Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

CHINAMO

On my second day in the office, it was announced that OMA had been selected to design the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing. The scheme – a siamese skyscraper, twisted into a loop, supported by its skin like a spider – was already a legend within the office. Woeful tales of the toil that preceded the presentation, talk of the sudden need for a second, less abstract model to convince government officials, vague rumors of frenzied all night efforts in a Beijing archi-sweatshop were already circulating when the announcement came through the office intercom that we’d won. The message was quickly followed by a jubilant champaign toast on the roof of the building. Glasses in hand, we were giddy, it seemed like a watershed. After years of disappointment in Europe and America, “China,” the already familiar and absolutely unfamiliar past and future superpower had embraced OMA architecture. It felt like we were entering a new, immensely fertile territory, where rapid development, supported by private interests and public expectations, fueled by the free market, stabilized by a strong state, could combine to create the 21st century’s first prototypes of modern life.

In the months that followed this rooftop engagement party, dreams of the waking dragon dominated our work and conversation. Interest was infectious, and, as was often the case, shaped by Rem, who would return from each visit to Beijing invigorated. His fascination and enthusiasm propelled the office eastward and turned even those of us who’d never visited China into overnight Sinophiles. A sudden influx of Shanghai architects and engineers, brought in for CCTV’s DD phase, transformed the office demographics. The drawers of the office kitchen filled with chop sticks. Instant noodles appeared in the cupboard. With a mixture of awe and condescension, the Western press provided a chronicle of interlocking accomplishments – WTO entry, Yao Ming’s NBA success, Zhang Ziyi’s looming sex appeal, space exploration, the global disappearance of manhole covers, Lenovo’s IBM purchase… – which combined to give China’s rise a feeling of inevitability.

The negative attention that involvement with CCTV (Mouthpiece of the Party) generated in the West only reinforced Rem’s commitment to engagement, and in the years that followed the commission, the office invested huge amounts of human and financial capital in the hopes of participating further in China’s future. The efforts produced a repertoire of projects that re-imagined China – past, present, and future – from an outside position. They were based on research, hunches, private fascinations, and consultations with collaborators, particularly Qingyun Ma. The result was a hybrid of West and East, AMO-OMA’s ambitions and China’s possibilities.

CHINAMO

China appeared on OMA’s radar in the early ’90s, when the office was struggling to acclimatize to new, more unstable economic conditions. Many of the phenomena which define that decade – privatization, corporate mergers, deregulation, etc. – were already having a deforming effect on the practice and the nature of architecture generally. Where the architect had, for most of the twentieth century, been regarded as a kind of public servant, relied on to articulate a public vision of a city, often through urban entities that were welcoming and free (in both the social and monetary senses), by the last decade it was clear that the logic of the free market, with its emphasis on private ownership and quantifiable values, had become the dominant value system in the West. The architect had been reduced to a servant of private interests, a henchman for clients with no particular concern for the public or the possibilities of urban life.

For Rem in particular, the abandonment of the state in favor of the market, and the apparent domination of economic issues over almost any other value, was deeply disturbing. In conversation and in his lectures, he often lamented the architect’s diminishing status under the new regime, depicting him as a pathetic, passive figure, submitting to ever-changing demands, confined to an arbitrary sequence of confrontations with unrelated clients, unable to establish his own agenda. Perhaps worst of all, he, the representative of a discipline that evokes stability, even timelessness, was now forced to apply his knowledge in a context in which the unstable and the provisional are dominating features. OMA was handicapped: its chosen medium of architecture was too slow to capture the quick changes that are the essence of the free market and too laborious to allow time for the observation and analysis necessary to devise alternate strategies.

From these bleak conditions, two new entities were formed – the Harvard Project on the City and AMO. Each was imagined as a research lab, a conceptual space for studying the influence of the market and generating the knowledge that would fuel future projects. Both took China as one of their primary fields of operation, but with different intentions.

Harvard offered Rem a position of independence, supported by the might of Ivy League aura, and enabled him to examine in advance situations where OMA was interested in eventually working. The Project on the City took for its first subject the Pearl River Delta, at the time the most rapidly growing area on earth. The group spent most of 1996 field researching and, in the end, produced The Great Leap Forward (Taschen, 2002), a provisional encyclopedia of the PRD’s rituals of development and OMA’s introduction into the explosive potential of China’s socialist-market mixture.

Through sociology, surveillance, scholarship, and classification, The Great Leap Forward constructed an interpretation of China that went against the West’s conventional wisdom. It did not envision a future in which the world’s largest market becomes more like “us,” but attempted to understand the ways in which China’s differences allow for new possibilities and new freedoms. Instead of accepting the common reading that China is only hesitating on its path toward full-fledged free market embrace, it suggested that the experimentation in which the Chinese government is now engaged, combining the virtues of one system with some of the virtues of another, was an end in itself. This reading would eventually provide the foundation for OMA’s Chinese work – particularly CCTV, a project that maximizes the possibilities of state control by re-emphasizing values (centralization, integration, etc.) that the market economy has drastically compromised.

