photo: The steel lattice surrounding the Beijing National Stadium looks like a giganitic sculpture, but most of the beams are structural, not decorative. Photograph by Iwan Baan.
To understand just how important the Beijing Olympics are to China, you have only to look at where the Olympic Green has been built. During Beijing’s first building boom—six hundred years before the current one—the city was laid out symmetrically on either side of a north-south axis. As in Paris—where the Louvre lines up with the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Élysées—Beijing’s most symbolically important structures have fallen along the main axis. In the center is the former imperial residence of the Forbidden City. North of this is the Jingshan, a park surrounding an artificial hill where the last Ming emperor is said to have hanged himself, and, beyond that, the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, which for centuries helped Beijing’s inhabitants tell the time. In 1958, when the Communists expanded Tiananmen Square, at the southern gate of the Forbidden City, they placed the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the same axis, in the center of the square. Mao Zedong’s mausoleum, also in the square, is on the axis, too. And now, spread over twenty-eight hundred acres at the opposite end of the axis, is Beijing’s Olympic Green. If Tiananmen Square is a monument to the Maoist policy of self-sufficiency, the Olympic Green, ten miles and fifty years away, is an architectural statement of intent every bit as clear—a testament to the global ambitions of the world’s fastest-growing major economy.
At least two of the buildings on the Olympic Green—the National Stadium, by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the National Aquatics Center, by the Australian firm PTW Architects—are as innovative as any architecture on the planet, marvels of imagination and engineering that few countries would have the nerve or the money to attempt. The Chinese, right now, have plenty of both. These buildings, some of the most advanced in the world, are made possible partly by the presence of huge numbers of low-paid migrant workers. When I visited the stadium with Linxi Dong, the architect who heads Herzog and de Meuron’s Beijing office, he told me that the construction crew for his project numbered nine thousand at its peak.
The National Stadium is already widely known by an apt nickname, the Bird’s Nest. The concrete wall of the arena is wrapped with a latticework exterior of crisscrossing columns and beams, a tangle of twisting steel twigs. The lattice arcs upward and inward over the stadium’s seats (there are ninety-one thousand), supporting a translucent roof and forming an oculus around the track. The center of the roof, over the field, has been left open. The engineering required to keep all this metal in the air is highly sophisticated: the building may look like a huge steel sculpture, but most of the beams are structural, not decorative. The drama of the Bird’s Nest is even more arresting than that of the Allianz Arena, the Munich soccer stadium, which Herzog and de Meuron sheathed entirely in billows of translucent plastic, in 2005. Much of the spectacle derives from the interplay of the steel lattice and the concrete shell underneath. The outer wall of the concrete structure is painted bright red—one of the building’s few overtly nationalistic touches—and when lit up at night it shines through the latticework, an enormous red egg glowing inside its nest. On leaving, you experience the excitement of the knotted metal in a new way, looking out over Beijing through the wacky frame of the slanting columns.
Next door to the Bird’s Nest is the Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, a rectilinear building with a blue-gray exterior of translucent plastic pillows set in an irregular pattern intended to evoke bubbles. John Pauline, who is the head of the Beijing office of PTW Architects, told me that the design emerged from a desire to find a way of expressing the feeling of water. “We started out with ripples and waves and steam,” he said. “We basically looked at every state of water we could imagine. And then we hit on the idea of foam.” Working with the engineering firm Arup, which also collaborated on the Bird’s Nest, PTW developed cladding made of variously sized cells of ETFE, or ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, a translucent plastic somewhat similar to Teflon. Among architects, ETFE is the material of the moment—Herzog and de Meuron used it for the façade of their Munich stadium and for the roof of the Bird’s Nest—and it has many practical virtues. It weighs only one per cent as much as glass, transmits light more effectively, and is a better insulator, resulting in a thirty-per-cent saving in energy costs. Furthermore, the pillows don’t just evoke bubbles; they are bubbles, twin films of ETFE, eight one-thousandths of an inch thick, placed together to form a cell, which is then inflated.
