words Alex Pasternack
CCTV’s headquarters in Beijing has been the spectral logo for a brave new architecture for some years, but even with its facade complete, OMA’s iconic building has become no easier to fathom.
Its massive cantilever, hanging like a guillotine over the notion of the skyscraper, casts the entire building in suspense, and like television itself, throws passersby into a daze. Even Ole Scheeren, OMA’s Beijing-based partner-in-charge, gets a shocking parallax view when he gazes up. “It has this very big, dominant presence; but there are moments when it becomes surprisingly small for what it is,” he says.
What it is is one of the world’s largest office buildings, meant to contain China’s entire state television operation, with 600,000sq m of floor space – more than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai. It is probably also the world’s most complex edifice. Designed in collaboration with Arup and exterior gurus Front Inc, the facade consists of nearly opaque glass framed in a lattice work of steel that holds the building in a diamond-shaped net.
“We turned the building shape into a big tube, triangulated its surface and made a mesh,” says Scheeren. The steel exoskeleton is sometimes dense, sometimes open, and its diagonal pattern lends the facade intrigue while providing reinforcement where it is most needed.
Borrowing as much from OMA’s own Seattle Public Library as from Beijing’s bamboo scaffolding, the facade collides form and function, so that what you see is what you get – sort of. “The pattern is very logical from an engineering point of view, but it isn’t very obvious to a lay person or even to a trained engineer,” says Scheeren.
The glass surface is similarly playful, telegraphing both transparency (inside, a circulatory loop invites visitors to have a look from the overhang) as well as a smoky opacity (this is the headquarters of the world’s largest propagandist, after all). Designers spent two years exploring different glazing techniques, resulting in a matte finish that emphasises the building’s 3-D shape while blending into the white smog of Beijing. “The question was really how could one design a building that could look good in sharp crisp sunlight, which happens sometimes, but also in this soft wash air,” says Scheeren.
Though scheduled to be finished late next year, at least on the outside the building already looks like its early sci-fi-esque models. For a design put through Beijing’s red tape and a barrage of controversy, that likeness is an impressive feat – one for which Scheeren credits OMA’s tight collaboration with CCTV, and the local design partner, ECADI.
If some are put off by the unexpected addition of a helicopter pad, Scheeren insists the whole building lends itself to surprising transformations. “You only need to take a few steps and the building changes,” he says, “from stable to unstable, from dominant to almost ephemeral.” From any perspective, and as hard as it may be to figure out, it is hard to look away.