Standing in the construction dust of the megasite near the roaring heart of the city, watching the massive building rising from the scaffolding, then surveying the scene in relation to the urban core, the comparison is inevitable: Beijing is getting what New York should have built: the long-awaited CCTV headquarters.

While the fate of the 16 acres in New York has received an apparent reprieve (developer Larry Silverstein has accepted a deal in which he has bowed out as the developer of the Freedom Tower, while continuing to oversee its construction and hoping to commission four other towers by prominent architects), the overall prognosis remains dour. Lower Manhattan lacks the office market to fill the intended towers, including Governor Pataki’s much-vaunted Freedom Tower. And Silverstein’s recently completed 7 World Trade Center, a LEED-qualified, simple sheath of a building designed by SOM, remains woefully, predominantly vacant. Meanwhile, the WTC Memorial, to be cast into the footprints of the former Twin Towers, is stuck in neutral, as its costs have escalated to almost $1 billion and leadership has vacillated. Despite a flurry of recent announcements, the chances for excellence are waning in a grab bag of lost hopes and compromises across the site.

Shift the scene to China. The CCTV headquarters, an immense structure located between Chang An Boulevard and the Third Ring Road, on a comparable site to the World Trade Center in Beijing’s new Central Business District, is rising from the ground. Designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam, this paradigm-busting building confronts modernity with a sizzle, literally hanging in the air above the street, organized in a loop of rhomboidal tubes that defies standard engineering and conventional thought.

Rem Koolhaas, who heads OMA, has written about CCTV. In his customarily confrontational style in a publication called Content, he announces CCTV’s seminal role: “It is not only this building which will be realized with incredible and outrageous effort, it will also liberate hundreds of other architects, good and bad as usual, to be more experimental and to surrender less to a dictatorship of gravity.” Structure becomes polemic.

In CCTV’s case, Koolhaas’s assertions do not constitute hyperbole. Central to the realization of CCTV’s and OMA’s ambitions, this complex structure, which rides above an active seismic zone, demanded the most sophisticated engineering on the part of Arup, the consulting engineer. In addition to a foundation that floats above the shifting earth, the engineers and architects at OMA, including Koolhaas’s partner in Beijing, Ole Scheeren, devised a structural diagrid that varies with the underlying forces affecting the building; the resultant tube structure provides a rational diagram of physical realities as well as a dynamic web that invigorates the exterior.

Ingenuity also enlivens the interior of the iconic shell. In a creative, programmatic variation, OMA designed a television city within the city, linking theaters and studios and management into an interwoven whole, with parallel, secure opportunities for public visitation and viewing. The striking, resultant loop functions as the technical heart of a nationalistic enterprise that plans to expand its broadcast offerings dramatically in the coming years. An adjacent structure, TVCC, provides a social hub, with a hotel, theaters, shopping, and recreation.

Never intended to be the world’s tallest structure, the primary building nevertheless encompasses 400,000 square meters (4.32 million square feet). The total program includes a plan for the Central Business District with provisions for preservation of historic fabric, as well as parkland. The tower, in this case, does not tell the entire story.

If it seems easy to slam New York for missing the opportunity that Beijing seized, remember that two political systems created two cities, and the resulting structures reflect their differences. The New York story remains a messy one, fraught with politics, high emotions, political ambitions, and inertia in the face of competing interests. In China, the images of Koolhaas and his clients reflect a smiling unity that knows it can accomplish the most difficult tasks, if at a price that contemporary democracies refuse to accept. Standing on the site, however, provokes an inevitable lament, “How did China get what New York should have built?”