Connection with culture
---- Rethinking CCTV compared with another Chinese architect

Critical commentary against CCTV

When talking about connection between architecture and culture, many people will take the CCTV headquarter as a counterexample. In the evening of February 2nd, 2009, Beijing Time, TVCC (television cultural center), one tower of the CCTV complex, caught fire as an accident. When the media pitied this universally, surprisingly, most Chinese were excited or even joked: ‘big pants on fire’. Why do Chinese people dislike this famous and costly building?

While searching online and books, it was found that after the proposal wined the bid in 2002, no matter the government, publics, scholars as well as professions criticized this project frequently:

‘I think it is a catastrophic architecture, like a monster comes from other planet…it is against the tendency of sustainable and ecological.’
--- Shiyi Pan, famous Chinese developer.

‘It is a notorious waste of social resource and wealth. This behavior must be forbidden, especially in China, a socialism country.’
--- Scholar from Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

‘Strengthen the managing to solve the problem existing in social meta-architecture to control the act of wasting resource, fawning on foreign design, blindly pursuing huge scale.’
--- Jiabao Wen, Premier of People Republic of China.

Cultural orientation

As we all know, the designer of CCTV headquarter is Rem Koolhaas, who, as both a scholar and professional architect, mainly focuses his research on cultural and social issues, and wined a lot of prizes and reputation. Having been a journalist, Koolhaas started his research mainly based on European and American society through writing critical books and journals. He explored some social and cultural problems from specific, small aspect, and tries to bring creative ideas into architectural design. “Koolhaas has always paid close attention to this renewal of term: ‘having been a journalist, I am very aware of the impact of the most subtle change of meaning provided by words’.”1

In the early 90s, with the help of Qingyun Ma, Koolhaas began his research about Chinese metropolitan development from Pearl River Delta. As his previous research method, he survey Chinese architecture from urban scale by using data collecting and analyzing. After those researches he realized that there is a blooming of economy as well as metropolis in China then he published a book called < Great Leap Forward>.

About CCTV project, Qingyun Ma said: ‘I think this building beyond the ordinary meaning of architecture. It is an inevitable expression when society reaches a certain degree.’2

Disconnection in Chinese culture and society

Since the CCTV project is so correspondent with the current society why lots of people consider it disconnected with China culturally?

Despite the exaggerated description made by Koolhaas, the idea of CCTV is simple and clear: do not repeat the regular way of designing skyscraper, extent up to sky, but try to connect two medium-sized towers together by using a horizontal structure. Actually in 1992, Peter Eisenman proposed a design for a skyscraper in Berlin. Eisenman’s design, in which basically connect two towers covered with continuous folded surface, looks like a tower rises from the ground after twisting in the air then ‘naturally becomes’ another tower back to the ground. Mainly because of the technology complexity and cost, the design was aborted.

“When being asked about the idea, Eisenman joked: Apart from other priapus-like skyscraper, my building is like a bisexual creature which can self-product and self-regenerate, and sustains forever.”3

Surprisingly, Koolhaas translated traditional Chinese philosophical thinking ‘Positive & Negative integration’ into a connection between male and female simply by designing the CCTV as a feminine lower body and the TVCC as a ‘penis’. It is universally known that Chinese culture is always implicit and humble especially in sexual issues. Being aware of this, Koolhaas dares not tell his client about this concept but he mentioned in one of his writings and some conversations. How ridiculous most Chinese will feel on hearing of this superficial understanding of Chinese culture from Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren.


As a culture which has been lasting for 3,000 years, diligence and frugality have always being regarded as the main moral trait of this nation. CCTV headquarter project with 500million pounds budget originally was not reasonable enough. More ironically the final cost of building doubled the budget which means 1 billion pounds. According the geography research, Beijing is in seismic zone which means it will cost much higher to build a high-rise comparing with other city, especially the one with an extremely complicated structure - CCTV. As a result of this, they provided multidisciplinary engineering services for the 234m high, 450,000m² CCTV headquarters. Although this project is not fully national-funded, but it can be considered as a social-participated mega-architecture, which is, inevitably, a costly and wasteful project to the nation, especially in a communism country, China.

