Is OMA’s Chinese Masterpiece Pornographic?

Chinese media is ablaze with rumors that the CCTV annex and headquarters were meant to look like a penis, next to a bent-over woman–and that exposes some truths about Chinese culture.



In the battle to win the hearts of the Chinese, the new headquarters of CCTV might be losing. Designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA, it’s been billed as a masterpiece and a symbol of China’s emergence atop a new world order. But some Chinese are whispering that it’s a grand joke perpetrated by Koolhaas at the expense of 1.3 billion people–alleging that the building and it’s annex were intended to look like a woman bent over, next to a penis.

The rumors can apparently be traced back to a Xiao Mo, a retired architecture professor who wrote a poorly sourced “essay” purporting to prove that Koolhaas intended the pornographic connotations. (Ole Scheeren actually designed the building, but let’s move on.) Here, Koolhaas seems to be partly at fault: Xiao’s smoking gun is a section from Content, a book Koolhaas published six years ago. It’s filled with flashy provocations and scrapbook collages–including one section dedicated to graphic architectural porn (NSFW), which placed CCTV alongside writhing porn stars.

But those layouts from Content don’t prove anything. Koolhaas has always been a polemicist and a provocateur; his first book, Delirious New York, included a drawing of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler building, lying in bed next to a used condom. He’s employed these images to satire the cult that surrounds architects and buildings. Obviously, those nuances were lost on Xiao. (And it takes a very willful eye to see what Xiao sees in CCTV–I searched for twenty minutes to find an image of it that even makes those connotations remotely plausible.)

It gets worse for Koolhaas. Local newspapers have been reporting the porno connection as a fact, sourced to “insiders”–namely, Xiao. And an online poll at apparently found that 47% of respondents believed there were “pornographic incentives” in CCTV, and professed themselves “very angry.” An online poll asking such an loaded question has about as much value as a push poll, but the rumors are being stoked nonetheless.

Why has CCTV, which was meant to glorify China, become such a target? In their constant name-checking of “dignity” and “disgrace,” the essay by Xiao and the local reports lay bare an ever-present facet of Chinese culture–an anxiety about humiliation at foreign hands, which has its roots in the West’s first colonies on the Chinese coast and the Opium Wars. (Scholars argue that this insecurity is the root of virulent Chinese nationalism.) Koolhaas–with his foreign ways, big flashy buildings, and penchant for irony–has unwittingly played into those fears.

Other architects have played the Chinese public far more masterfully–it’s no accident that Herzog & de Mueron recruited Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei to “collaborate” in the design for the “Bird’s Nest” Stadium. And it’s no accident that the stadium was meant to resemble a bird’s nest, which has connotations of luck and wealth in Chinese culture.


Koolhaas, meanwhile, has been bruised by misfortune: Many Chinese viewed the fire that engulfed the CCTV as proof that the CCTV complex was inauspicious.

[Danwei, and Xinhuanet via Archinect; image by Arup]


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.