What About an Urban Fiction?

The Story of the Tower

By Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz García (WAI)


If Manhattanism is the “urbanistic doctrine that suspends the irreconcilable differences between mutually exclusive positions”[1], then Beijingism would be the doctrine that makes those differences more explicit; brutally contrasting. New urbanism in China progresses at a surprising, and what seems like, unstoppable speed; aiming at colossal sizes, its eager ambitions are rapidly absorbing its historical diversity—never before has been the urban memory lost so quickly.

Instead of trying to understand past urban developments in retroactive ways, this narrative proposes a roman d’anticipation, or an imaginary voyage through the future of a real estate development driven urbanism in the rise of the metropolis of the 21st century.

The Story of the Tower is a fictional speculation of the possibilities of a form of urbanism that can protect the Chinessnes of Beijing. In it, by way of its optimism a monolithic architecture turns its generic and abstract aesthetics into a camouflage of Real Estate development, and its interior into a protected Eden for the fast disappearing Chinese urban authenticities.

As a practical fiction, this story aims at offering a journey through an illogical destination of delirious proportions and creates an allegory of the act of preservation in the ever changing, fast transforming Chinese metropolis. Approached as a radical medium, this project is a proposal for something to get built only in the permanent accommodation of the subconscious.

Beijing, 2012

A tower stands in the middle of Beijing. Nobody remembers how it got “there”. It is a monolith with a base the size of a Hutong (more on the Hutong later). Its footprint of 200 by 200 meters is only challenged by its height that reaches 600 meters. It is a concrete bulk that consumes any attempt at architectural iconography. The glass facade reflects the city during the day, and reveals the intimacy of its interiors during the night. During the day the tower looks inert, unobtrusive; its architecture is abstract, almost generic. After dark, the monolith turns into a kaleidoscopic spectrum of neon lit billboards, and crowded corridors. The spacing between levels varies through all the building. The monolith is a modernist apotheosis of slabs free of structure. Every floor is a hangar of possibilities.


In China the Real Estate market loves western imports—even the most obvious rip-offs seem eagerly welcomed— so for the tower to become “invisible” to the eyes of the developers, it uses generic aesthetics as its stealth. A glass monolith around concrete slabs in the middle of Beijing blends perfectly with the post-Olympic urban landscape. Modernity in China consumes every modestly sized development, substitutes its program and then rebuilds in its place gigantic commercial and residential complexes. Nevertheless, the tower doesn’t really replace what was previously “there”.

This time however, there is no tabula rasa. Instead, the generic slabs host the programs threatened by the ever consuming Real Estate Market. In that sense the tower is an urban prophylactic; it protects the authentic from being absorbed by the imminent development.

For the tower to be effective it must rely not on ideological ambitions but in the deficiencies of its detractors. For the developers it’s impossible to understand how the tower works: to preserve Beijing’s Past with a monolithic high-rise would be like making an oasis in the desert with sand. But then, the tower is a paradox in itself. It looks like a voracious modern development, but in its heart is Chinese to the core.

For the skyscraper to become the ultimate typology of the metropolis it has to be at the expense of the smaller, weaker, “typical” urban fabric; never before was the skyscraper intended to “embrace” that fabric. The tower stimulates difference and variation not through its shape or its materials, but through the flexibility and ambition of its general program: nothingness, in the sense that the slabs are not specifically pre-programmed.


The tower is forever mutating—always under construction, and under constant internal transformation. It is a vertical incubator of traditional Chinese programs. As an aberration of the four functions of the lecorbusian city—which never worked— the tower makes travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l’esprit functional again by getting rid of the definitive modernist typologies that came with them.

A section through the tower would reveal the anatomy of an architectural cadavre exquis; a random stack of urban conditions whose only relationship is the common ground they used to share, and their authentic resistance to disappear in front of the Chinese modernity.

A “city within a city”, the tower is a solid structure that shelters tragic forms of urbanism; tentative conditions with unfulfilled potentials that at different periods of time had become endangered by the ravenous pace of development. Like a bubble, the tower captures all the solid that has melted into air.


Though monolithic in its appearance, the tower anchors over the city like the “raised and stacked metaphoric meta-cities” of Constant, Friedman, and Archigram.[2]Nevertheless, while the purpose of the tower is also to rethink the multifocal and poli-thematic metropolitan space, its urban response is radically opposed to those of the proposals of the 60’s—while their urbanistic strategies were aiming for Une autre ville pour une autre vie, the tower proposes a deliriously factual Une autre ville pour la même vie.[3]

The tower is a terminal. The programs inside are arranged according to their time of “arrival”. Their displacement is egalitarian; totally anti-hierarchic. All the programs have direct access to the circulation cores and direct views to the city. In the tower the Real Estate market doesn't control anymore how things look, or how they are displaced. The interiors of the building are designed to welcome the fragmented aesthetics of the guest programs with a palette of perversely neutral materials.

