I have decided to launch a campaign against the skyscraper, that hideous, mediocre form of architecture…. Today we only have an empty version of it, only competing in height.
— Rem Koolhaas, “Kool Enough for Beijing?”
Figure 1: The CCTV Headquarters—A Courtyard in the Air. Cher Coad, 2020.
Introduction: An Anomaly within an Anomaly
Construction of Beijing’s China Central Television Headquarters (henceforth CCTV Headquarters) began in 2004 and the building was officially completed in 2012. It is a project by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) headed by Rem Koolhaas (1944-), who has been called “the coolest, hippest, and most cutting-edge architect on the planet”(“Rem Koolhaas Biography”). The CCTV Headquarters is a distinctive feature of downtown Beijing and is heavily associated in the Western world with 21st-century China. It is often used as the backdrop for reports from the China correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Bill Birtles. The construction of the CCTV Headquarters, however, was very much an international enterprise. Koolhaas himself is Dutch, and the building was one of the first projects the OMA did outside of America after 9/11. As Koolhaas describes it:
we had incredible emphasis on New York for five years, and America for five years, and what we decided to do after September 11 when we realized that, you know, things were going to be different in America: [was] to also orient ourselves eastwards [Koolhaas goes on to describe two projects: the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia and the CCTV Headquarters]. (Rem Koolhaas Interview)
Problematically, Koolhaas claims that
the building we created for CCTV could never have been conceived by the Chinese and could never have been built by Europeans. It is a hybrid by definition. It was also a partnership, not a foreign imposition…. There was a huge Chinese component from the very beginning. We tried to do a building that conveys that it has emerged from the local situation. (Fraioli 117)
Our article reinterprets this reading. We suggest that the OMA’s “incredible emphasis” on America—home of the world’s first skyscraper: the Home Insurance Building built in 1885 in Chicago, Illinois—pivotally spills over into its engagement with China. The emergence of the CCTV Headquarters “from the local situation”, such as it is, is more in spite of Koolhaas’s stated “hybrid” approach than because of it, for what’s missing from his analysis of the CCTV Headquarters’ provenance is the siheyuan or classical Chinese courtyard house. We will argue that the CCTV Headquarters is an anomaly within an anomaly in contemporary Beijing’s urban landscape, to the extent that it turns the typologies of both the (vertical, American) skyscraper and the (horizontal, Chinese) siheyuan on a 90 degree angle.
The important point to make here, however, is that these two anomalous elements of the building are not of the same order. While the anomalous re-configuration of the skyscraper typology is clearly part of Koolhaas’s architectural manifesto, it is against his architectural intentionality that the CCTV Headquarters sustains the typology of the siheyuan. This bespeaks the persistent and perhaps functional presence of traditional Chinese architecture and urbanism in the building. Koolhaas’s building contains both starkly evident and more secretive anomalies. Ironically then, there is a certain truth in Koolhaas’s words, beneath the critique we made of it above as an example of American-dominated, homogenising globalisation. And the significance of the CCTV Headquarters’ hybridity as both skyscraper and siheyuan can be elaborated through Daniel M. Abramson’s thesis that a consideration of unbuilt architecture has the potential to re-open architecture to its historical conditions.
Roberto Schwarz argues that “forms are the abstract of specific social relationships” (53). Drawing on Schwarz’s work and Abramson’s, we conclude that the historical presence—as secretive anomaly—of the siheyuan in the CCTV Headquarters suggests that the building’s formal debt to the siheyuan (more so than to the American skyscraper) may continue to unsettle the “specific social relationship” of Chinese to Western society (Schwarz 53).
The site of this unsettlement, we suggest, is data. The CCTV Headquarters might well be the most data-rich site in all of China—it is, after all, a monumental television station. Suggestively, this wealth of airborne data is literally enclosed within the aerial “courtyard”, with its classical Chinese form, of the CCTV Headquarters. This could hardly be irrelevant in the context of the geo-politics of globalised data. The “form of data”, to coin a phrase, radiates through all the social consequences of data flow and usage, and here the form of data is entwined with a form always already saturated with social consequence. The secretive architectural anomaly of Koolhaas’s building is thus a heterotopic space within the broader Western engagement with China, so much of which relates to flows and captures of data.
