China's leaning towers face moment of truth

by AFP/Charles Whelan, Jan 7, 2008 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Beijing, Dec 9, 2007 - Work on arguably the most radical office building on earth has reached a crucial point, with engineers ready to join the two leaning towers that will be the new home of China's state broadcaster.


Groping 70 metres (230 feet) into space, 160 metres above Beijing's Central Business District, two cantilevered arms have been slowly edging towards each other from the twin towers that lean over at a sharp angle.


If weather conditions allow, the tricky manoeuvre will take place this week.


"It's the most interesting point in the whole process," said architect Ole Scheeren, the German partner in Rem Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).


The firm won an international competition in 2002 to build the new headquarters for China Central Television, the country's broadcast monopoly.


Engineers have a one-hour window before dawn to complete the crucial task when the building will be least affected by temperature change.


At any other time, imbalances caused by expansion of the steal beams through the heat of the sun would be locked into the complex structure forever.


The CCTV Tower is one of the most striking additions to Beijing's skyline, dotted with futuristic monuments to China's rapid growth and new-found power and influence in the world.


The complexity of the 234-metre (772-feet) tall structure locked together by an outer skeleton of 10,000 steel beams is heightened by the fact that Beijing is in an earthquake zone.


With no building codes applicable to a project this challenging, city officials appointed a team of 13 eminent Chinese engineers who spent two years poring over plans with Scheeren and his team before giving the green light for groundbreaking in September 2004.


The building is effectively a twisted tube -- a loop folded in space, according to Scheeren -- that forms the world's largest corporate headquarters and the second biggest office building in the world after the Pentagon.


Two angled towers reaching up into the skyline are joined at the top by a canopy that will eventually house 11 floors of offices, restaurants and public areas suspended over a void.


Just to intensify the sensation of "free-fall vertigo," glass flooring will be installed on the bottom floor of the overhang, said Scheeren.


Many other major structures are pushing up Beijing's skyline from around 10,000 building sites in a city that is busily remaking itself ahead of the Olympics, and at the same time staking its claim as a centre of design for the future.


New landmarks include Swiss architects Herzog and DeMeuron's Bird's Nest main Olympic stadium and the bubble-wrapped 'Water Cube' where swimmers will compete during next year's Games.


French architect Paul Andreu's National Grand Theatre, with its massive titanium-tinted dome, rises from a lake in central Beijing.


Meanwhile British architect Norman Foster's new airport terminal is nearing completion further northeast.


The ambition and quality of such projects "far exceed anything previously produced not only in China but possibly by any other city at a single point in time in recent history," said Scheeren, who has made the Chinese capital his home and is designing projects here for the rest of Asia.


Answering critics who have accused him of building a monument to China's totalitarian rulers, Scheeren said the CCTV tower could have an impact in bringing about positive change.


"I believe it can only make a small contribution to the larger transformation mechanisms, but hopefully it can be a meaningful contribution to a process of change that is noticeably taking place in this country," he said.


While the crucial stage may well come this week, the outer structure will be completed in time for the August 8-24 Olympics and the entire project will be finished in 2009.


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