CCTV hotel reconstruction under way

Building burned in Feb.; delayed use of new headquarters

Updated 18:55 Beijing time.

BEIJING -- The chief architect for the landmark new headquarters for China's powerful state broadcaster said the part of the complex that burned in a massive fire earlier this year can be repaired and does not need to be torn down.

Architect Ole Scheeren said that initial inspections show that the high-rise's steel structure largely withstood the fire and that preparations were under way to repair the China Central Television building.

"The preliminary findings are that the building can be repaired," he told The Associated Press in an interview late Wednesday. "It's still intact and safe. There will mainly be a repair effort but not a complete rebuilding."

Scheeren's comments are among the first public remarks about the extent of the damage to the futuristic-looking 5-billion-yuan ($735 million) CCTV complex, which features a pair of enormous, leaning buildings of black glass and steel.

The fire in February engulfed an adjacent 520-foot (159-meter), 44-story building that was to house a luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was only weeks away from opening. An unlicensed fireworks display arranged and paid for by CCTV to mark the end of the Lunar New Year started the blaze. One firefighter died.

The disaster became an embarrassing episode for CCTV. The complex helped transform the capital's skyline for last year's Olympics, had served as a monument to the ambitions of CCTV, which is unpopular with many Chinese because it's a faithful purveyor of government propaganda.

In the months since, the burnt building has stood untouched, its steel shell charred, next to the iconic leaning towers designed by Scheeren and his partner Rem Koolhaas in the firm OMA.

After an initial apology for the fire, CCTV has remained conspicuously silent on the whole topic. This week, CCTV's publicity department declined repeated requests for comment.

Scheeren said the main buildings were not damaged. He said there is no truth to persisting rumors that the towers and the burnt-out building were interconnected and served as a counterweight for each other.

"The two buildings are completely unrelated structurally. There's no connection between them. I think it's very important to dispel this kind of story that the two buildings are connected and one depends on the other. That's absolutely not true," he said.

Rumors have swirled for months that the delay in reconstruction was partly because the two buildings were linked to each other and that it would be impossible to tear down the smaller building without affecting the main one.

Art critic Fang Zhenning, who has followed the CCTV debacle, said the initial talk was the building would be torn down immediately. However, during the last eight months, speculation rose that the northern wing was linked to the base of the main building, acting as an anchor.

"So the problem was gravity. Nobody can guarantee that the main building wouldn't sink or split if you move the entire wing building. Nobody dares," he said. However, Fang said recent reports by the media indicate that there are plans to tear off the surface of the building first. "I think that is a good sign. It means that they are not knocking down the whole building," he said.

Scheeren said a detailed investigation ordered by the State Council, the Cabinet, caused the delay and the investigation is nearly complete, clearing the way for repair work to begin soon.

"The reconstruction has not yet officially begun," he said. "However preparations are under way for the start, but no specific date has yet been set."

Rows of scaffolding are now visible around the perimeter of the charred tower, though no workers have been spotted on the site.

Scheeren gave no further details on a timeline for the reconstruction. But he said his firm OMA is also continuing work on the main CCTV headquarters and expects to be completed with that by next year.

"On the construction, the interior fit-out on the building, we're looking at completion of that sometime next year," he said.

The head of CCTV, Zhao Huayong, was replaced amid a high-level investigation ordered by the State Council, China's governing body. More than a dozen people have been arrested, including the former boss of CCTV's construction bureau, Xu Wei. News reports have alleged that he ordered the powerful pyrotechnics be used, while ignoring safety warnings.

The disaster prompted much public mocking from some Chinese who resent CCTV for producing dull propaganda-style programming while enjoying a monopoly on nationwide broadcasting. The company also has drawn jeers for spending lavishly on grandiose projects, such as its futuristic headquarters complex.