When the TVCC building, a hotel and theater complex that is part of Rem Koolhaas's bold new headquarters for China Central Television, I was almost unsurprised.
I didn't expect it to happen. For the record, I was not nearby at the time. But the project and the city of Beijing -- now symbolized as much by the wildly futuristic CCTV project as by the Temple of Heaven -- seems almost primed for this sort of chaotic thing right now. I haven't read Suketu Mehta's book on Mumbai, "Maximum City," but Beijing seems like the Indian capital's more elusive older brother: not nearly as dense nor as hectic as "maximum" might imply, and not as collected as "city" suggests. Rather, it is sprawling, fragmentary, a labrynth and a palimpsest of many different spaces and times, each with their own imperial and fantastical associations, all with a difficulty hinted at by the English name of the emblematic walled "city" at its center: "Forbidden." It's not "maximum city" so much as "voluminous cities." And in such a place -- and in a year already plastered with significance and fraught with uncertainty -- anything is possible. I could almost hear the sirens in the background.
And part of my unsurprise is borrowed from another impulse: to think about it, cooly, distantly -- as Rem Koolhaas himself might have imagined it. The architect has expressed his admiration for Beijing's perpetual rise and fall, the cycle of construction and destruction that Marx attributed to capitalism (China's not-so-secret modus operandi) and others attributed to modernity, and which also defined the metropolis of Koolhaas's early book-length ode, "Delirious New York."
In that book, as Bert de Muynck reminds us, Koolhaas described New York's ultimate creation-destruction metaphor: an early 20th century Coney Island boardwalk attraction called "Fighting the Flames," which consisted of a fake tenement building set ablaze and rebuilt multiple times a day. (A tenament building.) Set at a park called Dreamland, "the entire spectacle," Koolhaas wrote, "defines the dark side of Metropolis as an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it."
If it weren't his building, and even if it is, Koolhaas might have appreciated the inversion, a century later, of Coney Island's equation of chaos plus control. (Read what you will into the fact that the building that burned, TVCC, was in many ways the sideshow to the larger domineering building whose name it inverts, CCTV. And consider: the fears implicit in Coney Island's burning of a tenement building versus the hopes of Beijing's migrant construction workers, setting off fireworks).
In fact, the inversion already happened: in 1911, the lighting in the devils that decorated the facade of "End of the World," another Dreamland amusement, short-circuited. Weeks before a fire-fighting apparatus had been installed, but had not yet been connected to the Atlantic. Koolhaas relishes the Boschian scene, a collapse of the circus and the civic:
Elephants, hippos, horses, gorillas run amok, 'enveloped in flames.' Lions roam the streets in murderous panic, finally free to kill each other on their way to safety: 'Sultan...roared along Surf Avenue, eyes bloodshot, flanks torn and bleeding, mane afire...' For many years after the holocaust, surviving animals are sighted on Coney, deep in Brooklyn even, still performing their former tricks...
In three hours Dreamland burns to the ground.
But back to the Beijing circus: the TVCC inferno is not just a symbol of the end of our early 21st century architectural exuberance, or some expression of the danger and violence thought to be underneath the strange surfaces of post-modern buildings, or the most vivid transmutation of architectural spectacle ever. The strangely beautiful burning of TVCC -- what OMA has referred to as the "fun palace" -- just months before its opening might be the ultimate metaphor for a city hell bent on shiny construction, and the ugly destruction that demands. And at a time of economic and social upheaval, it also hints at the gradual loss of control by the authorities that oversee that metropolitan rise and fall.