Okay, I know it’s only September but I’m pretty sure that this morning I ran across the strangest architecture story of the year. Rem Koolhaas has found it necessary to respond to a rumor sweeping China’s webspace that his CCTV headquarters in Beijing was designed to suggest female genitalia. (Until now many Chinese had been content to believe it was merely referencing the lower half of somebody squatting over a toilet.)
The whole controversy — in which Rem’s nearby Mandarin hotel is also reckoned to represent a phallus — seemed at first completely ridiculous, especially when you consider that just about every skyscraper for the past 100 years has been a phallic symbol, some more blatantly than others.
But then the story gets complicated by the fact, which is also making the rounds of Chinese on-line and print media, that pictures of the building juxtaposed suggestively with nude women appear in Content, a raucous compilation of essays and articles about modern architecture and the work of Rem’s firm that was published five years ago by Taschen, with Rem listed as editor-in-chief.
I consulted my copy this morning and sure enough, there they were. The book is a hybrid of entirely serious architectural thinking and hyperkenetic page design, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. But the layouts are so busy that I’ve managed to overlook those little images for years.
So now Rem’s firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, has published this statement about the pictures on its website. (Click on “Publications”.)
In 2004 OMA/Rem Koolhaas published the book Content; it is currently out of print and no longer in distribution. For the cover, the book’s designers proposed a series of cartoons/caricatures of OMA’s projects. OMA rejected these proposals and instead chose a version in which the CCTV building is presented as the positive and shining symbol of a changing world order – which reflects our sincere intention with the design.
The designers of the book included the rejected covers in miniature as an appendix.
In 2005, some of the rejected images circulated on internet in China. Now, four years later, the same images re-circulate on the internet, causing upset and speculation.
OMA did not produce the images and their content does not represent our opinion in any way.
We regret the renewed attention, and distance ourselves emphatically from the interpretations attributed to these images. Our sincere intentions with the design of the CCTV building have been stated and published countless times. It does not have a hidden meaning.
Keep in mind that one of the people promoting the anatomical interpretation of the building is a Chinese professor of architecture angered by the wholesale invasion of foreign architects into China over the past decade. Whatever else this whole silly controversy means, one thing it means is that the CCTV headquarters has become a pawn in a larger (and centuries old) struggle over China’s opening to the West.
So do I believe one of the most intricately conceived buildings in the world is a dirty joke? No. There are serious questions to be asked about the CCTV building. Those involve the ethics of providing a glamorous headquarters for the state controlled television service of a one-party state. They don’t involve dirty jokes.
Do I think Rem will keep a closer eye on the visuals in his next book. Probably.
Here’s one Chinese media account of the whole thing. (Sorry, no dirty pictures. You’ll have to find those on your own.)
Up next — Paul is dead.