Once endangered on the “outside” a whole sector can move inside the tower and fit like a Matrioshka within the austere glass windows, polished Chinese ceramic floors and artificial light fixtures of the mechanical ceilings. The floors are intended to reflect the unpredictable occupancies of the building, while the ceilings address the specific environment control issues of every level.

Red Infrastructure

Potentially optimistic, the infrastructure of the tower is dialectical. On the west side of the tower the polished marble core—reminiscent of the western glamour of modernism—encloses a mechanical frenzy of shuttling elevator platforms, ducts, shafts, and emergency stairs. The core—which is a communal enlarged version of the commercial core—includes the public toilets, showers, and other sorts of collective necessities. On the east side of the building a ramp skips all the mechanical subfloors, giving direct access to all the public levels by way of bicycle paths. The circulation within the tower is incessant; its public flow continuous.

Sky Hutongs

The Hutong—a mat of courtyard houses with irregular street patterns—which was once the genetic urban matter of Beijing has disappeared at accelerated speeds. The 7000 that Beijing had in 1949 have evaporated, and now the remaining ones are endangered since they hardly fit within a Real Estate market that is driven by the American typology of bigger, larger, taller apartment buildings.

The residential program of the Tower is the Hutong. The traditional Chinese urban typology is transplanted inside the tower and repeated—although never in the same way—on several of its levels. The almost improvised brick and mortar construction fits like a gemstone within the reflective materials of the tower. The urban pattern on the levels of the Hutongs is as irregular, unpredictable and poli-thematic as if it were in its original environment, creating a constant flow of randomness and urban surprises.

Institute of Optimistic Architectures

In the Institute of Optimistic Architectures, students of architecture, urbanism and spatial politics study, design and build, past, present and future proposals for optimistic social architectures. The institute acts as a gestation center for the development of constructivist urban proposals with the intention of being applied to the urbanism of the other levels of the building and eventually to spread out over the surrounding context of the tower. The Institute is a utopian school of metaphoric design, in which the projects are not seen through their deficiencies but through their optimistic potential.

Ghost Market (Gui Jie)

The Ghost Market—it used to disappear during the day and appear during the night—occupies several commercial levels in the tower. On these levels the ceiling lights are always dimmed and the inner corridors are lit by the red hanging lamps and by a flood of neon symbols. The market absorbs these visitors that have resisted the shopping mall frenzy that the Real Estate market imposed on Beijing. In the Ghost market, everything becomes available, from food, clothes, electronics, pets, restaurants, souvenirs, barber shops, kiosks, even the blueprints of projects developed in the Institute of Optimistic Architectures to tickets for activities in the social condensers.

Social Condensers

The levels of the social condensers shelter mass gathering programs that absorb temporarily the urban flow of the building, and concentrate it for a variety of purposes. In these spaces, the preserved programs are those that worked as social condensers, like sport amenities, theatrical events, opera, experimental cinema, amongst many others. In the Social Condensers one of the most popular dramatic events is the play based on the The Story of the Tower.

Park for Soul and Body Cultivation

The Park for Soul and Body Cultivation is a collective infrastructure which focuses on optimum physical performance, and maximum relaxation of the mind. Like with the social condensers, the Park shelters mass gatherings but with a more abstract synchronization. In it, the permanent residents, along with commuters take part in collective health enhancing activities like Tai-Chi, Xiangqi, gymnastics, basketball and badminton.

A random and almost serene arrangement of tables, nets, columns, and sculptures give the ceramic floors and glass walls a heterogeneous mixture of textures and shapes to reflect. In the cores, the showers are permanently steaming from the perpetual flow of people after their scheduled visit to the health incubator.

A fictional conclusion

The Chinese metropolis strives to reach a mythical point where—like an apotheosis of a Bermanean modernity— obliterates everything that is “traditional”. In it, the most absurd western dreams become urban realities in a mater of months. Not only is it unprecedented in speed, size and ambitions, the footnote is that there is no intention of looking backwards.

The Story of the Tower proposes a fictional reconstruction of the intellectual urbanistic apparatus, not as a Deleuzean war machine, but as a catalyst of possibilities, challenging realities, and tentative alternatives.

This narrative architecture is a stratagem of urban tactics—however artificial and far from reality—for the maneuvers and survival of the remaining Chinesness of Beijing. The Story of the Tower is not envisioned as factual architecture, much less as urbanistic propaganda. It is an intellectual tool that reveals the latent dialectical coherence that exists between the metropolis—as well as the skyscraper as its definitive typology, modernism—with its alchemistic plan of abstraction and repetition, and the traditional substance of the Chinese city.

The aim of this provisional urban fiction is an end in itself: to rethink the pertinence of the architectural imaginaries without restricting them to the boundaries of their inventions; to see the possibilities of alternative ecological urbanisms and the reach of possible intellectual conservation projects. Now that the tower has been raised, would we be finally ready to discuss the fiction?

[1]Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York, (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1978).

[2]Peter Sloterdijk, Spären III: Schhäume, (Frankfurt: Surhkamp Verlag, 2004).

[3]See Sloterdijk k, Spären III: Schhäume, (Frankfurt: Surhkamp Verlag, 2004).

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