CCTV Headquarters has exactly the feel one would expect from a paranoid control state’s base of media operations.
The predominating experience inside is that of walking through nondescript passageways, gray in color and climate.
Sidelong glances, outright stares, and even suspicious glares from passing Chinese staffers in the halls are a constant feature of work-life. I get expect them as soon as I leave the newsroom. Even though I’m still in the work area of CGTN, the channel I work on, there will always be people immediately outside the glass walls of our newsroom who will look at me askance.
The hallway walls are usually big panels of gray-white metal or artificial material. You get the impression that each one opens into something. If you look closely you see that many of them are doors. You can be walking along an empty corridor, a rare moment of solitude, and a piece of the wall opens and some blank-expressioned dude in a maintenance uniform comes stepping out and starts walking in the same direction as you, three feet apart. People coming out of the walls.
Special elevators, usually black, are here and there, inaccessible to regular workers and which you rarely ever see anyone use.
The building has its own dedicated passageway to the city’s subway system, but it’s shut down because of security fears. I’m told it never did operate, although, like everything else around here, no one knows for sure.
The compound is manned by armed soldiers — not security guards, not police — posted at booths to the entrances.
A mini military barracks houses soldiers off to the northeast side of the compound.
A circular helicopter pad rises like a pedestal above the roof’s highest angle.
A hotel sits empty like an abandoned haunted house, never opened after a major fire broke out near the end of its construction, and yet which always has activity outside. Cars are always parked over there, and through the construction barrier I see laborers milling about outside there every day as I pass by on my way to and from work.
It takes months to get an employee identification badge to wave at the soldiers and be allowed through the entrances. This is after being accepted for the job, which entails a background security check, and even after beginning to work on the job.
The building gives a distinct impression of being intentionally confusing. You can be at certain points where you can see, through glass walls, a section of the building that you want to go to, and these walls don’t need to exist and appear to have been added at some point after the building’s completion. They’re baffles. Control and security.
For over a year I had no idea that some big metal doors just off to one corner of the floor of our newsroom opened to a shortcut to just about any place in the building. The doors are unmarked and go easily unnoticed amid so many other unmarked doors in the place. Then a fellow copy editor showed me that they lead to a hallway and eventually to some elevators that go to the lobby at the building’s north entrance, a much better route to and from work for me, coming from the northwest as I do.
Opening the doors reveals a dark blood-red hallway. The walls are lined with a glossy plastic red material that gives it that look, and the lights always are off. There’s nothing about it that suggests going any farther is a good idea. But keep going, past two sets of mystery elevators, and then to some small unmarked, nondescript doors just like many you’ve already passed. Unremarkable doors set into the side of the hallway. You expect to open it and find a janitor’s closet, or to get in trouble because there’s no reason to be opening random doors and security cameras everywhere are watching you.
But it opens into a contrastingly bright hallway, the usual dull gray-white plasticky material that lines most halls of the place. This hall often has a gastro smell to it, as it is home to a set of bathrooms and not much air moves through. Doors at either end are always closed.
Since then, now again over a year later, I regularly show foreign and Chinese coworkers this pathway. They marvel that it was right there the whole time. Likewise, they regularly show me new pathways that I can’t believe were right under my nose.
Every path in the building is some version of this. There are always nondescript doors that look of no consequence. They’ll be off in a far corner, looking like they lead to a utility area, or smack in the middle of a narrow hallway amid many others like them. But a friend who’s guiding the way opens a certain one, and there is a set of elevators that look like they’re meant for freight, and it takes you right to one of the building’s many cafeterias. Or it opens into a big spacious area full of windows with stairs and a tall ceiling. Or another blank hallway with more doors.
The blood-red and fecal aspects may not be there, but the spooky, cold feel will be, as will the feeling of heading into the unknown and of being nearly lost. You need to have faith that you’re going to get somewhere discernable.
The building’s German architect, Ole Scheeren, made a return visit to the building in early 2018. CGTN’s digital team interviewed him for a piece on the occasion. A woman who interviewed him told me that off camera he confided his disgust for what had become of the place. He’d envisioned a space conducive to the open, free flow of ideas, but was dismayed to see it had turned into the opposite of that.
But he can’t put all of the building’s cold rigidity at the feet of the Chinese management. The unforgiving edges and strange geometries that he gave it make a perfect home for authoritarian media. How he ever imagined this place, given its owners, would be anything but that is hard to figure — unless it has become so distorted that it is no longer possible to see the original intent.
Grand architecture is done to make a statement. Suspicion and domination are the themes of this one. Confusing layouts, mysterious hallways, blocked passages, secret doors, privileged access… in other words, perfectly representative of the activities within. CCTV’s mission is to bamboozle the public, and they’re so obvious about it that they might as well have built in a maze with an overhead smokescreen as a center attraction.
But then after all that comes the newsroom. It is filled, just as incongruously, with bubbly video editors and writers. There are of course the cranks, scowls, and malcontents that inhabit any workplace, and the three or four foreigners in the room are usually among them. But the Chinese staff are among the sweetest people I’ve never encountered. They’re impossibly pleasant, beyond comprehension. It makes me a better person just being in their mood fields every day.
Many have the glassy-eyed look of people who have only ever known a controlled, paternalistic society. Many others bear the wry looks and comments of people who understand exactly what it is they’re doing, and think it’s stupid.
Meaning and purpose aside, the CCTV tower is an incredible building. It’s impossible not to admire the place or get drawn into another new angle. It’s a work of art.
Addendum: Oh lord. In fact-checking myself I looked up Ole Scheeren’s 2018 visit to CGTN. I show up in the CGTN video covering it, at 0:45.