The Chinese have nicknamed Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Building in Beijing “Big Pants,” or “Big Shorts,” and as many Western news outlets reported yesterday, it caught on fire (or, the adjacent building, part of the same complex, did, apparently due to some errant fireworks). The Chinese media, which is controlled by CCTV, of course, tried to hide that news.
Several years ago, Rem famously directed his studio, OMA, to avoid the competition being held to redesign the World Trade Center and instead focus on building this building. He famously said it was due to a fortune cookie that they received while discussing the decision over some Chinese food. Supposedly, the fortune cookie read: “Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Minced Meat of Memory.” You can read his “Beijing Manifesto,” published in Wired magazine, here.
First of all, when has anybody ever received a fortune cookie written like that???
Secondly, what I originally considered a brilliant move on Rem’s part, to avoid the WTC re-design debacle, was neutralized by his decision to design a monument to the totalitarianism of China (and moreover, to the information/media-controlling arm of totalitarian China). What Rem didn’t seem to realize was that the symbolism of the form of the CCTV tower (so obviousy a product of the blue-foam design school of OMA) carried no meaning when plopped into the context of China and Beijing.
Rem himself writes in his manifesto: “First, was it merely a landmark, one more alien proposal of meaningless boldness? Was its structural complexity simply irresponsible?” He doesn’t really answer himself, except to say that “A refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense could foreclose China’s architectural potential.” Architectural potential to do what?
He has mentioned elsewhere that this CCTV building “killed the skyscraper,” because it doesn’t participate in the race towards higher and higher buildings (for the most ridiculous example of this, see the Burj Dubai). But it nevertheless is a close to 2 million square foot complex (180,000 square meters), making it one of the biggest buildings, regardless of height. The building also uses no small amount of steel for its structural hijinks. In the end, it seems like the old debate about length versus girth.
Anyhow, as reporters noted, many of the Beijingers watching noted that the fire was “inauspicious,” occuring as it did at the end of the New Year’s celebrations. Well, inauspicious it may be, but it also seems shockingly predictable.