TVCC | When Architecture Encounters Fire


Since 2002, when Rem Koolhass won the bid to design the new station site for CCTV, criticisms has been never ending. However, as the completion of CCTV approaches, the northern building TVCC, which was expected to be finished before CCTV, caught fire on the day of the Chinese Lantern Festival, 9 February 2009, when the moon was the closest to the earth in 52 years. Then, how do people in the architecture field in Beijing respond to such an event? This is the topic of this conversation. we invited the prestigious architecture and art critic, Mr. Fang Zhenning, to preside over a serial conversation, which aims to freely discuss the problems between art, architecture and the city, as well as exploring the developmental tendencies tendency of the three. This dialogue between Mr. Fang Zhenning and Mr. Liang Jingyu, begins the opening of the discussion.

Starting from TVCC

Mr. Fang Zhenning: In this discussion we will talk about things happening around us. It should have been lucky for Koolhass, because it is no easy task to win the bid of the Cultual and Art Center in Taibei, which is quite an achievement in years of OMA’s practice. Although OMA won several bids in recent years, they didn’t generate many discussions. We had planned to discuss the new project of the Culture and Art Center in Taibei, however, the TVCC fire engulfed all those ideas and plans. Today, we’d like to talk about this fire and its influence on architecture, fireproofing and the city.
Mr. Liang Jingyu: It sounds like a good topic, and we can make it more profound. It has been five years since Koolhass won the bid of CCTV, maybe it was too early to comment on it five years ago, but now things have changed and we can draw some conclusions from it, since we can look at it on a wider background. However, it is also a chance to talk about the guiding role that Koolhass’s works play in Chinese architecture and the entire architectural world.

Mr.Fang: I still remember October, 2002, when Koolhass won the bid. Actually the impact of Koolhass’ ideas on China is far from being confined to the design industry. While today our topic mainly concerns design because of the TVCC fire, we need to alter the angle and pespective to comment on the experimental modern architecture. TVCC’s fire also makes us conduct a self-examination of its many aspects. first, what kind of materials and structural design can be regarded as appropriate to the current architecture? second, whether the rule of law is reasonable? It is not the first time that such insulation materials have caught fire, but this time the building burned in the shortest time since 1949. Due to this fire, the government now engages in making new laws. And many people object to inviting foreigners to design for China, saying that “China now becomes an experimental ground for foreign architects”, the “experimental ground” here is in its derogatory sense, but there are multifaceted to meanings “experimental ground” itself, and I think the TVCC fire is what the experimental ground caused. On the one hand, “experimental ground” urges Chinese young architects to grow faster and to be mature; on the other hand, we also find the problems of experimental architecture design. Moral Standards of Architects
Mr.Liang: I’d like to make some complements on the meaning of this topic. In the western society, the CCTV emerges as a continuous topic all the time, and the debate mainly focuses on questioning the moral standard of Koolhass’ accepting the project, which is hardly mentioned in the architecture field and mainstream media in China. It was surely because for political reasons. However, architecture itself is part of politics and a symbol of power. Thus in my opinion, whatever the project is, as long as it refers to architectural design, the practice is contaminated already, if you judge according to western moral standard. Only when you live in the present Chinese political system can you understand one point: you always have to keep in touch with the government to a certain degree, thus comes the “experiment” in Mr.Fang’s words. While such experiment includes something extremmely open, and such possibility is unexplainable from the perspective of western society. This is not simply the logic of pragmatism. I am more willing to regard this building as a provocateur under a special political system, and such an agent contains lots of inducements for breaking up the original system and political impasse. I believe that these positive factors will not be disguised because of the CCTV fire. on the contrary, after this event, we can sense the existence of deeper influences in the longer term, and we also hope that we can witness the occurrence of change.
Mr. Fang: It is sensitive to talk about the problems ofarchitecture and politics, and architecture and social systems. Actually it refers to the political attitude of architects. Thus, I think Koolhass participation in designing CCTV building actually means cooperating with a different ideology. We can take a look at the three great masters in architecture field in the 20th century: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, two of them had some connection with the temporal government or regime and their political attitudes were rather clear. For instance, when Mies was elected as the principal, the first thing he did was to dismiss students who believe in communism. However, we don’t disavow his contributions to architecture in 20th century because of his anti-communism attitudes, instead, we still regard him as one of the greatest architects. Let’s talk about Corbusier, who had contacted two governments, one is for the international bid of the theatre of the newly-born Soviet government, although he lost the bid, the scheme was an important work in his designing career. And the second, he wrote a letter to Mussolini, saying that he would like to devote his architectural wisdom to the Italian government. But Mussolini ignored him. Later he went to Italy at his own expense, but he was embarrassed to go to Rome. While he favored the temporal Fascist regime, nobody had ever blamed him for that. From a certain pespective, Koolhass is an embracer of communism. Influenced by the direct production of Soviet government: the Russian Constructivism, he studied architecture and started his career as an architect. Thus he turned down the invitation to design for rebuilding of the world Trade center after 9/11; instead, he turned to China. It is a complex he held for a long time, and if we don’t consider him a communist, at least, he is a left-winger in the architecture field. Therefore his accepting project design of the CCTV is a natural process, and his left-wing complex was actually confirmed in 2003 when I interviewed him. But I don’t appreciate another attitude. The Bird’s Nest Stadium designers, Herzog & de Meuron, delivered a speech when they won the World Culture Prize in Tokyo in 2007, saying that their design didn’t assimilate any Chinese cultural ingredients. I don’t think it is true. I found the plan of the project, on which they stuck a Boshan Censer in Han Dynasty onto the center part of the main stadium, thus showing the relation between the design and Chinese tradition. Surely there are also pictures showing that they used Chinese ancient pictures to explain the plan to Chinese media. In the process of designing, pictures of China’s pottery, porcelain and cultural relics of different periods were hanging on the wall of their office, but in the end, their speech ran counter to this. I know some western media mentioned that they cooperated with the so-called “autocratic” government, and they denied their designs’ connection with Chinese cultural ingredients to make a clear distinction. Anyway, I think architects should be honest.
Mr. Liang: I think it is somewhat hypocritical to express such political attitudes to their western customers. They are indeed doing business with China, but meanwhile they pretend to be009 55 arrogant and coming from a democratic society with the right political stance. While Koolhass has a profound knowledge of various ideologies, he holds that things are not always white or black, and such political moral viewpoint is his starting point. Just now Mr. Fang mentioned some architects in history, and masters of that generation didn’t steer clear of politics; instead, they were deeply involved in politics and they embraced the ambitions of improving the society. Maybe the attitude was not politically right, but nobody hesitated and disavowed his political stance. If there is any historical meaning to the Koolhass event, it should be reminding us of the relation between politics and architecture. It cannot be ignored that this event played a vocative role in the current complicated political and architecture environment. Not to mention that this event itself came up as the focus of media once and again, all of which unavoidably showed the relation between architecture and different political ideology.