The Ubiquitous Siheyuan or Classical Chinese Courtyard House
According to Ying Liu and Adenrele Awotona, “the courtyard house, a residential compound with buildings surrounding a courtyard on four (or sometimes three) sides, has been representative of housing patterns for over one thousand years in China” (248). Liu and Awotona state that “courtyard house patterns could be found in many parts of China, but the most typical forms are those located in the Old City in Beijing, the capital of China for over eight hundred years” (252). In their reading, the siheyuan is a peculiarly elastic architectural typology, whose influence is present as much in the Forbidden City as in the humble family home (252). Prima facie then, it is not surprising that it has also secreted itself within the architectural form of Koolhaas’s creation. It is important to note, however, that while the “most typical forms” of the siheyuan are indeed still to be found in Beijing, the courtyard house is an increasingly uncommon sight in the Chinese capital. An article in the China Daily from 2004 refers to the “few remaining siheyuan” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”).
That said, all is not lost for the siheyuan. Liu and Awotona discuss how the classical form of the courtyard house has been modified to more effectively house current residents in the older parts of Beijing while protecting “the horizontal planning feature of traditional Beijing” (254). “Basic design principles” (255) of the siheyuan have supported “a transition from the traditional single-household courtyard housing form to a contemporary multi-household courtyard housing form” (254). In this process, approaches of “urban renewal [involving] demolition” and “preservation, renovation and rebuilding” have been taken (255). Donia Zhang extends the work of Liu and Awotona in the elaboration of her thesis that “Chinese-Americans interested in building Chinese-style courtyard houses in America are keen to learn about their architectural heritage” (47). Zhang’s article concludes with an illustration that shows how the siheyuan may be merged with the typical American suburban dwelling (66).
The final thing to emphasise about the siheyuan is what Liu and Awotona describe as its “special introverted quality” (249). The form is saturated with social consequence by virtue of its philosophical undergirding. The coincidence of philosophies of Daoism (including feng-shui) and Confucianism in the architecture and spatiality of the classical Chinese courtyard house makes it an exceedingly odd anomaly of passivity and power (250-51). The courtyard itself has a highly charged role in the management of family, social and cultural life, which, we suggest, survives its transposition into novel architectural environments.
Figure 2: The CCTV Headquarters—Looking Up at “The Overhang”. Cher Coad, 2020.
The CCTV Headquarters: A New Type of Skyscraper?
Rem Koolhaas is not the only architect to interrogate the standard skyscraper typology. In his essay from 1999, “The Architecture of the Future”, Norman Foster argues that “the world’s increasing ecological crisis” (278) is in part a function of “unchecked urban sprawl” (279). A new type of skyscraper, he suggests, might at least ameliorate the sprawl of our cities:
the Millennium Tower that we have proposed in Tokyo takes a traditional horizontal city quarter—housing, shops, restaurants, cinemas, museums, sporting facilities, green spaces and public transport networks—and turns it on its side to create a super-tall building with a multiplicity of uses … . It would create a virtually self-sufficient, fully self-sustaining community in the sky. (279)
Koolhaas follows suit, arguing that “the actual point of the skyscraper—to increase worker density—has been lost. Skyscrapers are now only momentary points of high density spaced so far apart that they don’t actually increase density at all” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”).
Foster’s solution to urban sprawl is to make the horizontal (an urban segment) vertical; Koolhaas’s is to make the vertical horizontal: “we’ve [OMA] come up with two types: a very low-rise series of buildings, or a single, condensed hyperbuilding. What we’re doing with CCTV is a prototype of the hyperbuilding” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”). Interestingly, the “low-rise” type mentioned here brings to mind the siheyuan—textual evidence, perhaps, that the siheyuan is always already a silent fellow traveller of the CCTV Headquarters project.
The CCTV Headquarters is, even at over 200 metres tall itself, an anomaly of horizontalism amidst Beijing’s pervasive skyscraper verticality. As Paul Goldberger reports, “some Beijingers have taken to calling it Big Shorts”, which again evokes horizontality. This is its most obvious anomaly, and a somewhat melancholy reminder of “the horizontal planning feature of traditional Beijing” now mutilated by skyscrapers (Liu and Awotona 254).
In the same gesture, however, with which it lays the skyscraper on its side, Koolhaas’s creation raises into the air the shape of the courtyard of a classical Chinese house. To our knowledge, no one has noticed this before, let alone written about it. It is, to be sure, a genuine courtyard shape—not merely an archway or a bridge with unoccupied space between. Pure building entirely surrounds the vertical courtyard shape formed in the air.
Most images of the building provide an orientation that maximises the size of its vertical courtyard. To this extent, the (secret) courtyard shape of the building is hidden in plain sight. It is possible, however, to make the courtyard narrow to a mere slit of space, and finally to nothing, by circumnavigating the building. Certain perspectives on the building can even make it look like a more-or-less ordinary skyscraper. But, as a quick google-image search reveals, such views are rare. What seems to make the building special to people is precisely that part of it that is not building. Furthermore, anyone approaching the CCTV Headquarters with the intention of locating a courtyard typology within its form will be disappointed unless they look to its vertical plane. There is no hint of a courtyard at the base of the building.
