Towering Inferno, Koolhaas Style
February 11, 2009
The tragedy of lives lost in a fire is always hard to bear, but particularly so when the accident might have been averted. Beijing’s recent building fire adjacent to the CCTV tower was horrific, particularly in videos that have appeared on YouTube, but the interest in the blaze has gone beyond mere empathy for its victims (construction workers mainly, who were celebrating with fireworks). A number of commentators, both in China and the West, have asked questions about the architecture, and the famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, who designed both the hotel and the communications tower next door. Did hubris play a part in the blaze? Was this a bad omen? Would western starchitects be invited back to Beijing following the disaster? Was the building safe for its prospective occupants?
In a previous post about Chinese architecture and urbanism, I questioned the country’s choice of high-profile western designers who were hired, and given carte-blanche, to remake Beijing for the summer Olympics. The billions spent on showcase buildings, all with silly nicknames, seemed ridiculous last August, and seems even more shortsighted in today’s dismal economic climate. It appears from reports of the fire that the glamorous hotel in the CCTV complex might not be rebuilt, given the enormous cost involved and the severity of the destruction. The tragedy will lead reasonable people to question the wisdom of locating so many thousands of workers in Koolhaas’s bizarre tower next door, which offers little safety against fires. Here is why: not only is the building tall at 75 stories, it twists in a strange cantilever, preventing people on many of the floors from getting to an exit. Occupants are literally hovering above the ground with no vertical circulation nearby for hundreds of offices. The speed of the destruction of the nearby hotel indicates just how vulnerable people would be were the larger building to catch fire. The World Trade Center catastrophe would pale by comparison.
When will architects and clients recognize the folly of such experimentation with building form? Following 9/11 many architects and engineers began to question the wisdom of constructing massive skyscrapers, given the near impossibility of evacuating them in large fires. Yet this did not stop egotistical builders in many Chinese cities from erecting towers over 50 stories, the limit of safe elevator egress. To those of us who care about the environment, the era of the skyscraper is over–energy concerns will drive builders to reconsider tall buildings as heating and cooling them becomes ever more difficult. An architect who pretends to care about cities and their residents, as Mr. Koolhaas does (and his hypocrisy shows here as elsewhere), has no business constructing such death traps.
Poetic justice? Ominous portent? The Chinese have followed omens for centuries, and there is no reason to doubt them now.