In the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games, the Beijing authorities are directing more than £1.5 billion (Dh11bn) towards improving the city’s air quality. There is some way to go. Beijing today remains shrouded in smog – the product of heavy industry, three million cars and 8,000 construction sites.
Tellingly, it casts the place in the same melancholy light that bathes Monet’s and Whistler’s depictions of London at the end of the 19th century. The cause is much the same: the capital of the world’s fastest-growing economy is turning into a metropolis.
The extraordinary speed of change is nowhere more evident than in the new Central Business District. Fifteen years ago, this was a low-rise residential area. Today, the authorities’ ambition to build more than 300 towers lies well within reach.
Architecturally, the mean quality is low, but improving. An unfortunate craze for decking out office blocks as overscaled pagodas seems to have passed and the glassy corporate architecture of Canary Wharf and Lower Manhattan has become the new ideal.
There is, in fact, only one building being constructed here that would be impossible to imagine in any other country. But that is not because there is anything particularly Oriental about its architecture.
It is just that China is currently the one nation on earth blessed with the mix of overweening ambition, brute strength and deranged self-confidence that might lead a country to build something quite as crazy as the new headquarters of China Central Television (CCTV), pictured above.
Designed by the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the building will bring together the myriad operations of the country’s principal broadcaster within a single structure.
Among the world’s office buildings, only the Pentagon will be larger. It is 234 metres high so, by any conventional definition, a skyscraper. And yet that term feels inadequate for this conundrum.
The simplest way to describe it is as an enormous, contorted loop. Twin towers form its vertical sides, although they aren’t in fact vertical at all, being inclined towards each other at an alarming angle.
They are connected at the top and bottom by bridges, which will allow both CCTV staff and the public to travel a full circuit of the building. Crucial to maintaining the impression of a continuous flexing tube is the fact that the bridges are almost as high as the towers are wide.
The one on top extends a mighty 11 storeys. The finish date is 2009 but the building will be complete in time for the Olympics. Certainly, the exterior has to be complete by then, with enough facilities to allow for the games to be broadcast from within.
The task of making this lopsided colossus stand up would be a challenge in any location. Given that Beijing is subjected to regular earthquakes, it has been nothing short of Herculean. The approach adopted by the British engineer, Arup, has been to encase the whole form in a grid of diagonal steelwork that grows denser at moments of stress.
For its architect, the building is not just an act of structural risk-taking but also a political gamble. China’s recent economic progress may have ushered in a profound adjustment of the country’s social structure but it remains the case that OMA’s client is a sub-ministry of the Chinese Government – to put it at its blackest, the propaganda machine of an authoritarian regime. Should OMA have taken the job?
The answer may only become apparent once the current liberalisation of China has run its course. However, Ole Scheeren, the German architect who runs OMA’s Beijing office, argues that architecture has a role to play in encouraging that process.
The public route that will wind through the building certainly carries a powerful message about the opening up of a formerly closed institution, while Scheeren also sees the building’s structural eccentricity as an emblem of social change. “In opting for our design the client chose a symbolic statement that is not all about stability,” he said.
OMA won the competition for the CCTV building in 2002 at a time when the Chinese were particularly open to new architectural ideas.
“China had just joined the WTO, there was a rising economic strength and a process of opening up had begun,” said Scheeren.
“The country had also just won the Olympics, which became a wild card to exacerbate ambitions. The project was developed in response to the question of how China could represent itself to the world.”
The same consideration has informed a number of other projects that are currently being completed in readiness for the games. Norman Foster, the British architect of Beijing’s new airport terminal, describes his firm’s project as “the largest and most advanced airport building in the world”.
It is 3.25km long and has been designed to process 53 million passengers a year – this in a country where, as recently as five years ago, citizens found it difficult to secure a passport.
If completed on deadline, the project will have taken less than four years to design and construct. That is a tribute to the fact that at one point about 50,000 labourers were on site but also to the speed with which a non-democratic authority can make decisions.
“The building is equivalent in area to [the combined area of] every terminal at Heathrow plus 17 per cent. The process of realising it will have taken less time than it took to conduct the Heathrow Terminal Five planning enquiry,” said Foster.
Of course, the project that will receive the most attention next August is the Olympic Park. The Chinese have put the cost of hosting the games at £20bn – more than double the current estimate for London’s 2012 event.
Bear in mind the fact that construction costs in Beijing are a 14th of what they are in London, and something of the scale of what is being undertaken can be grasped.
The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has estimated 1.25 million residents have been displaced as a result of construction work related to the games, though the Chinese authorities claim only 6,037 homes have been demolished.
As with CCTV and the airport, the commissions here have gone to foreign architects – the National Aquatics Centre to a team led by the Australian practice PTW and the National Stadium to a team led by Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architects of Tate Modern.
These are vast buildings but, as with OMA’s project, their potentially overbearing scale is tempered by an architectural language that appears thrillingly, bewilderingly random.
The Aquatics Centre, with five pools, will host all swimming and diving events in August, and become a recreation centre after the games. Dubbed the “Watercube”, its slab-like form gives the impression of having been made from enormous blue soap bubbles.
In fact, these are 4,000 steel-framed units, faced externally in ETFE – the translucent material used for the cladding of the Eden Project in Cornwall. The Watercube would be considered a work of extraordinary daring. However, as a surreal alliance of computer wizardry and cheap labour, it is outperformed by its next-door neighbour.
With capacity for 100,000 spectators, the National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest”, is effectively one building within another.
An inner concrete bowl supports the seating and a steel exoskeleton rises up around and over it to form the roof. Except that the seating is arranged in a distinctive saddle-like profile, the bowl is relatively conventional.
The exoskeleton, however, is anything but. This mad tangle of enormous steel members was supposedly inspired by the patterns of crazed Chinese pottery. Miraculously, given that it has been built from elements weighing up to 350 tonnes, the finished product does achieve the delicacy of that starting point.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the scheme is the Piranesian space caught between the concrete core and the steel enclosure. Shops, hotels and restaurants are set into the underside of the seating, opening on to the concourses which occupy this gap.
After the games, these spaces will serve as a new kind of public realm. And will the Chinese maintain their appetite for such extraordinary architectural adventures once the games are over? Perhaps not. But Ole Scheeren, for one, is planning to stay and pursue a career in China.
“The difference between working here and in the West,” he said, “is this is a country interested in developing new values rather than maintaining its old ones.” For architects working in China, this condition of restless change is the only certainty. (The Daily Telegraph)
China's Olympic ambitions