Figure 3: The CCTV Headquarters—View from “The Overhang”. Cher Coad, 2020.
Figure 4: The CCTV Headquarters—Looking through the Floor of “The Overhang”. Cher Coad, 2020.
Visiting the CCTV Headquarters: A “Special Introverted Quality?”
In January 2020, we visited the CCTV Headquarters, ostensibly as audience members for a recording of a science spectacular show. Towards the end of the recording, we were granted a quick tour of the building. It is rare for foreigners to gain access to the sections of the building we visited. Taking the lift about 40 floors up, we arrived at the cantilever level—known informally as “the overhang”. Glass discs in the floor allow one to walk out over nothingness, looking down on ant-like pedestrians. Looking down like this was also to peer into the vacant “courtyard” of the building—into a structure “turned or pushed inward on itself”, which is the anatomical definition of “introverted” (Oxford Languages Dictionary).
Workers in the building evinced no great affection for it, and certainly nothing of our wide-eyed wonder. Somebody said, “it’s just a place to work”. One of this article’s authors, Patrick West, seemed to feel the overhang almost imperceptibly vibrating beneath him. (Still, he has also experienced this sensation in conventional skyscrapers.) We were told the rumour that the building has started to tilt over dangerously. Being high in the air, but also high on the air, with nothing but air beneath us, felt edgy—somehow special—our own little world.
Koolhaas promotes the CCTV Headquarters as (in paraphrase) “its own city, its own community” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”). This resonated with us on our visit. Conventional skyscrapers fracture any sense of community through their segregated floor-upon-floor verticality; there is never enough room for a little patch of horizontal urbanism to unroll. Within “the overhang”, the CCTV Headquarters felt unlike a standard skyscraper, as if we were in an urban space magically levitated from the streets below. Sure, we had been told by one of the building’s inhabitants that it was “just a place to work”—but compared to the bleak sterility of most skyscraper work places, it wasn’t that sterile. The phrase Liu and Awotona use of the siheyuan comes to mind here, as we recall our experience; somehow, we had been inside a different type of building, one with its own “special introverted quality” (249). Special, that is, in the sense of containing just so much of horizontal urbanism as allows the building to retain its introverted quality as “its own city” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”).
Figure 5: The CCTV Headquarters—View from “The Overhang”. Cher Coad, 2020.
Figure 6: The CCTV Headquarters—Inside “The Overhang”. Cher Coad, 2020.
Unbuilt Architecture: The Visionary and the Contingent
Within the present that it constitutes, built architecture is surrounded by unbuilt architecture at two interfaces: where the past ends; where the future begins. The soupy mix of urbanism continually spawns myriad architectural possibilities, and any given skyscraper is haunted by all the skyscrapers it might have been. History and the past hang heavily from them.
Meanwhile, architectural programme or ambition—such as it is—pulls in the other direction: towards an idealised (if not impossible to practically realise) future. Along these lines, Koolhaas and the OMA are plainly a future-directed, as well as self-aware, architectural unit:
at OMA we try to build in the greatest possible tolerance and the least amount of rigidity in terms of embodying one particular moment. We want our buildings to evolve. A building has at least two lives—the one imagined by its maker and the life it lives afterward—and they are never the same. (Fraioli 115)
Koolhaas makes the same point even more starkly with regard to the CCTV Headquarters project through his use of the word “prototype”: “what we’re doing with CCTV is a prototype of the hyperbuilding” (“Kool Enough for Beijing?”). At the same time, however, as the presence of the siheyuan within the architecture of the CCTV Headquarters shows, the work of the OMA cannot escape from the superabundance of history, within which, as Roberto Schwarz claims, “forms are the abstract of specific social relationships” (53).
