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OMA's Fire-Ravaged TVCC Will Be Repaired

March 15, 2010

By Alex Pasternack

China's main television broadcaster, CCTV, has begun major repairs on the 44-story cultural building at its OMA-designed Beijing headquarters, more than a year after a calamitous fire gutted the tower and fanned controversy about the long-delayed project.

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In a newly issued report, a joint committee under China's State Council affirms the structural soundness of the Television Cultural Center, or TVCC, a concrete-and-steel tower shaped like a boot that will house a 241-room hotel, a theater, and television studios. The February 2009 blaze, sparked by errant fireworks set off at the site during Lunar New Year celebrations, led to the death of one firefighter and damages estimated to be worth 160 million yuan ($23.4 million).

The announcement came shortly before Ole Scheeren, director of OMA's Beijing office and the co-architect of the project with Rem Koolhaas, revealed that he would be leaving the firm to start his own studio and to teach.

Built at an estimated cost of $732 million, the TVCC building was set to open last May. The fire not only delayed its completion, but also the debut of the neighboring CCTV tower, slated to open last October. Although the CCTV building wasn't damaged by the fire, a subsequent investigation into the fire rocked the company, slowing construction at the massive site and drawing added scrutiny to the project and the conduct of CCTV employees.

So far, Beijing has announced criminal charges for 23 people in connection with the blaze, including the former director of CCTV's new headquarters for his role in staging the massive fireworks display. In total, 38 people have been arrested or detained in connection with the incident, including materials suppliers, employees of the fireworks manufacturer, and five city officials.

While the government's official report has not been made public, Scheeren told the Associated Press in October that the building's major concrete structure was sound, with its major fire damage limited to the glass-and-metal exterior. He also refuted rumors that the building could not be demolished because it was structurally linked to the CCTV tower. "The two buildings are completely unrelated structurally," he told the AP. "There's no connection between them. I think it's very important to dispel this kind of story that the two buildings are connected and one depends on the other. That's absolutely not true."

Accounts indicate that the TVCC blaze easily spread due to the lack of functioning fire-suppression equipment and the presence of a roofing membrane made of ethylene-propylene-diene-monomer (EPDM), a synthetic rubber material that can be combustible. A similar material was reported to be a primary agent in a May fire that struck an opera house designed by Zaha Hadid, still under construction in Guangzhou.

CCTV officials would not comment on the reconstruction, nor would the architecture firm or engineers (Arup and the Chinese firm ECADI). Sally de Souza, a Mandarin Oriental spokeswoman, said her company still plans to honor its long-term contract to manage the building’s luxury hotel "once construction is fully completed," but she gave no time table.

Though the new report settles some speculation over TVCC's future, it has not quelled rumors across Beijing about the building's structural integrity and its reputation.

"From a commercial point of view, people hold a hostile attitude toward a badly damaged building. It is devalued at least by 70 percent in my opinion," Lin Bo, a curator of Beijing's Architectural Biennial, told the Global Times newspaper. An unnamed professor of architecture at Tsinghua University who has held governmental positions told RECORD that he was surprised the government would permit reconstruction. "What official would be willing to risk his reputation on salvaging a building that has suffered that kind of damage?"

Wu Wenyi, a principal architect at Urbanus, a leading Chinese firm, was not surprised by the decision to rehabilitate the building. "Rebuilding will be a lot easier for CCTV than tearing it down, politically and economically." 

One CCTV employee, who spoke to RECORD on the condition of anonymity, said that relocation to the main building would not happen for at least one or two years. "Right now, workers are tearing down the burnt building one floor at a time, while replacing it with new materials," he said. "Obviously, the procedure is very, very slow." He added: "The order now is no one is allowed to smoke in the building, and of course, no fireworks are allowed. "

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