Some architects once estimated that with the budget, 10 buildings of same volume and function can be built in China, in which country the labour cost is relatively low. China as a developing country, where there is an extraordinarily big gap between the poor the rich, averagely, is not wealthy enough to build such a massive building complex.

But Koolhass seems never takes this social situation as a consideration. “In Koolhaas’s own writing on ‘bigness’ in 1995, his words also read like a footnote to or a sketch of the building in 2008: ‘Bigness is … a hyper-architecture. The containers of bigness will be landmarks in a post-architectural landscape … generated through superhuman effort’.”4

Constructional conflict

However there are thousands of modern architectures were and are being built in China, compared with other developed countries, the construction skill in China are still poor. Low mechanization, lacking of managing and computer aided are common situations over Chinese construction teams. While “the new CCTV building is not a traditional structure, but in the form of a three-dimensional continuous cranked loop formed by a 9-storey podium joining two 50-storey high leaning towers, which are linked at the top via a 13-storey cantilevered "overhang" structure at 36 storeys above the ground. The irregular grid on the building’s facades is an expression of the forces travelling throughout its structure.

It would be a significant structural challenge anywhere in the world, but is especially so as Beijing is in a highly seismic zone.”---Arup, the structural partner of Koolhaas in CCTV

During the whole process, most of Chinese experts in engineering, seismology construction were involved. Generally, there is no doubt that the CCTV building is isolation off current construction situation in China.

Cultural based practicing

Comparing with Koolhaas, Jiakun Liu has a lot of similarities. Born in 1960’s, Liu experienced the main change to Chinese society and the impact of modern architecture. After graduation, his focused his main interest on novel writing. Having been living in Chengdu, a metropolis in southwest China, where there are lots of connection between poor rural village and rich urban city, he became fully understand the realistic social condition in China. He wrote several novels about the ordinary life in China to reflect his idealistic imagination of life and the cruelty of reality. Through his novel and he expressed his philosophic perceptual ability to the society and self-consciousness between ideal and reality.

Unlike Koolhaas who mainly focus his research on metropolitan issues, Liu divides his work into ‘rural’ and ‘urban’. For the first, a ‘low-tech’ strategy is adopted. Owing to limited budgets and the rudimentary construction skill of rural builders, it is important to explore a vernacular language. This language, although ‘rough’, can be expressive of a regional culture with a long history. This strategy, according to Liu, can be useful to regions and countries backward in technology but rich in culture and tradition. For urban projects, Liu says that there is no longer any restriction in the use of technology and material. However, the danger is for architecture to degenerate to the stats of a slave of commercial interest, providing only a superficial play of forms. The strategy here should be an active engagement with the client to explore programme planning at the earliest stage, in order to introduce public and urban considerations and to gain a position from which to protect the autonomy of architectural design.5

Being aware of Chinese cultural which ‘symbiosis with nature’ not ‘conquering nature’, Liu tries to integrate more cultural elements into his design instead of technology. All of these are based on his long-period social practicing and awareness of conflict between ideal and reality in his previous writings.

Buddhist sculpture museum

In Liu’s project, Buddhist sculpture museum, he did not only learn the light and shadow from traditional Chinese and Japanese architecture but also create a narrative spatial experience which is coherent with the way he wrote his novels. Besides integrating with culture elements, he also connected his design with social and regional elements. While building the concrete wall, because of the poor construction skill of the rural builder, it seems impossible to build the concrete wall vertically. Liu designed a wall as well as a building process: first build a 20cm thick KPl (shale brick) wall inside, which is easy for dividing the space and correcting builder’s error, then use the local wood to create a module for the exterior concrete. After finished, there are very unique skins on the surface of concrete, which enhanced the connection between architecture and local material.

In his book ‘about my work’, Liu says it is important to understand the location of one’s practice. Situated inside China in the south-west, subject to various limitations, it is important to appreciate the region’s condition and tradition, and to turn them into positive ‘resources’ for a creative design.6

Professional Ethics

Another conflict about CCTV project is professional ethics. China Central Television, an official institute who works as the government’s tongue. At the same time a dreamlike expectation which OMA had for the future of CCTV makes the symbolic CCTV project involved into the conflict culturally and socially.

