Monuments without context

Times Architecture Critic

Though it won't be finished for another year or so, the China Central Television headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of the Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is already a jaw-dropping sight. A giant Mobius strip of a skyscraper, CCTV consists of two leaning towers, each 51 stories high, connected by a pair of cantilevered arms. Its dark-glass exterior is wrapped in a net of steel webbing that thickens where the structure requires extra bracing and melts away where it needs less.

Stunt climbers may have been scaling Renzo Piano's New York Times tower in recent weeks, but CCTV does them one better. The building is itself a daredevil -- a massive contortionist, an elephant on a wire. Simply as an example of design prowess -- in the way it turns well-worn assumptions about skyscraper form almost literally inside out, and as a looming, sublime presence on the smoggy Beijing skyline -- the tower is a tour de force.

But what does its appeal say about the new Beijing, this once-sleepy, deeply historical capital city that has spent nearly a decade -- and a staggering $43 billion -- remaking itself in advance of the Summer Olympics? There the issue is murkier, fraught with questions about the relationship between design freedom and the political variety. New Beijing landmarks by Koolhaas and other famed Western architects, even as they may help pry open a closed society, also play a dramatic role as advertisements for the power and ubiquity of the state.

This was the surprise of my recent weeklong visit to Beijing. On earlier trips, I'd watched the dismaying, cancerous destruction of the city's tight-knit system of courtyard houses, linked by narrow alleyways called hutongs. (That destruction continues to spread, with the most dire predictions suggesting that as much as 90% of the hutong fabric, much of it more than six centuries old, will eventually be wiped out.) I'd spoken with local designers about how the decision to give so many prominent buildings of the Class of 2008 to Western architects sparked controversy and brought deep-seated Chinese fears about exploitation at the hands of foreigners back to the surface.

But I didn't anticipate that so many of the new architectural icons, for all the real daring of their engineering and form-making, would share such an imposing, old-fashioned brand of monumentality. Like nearly all capital cities, Beijing is full of somber and often grandiose tributes to state glory and former leaders, many grouped in and around Tiananmen Square. But its postwar housing and commercial architecture were often either bland or, in the case of the mirrored-glass office buildings with traditional Chinese roof decoration that sprouted along major boulevards in the 1980s and '90s, rather cartoonish.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Western architects and their party clients have extended the impressive, serious scale that was once reserved for government ministries and memorials to include, along with CCTV, stadiums custom-built for the Games, a new airport terminal by British architect Norman Foster and a national theater in the shape of a giant dome by France's Paul Andreu. The Beijing I visited this time around is a crossroads where avant-garde design meets autocratic taste -- where Rotterdam meets Stalingrad, with a touch of Brasilia thrown in for good measure.

Beijing has reinvented itself before, of course, most recently following the 1949 communist revolution, when Soviet advisors helped Chinese leaders replan the city, widening boulevards to suitably heroic scale and dropping smokestacks, those glorious symbols of industrial progress, into dense residential neighborhoods. And it has periodically gone about pulverizing its historical record as well.

But it has never been a center for innovation or experienced the kind of massive growth that it has in the last two decades, sending its outer edges sprawling endlessly in a pattern familiar to Southern Californians even as its Central Business District, home to CCTV and other bold towers, increasingly resembles dense, vertical Manhattan. When Deng Xiaoping famously opened China to market reforms nearly three decades ago, he made sure that economic experiments -- and new kinds of city-making -- happened in places distant from the capital. "Though economic reforms came from Beijing," Thomas J. Campanella writes in "The Concrete Dragon: China's Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World," "they were effectively field-tested far from the center of power."

There is a whiplash quality to Beijing's recent expansion, because it follows a period when Chinese cities were not only static but in some cases forcibly depopulated. During the Cultural Revolution, more than 30 million Chinese were ordered to leave cities for the countryside to be "rusticated." For most of the 1960s and '70s, very little was built; architecture withered as an art form and a profession. Now Beijing's population is nearing 18 million -- up from about 11 million a decade ago -- and China has more than 100 cities with at least a million residents.

The U.S. has nine such cities, none marked by anything close to the urban energy pulsing through Beijing. Since the Vietnam War, America has been uncomfortable building the sort of nakedly bold symbols of national will that are now cropping up all over the Chinese capital. Berlin, Tokyo and other cities have struggled with such qualms since World War II. And in recent years, much of the world, chastened by environmental limits, has begun to make a virtue of modest and sustainable architecture.

To put it mildly, Chinese cities aren't burdened by such anxieties. There are certainly signs of progressive and eco-conscious planning in Beijing, particularly the quickly expanding subway system, which has four new stops serving the Olympic Green alone. But for the most part, the new landmarks express ambition carried out at warp speed. There is no room for irony here, or even for much reflection or subtlety, even in buildings by Western architects who are comfortable working in those modes.

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Islands of progress

The powerful strangeness of the city's new icons is exaggerated by the way they are placed on huge, freshly cleared pieces of land, creating an urban-planning version of the condition cultural critic George W.S. Trow called "the context of no context." The national theater, known as the Egg, sits behind an enormous circular moat. CCTV rises from a piece of land covering 49 acres, more than three times the size of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan.

The drama of the setting complicates some of Koolhaas' arguments defending his decision to design the headquarters for CCTV, whose programming is eternally pro-government. What the almost-finished building demonstrates is that in a society such as China's, if officials clear out a vast tabula rasa in a prominent location and then give an architect the freedom to produce something truly innovative, that very freedom can become a mechanism for promoting state strength.

In certain settings, making a prominent structure radical or off-balance can be a means of undercutting cultural or government authority. This is the case with Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, which is anything but totalitarian in spirit, refusing even the impressive height of the memorials that surround it, and with Hans Scharoun's 1963 concert hall in Berlin, which uses asymmetry and playfulness to redefine German architecture after the Holocaust. Both designs, despite their clean, modern lines, are saturated with history.

But scale, site and experimental geometry come together at CCTV to produce a building that is almost unsettlingly breathtaking. It is one of the most instantly impressive structures I've ever seen. But it's not what you would call uplifting, unless you have a taste for Nietzschean urbanism. And in the great tradition of authoritarian architecture, it is defiantly ahistorical.

Or consider the National Stadium, which will hold the opening and closing ceremonies and has emerged as the primary symbol of the Beijing Games. Designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, the stadium is known as the "bird's nest" because of the tangled collection of steel columns that forms its exterior shell. The nickname suggests a delicacy that is clear to see in computer renderings and even photographs of the structure but entirely missing up close.

Like a glittering jewel on a tabletop, the stadium sits on a vast paved plaza that brings to mind the seemingly endless Tiananmen Square, five miles to the south. (The plaza was created when a residential district was razed to make room for the main Olympic facilities.) It is flanked by a broad boulevard laid out by Albert Speer Jr., the 74-year-old son of Hitler's favorite architect, which further exaggerates its scale and the drama of its setting. So, paradoxically enough, does the exterior, with its woven columns. Because of their sheer size -- the stadium is roughly the height of a 25-story building -- the columns operate both as pieces of ornament and as the digital-age equivalent of the impressively large pillars on a neoclassical bank or government building.

The bird's nest is a telegenic, virtuosic example of Herzog & de Meuron's talent that also manages to retire some tattered ideas about stadium architecture. But above all, it is, very simply, a monument: to the new China and maybe even to newness itself.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

Monday: A look at the Olympic venues.

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