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March 16, 2005

Rem Koolhaas in the Red

When Rem Koolhaas's firm the Office for Metropolitan Architecture won the competition to design the new headquarters for the Central Chinese Television Network in December 2002, Koolhaas was used to the fits, stops and starts, and even the cancellation of projects that once had the green light. (He discusses this in his 2004 essay “Crib Death.”) He was used to justifying a project's validity, designs, costs and unorthodox choices to those writing the checks.

But when his company won the CCTV job, Koolhaas's job of convincing fell to a wider audience. There were the usual design issues. The building he proposed for CCTV was not a tall needle-like skyscraper, but two separate towers slanting toward each other and connected in steel and glass, like a giant linear knot, not yet pulled tight. People wondered, does this fit with the Chinese aesthetic? Will it be a giant gimmick and a failure? Can we afford it (the building is estimated to cost up to $800 million)?

Koolhaas can handle these questions, but he’s facing another sort of dilemma. The CCTV is a Communist Party controlled news service, which means they often take a creative and limiting approach to reporting. As early as the groundbreaking ceremony, complete with red shovels and an enormous image of the OMA design colored Communist red, it was clear that Koolhaas's masterpiece will always have a somewhat unsavory provenance.

Koolhaas contends that the building's transparency and layout, with all aspects of the entire network in one building, rather than scattered across Beijing, are themselves comments on the Communist controlled media and in some ways, subversive to it.

Architects strive to design buildings reflective of culture, of the people who use them and of their own aspirations for that culture––to advance the people who use the buildings. But can a building, however monumental in its design and emphatic in its quest to be anything but a skyscraper, really have a positive effect on the honesty of Communist news? And does Koolhaas have to defend his decision to work for such an outfit?

We'll see, the CCTV building is slated for completion in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

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