The model of the CCTV Headquarters documents a high-profile project by one of today's best-known architects.
Rem Koolhaas' career resembles that of Le Corbusier: both came to architecture after beginning careers in other creative disciplines, both are almost as well-known for their writing as for their buildings. Both are highly programic, producing buildings demonstrative of their theoretical stance. They are also personalities with a public presence beyond architecture.
In other respects the two are very different: Koolhaas has designed mainly public and commercial buildings rather than the residential structures which defined Le Corbusier's career. And their opinions on architecture and urban life are diametrically opposed. Koolhaas' early manifesto Delirious New York is a riposte to Le Corbusier's When the cathedrals were white (1937). Manhattan's unplanned and financially-ruled bedlam repelled Le Corbusier, while Koolhaas sees it as the triumph of twentieth century urban life.
There is little doubt that Koolhaas has won this argument; it is generally agreed that Le Corbusier's urban theories are the least enduring of his several areas of achievement. However it remains less clear that Koolhaas' design matches his significance as a writer and urban thinker. Although an advocate of urban spectacle and complexity, Koolhaas still faced the challenge of creating buildings that offer more than mere spectacle, that contribute to their users and urban situations.
His record in this respect is mixed. Koolhaas' work has been criticised for lacking any dimension apart from difference: apparently illogical combinations of shapes and materials are the norm. Yet this apparent randomness clothes interiors with a logic and clear function, the minimum requirement of architecture without which Koolhaas' extravagant gestures would fail to find continued commissions. In this respect Koolhaas has furthered the deconstructivist ethic, creating buildings ordered by the logic of their components.
The CCTV HQ is one of several spectacular building projects completed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China has used high-profile Western architects and innovative architecture as a means of gaining cultural credibility, a strategy shared with the newly wealthy Gulf Emirates. That these societies are politically repressive and largely contemptuous of urban heritage has exposed Koolhaas and other 'starchitects' to criticism. As the headquarters of China's main propaganda organisation, the CCTV HQ is not likely to assuage his critics.
Koolhaas has responded by pointing to the 'openness' of his work - the CCTV and neighbouring TV Cultural Centre allow a degree of public access rare for public buildings in China, while both embody Koolhaas' signature strategy of combining several functions and their staffs in one open structure. OMA's rationale claims that the building 'facilitates an unprecedented degree of public access to the production of China's media: visitors will be admitted to a dedicated path circulating through the building, connecting all elements of the program and offering spectacular views from the multiple facades towards the CBD, the Forbidden City, and the rest of Beijing'. Koolhaas also claimed that the project was a constructive engagement with China's younger, more progressive elites.
Despite this and similar debates, Koolhaas' reputation in the design world is secure. He attracts widespread admiration for making architecture part of today's urban cultures of retro, communication, travel and change. To a vast design-savvy constituency Rem Koolhaas remains 'the world's coolest architect'.
Charles Pickett, curator Design & Built Environment.