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Towering Ambition

The National Stadium is as compelling a building to appear anywhere in the world in recent years. Its enthusiastic embrace by both city residents and Chinese architects is certainly genuine, even if television is filled with an endless parade of pimple-free teeny-boppers singing "We are ready!" and encouraging the country to love all things associated with the Olympic Games. Known as the Bird's Nest because of its huge and poetic steel exoskeleton, the stadium has become perhaps the single most iterated symbol in the grand, exhausting propaganda campaign for the Olympics.

But Paul Andreu's National Theater, a titanium-clad egg-shaped structure just off Tiananmen Square in downtown Beijing, hasn't been so lucky. Although it is a powerful spectacle, especially at sunset, when it seems particularly buoyant in the pool of water that surrounds it on all sides, there is little enthusiasm for it. One architect faulted it for being essentially a big dome over multiple theater spaces, with little rational arrangement of the interior. It doesn't help that as it was being built, a terminal Andreu designed for Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed, raising doubts about the architect. Or that it's the kind of building that is always surrounded by security guards, who police every infraction of public order. Or that it is wildly different from the historic buildings, the old hutongs (neighborhoods) and the more than half-century-old Maoist piles that surround it.

Feelings about another massive project -- the China Central Television tower by Koolhaas and Scheeren -- fall somewhere between the enthusiastic reception of the Bird's Nest and the glum acceptance of Andreu's egg. The CCTV tower is a steel behemoth rising above the city's rapidly growing central business district. It looks like a single skyscraper that has been broken and reassembled into two L-shaped pieces and fitted together on an angle, resulting in a single, continuous rectilinear tube. A huge amount of the building's space is known as "the overhang," because it is suspended some 500 feet above the city.

It is a building thrilling and horrifying at the same time. The CCTV tower is deliberately, brutally, almost absurdly iconic, imitating the blunt, slick and professional voice of the state media it will contain. Its shape sends a basic message: We can defy gravity. Which is another way of saying: Our power is unlimited.

When asked about the building, several Chinese architects focused on the question of . . . steel. This says a lot about the space they operate in, compared with the rarefied world of Koolhaas and other Western stars. The issue of steel isn't minor. China consumes steel at more than three times the rate of the United States, and prices for steel have been steadily rising. Lining up a reliable and affordable supply of steel is a concern for anyone building in China.

Ma Liangwei, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, speaks for many when he says the CCTV tower is too expensive, that it required too much money to engineer, that it is all about "shamelessly showing off." Wang Jun, an authority on the Beijing cityscape, says the tower "tames the buildings" around it -- an astute observation not just about the bland corporate architecture of the central business district, but the role of CCTV in Chinese society.

A Most Basic Building

In the shadow of these high-profile projects are thousands of what may be the most characteristic, most essential buildings in China today: the blue-and-white shed.

It is usually two floors high, made of a metal frame, with walkways and stairs on the outside. Sometimes two or more of these rectangular, temporary structures are joined together, often with their doors and windows facing each other, as if in imitation of the age-old courtyard houses that once filled Chinese cities. These buildings, seen at the peripheries of construction sites, serve as housing for the migrant workers who have come to the cities to build the towers and shopping malls and apartment complexes that are the most visible manifestation of China's double-digit economic growth.

Some of these sheds bustle with people all day, given the round-the-clock shifts at many building sites. The sheds have all the usual signs of haphazard domesticity -- laundry is hung willy-nilly, empty instant-noodle cups are littered about -- that men, living far from their families, display. Everything about the structures suggests impermanence.

One might consider the standardized shed as beneath the dignity of the word "architecture," except that the shed's transient quality may well be one of the fundamentally Chinese characteristics of building today. Chen Zhao, an architect and historian who teaches at Nanjing University, which has one of the country's best architecture schools, insists that the first step to understanding architecture in China is to get rid of the word "architecture."

It is a distracting concept, he says, at least when used "in the same sense as in Europe." Zhao, like other Chinese architects, says that ideas of permanence and monumentality -- so essential to much of Western architectural thinking -- are essentially foreign to "architecture" in China. Throughout the long millenniums of Chinese history, building has been more functional, limited to standard types of structures. Cities are made and remade, buildings are built and rebuilt. A place -- the axial center of a city, the environs near a temple -- often matters more than what it is built there. Buildings aren't necessarily conceived of as a permanent, lasting solution to a particular social need. They are expendable, sometimes in as little as 15 or 20 years.

"The obsolescence cycle is like a dog's life," says Thomas Campanella, author of a new book, "The Concrete Dragon," a powerful overview of China's huge building boom and its social and environmental consequences.


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