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It is hard to imagine how architecture could get more postmodern than to become iconic for not existing. From the fast-waxing influence of digital renderings, to the ultimate significance of the Twin Towers for no longer being there, there is a creeping realisation that architecture’s most powerful contemporary expression may in fact be its disappearance. So it might prove for Rem Koolhaas’ TVCC tower — the smaller of the two elements within the ultramodern US$714m CCTV project — which having been ravaged by fire earlier this month, now stands on the cusp of a new world of potential symbolic meanings.

For one, the day of the fire is immediately portentous. The Chinese Lantern Festival (9 February) ends the month of Lunar New Year celebrations, and is traditionally when the old is burnt away and the new issued in. Yet CCTV — and the blazing TVCC — was scintillatingly new. Not only that, it was a staple element of the visual iconography of “New China” — the emergent superpower nation which, now bristling with global architecture, was busily mounting the world stage. Thus the fire is an inevitable “bad omen”, and resonates nastily with the juddering slowdown China is currently experiencing.

Then on the purely architectural level, it is hard to see flames tearing from the windows of a piece of prime starchitecture, and not relate it to what is happening elsewhere in the world. After a decade of megaproject proliferation and global oneupmanship, emerging market exuberance has been rudely cauterised. A dry wind is blowing across the Gulf; rumours abound that Dubai’s Palm is sinking; and TVCC is on fire ... is this an epoch ending?

One route deeper into the mysteries of the fire is to look to the first spark. The story starts with senior CCTV construction staff who, keen to wow Beijing with their fancy new buildings, planned a gargantuan fireworks display for the evening of the Lantern Festival. Ignoring niceties regarding permits, CCTV’s operatives had some 700 “Class A” fireworks trucked in from an “illegal” Hunan operator, and proceeded gleefully to launch them from the south west corner of the 20 hectare site. Things went nasty when at around 8.30pm a poorly aimed rocket fizzed straight into the upper stories of TVCC, promptly igniting them. The fire then licked downwards quickly — witnesses report flames “running along the skin of the building”, fuelling theories of an inflammable facade material (a full appraisal is yet to be released). As though insufficiently foisted by their own petard, it later transpired the guilty CCTV operatives had positioned cameras at the four corners of the site in order to video their pyrotechnic triumphs. The footage has been collected by police for further investigation.

The comic twist has not been lost on Beijingers, who were swiftly printing up t-shirts, and posting irreverent Photoshops online of the tower ablaze amid alien spacecraft and grinning Godzillas. Indeed the response dovetails nicely into Beijing’s already somewhat waggish take on the buildings. For all its panopticon-style menace, CCTV headquarters, with its straddled legs and hanging hips, has long been known around town as “the big pants”. When the TVCC tower — a second element sitting up behind the HQ — was added later, it was therefore dubbed “the little penis in the big pants”. And now of course, due to CCTV bosses getting overexcited, the “little penis” has shot off its fireworks, and burnt itself up.

Popular mirth is more than tinged with schadenfreude, stemming chiefly from a widespread dislike of CCTV (Chinese Central Television) itself. A nakedly Orwellian institution, CCTV has something just shy of a broadcasting monopoly over 1.3 billion people, to whom it beams the wills, wonts, and orthodox news of the Chinese Communist Party. Many feel CCTV manipulates information, is overpowerful, and grotesquely rich. This last at least is undeniable given advertising revenues of US$2bn a year. Regarding the incident, there is a pervasive sense of CCTV as an overreaching profiteer whose corrupt ways have finally led to a fiery humiliation. This interpretation becomes almost irresistible when considering how the TVCC tower — far from being integral to state television operations — was primarily an on-the-side moneyspinner: a luxury hotel venture contracted out to the five star Mandarin Oriental Group. Having accidentally torched it, CCTV bosses are now left looking greedy and foolish. A number of top officials and prominent CCTV anchors took part in a televised humbling parade, carrying photographs of the one fireman killed in the blaze, and hanging their heads. This public shaming of loathed figureheads, with all its dark overtones of the Cultural Revolution, was met with an eerie delight. Terrible is the pleasure of seeing the powerful at fault.

As of yet, the future of the actual building is uncertain. The blackened shell still stands, and official reports, which journalists have been instructed not to deviate from, insist the structure is sound. After a six hour inferno however, many are privately sceptical. Whether or not the TVCC tower actually pulls a postmodernist coup by disappearing just months before it was due to open hangs in the balance. It may merely be refitted. Either way, the episode of the fire has struck an oddly sweet chord — both psychologically and quite literally — with Beijingers. On the evening of the Lantern Festival residents traditionally eat tangyuan — a kind of dumpling made with sugar and rice flour. If the initial project brief for CCTV included the line “give me an icon”, they at least have one now: illuminated by the flickering orange glow, drawn together by an acrid warmth, and the sight of something slightly magical, a few thousand faces are upturned in the Beijing night. They are gazing at a burning tower, smiling mutely, and sucking on sweet rice dumplings.


Adrian Hornsby, 23.02.09