biggest project to date: China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and Television Cultural Centre (TVCC) in Beijing. He has been leading many other projects at OMA, such as the Prada stores and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as being involved independently in various art projects and exhibitions, including Cities on the Move, London and Bangkok, Media City, Seoul, and the Rotterdam Film Festival. He writes and lectures regularly.