Architecture on Fire: What Does It All Mean?

Maybe you’ve heard: Rem’s on fire. The other CCTV building in Beijing — no, not the donut one, the hotel next door — went up in flames on Monday. It had been under construction since 2004 and was almost done, and then, boom. Literally: apparently a fireworks show ignited the blaze. (Oops.)

The fire was out by Tuesday.

Videos and pictures of the fire have been all over the Internet, for a few reasons. First, it’s a big-ass fire, and is frightening and fascinating to watch. Second, the Chinese Government, of course, has clamped down on all coverage of the event, so it’s up to the cell phone–wielding masses to document it. And they have, all over the place. But when buildings burn — from houses in Australia to digital-age monuments in Beijing — it means something else. We put so much symbolism, so many emotions into architecture, that seeing it on fire is like watching history get erased off the page. So we describe it with big strokes.

The irony wasn’t lost on Chinese bloggers that the biggest story not being covered was happening right on CCTV’s doorstep. They talked about the fire as a testament to censorship, and as the happy end of a symbol of Olympics-era Chinese extravagance. Geoff Manaugh says it symbolizes the end of the building boom. Christopher Hawthorne says it’s just the beginning — this is China, after all.

Before the fire, Rem made it clear that the CCTV complex can—and should—mean anything. “It looks different from every angle, no matter where you stand, he told Der Spiegel. “We didn’t create a single identity, but 400 identities. That was what we wanted: To create ambiguity and complexity, so as to escape the constraints of the explicit.” And so this building on fire — fire, the most mercurial of symbols we have: good, evil, light-giver, life-taker—is doubly abstract. It means anything and everything to anyone and everyone. (J.M.W. Turner understood the vast indescribability we’re talking about.)

In the end, though, the fire should remind us that a symbol is not all a building is. Architecture can be a vessel for our hopes and fears, our politics, our culture. We immortalize buildings on blogs, in glossy books and magazines. We give them nicknames, we love them, we hate them, we see them as art and icons. Isn’t it incredible that we see all this in what is, ultimately, piles of glass and steel? Mortal, like us, but infinitely meaningful. A building burnt down is a tragedy, and so much more.