AMO provided a professional counterpart to Harvard’s academics. Sprung from the realization that architectural thinking retains its value even when architecture itself proves too unwieldy to realize, AMO created a platform for pursuing architecture’s fundamental concerns – structure, connections, effects, etc. – independent of the obligation to build. While the Project on the City emphasized observation and analysis, AMO proposes and provokes. Its Chinese work reflects this difference; it’s more intuitive and pitch-like, issued from an aerial perspective that is perhaps the only position a foreign office can honestly adopt when addressing the complexities of China.

AMO’s emphasis on the conceptual and polemical enabled us to engage politics, a domain in which the architect had once been a central figure, now relegated to the sidelines. China inspired our most grandiose geo-political arguments: its ascent coincided with America’s decline, and, particularly after September 11, China became a zone of intense hope and speculation. The insularity and arrogance of the Bush regime alienated most of Europe, which, at the time, was in the process of uniting in a shared commitment to the internationalism that the American government openly rejected. The trans-Atlantic relationship, taken as a pre-condition a few years earlier, was being reconsidered as it became more and more apparent that Pax Americana was becoming increasingly dangerous for the rest of the world. Within this context of uncertainty and frustration, China stepped, or perhaps was pushed, into the spotlight – “The New Superpower,” the emergent force that, in partnership with a unifying Europe, could construct a new, less one-sided world order.

In the Chinese projects and our work for the European government, AMO embraced this hope. “9-11” became a rhetorical machine, capable of re-orienting almost any intention, of suggesting solidarity, dismantling the status quo. We accepted the US assertion that 9-11 “changed everything,” but argued that the consequences of that change are very different than the simplistic, deadly “clash of civilizations” that the prevailing American reading insisted on. Like The Great Leap Forward‘s rejection of the conventional opinion of China’s free market experimentation, AMO based its proposals on an alternative reading of 9-11 that considered the attacks a tragedy with potentially positive effects, a blow that dislodged outdated assumptions and opened up new possibilities.

The CCTV competition was the first act of OMA’s post 9-11, post Atlantic period. Rem often said that accepting CCTV was partly a rejection of the competition to redesign Ground Zero taking place in New York at the same time. To him CCTV and Ground Zero represented two extremes – future and the past, optimism and fear, openness and defensiveness… Most of us adopted a similar way of thinking, professionally at least. We had megalomaniacal ambitions that required renouncing the status quo and embracing the new and undeveloped, and while our adoption of the crude us/them logic of the American president looks awkward in retrospect, our ultimate goal was to promote a diverse, multipolar world that would be more resistant to the diametric oppositions of small minded leaders.

All of the AMO work presented in this issue followed the CCTV commission, and, in many ways, was fueled by residual energy from that triumph. Beijing Preservation was in part a companion to CCTV, an attempt to re-evaluate its context and imagine new ways that one can consider history amongst the rapid, destructive change the headquarters represents. AMO’s political interests fueled Shanghai 2010, a proposal for a “thematic master plan,” the conceptual blueprint for the Shanghai Expo’s physical plan. A signal into the primordial mists of “the Chinese century”, it rejected the harmless topics that defined recent world fairs in favor of more ambitious, contentious issues such as religion and poverty, which could be used to reinvigorate a vegetative event and assert China’s latent world leadership.

Content (Taschen, 2004), a magazine-book that reviewed AMO-OMA’s output from 1997-2004, is perhaps the most eloquent articulation of the office’s interest in China. Created in late 2003, during the height of passion, it sounded a call to “Go East” – a mantra that structured the book and encapsulated the prevailing sentiment at the time. A few years after its release, AMO became involved in another publishing project, Volume, a 3-way partnership with the Dutch magazine Archis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture. Several of our features discussed China’s prospective power, but rather than speculating, as we did for Shanghai 2010, in Volume we took a fact-based look at the present and, through media filtering, attempted to identify those areas in which China’s potential was already coming to fruition.

These efforts comprise the body of AMO’s Chinese work, as I experienced it at least. By the time I left the office in early 2006, much of the fever that fed this work had dissipated. The cumulative disappointment of several lost competitions and ignored proposals, disagreements with potential clients, combined with the cold realization of our own overeagerness, gradually slowed the momentum. China remained an unavoidable presence in the news, but, with the remains of the CCTV team re-located to Beijing, the office in Rotterdam took on its former appearances. AMO’s “red period” was over.

Originally published in Urban China Magazine 14-15, January 2007