The real achievement of the Water Cube is less its technical wizardry than the transformation of the faintly trite idea of a bubble building into a piece of elegant, enigmatic architecture. The architects decided that, to play off the oval shape of the Bird’s Nest, the Aquatics Center would have to be square, and the constraint of straight lines seems to have insured that the bubble metaphor didn’t get out of hand. The Water Cube’s walls suggest the soap foam on a shower door—or perhaps, since some of the bubbles are as much as twenty-four feet across, on the slide of a microscope. From the outside, the almost random arrangement of cells establishes a kind of correspondence with the irregular struts of the Bird’s Nest. When you are inside the main hall of the Water Cube, the pattern of cells above and the green-blue tinge of the pool give you the feeling of being under water yourself and looking up toward the surface.
Although China’s burgeoning wealth owes much to its export industries, for the Olympics the country has been content to play the reverse role, buying the most futuristic architecture that the rest of the world has to offer, rather than showcasing native talent. The work of Chinese architects has largely been relegated to a jumble of functional but uninspiring buildings. (There are thirty-one Olympic venues in all.) An important exception is Digital Beijing, a control center on the Olympic Green, designed by a Chinese firm, Studio Pei Zhu. Like the Water Cube, Digital Beijing steers dangerously close to a kitschy conceit. It consists of four narrow slabs set close together in parallel to resemble a row of microchips or, perhaps, hard drives. Some of the walls have glass cutouts in a linear pattern clearly designed to evoke a circuit board—they light up green at night. Yet the finished building has a dignity that is surprising. This is due in part to Pei Zhu’s choice of materials—the walls are clad in a sober grayish stone—and in part to the proportions of the four slabs, whose narrowness and lack of adornment give the building an austerity that is the opposite of kitsch.
Pei Zhu may be Chinese, but his building is thoroughly international in style. (He was educated at the University of California and has worked both in China and abroad.) Indeed, apart from the red of the Bird’s Nest, there is little that is traditionally Chinese in any of the Olympic developments. The scale and ambition of the project is an unmistakable statement of national pride, yet China, strangely, has been content to make this statement using the vocabulary of the kind of international luxury-modernism that you might just as easily see in Dubai or SoHo or Stuttgart—dizzyingly complex computer-generated designs, gorgeously realized in fashionable materials. The message seems clear: anything you can do, we can do better.
The first Olympic Games of the modern era, in 1896, were held in an ancient stadium in Athens that the Greeks refurbished for the occasion. The swimming events took place in the Aegean Sea. The next Olympics, in Paris in 1900, had no stadium at all. The track-and-field competitions were held on the streets of the city and on the grass of the Bois de Boulogne, which the French did not want to disfigure with a proper track. Swimmers were left to cope with the currents of the Seine.
The idea that cities could attract the Olympics by promising lavish facilities probably began after 1906, when the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius put an end to a plan to have the 1908 Games in Rome. The British saw Italy’s misfortune as an opportunity and offered to build a stadium big enough to hold a hundred and fifty thousand people, in Shepherd’s Bush, London. The White City Stadium, as it was called, was the first stadium to be erected specifically for the Olympics. Soon, countries were openly vying with one another to host the Games. (What is the Olympic ideal, after all, but national rivalry dressed up as global amity?) The apogee of triumphalism was reached, notoriously, in Berlin, in 1936, when Hitler, who wasn’t yet in power when the Games were awarded to the city, embraced the Olympics as the way to show off the might of the Nazi regime. Architecture was as much a part of his vision as the gold medals, though his taste ran to the turgid and overblown. He tore down a perfectly good, barely used stadium, replaced it with the largest stadium in the world, and then built a hundred-and-thirty-acre Olympic Village, with a hundred and forty buildings laid out in the shape of a map of Germany.
Since the Second World War, host countries have avoided such bombastic excess, but they have usually seen the Olympics as an opportunity to pin a gold medal on one or more of their leading architects. There was Pier Luigi Nervi’s innovative, seemingly floating concrete dome on his stadium for the Rome Olympics, in 1960; Kenzo Tange’s swooping, sculptural gymnasium for Tokyo, in 1964; Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto’s canopied stadium for Munich, in 1972. For the Barcelona Olympics, in 1992, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was enlisted to build a communications tower that would serve as an Olympic symbol. Calatrava’s angular, precarious-looking design, inspired by an arm holding the Olympic torch, established his world-wide reputation and remains one of the city’s most visible structures. But the Barcelona Olympics also marked a new approach to Olympic architecture, one that placed as much emphasis on the relationship between the city and its facilities as on the sports venues themselves. Barcelona used the Games as an occasion to redevelop its waterfront and design a series of new parks, fountains, and works of public art to attract tourists after the Games were over. Since then, cities have been keen to use the Olympics to leverage other civic improvements, on the premise that if you’re spending billions to refurbish a city you should at least invest in buildings that have long-term utility. That’s why the legacy of the 1996 Olympics, in Atlanta, isn’t any of the athletic buildings but a major new park and housing for athletes that became new dormitories for Georgia Tech.
