28 July 2004

Delerious Beijing

You’re a architect who finally has a chance to build a masterpiece. For years, you’ve built your reputation publishing your theories and experimental models. But now you have a chance to really build it right. You get a big budget and creative control — and no need to worry about urban planning, sustainability, accessibility, community input, or those annoying environmental impact assessments. Existing homes and residents in the way? Not a problem. And plenty of cheap labor, too — let the client take care of that union stuff. Yep, it’s finally your big, big chance.

Except, the client is a repressive government.

Via reluct.com, I found this interview with Rem Koolhaas at Icon magazine.

koolhaas_cctv.jpgRem seems to have a fine model going — mixing research, theory, and practice. But to design the center for state television in China? The chief propaganda outlet in a country that heavily censors its media? And imprisons and tortures its people for speaking out?

It sounds more like opportunism than constructive engagement.

Beijing is one of the densest cities in the world, and hundreds of thousands of people are being forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for new construction — much of it related to the 2008 Olympics. Developers literally send gangs of thugs into old neighborhoods to beat up elderly people and get them out. Risking arrest and prison, thousands of evicted families are protesting how they can: petitioning government officials, posting anonymously on the Internet, and in a last desperate effort, even setting themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square.

But Rem is not alone. Big name architects like Raimund Abraham, Zaha Hadid, Paul Andreu, Norman Foster, Michael Graves, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are also taking advantage of China’s construction boom.

Like much of the party leadership in the former Soviet Union, much of China’s ruling elite have a background in engineering, giving extra caché to massive projects like the three gorges dam and the space program.

From Time Magazine, May 2004:

“Detractors cite the $730 million CCTV project as the ultimate example of the Chinese regime’s tendency to plunder state coffers to glorify its own iron authority and say Koolhaas is an opportunist taking advantage of the country’s unique combination of state power and state capital to realize his own artistic ambitions. Ian Buruma, a writer who is a friend of Koolhaas, wondered aloud in the Guardian, a British newspaper, how the world would have reacted if an architect of Koolhaas’ stature had in the 1970s designed a TV station for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But Koolhaas, 59, who was one of the first Western architects to study and write about China’s urban explosion, revels in such intellectual tussles. CCTV, he insists, like the mainland itself, ‘is in mutation’ and the building represents an effort to complement the state-owned company’s desire to keep pace with the times. CCTV’s current headquarters is completely closed to the public. Koolhaas’ design, in contrast, includes a public ‘media park’ in and around the base of the building intended to foster more interaction between commissars and the masses. ‘We are engaged,’ he says, ‘with an effort to support within [China’s] current situation the forces that we think are progressive and well-intentioned... We’ve given them a building that will allow them to mutate.’”

Indeed, how people do mutate.