Some scholars mentioned that “at the first beginning of Richard Rogers’s lecture, he did not show what project he will do but what projects he won’t do, such as military project, environmental disruption.”

“In 2000 Steven Holl got an invitation to a design competition in Beijing. When he knew this project would force lots of residents to move away without their legal rights protected, he rejected this invitation.”

After CCTV project, Koolhaas also admitted the ethics issue in one interview. “Only recently, I’ve begun to think of it as important because people accuse us of never saying no.”7

Liu has a clear awareness of the ethics, but he chooses a very Chinese solution. In cities, the conventional methods of architectural design, using Liu’s words, are pale and weak when facing sophisticated financial momentum. He has to go to the basics of the projects and discuss strategies with his clients; then his esthetic pursuits can be based on a more solid rationale.8
Through some talks he describes is strategy as “fail to fight against plan, or take a part of the plan.”

Connection and Comparison

Both having been as writers, Koolhaas and Liu have different attitudes and approaches towards architecture in China.

By using data analyzing and urban research, Koolhaas compared China and USA, aiming to find out connection between the two metropolitan developments of two countries. He tries to abstract ideas from society and use a radical way of design to stimulate the society. In one of his interview, he said “We divide the entire field of architecture into two parts: one is actual building, mud, the huge effort of realizing a project; the other is virtual – everything related to concepts and ‘pure’ architectural thinking. The separation enables us to liberate architectural thinking from architectural practice. That inevitably leads to a further questioning of the need for architecture, but now our manner of questioning has changed: first we did it through buildings; now we can do it through intellectual activities parallel to building.”9

While Liu always wants to find a balance between economic, technology and art in order to build a high artistic quality by using low-cost and low-tech, which he thinks is a rational strategy for China, a country backward in economy but rich in culture.

From koolhaas’s prospective, architecture is invariable that can not suit for the ever-changing society. As a result, he always designs a radical architecture as well as a phenomenal to interact with the society and culture.

“Any architectural project takes five years; no single enterprise - ambition, intention, need - remains unchanged in the contemporary maelstrom. Architecture is too slow. Yet, the word “architecture” is still pronounced with certain reverence (outside of the profession). It embodies the lingering hope - or the vague memory of hope - that shape, form, coherence could be imposed on the violent surf of information that washes over us daily.”10

In contrast, Liu’s works which can be defined as Critical Regionalism are more implicit and conservative. To express the hybridity of his architecture, he mixes Elite culture and folk culture, popular culture positively.

In , Liu refers to Alvaro Siza’s work which he considers respecting the nature. He tries to merge his realistic attitude towards local material technology and resources into the whole process of design by participating into the first plan with client, in which case, think from the role of client and lead the client to a rational level with biggest benefit.

Different Methodologies

Comparing with Koolhaas’S top-down methodology, Liu chooses a bottom-up strategy to design Chinese culture-based architecture. Apart from the western style of Koolhaas, Liu are more gentle and closer to the real society of China. Through his process, he changes his way of design gradually according to the social development of China. His methodology corresponded with the way he writes is like a exploring deeply into the conflict of rich and poor, reality and ideal, to find out a way suits for the unique Chinese modern culture which is a mixture of tradition and modern.

1. EL croquis, volume 134/135, P.5
2. Qingyun Ma, Dean of school of architecture, University of South California, interview in Oct. 29, 2008
3. Liutao, Nanfang Zhoumo ,Jianzhu Pinglun, 2003
4. Architecture of modern China, P.207
5. ibid. P.141
6. ibid. P.141
7. Rem Koolhaas, interviewed with Beatriz Colomina in EL-croquis 134/135.
8. Building a revolution, Chinese architecture since 1980, P.142
9. Rem Koolhaas. In Jennifer Sigler. ‘Rem Koolhaas’ index magazine, New York, 2001.
10. Rem Koolhaas, Content


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