The plan for the 2012 Olympics, in London, takes this idea a step further. Although there is one flashy commission for a British architect (an aquatics center, designed by Zaha Hadid, in the form of a giant wave), the London Olympics are distinctly short on architectural extravaganzas. The main stadium, to be designed by a large American firm that has had a lock on football and baseball stadiums for years, will be dull compared to the Bird’s Nest. When I talked to Ricky Burdett, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the London School of Economics, who is an adviser to the London Olympics, he told me that London did not feel the need to prove itself through spectacular works of Olympic architecture. “We had a big debate over whether we should build a new stadium at all,” he said. “We were much more interested in how an intervention on this scale will affect a city socially and culturally.” The British government plans to invest roughly nineteen billion dollars in an Olympic site, in the East End of London. When the Olympics end, much of the area will become a park, and sales of private development sites around it are expected to enable the government to recoup much of its investment. Burdett said, “London has always been poor in the east and rich in the west. The London Olympics can rebalance London.”
Beijing, evidently, has other priorities. For all the sleek modernity of much of the construction, there’s no mistaking the old-fashioned monumentalist approach behind it. This is an Olympics driven by image, not by sensitive urban planning. It’s true that there has been a much needed and well-executed expansion of Beijing’s subway system, but most of the impact of the Olympics has been cosmetic—the trees planted along the expressway to the airport, for example, or the cleanup of some of the roadways leading to the Olympic Green. Bordering one stretch of congested elevated ring road, stone walls, like the ones surrounding the old Beijing hutongs, or alleyway neighborhoods, have been erected. But, with not much behind them, they are little more than a stage set—Potemkin hutongs designed to distract visitors from the fact that so many real hutongs are being demolished for high-rise construction. In today’s Beijing, forcible eviction is common, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced to make way for the Olympics. The brightness of the Olympic halo gives Beijing’s relentless expansion a surface sheen, but it’s only a distraction from the city’s deeper planning problems, such as air and water pollution and overcrowding.
In general, the Chinese authorities have been less interested in solving these problems than in keeping the construction engine going at full throttle. Still, the Olympic site did require some planning and, in 2002, a competition was held to create a master plan. It attracted entries from ninety-six architects around the world, and was won by a Boston firm, Sasaki Associates. Despite its straight-line connection to the Forbidden City, the Olympic Green lies in a district that, in recent years, has become a forest of undistinguished high-rise apartment buildings and commercial towers. (The site also includes a mundane athletic compound erected for the 1985 Asian Games, and these leftover structures are all being refurbished for the Olympics.) Dennis Pieprz, the president of Sasaki, who was in charge of the scheme, explained to me that the firm struggled for a long time with the question of how to treat Beijing’s axis. The Chinese tradition of aligning important public buildings created “a huge temptation to put the stadium right on the axis,” he said. “But we decided that in the twenty-first century we were beyond that, and that we should, instead, symbolize infinity, and the idea of the people in the center, not a building.” So Sasaki placed the stadium just to the east of the axis and the Water Cube just to the west; the space directly on the axis was left open.
Pieprz told me that he felt that considering the long-term use of the site was essential. “We needed a plan that could accept other civic, cultural, recreational, and commercial uses, so the place would become a major destination,” he said. Sasaki envisions the Olympic site as becoming a large park, with each of the major buildings taking on a public function. The Bird’s Nest will remain as the national stadium, its capacity reduced to a more practical eighty thousand by the removal of several tiers of seats; the Water Cube will lose almost two-thirds of its seventeen thousand seats, the upper tiers to be replaced by multipurpose rooms. “You are making a city, not a spatial extravaganza that will be interesting just for sixteen days,” Pieprz said.