Fire guts part of a Beijing Olympics icon

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One section of the strikingly photogenic Beijing tower for the Chinese state broadcast network, CCTV, erupted in flames today -- Monday evening in China -- on the last night of celebrations marking the Lunar New Year.

The fire struck not the main, torquing CCTV tower, but an adjacent shorter structure, in which a 241-room Mandarin Oriental Hotel was due to open later this year. The entire complex, still under construction, was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and was a star of television coverage of August’s Beijing Olympics.


Although the larger tower was luckily spared, this is no minor loss.

The architectural composition of the complex as a whole -- which I toured with Scheeren over the summer, and which I argued in a year-end piece ‘already ranks as the most significant piece of architecture of our young century’ -- depends on the shorter hotel tower, which is known as TVCC. It is the hotel, in fact, that helps give the main tower its strange, shifting sense of scale. From certain angles the smaller section -- no shrimp itself at 34 stories tall -- looks like the tail of the big tower’s dragon, from others like a fleeing creature about to be devoured by the CCTV’s gaping mouth.

For the blogger Geoff Manaugh, images of the fire mean only one thing: The boom is over. Potent symbolism aside, though, I’d be very surprised if the hotel weren’t instantly rebuilt. The Chinese leadership has understood the graphic power of the CCTV complex -- the way it suggests a modern, ambitious and innovative new China -- from the earliest stages, and it seems highly unlikely it would allow the charred remains of the hotel to stand for any extended period. This is particularly true given Chinese sensitivity around the idea that its economy is rapidly losing steam.

So there’s likely to be no drawn-out, painstaking investigation of the wreckage by some Chinese version of the FBI or ATF. As soon as the last ember is out, I’d guess, the bulldozers will be clearing the site to begin again. Even in a global slowdown -- perhaps especially in one -- construction in China can operate at lightning speed.

Twitter feed is here. But take rumors that the blaze was started by the fireworks themselves with a grain of salt.

More to come, I’m sure.

-- Christopher Hawthorne