In November of 2013 Rem Koolhaas gave a presentation at Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Annual Awards (CTBUH) in Chicago. He was showing an audience OMA’s most striking and ambitious project – CCTV building in Beijing. Conceived just before Beijing Olympic Games this building was seen as a sign of China opening up, being more transparent and maybe even taking in some of the western values. At least this is what building had to offer – huge plaza under the building and a public route through China’s main TV network’s inner workings. Koolhaas seemed particularity proud about the latter. However, he lied.
Key element of CCTV is simply this public loop that enables Chinese public for the first time to enter the inner workings of TV making.
David Gianotten (Managing Partner-Architect of OMA) went even further when he gave a lecture a year later titled “The Public Meaning of Skyscrapers” at the CTBUH 2014 Shanghai Conference. He presented Shenzhen Stock Exchange Market building and CCTV in Beijing. Shenzhen Stock Exchange Market building has a particularly romantic story, almost an architectural Cinderella story. OMA were invited just five days before the deadline of the competition to replace another company. Crazy enough they agreed to participate and even more crazy enough they won. Five days is hardly enough to make a proper plan layout, so they had to be bold with their design and they were. This is how famous lifted podium building came to be. In the presentation Gianotten explained unique key features of the design – public plaza under the building and a publicly accessible garden on the top of the elevated podium. This is where he lied.
Everybody can use that roof of the building.
Deception is a common element of architecture. Finished buildings rarely exactly match renders, plans in magazines are often abstracted and descriptions sometimes can be hardly recognized in reality. However these are innocent deceptions and in other words they could also be called “conceptualizations”. Ability to conceptualize architecture is one of the key requirements for a good architect. In fact, every good famous architect has their own particular way to conceptualize environment. Let it be Bjarke Ingels who simplifies complex buildings down to cartoonish diagrams or early works of Rem Koolhaas which he was explaining by exploding buildings apart.
But none of the statements by Koolhaas or Gianotten could be called conceptualizations. They are simply wrong and describing non existing features. Public spaces simply do not exist there. It is not very difficult to be suspicious about descriptions of those projects even without visiting China. Simply try getting into one of the skyscrapers in Europe – a continent known for being quite socialist and having generous public spaces. Not so easy? Often you will need to register in advance and pass security checks. And now imagine Beijing where public spaces are restricted and you need to pass security check just to cross Tiananmen square and must carry a passport to enter National Museum of China. In this context reality is different from alternative reality OMA partners are describing.
It really looks that CCTV tower in Beijing was constructed for a different reality. There is nothing public about that building – all of the site is fenced and protected by guards. The most striking thing about CCTV tower is that while project was designed to have a public space under and inside the tower, in reality the most publicly intensive and congested space exists next to barricades of the main entrance to the site. This is where people are constantly gathering to be picked up or drop off some deliveries. This several square meter area on the side-walk, almost on the road, is all what is left from the public space promise in the CCTV project.
Shenzhen Stock Exchange Market is slightly better in public space sense, even though it does not have a public roof – one of the key elements of the project. In fact, even that public plaza below the podium is not so public. Unhappy security guards can whoosh you away from some of the spaces. But differently than CCTV, this tower at least does not have a huge guarded fence surrounding it and it is possible to get close enough to be able to touch the building.
OMA is not the only company which bends the facts, but they make boldest statements and attract most attention. With making alternative realities Buro Ole Scheeren is no better. Real context of their nearly finished DUO towers in Singapore is so far off from what is shown in the renders that it is difficult to recognise the project. It can take a while to realise that the building depicted in the images is the same as the one in front of your eyes. And it is all about promised way of perception – from a ground level this project can not be understood as a whole while renders and models suggest opposite. DUO in reality can be only perceived in fragments, but never as one composition. This does not mean it is a bad project, quite the opposite – it is really exciting piece of architecture despite naive honeycomb façade. However this lie in presentation is unsettling. What is built is almost entirely new project despite the fact that shapes and façade of the buildings look exactly like in renders. Project is seen in an entirely different way. Whole concept of perception is one big lie in this project and thus the project itself is a lie.
There is one element unifying all these projects – they all are in Asia. Clients in Asia are known to be less interested in context and public realm compared to Europe, this might be explanation of vastly misleading images by Buro Ole Scheeren and reality bending presentations by OMA. But let’s not forget another thing – Asia is far and not that many westerners will be able to check and notice if everything you say and show is true. Moreover nobody will really care and protest if you did not deliver promised public spaces in China. Working in Asia for western architects not only offers possibilities to create at a larger scale, but also gives a chance to invent alternative realities. Sometimes they might become physical, sometimes they stay imaginary, but in any case this can be sold as real thing in the West. But let’s not forget that Asia (especially China) is changing rapidly and imaginary reality can soon become true. OMA’s lies can become truth. Oh, then those projects would really become great!