Saturday, November 17, 2007

Into the void

Meanwhile, in booming Beijing, the Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters building for Chinese state television (CCTV) is nearing completion. The two leaning towers are ready to be connected at the top by the crazily cantilevered upper stories. Can it be done?

This is a building that could not have been attempted even a decade ago. A little sunlight, a little chill, and the gap between the towers shrinks or expands. Only Koolhaus and the Chinese would have dared such a far-out scheme for the second-largest office building in the world.

But what's new? My favorite building in the world, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, must have been judged in its time a lunatic design: A shell of glorious glass, held together by impossibly slender ribs of mortared stone. It was built in the 13th century, and except for some rather nasty vandalism during the French Revolution it has defied the ages.

Sainte-Chapelle stands as a magnificent monument to the Age of Faith; it was meant to house Christ's crown of thorns and other sacred relics. What does the CCTV tower stand for? Chinese over-arching ambition, of course. But it is really a monument to the Age of Computers. I think it is fair to say that no architecture company in the world could have gathered enough purely human intelligence to assure the feasibility of the plan. No one is going to spend $800 million on faith alone.