Beijing Games architecture aims to shock, awe

BEIJING (Reuters) - While feats of athletic brilliance may be the main focus of cameras during the Beijing Olympics, the telegenic venues set to host the athletes will draw their own share of gasps from admiring spectators.

Cleaners stand in water as they scrub the outside of the National Grand Theatre which has been nicknamed the "egg", in Beijing July 11, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray/Files

Beijing’s Olympic construction boom has bequeathed an 800-year-old city with some of the world’s most futuristic architectural statements, potent symbols of a resurgent power’s desire to showcase its development and mastery of technology.

“I think the venues show a new openness and tolerance among common Chinese people. They also show our amazing achievements,” said Zheng Fang, a Chinese architect who worked on the acclaimed National Aquatics Centre, dubbed the “Water Cube” for its shape and bubbly facade.

The Olympic swimming venue, designed by a consortium of Arup engineers, architects from Australian firm PTW and Zheng’s China Construction Design International (CCDI), competes with the adjacent National Stadium for the affections of thousands of camera-wielding tourists who flock to the main Olympic Green every day.

The 91,000-seat Herzog & de Meuron-designed National Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest” for its lattice work of interwoven steel, has made such an impact as to displace late Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s face from commemorative Olympic bank notes.

Standing together, the stadium and the swimming venue form “one of the most powerful urban precincts in the world,” said John Bilmon, a principal director with PTW.


Many Games visitors’ first experience of Beijing’s building ambitions, however, will start well before they get to the competition venues.

The city’s new airport terminal designed by British architect Norman Foster is supposed to resemble a dragon, complete with triangular windows cut into the ceiling as though they were scales.

After touching down at the $3.6 billion terminal, passengers will be able to board a brand new airport train to the city centre, and then ride a new subway link to Beijing’s business district, where the vertigo-inducing CCTV building looms improbably over lesser towers.

Designed by Rem Koolhaus’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture as a subversion of the traditional skyscraper, the nearly completed headquarters for China’s staid state broadcaster joins two towers sloped together with a gravity-defying canopy at 80 storeys’ height.

The buildings are not just testament to China’s engineering skills, but an authoritarian country’s ability to rapidly mobilize manpower and resources, according to Ming Liang, a design professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

“Authorities can simply order 1,000 of the country’s best welders to leave their homes and come weld the ‘Bird’s Nest’ together in Beijing,” said Ming. “This is what can be done here.”

Politics, which have re-shaped Beijing’s landscape for more than eight centuries, have also played an undeniable part in the city’s modern transformation.

Architects see little coincidence in the Olympic Green’s location directly north of the Forbidden City and its modern equivalent Zhongnanhai, where the Communist Party’s top leaders live and govern in almost total secrecy.

“No wealth or power can be concentrated in the south as that would be challenging the king. All rich people live behind the king on the left and the right,” said Ming.


The controversial National Theatre, a shiny half-sphere that looms south of imperial-era Zhongnanhai, is an exception to the rule, albeit one endorsed by opera fan and former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, reportedly the first soloist to grace the stage on its completion last year.

While eye-catching and widely praised, Beijing’s new architectural marvels have also weathered a storm of criticism, from academics complaining of a developing country’s wastefulness, to environmental experts panning the venues for not living up to the “Green Olympics” pledge.

Chinese architect Ai Weiwei, a design consultant for the “Bird’s Nest,” last year said he regretted that the stadium he helped inspire had become a symbol of a one-party state’s “fake” Olympic smile.

Other architects prefer to focus on the benefits derived from the global skills and technologies concentrated for the Olympic construction.

“In reality, in building these stadiums and other buildings like the CCTV Tower, we brought the world’s best technology and masters to Beijing,” said CCDI’s Zheng.

Criticizing China for wanting to showcase its development achievements is in any case misguided, said Tristram Carfrae, a structural engineer for Arup and the mastermind behind the Water Cube’s playful facade.

“If you look at Beijing’s history of architecture and design as being about monumentalism, about the grand statement, then why should these sport venues be any different?”

($1=6.813 yuan)

Editing by Jeremy Laurence