Scale models are the architectural equivalent of science fiction: they seem to relocate the viewer immediately into a better future. Their utopian claims are compounded by the fact that Plexiglas-and-Styrene models are giving way to computer-generated 3D simulations, and the digital image is fashioned as a vehicle of social transformation. Lev Manovich writes: ‘new media technology acts as the most perfect realisation of the utopia of an ideal society composed from unique individuals’ (2001: 61). In the face of such hyperbole it is worth exploring how architectural practices, and digital technology in particular, can facilitate the representation of utopia or, conversely, allude to its breakdown. This chapter looks at a pivotal moment in the history of architectural simulation, namely the introduction of Rem Koolhaas’ practices and thoughts in the People's Republic of China (PRC). I compare the work of international architects and governmentsupported planners with indigenous responses in installations, film, and digital art that use scale models and digital imaging to advance and critique utopian visions.
Utopia with Chinese Characteristics: From Conceptual to Figural Models
On 20 December 2002, Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) won the bid for the Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Tower in Beijing. The complex (chief architects: Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren) includes the CCTV Tower, a double-tower structure joined at the top by cantilevers, as well as the Television Cultural Centre (TVCC). (The TVCC caught fire on 9 February 2009, shortly before its planned completion, leading to an indefinite delay in the complex's inauguration.) The CCTV project and other brand-name building projects timed to coincide with the Beijing Olympics came to symbolise China's entry into the global market. Little attention, however, has been paid to the attendant shift in visualisation practices and transformation of utopian discourses in China.
Awarding the CCTV project to OMA in the high-profile bid supervised by the government should be attributed not only to the buildings’ aesthetic attributes, but also to Rem Koolhaas’ status as a vocal proponent of hyper-urbanisation. Koolhaas has backed up his construction projects with prolific writing, published in graphically rich books. Fredric Jameson commends Koolhaas’ books for reintroducing utopia into the postmodern discourse of a ‘windless present’ (2003).