Given the long insurgency of China’s market economy, it may seem surprising that Beijing’s architecture has only recently caught up with the rest of the world’s impudent postmodernism. Until very recently, the great monuments to the world’s fastest growing economy were Zhang Bo’s Great Hall of the People on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, and Zhang Kaiji’s museums of the Revolution and of Chinese History on the eastern side.
In his book The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic suggests that two new buildings have replaced these pompously Stalinist hulks: Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower and Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest. He also provides a sardonic narrative describing how they came to be built.
The commission for Koolhaas’s 234 metre Moebius strip, built on an earthquake faultline, arose largely through good fortune. When Beijing’s city planners launched a competition to design a new headquarters for Chinese state television, they quickly realised that they did not have sufficient expertise to know what they were looking for. They invited the architect and landscaper Charles Jencks to join them. “I am here for architecture independent of any other consideration,” Jencks explained, cautious of being caught up in a fait accompli. Jencks is a good friend of Koolhaas, who in turn decided to submit a radical proposal comprising two towers of 70 floors each, leaning into each other and supported by horizontal bands at the top and bottom.
Jencks, belying his apolitical stance, set about lobbying the great and the good of Beijing in favour of Koolhaas’s design. “It is a Chinese moon gate,” he explained, “a framed hole, or the heavy shape made in bronze and jade thousands of years ago in China as a symbol of exchange.” Yet at the same time (covering the postmodernist and authoritarian bases), “it’s a pop image, it can be seen as suggesting the Arc de Triomphe, or the Grande Arche.”
Koolhaas’s design was eventually accepted, but Chinese conservatives and Western academics like Ian Buruma shared a certain scepticism: “What should one make of famous architects competing to build a new HQ for Central China Television? CCTV is the voice of the party, the centre of state propaganda, the organ which tells a billion people what to think. It’s hard to imagine a cool European architect in the 1970s building a television station for Pinochet.”
Sudjic suggests that the source of Koolhaas’s motives may be found in his esteem for Le Corbusier, in particular his wooing of Mussolini and the Vichy Government in the 1930s and 40s. “What attracts me about China is that there is still a state,” says Koolhaas, which is all very well, except that the Chinese state’s function – achieved by continuing the Maoist ban of Trade Unions and locking up those who stand in its way – is to validate the most extreme form of late capitalism in the world.
Presumably Koolhaas wouldn’t see it like that. He will appreciate the lack of planning regulations that an autocracy affords. China is a playground for architects with a missionary zeal, even though they may emerge from the process ultimately powerless. Sudjic compares Koolhaas with Yung Ho Chang and his father, Ziang Kaiji, the man who designed the museums on Tiananmen Square, and subsequently lived out the Cultural Revolution as a caretaker. “Both father and son have confronted the essential dilemma of architecture. Their work has brought them into an intimate relationship with power, but they have remained powerless in the hands of those who wield it.”
Due north of Tiananmen Square, through the Forbidden City, along the axis that gives Beijing its backbone, stands the Olympic Park, a theme-park built on the bulldozed ground of a former residential area. “Stung by criticisms of its murky approach to the allocation of construction contracts,” writes Sudjic, “Beijing’s municipal government has been proclaiming its determination to pursue design excellence and maintain a fairer tendering process. That is why the competition to design the Olympic Stadium had an unwieldy, thirteen-strong jury.” The jury included Rem Koolhaas.
The successful design was, of course, Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest, its exterior taking the form of a concrete mesh, its interior defined as much by the gaps between the threads, as by the threads themselves. “There is a certain symmetry in the presence of both Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog in Beijing at the same time, working on such significant projects,” says Sudjic. “They like to see themselves as the Picasso and Braque of contemporary architecture, towering over their peers in the same way that the cubists once monopolised painting, ‘roped together like mountaineers for the final onslaught on the summit,’ as Braque put it.”
Herzog is much the superior architect – witness his transformation of Bankside Power Station, and his Schaulager art store in Basel – and the stadium is considerably more edifying than Koolhaas’s opportunistic and megalomanical CCTV headquarters. And yet, as I wrote at the beginning of the year, the vision for the Bird’s Nest (“the architecture is the crowd,” said Herzog at the time, “the proportions are intended to shift the spectators and the track and field events into the foreground”) has been thwarted by its redundancy. It was designed for the greatest spectacle in the global capitalist calendar and, for all its futuristic high-technology, its time has passed.
As a postscript to this, here is another story from Sudjic’s book which demonstrates the obscene ironies that only Olympic building can produce:
“Both Koolhaas and Herzog have made more headway in Beijing than Albert Speer, the son of Hitler’s architect, who invested considerable energy in lobbying the city’s authorities to take up his plan for a fifteen-mile-long north-south axis for the city, with the Olympic Stadium at one end and a huge new railway station at the other linked by a series of tree-lined freeways. Speer is an urbane, spry man approaching seventy. If it wasn’t for his name, he would be the personification of postwar Germany, the worthy Bonn-based republic of serious newspapers and liberal politics, where ecology and competently managed car factories are taken for granted. I meet him in his sun-filled Frankfurt office with its blond wood floor and its atrium full of primary-coloured art. Speer would rather be in Beijing, but in the spring of 2003, the SARS epidemic has made him cautious about travelling there. He is, however, still busy in Germany, where he worked on Leipzig’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics, surrealistically in partnership with Peter Eisenman, the architect of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, itself built on the site of his father’s studio, where Hitler and the elder Speer spent hour upon hour with the model of Germania.”