OMA's Race to Construct in China

International architectural partnership OMA (of Rem Koolhaas fame) is relishing the challenge of building a new headquarters for China's national broadcaster

For Ole Scheeren, the lead architect of the controversial new China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing, the "eureka" moment came during a site visit in April, 2002. Touring the abandoned motorcycle factories that occupied the land, just east of the Forbidden City, he caught sight of an old billboard that read, "Adjust during development. Develop during adjustment."

"This became the prophecy for the period and the motto of the entire project," recalls Scheeren, speaking by phone from OMA's offices in Rotterdam, where he has convened to update Rem Koolhaas and his four other partners on the project's progress (which can be seen in a show at MoMA in New York City, running from November 15 through February 26, 2007).

CCTV represents the biggest, most ambitious project undertaken by OMA to date. With its 5 billion RMB (around $636 million) budget, the project nearly tripled everything the firm had built in the previous 25 years. It also represented the chance for OMA to make its mark on the fast-evolving Asian landscape, where marquee-name architects have been swarming in recent years.

Problems on the New Frontier

The responsibility for this was placed on the shoulders of Scheeren, the 35-year-old partner who had previously been responsible for the Prada Epicenters in Los Angeles and New York, and who moved to set up the OMA office in Beijing.

It hasn't been an entirely smooth ride. From the moment OMA was awarded the contract, criticisms were leveled against the design, and many were skeptical that the building could or would ever be built. Rumors that the building would be shelved altogether have been persistent, as have suggestions that the reality of building in the "Wild West" of China would lead to serious structural problems down the line.

"The project has been intense," Scheeren acknowledges. "CCTV was the first project we undertook in China, so we had to get to know the country and the client through research and investigation." And, he adds with dry understatement, their proposal was pretty extreme. "The engineering of the building is quite complex. Five years earlier, the building wouldn't have been possible, as the computational tools used in its design weren't sophisticated enough at that time.

Multi-Cultural Thinking

This presented a problem for both the design team and the Chinese authorities—how could they evaluate a building that essentially broke all codes? In the end, analysis and approval was granted by a panel of 13 structural engineers.

All huge buildings present huge problems and dilemmas for their creators. In China, however, Western architecture companies face additional political and cultural issues, which require them to appreciate and be sensitive to the ideas, thoughts, and culture of a people whose lives and whose system of government have changed immeasurably within the past century alone. They also must acknowledge and appreciate their own biases and rationales.

"China is a country with a long, complex history and an ambivalent recent past," says Scheeren. "It's also a country in the process of radical transformation, which has declared a true commitment to that transformation. It has the ability to deal with radicalism without regret, while there's a huge amount of sentimentality within European and Western culture. We carry real cultural baggage. A fifth of the world lives in China. It has the fastest growing economy in the world. Architecture can play a role here. It can be one of the prime engines in building the country."

Designs for a New China

As such, the proposed design for CCTV eschewed potentially patronizing "Asian" motifs or designs. Initially working only with Koolhaas and three other architects, Scheeren proposed a building which would forge a new type of structure, appropriate for the flourishing new culture. The building would also stand out on the horizon, on the day it opened and into the future. City planners predict that a forest of over 300 skyscrapers will emerge in Beijing in the next 12 years.

As such, OMA needed to create a building that wouldn't be swallowed up or overwhelmed by the new structures. "There was this certainty that these other buildings would be there, so the project responded directly to this typology in terms of defining a new proposal for what a skyscraper could be," explains Scheeren.

The building was also required to reflect the nature of its client. CCTV is China's largest national TV network, currently producing 15 channels. Once the building opens (in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008), the production facilities housed within it will have the ability to broadcast 250 channels.

Collaborative and Uniting

"We needed to keep the buildings functional at all times," says Scheeren. "The arrival of increased digital technology increases the possibilities of communicating remotely, but there becomes less knowledge of other divisions and what they're doing. We believed that the physical reuniting of the workers would be an interesting proposition."

And so the building unites the thousands of workers in one structure, which Scheeren describes lyrically as a "loop folded in space," with two towers sloping at an angle of six degrees—in different directions—joined at the top by a cantilevered penthouse floor to be occupied by CCTV management.

The project team involved local talents from the very beginning, with two local general contractors chosen by the client. "We defined the design process as an intensely collaborative structure between Chinese architects and ourselves," says Ole Scheeren. "To build up the dialogue between the two sides, I made it a part of our contract with the client to insist that local architects would be on board from the very beginning." As such, 13 Chinese designers moved to live and work in Rotterdam for a year before groundbreaking, in 2004.

Broadcast Relations

With less than two years to go before the building must be fully functional, things could still go wrong, but Scheeren remains upbeat. "Despite the enormous complexities of a project at the forefront of what's technically possible, built in the ever-shifting context [of China], things have gone very successfully," he says.

As we reported recently, all of the Olympic related projects within the city have gone like clockwork (see, 11/08/06, "Beijing Stadia on the Right Track"). But this is more than a stadium, race track, or swimming center. As the home of a national broadcaster, the new CCTV building has to send a very clear message to the nation—and the world.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.