On Beijing’s CCTV Headquarters

Beijing is dusty and sprawling and not a city you become nostalgic for. Some sections of it are, to the time-poor visitor, plain and free of character; some, particularly those around the historical and controversial Hutongs, even look positively provincial. But during my week in the city I began to gather habits, as if I lived there, like walking the cracked and bumpy path from my hotel up to a small grocery store to buy ice-creams and water and spearmint gum. I became familiar with the sight of a young homeless man who, on the outskirts of Wangfujing, slept in a tangled cubby house of sheets and old clothes at night and, during the day, sat by it and sketched. I think of him and I think that I should have tried to communicate, see if he would sell me a drawing. Then I could have written about it.

I’ve become nostalgic for Beijing. The thought of it floods me with impatience, makes me want to go there. I want to be on the vast boulevards at the centre of the city, in the sunlight turned orange from smog, at the bottom of hulking, Soviet-style buildings. These buildings are colossal, as if they’re either the dwellings of giants or alien relics dropped from space. I think about going there and doing architectural tours for smiling Westerners – I’d use my hands to explain and we could have duck, carved off the bone by masked chefs in front of us, for lunch. This is despite actually seeing only a small percentage of Beijing and knowing little about it or architecture, really, or why what’s where.

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I’ve rewitten this piece a number of times, more than a fistful. I considered titling it, “On why what’s where”.

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The CCTV headquarters is a monstrous piece of architecture. It’s the kind of piece that, half-joking, an architect free-draws on a thin sheet of paper after a long lunch, a sheet which is then maybe framed and put on a wall somewhere as testament to this architect’s imagination, an icon of potential.

But here it is, realised, buffeted by winds, warmed by the sun and, on still days, partially erased by the smog of distant industry. It’s both beautiful and ugly, human and alien, and it’s huge.

I think part of the reason I haven’t yet written about it is that, like the young homeless man, I saw the building only at distances. I didn’t stand beneath it or get photos in front of it (the only photos I took of it are from the window of a mini-bus) and, importantly, didn’t step into the lobby. This is crucial. I heard stories of its construction, of fireworks being lit from its roof, the building next door catching on fire and CCTV bosses being jailed as punishment, but seeing the insides is important. It’s because of this, the seeing it from afar, that I haven’t written about it. I worry that I’ll get it, the whole thing, wrong.

The CCTV headquarters (it feels like it should have a proper name) is sculptural, like the Sphinx, and pyramidesque in scale and ambition (it feels like there should be a word for something being of both a grand scale and constructed by humans; Olympian isn’t quite it). In 2009, on the high speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo, I saw, again from a window, in the distance, impossibly high in the sky, seemingly disconnected from the earth, the tip of Mt. Fuji. Some illusion of light had removed its middle and so all that was visible of Fuji-san was its apex; it was like a Magritte painting in the way it hovered above the ground. Of course I was filled with awe, but my awe was tempered by the awareness that nature had done this.

In nature, these things make some sense. As sketches on paper, even more so. But in a city, part of a skyline and its character, is something else.

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