BEIJING — China's capital city has lost, in spectacular fashion, one of its newest landmarks.
The north tower of Beijing's iconic new Chinese Central Television (CCTV) complex has gone up in flames. The dramatic conflagration started around 8 p.m. Beijing time, just as the city was revving up for a final fireworks indulgence to mark the Lunar New Year.
The tower was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and was scheduled to house the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The hotel was originally supposed to open for the Beijing Olympics, but was delayed for well, forever, it now seems.
The nearby and more famous CCTV Tower, a dizzying marvel of anti-gravity engineering also designed by Koolhaas, appeared undamaged.
Beijing residents and leaders alike have worried the city would experience a catastrophic blaze ever since the ban on Spring Festival fireworks was lifted a few years ago. Fears were focused on the center of the city, where a combination of narrow lanes, pre-fire-code architecture, and internecine networks of dead trees and low-hanging power lines made the setting off of fireworks a near suicidal, if popular, undertaking.
Few could have imagined the Mandarin Oriental, in a rebuilt part of eastern Beijing that has come to be known as an architects' playground, would go up instead.
At one point the top of the tower exploded much like a gun power Dahlia, which no doubt helped fuel popular rumors that the fire was indeed caused by excessive Spring Festival revelry. Police at the scene refused to speculate as to the cause of the blaze, but at least one expert was adamant in rejecting the fireworks hypothesis.
"Look at the exterior of the building — it's all glass and stone," Fang Zhenning, an prominent architecture critic and blogger, told a scrum of reporters and gawkers gathered across the street from the tower. "Unless you actually brought the fireworks inside the building, there's no way you could light it on fire."
By 11 p.m. local time, the fire had burned away everything but the building's exterior and settled into a low simmer. Still, a crowd of several hundred remained in the area until well after midnight.
In a country given to interpreting disasters as harbingers of bad times to come there was much chatter about the fire's cosmic significance. Many saw the blaze as signalling a rough 2009 for China, although none would go on record.
Among a number of troublesome anniversaries China faces this year is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June.
An even more popular topic for discussion, however, was the speed and quality of the government's reaction — a concern possibly informed by last year's earthquake in Sichuan, after which the military was criticized for its sluggish response.
"They arrived really fast. Very fast. By the time I came out, they were already there, arriving one after the other," said one witness from Shandong Province who declined to be named.
At nearly 4 a.m., a full seven hours after she first saw the flames, Beijing resident Caroline Killmer was still in a state of shock: "Every day for a year and a half I have looked out my window and breathed a sigh of relief that the discombobulated CCTV tower is still standing. Rarely have I paid attention to the Mandarin Oriental," she said. "Obviously, I was concerned about the wrong building falling over."
Although the building remained standing at the time this report was filed, Fang, the architecture critic, said there was indeed a possibility it might fall.
(Editor's note: this dispatch was updated to reflect the nationality of Rem Koolhaas. He is Dutch).