Culture of Change
Published in Monocle, July 2007
By Ole Scheeren
In the past five years buildings on Chang An Avenue – Beijing’s major east-west axis – have doubled; skyscrapers in the Central Business District have more than tripled. Magazines have gone from five or ten dusty copies sold from the back of a bicycle to hundreds of glossy editions sold at newsstands; fashion emerges in search of style and expression; clubs push beats into jam packed crowds every night. The monochrome red-white-black palette of the street – the only color of cars until a few years ago – has now merged with yellow-green-blue gradations. Skyscrapers rise against the once horizontal city, collapsing, overlaying and interspersing a myriad of cultural mutations: an apartment next to a Chinese interior design office, across from a Japanese girls bar, an old lady’s residence, and a cosmetic surgery salon, all on a single inconspicuous floor overlooking eight to ten lane stacked flyovers. Noise, smell, acrid air, demolition and dust surround new forms of urban realities constructed at a scale and pace previously unimaginable.
This emergent culture is a culture of change, both physically and psychologically, one that not only overrides the historic structure of the city, but one that exceeds and subverts its past limitations. This change doesn’t directly translate to quality life in terms of increased comfort and convenience, or a simplistic sense of order. And while it produces contradictions – perhaps a predictable byproduct of rapid development – there is also a flexibility and adaptability, which offers tremendous potential to generate new conditions, ideas and spaces. This state of continual transformation – which you can hear and see in the city day-by-day – stimulates monumental undertakings – like many of the large-scale buildings projects – along minute interventions on the street.
The individual subject is emerging within new forms of collective enterprise. A new generation is well placed to explore a freedom that, while looked at from an outside perspective, might not be immediately apparent, but in the end might provide possibilities in a more subversive way than maybe Western culture has, or Western systems currently do.
While efforts still continue to control access to information, it has essentially become uncontrollable: bloggers outrun the censors, text messaging avoids the firewall, and the remaining insistence and imagery of control only helps to disguise the activities and new realities that are arising throughout the texture of the city.
In the context of rapid modernization architecture still plays a larger role than in stable environments and Beijing’s skyline emerges as perhaps the most visible representation of its dramatic transformation.
CCTV – the new headquarters and television station for China’s national broadcaster, which is rising in the center of the CBD, has maybe come to symbolize a particular moment in Chinese history: its emerging economic power paired with a deadline that has acted as an unprecedented catalyst – the Olympic Games in 2008. CCTV’s impact does not simply reside on a political level, but translates into personal levels of enthusiasm, in the ability and courage to actually make it happen here, and the realization that it could possibly not have happened anywhere else.
The building forms a tube folded in space and joins all elements of television making into a loop of interconnected activities. Administration, broadcasting, program production and news divisions, alongside actor’s lounges, canteens and leisure zones promote exchange and collaboration. The loop subverts the traditional vertical hierarchy of the skyscraper – where the most important spaces are the top and the least at the bottom – and instead creates a circuit of equivalent components.
Within the city CCTV will manifest the place of media production. Its 10,000 inhabitants, twenty-four hour activity and programmatic diversity will stimulate the surrounding urban fabric, claiming a new public ground. The twenty-hectare site will be landscaped in to a vast green space of gardens, for leisure, spectacles and events.
The visitor’s loop allows the public to enter the headquarters and observe the process of television production. It introduces a new transparency to what used to be a historically opaque and inaccessible activity. As a social hypothesis CCTV proposes a contemporary collective. It aims to provoke, and ultimately to instrumentalize and participate in the culture of change.
Since CCTVs two leaning towers have begun to rise above the construction hording, a rumor has started to spread through the city that their connection in the overhang can only occur from 5 to 6 am. That this is actually true is perhaps less important than the fact that the project has started to occupy people’s minds. It may be in indication for a process of transformation and participation that has started to infiltrate and trickle down through the multiple layers of society.
When we first visited the site of abandoned motorcycle factories soon to be demolished for CCTV’s construction we found a billboard that said: “Adjust during development, develop during adjustment.” Beyond its primary political intention, I later realized that Deng Xiaoping’s slogan perhaps characterizes my entire experience here and that change, of the environment and yourself – is one of the greatest qualities this city possesses.