Supporting our contentions here, Daniel M. Abramson notes that unbuilt architecture implies
two sub-categories … the visionary unbuilt, and the contingent … . Visionary schemes invite a forward glance, down one true, vanguard path to a reformed society and discipline. The contingent unbuilts, conversely, invite a backward glance, along multiple routes history might have gone, each with its own likelihood and validity; no privileged truths. (Abramson)
Introducing Abramson’s theory to the example of the CCTV Headquarters, the “visionary unbuilt” lines up with Koolhaas’ thesis that the building is a future-directed “prototype”. while the clearest candidate for the “contingent unbuilt”, we suggest, is the siheyuan. Why? Firstly, the siheyuan is hidden in plain sight, within the framing architecture of the CCTV Headquarters; secondly, it is ubiquitous in Beijing urbanism—little wonder then that it turns up, unannounced, in this Beijing building; thirdly, and related to the second point, the two buildings share a “special introverted quality” (Liu and Awotona 249). “The contingent”, in this case, is the anomaly nestled within the much more blatant “visionary” (or futuristic) anomaly—the hyperbuilding to come—of the Beijing-embedded CCTV Headquarters. Koolhaas’s building’s most fascinating anomaly relates, not to any forecast of the future, but to the subtle persistence of the past—its muted quotation of the ancient siheyuan form.
Our article is, in part, a response to Abramson’s invitation to “pursue … the consequences of the unbuilt … [and thus] to open architectural history more fully to history”. We have supplemented Abramson’s idea with Schwarz’s suggestion that “forms are the abstract of specific social relationships” (53). The anomaly of the siheyuan—alongside that of the hyperbuilding—within the CCTV headquarters, opens the building up (paraphrasing Abramson) to a fuller analysis of its historical positioning within Western and Eastern flows of globalisation (or better, as we are about to suggest, of glocalisation). In parallel, its form (paraphrasing Schwarz) abstracts and re-presents this history’s specific social relationships.
Figure 7: The CCTV Headquarters—A Courtyard of Data. Cher Coad, 2020.
Conclusion: A Courtyard of Data and Tensions of Glocalisation
Koolhaas proposes that the CCTV Headquarters was “a partnership, not a foreign imposition” and that the building “emerged from the local situation” (Fraioli 117). To us, this smacks of Pollyanna globalisation. The CCTV Headquarters is, we suggest, more accurately read as an imposition of the American skyscraper typology, albeit in anomalous form. (One might even argue that the building’s horizontal deviation from the vertical norm reinforces that norm.) Still, amidst a thicket of conventionally vertical skyscrapers, the building’s horizontalism does have the anomalous effect of recalling “the horizontal planning feature of traditional Beijing” (Liu and Awotona 254). Buried within its horizontalism, however, lies a more secretive anomaly in the form of a vertical siheyuan. This anomaly, we contend, motivates a terminological shift from “globalisation” to “glocalisation”, for the latter term better captures the notion of a lack of reconciliation between the “global” and the “local” in the building.
Koolhaas’s visionary architectural programme explicitly advances anomaly. The CCTV Headquarters radically reworks the skyscraper typology as the prototype of a hyperbuilding defined by horizontalism. Certainly, such horizontalism recalls the horizontal plane of pre-skyscraper Beijing and, if faintly, that plane’s ubiquitous feature: the classical courtyard house. Simultaneously, however, the siheyuan has a direct if secretive presence within the morphology of the CCTV Headquarters, even as any suggestion of a vertical courtyard is strikingly absent from Koolhaas’s vanguard manifesto. To this extent, the hyperbuilding fits within Abramson’s category of “the visionary unbuilt”, while the siheyuan aligns with Abramson’s “contingent unbuilt” descriptor. The latter is the “might have been” that, largely under the pressure of its ubiquity as Beijing vernacular architecture, “very nearly is”.
Drawing on Schwarz’s idea that “forms are the abstract of specific social relationships”, we propose that the siheyuan, as anomalous form of the CCTV Headquarters, is a heterotopic space within the hybrid global harmony (to paraphrase Koolhaas) purportedly represented by the building (53). In this space thus formed collides the built-up historical and philosophical social intensity of the classical Chinese courtyard house and the intensities of data flows and captures that help constitute the predominantly capitalist and neo-liberalist “social relationship” of China and the Western world—the world of the skyscraper (Schwarz). Within the siheyuan of the CCTV Headquarters, globalised data is literally enveloped by Daoism and Confucianism; it is saturated with the social consequence of local place. The term “glocalisation” is, we suggest, to be preferred here to “globalisation”, because of how it better reflects such vernacular interruptions to the hegemony of globalised space.
Forms delineate social relationships, and data, which both forms and is formed by social relationships, may be formed by architecture as much as anything else within social space. Attention to the unbuilt architectural forms (vanguard and contingent) contained within the CCTV Headquarters reveals layers of anomaly that might, ultimately, point to another form of architecture entirely, in which glocal tensions are not only recognised, but resolved. Here, Abramson’s historical project intersects, in the final analysis, with a worldwide politics.
Figure 8: The CCTV Headquarters—A Sound Stage in Action. Cher Coad, 2020.
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