Thanks to Olympics, Beijing gets its Eiffel Tower, of sorts

Tourists snap pictures outside the Beijing Olympic venues known as the "water cube" and the "bird's nest."
Tourists snap pictures outside the Beijing Olympic venues known as the "water cube" and the "bird's nest." Tim Johnson / MCT

BEIJING — London has Big Ben, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge and now Beijing has an iconic structure that's likely to identify the city forever.

It's an audacious monolith that looks like two drunken high-rise towers leaning over and holding each other up at the shoulders.

The eye-catching building, which is nearly finished, will be the headquarters of China Central Television, the staid propaganda arm of China's ruling Communist Party, and it's perhaps the boldest and most daring of several new buildings that have given Beijing a stunning new appearance for the upcoming Summer Olympic Games.

In keeping with the playful nature of the new buildings, all have weird popular names. There's "the egg" and the "bird's nest." The "water cube" isn't far away, and lastly there's "short pants," also known as the "twisted doughnut."

The last of them is the new television building, the CCTV headquarters, and it can nearly make one dizzy standing on the ground and looking up at its odd, teetering 49-story towers connected by a multistory, cantilevered, jagged cross section over open space at a vertiginous 36 stories up in the air.

Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and German architect Ole Scheeren, the building has been called an "angular marvel" and a "dazzling reinvention of the skyscraper."

Its engineering is so complex that the designers say such a building couldn't have been built a few years ago. That's because it took immense computing power to ensure that the design could withstand huge pressures in the earthquake-prone capital. Some 10,000 tons of steel were used in its construction.

As much as it's a challenge to gravity, the building is a challenge to the mind, critics say, defying conventions of skyscrapers as vertical shafts thrusting straight up.

"It captures the spirit of the country at this point in time, a really daring spirit to look into the future and try the impossible," said Rocco Yim, a Hong Kong architect who sat on the jury in 2002 that selected the winning design for the tower.

Yim dismissed the criticism that's poured in from ordinary Chinese, some of whom say the building lacks Chinese features. Others say it's too costly, at $800 million, or that its 44-acre footprint is too big for such a central city location.

"The Eiffel Tower was detested by half the population of Paris when it was built," Yim said.

Deng Xuexian, a professor of architecture at Tsinghua University, said new designs often generated opposition before they became recognized as global landmarks.

"The Sydney Opera House was criticized by many people, even members of Parliament. However, it has become a landmark construction of Australia," Deng said.

Even admirers sometimes voice ambivalent feelings.

"It is a little bit weird. I don't know how it keeps steady," said Hua Jia, a university design student. "But I think it is great, very modern."

With the Olympic Games as a showcase, Beijing officials early this decade commissioned cutting-edge buildings, drawing the hottest designers from the global architectural world and giving a platform to what some wags dubbed "star-chitecture."

Among the new buildings:

_ The 91,000-seat Olympic Stadium is a tangle of seemingly random steel "twigs" curved into a graceful bowl and designed to look like a bird's nest. Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, which also designed the Tate Modern museum in London, created the stadium.

_ A stone's throw from the "bird's nest" is the "water cube," an Olympic aquatic center covered with translucent blue panels that give it the appearance of being covered in bubble wrap. At night, it offers an otherworldly blue glow.

_ In the heart of Beijing, slightly to the west of Mao Zedong's portrait looking across Tiananmen Square, a shimmering, egg-shaped titanium dome rises from behind reflecting pools. Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, it's the new National Theater. Most people just call it "the egg."

_ The dazzling new $3.8 billion terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport, designed by Briton Norman Foster and built by 50,000 workers in just four years, is purported to be the largest structure and the most advanced airport terminal in the world.

It might seem incongruous that a nation such as China, allergic to political reform and still insistent on calling itself communist, would willingly engage daring architects, spending vast sums on prestige projects.

Indeed, some foreign architects wriggle a bit when they're asked whether they're supporting China's one-party state with their designs, retorting that the new buildings themselves coax China to engage more with the world, not only in appearance but in function.

CCTV, the sole Chinese broadcaster, with some 15 channels, wants one day to rival CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp. Its new headquarters includes broadcasting studios, program production facilities, digital cinemas and enough space to make it the second largest office building in the world, after the Pentagon outside Washington.

The architects have built huge glass panels in the floor of the cantilevered cross section of the building, so that visitors can get the woozy sensation of walking above nothing but air.

In a statement, Koolhaas' partner, Ole Scheeren, said a new young generation was rising to power at CCTV and "the many publicly accessible functions of the new building point towards a democratization of the institution."

Since the building is like a large loop, usual hierarchies are diminished. The top floors will include public spaces for employees, rather than offices for top honchos, and communal corridors are designed to let employees and visitors peer into studios and see the inner workings of one of the world's biggest media companies.

Outside the building are a public entertainment area and outdoor filming areas.

Just how open the complex will be to the public is yet to be seen, however. Security concerns may limit entry, isolating the building.

Yim, the Hong Kong architect, said that the headquarters must generate vibrant activities and pull in people from the surrounding city in order to propel itself into the ranks of world-class buildings.

"That will be the test of whether it is a great piece of architecture rather than just an eye-catching structure," Yim said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hua Li contributed to this article).


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