Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV HQ makes a spectacle of itself

CCTV HQ model, by Rem Koolhaas & Ole Scheeren of OMA, by Micromodel, China, 2004 -2008

The CCTV (China Central Television) HQ, co-designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) is an architectural and engineering spectacle. A unique space for public interaction it defies the usual notion of a ‘skyscraper’ and is considered an earthbound structure. The building is formed by two leaning towers that bend at 90 degrees at the top and bottom to form a continuous tube. Affectionately known as the ‘giant boxer shorts’, the CCTV HQ is a mobius loop.

Since the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games, China has been racing to create innovative architecture using high-profile Western architects and architectural firms including Koolhaas and Scheeren of OMA. Koolhaas has said the following of his experience in China:

‘With globalization, we all have more or less the same future, but Asia and Africa feel much more new. I’ve been doing research in China recently, investigating cities that emerge suddenly, in eight years or so, seemingly out of nothing. These places are much more vigorous and representative of the future. There, building something new is a daily pleasure and a daily occurrence.’

Many recent architectural projects in China have become cultural icons. Yet it is arguable whether they contribute to the habitability of the city and promote human interaction. However Koolhaas’ faith in the ‘congested’ city, supported by his manifesto Delirious New York written in the 1970s, celebrates and analyses the city as metaphor for the variety of human behaviour and uses it as a testing ground for metropolitan lifestyle.

Koolhaas stands apart from his counterparts arguing that architecture has little impact on the happiness and well being of society and that chaos and difference are impossible to discipline and are essential conditions of modernity. In his view the architect has limited power to create order and serenity. It is the role of architects to create spectacles and coincidences.  He strongly believes that the ‘unplanned’ and ‘juxtapositions’ are essential elements of urbanism, and that architecture should encourage rather than discipline urban randomness.

It’s not surprising to find illogical combinations of shapes and materials in his arsenal. However as enfant terrible and advocate of spectacle and complexity, it is still unclear whether his writings match his designs. Apparent randomness in the exterior of the CCTV HQ cloaks the well designed internal order of the building that includes a well thought-out path to allow public access without intruding on work environments.

Constructed separately, the towers were designed to meet at the top where they were joined by the bridging floors. It was during the construction stage that they were prone to independent movement caused by wind and variations in surface temperature. Construction issues were therefore a key consideration in the design process.

The recently acquired model of the CCTV HQ by the Powerhouse Museum clearly demonstrates the engineered structure that was designed to take the forces of stress. The irregular grid of the supporting steel diagrid structure is a visible expression of the forces travelling through the steel frame. Loads follow these diagonals and allows gravity and lateral loads to be transferred along it to the ground. The denser diagonal patterns indicate a stronger load.

This load bearing structure also gives the building the strength to support the cantilever overhang and to withstand seismic activity common in the area. The framing system marries columns, diagonals and bracing into one system insuring internal cores transfer minimal amounts of gravity load. As a result floor slabs transfer less lateral loads and allows more open space. This also allows floor plates to be a different shape on each level. Trusses span the bottom two floors of the overhang. The loads above these are transferred to the trusses which subsequently transfer the loads to the diagrid system.

The video shows the CCTV HQ and the TVCC (Television Cultural Centre), complex. Unfortunately in 2009, the TVCC building was badly damaged by fire ignited by fireworks during New Year Lantern Festival celebrations and has not been open to the public.

The model of the CCTV tower is in the Powerhouse Museum Collection.