TVCC Fire: Before and After
ABITARE China: The TVCC fire urged us to reflect on modern architecture. It doesn’t refer to the works itself, but the event that the works brought about. how do you think of this?
Mr.Fang: I went to The TVCC last February. I took the engineering elevator up to the dining room and bar on the highest floor, and then I went downstairs. At that time most security elevators had no lighting devices, so I observed entire floors by the weak light of my mobile phone screen. The third and fourth floor from the top in the north was broken, and we can speculate the messy situation inside from the fire on the window, which happened to be the floor of the dining room and the bar under the equipment room. What was damaged most is the southern part, and as the hotel in the south had been basically completed, the fire was quite large. Besides, the design of the middle hall is like a chimney, and we can describe its structure as a coprum hotpot, it is no wonder the fire was so intense! Between the dining hall and the bar on the top and the hotel underneath lies a concrete floor interlayer, and the fire got across the fireproof interlayer from above, and then spreaded quickly below. According to the video, the fire was spread through the flaming building surface. After the surface was burnt, there was an insulation layer. Why did such a layer accelerate the fire? Unless it is flammable itself, it was also the interior and exterior of the western wall of the tower building — all made of one material, the middle part depends on a keel framework, just like the “fire wall” in northern areas in China, i.e. a hollow fire wall. All of these structures, together with the “chimney effect” of the middle hall, carried the fire through the whole building in the blink of an eye.
Mr. Liang: The TVCC fire, the event itself will undoutedly bring great impact on the society and people, and rekindle our contemplations on architecture, what is architecture in itself ? How it functions? And in what way? This may be a turning point, leading to two possibilities. First, although the oringinal intention of CCTV was much more then design a landmark buildings, this fire has terminated the era of landmark buildings. second, it also may be a beginning, a beginning to face a more complicated architecture environment, during which people have to consider more factors. We used to consider a building’s normal lifecycle from completion to usage, then to the end of its life cycle, but these buildings didn’t exert too much influence on the city. While CCTV at the very beginning emerged ambitiously with an eye to the city, it cooperated with power, in hopes of changing many things that the previous building couldn’t imagine. this point enlightens me a lot.

Can TVCC be Reborn?
ABITARE China: What influence will the fire exert on architecture?
Mr.Liang: Skyscraper fire are always symbolic events, because skyscrapers symbolize mankind’s civilization conquering nature and challenging God. It has been so since the completion of the Babel Tower. Skyscraper fires may shock the heart of human beings and rekindle the thinking of civilization, but what is the relation between human civilization and the nature?
Mr. Fang: The construction of a skyscraper connects closely and directly with one technology, i.e., the breakthrough of the vertical elevator technology. Skyscrapers can be higher once the technology of vertical elevator improved. But I think another technology has been ignored: the technology of fireproofing and disaster reduction, which are supposed to keep pace with the height of the skyscraper.
ABITARE China: However, what will happen to the building at last? If you are assigned to deal with the burnt building, what will you do?
Mr. Liang: We cannot decide whether this building should be rebuilt or be built based on the exisiting floors because we are still not clear about the specific situation after the fire. But regardless of the future possible outcome, I still feel pity and sorrow for losing such a building.
Mr. Fang: The first thing I will do is to work out a detailed accident and reconnaissance report, which is not only responsible to the society and the public, but also warns all people, the cities worldwide and the architecture field to conduct specific report. Whether the building can be rebuilt or not all depends on the research. I hope the building can be rebuilt the same as the original, but such possibility is unlikely. As far as I am concerned, the plan for the main building of CCTV was established very early, but the plan for the north wing building had been delayed for a long time, and at last Koolhass designed the north building himself. Usually Koolhass doesn’t design a project personally, but this time we saw his works: the north wing building. Now Koolhass may be the most sorrow one. As to what is he thinking about now, we still have no idea.

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