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Designing for Despots


by Jerome Weeks 6 Aug 2008

The Los Angeles Times asks: Certainly there has been precious little coverage in the Beijing media of a subject that has captured the attention of architects and critics throughout the West in recent months — whether firms should refuse on principle to work in China, particularly on high-profile government buildings. With an increasing share of […]

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The Los Angeles Times asks:

Certainly there has been precious little coverage in the Beijing media of a subject that has captured the attention of architects and critics throughout the West in recent months — whether firms should refuse on principle to work in China, particularly on high-profile government buildings. With an increasing share of the world’s most innovative architecture being sponsored by autocratic regimes, an age-old question has gained new traction on the eve of the Beijing Olympics: To what degree are architects responsible for the political records or ethical shortcomings of their clients?

It’s not just the question of China’s repressive politics. Western architects working on large projects may be accelerating “the widespread destruction of the city’s ancient fabric. Since winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics seven years ago, the government has forcibly displaced, according to one study, more than 1 million Beijing residents to make way for new construction.”

Rem Koolhaas, one of the architects behind the Wyly Theater, has designed the already famous CCTV building (above), the new headquarters of Chinese television.

Koolhaas has said all along he hopes the CCTV building will change the culture of the Chinese media and that the broadcaster might ultimately become a key force driving progress and openness. He also told the critic Deyan Sudjic that when it comes to building in China “a position of resistance seems somehow ornamental” — that it is egotistical to think that the government cares what you, as an architect, think about its human-rights or environmental record and might change its policies accordingly.

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