Gold and Leaden

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2008


An Adidas advertising campaign in China, this May, showed a man named Hu Jia, dressed in a red swimsuit, standing on a platform made of twisting hands and arms emerging from an endless sea of people, sketched in gray. This is the Olympic diver Hu Jia, not the civil rights activist and political prisoner Hu Jia, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in April.

Hu, the diver, was one of China's hopes to take home a clutch of medals at the Beijing Games before injuries forced him off the team. The architecture on which he stands, in the poster, is a human one, a mass of people out of which he emerges and into which he will plunge. This circularity -- the Olympics are of the people and for the people -- is the government's basic propaganda message. But it's not clear that it holds true for the architecture of the Games.

The new stadiums and other facilities designed for the Olympics are a very mixed collection of buildings. Two of them, the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center, emerge, like Hu, from the mass of the others. But many of the 37 new, rehabilitated or temporary facilities spread across Beijing and China, belong to the gray mass. "There are more to these Games than just two iconic buildings," the magazine Architectural Record has declared. But sad to say, that's not really true. The architecture of the Olympics encapsulates the state of architecture in China: The glory projects are not particularly Chinese, and much of what is Chinese is not particularly good. Put another way, if it isn't expensive, it probably isn't worth a second glance.

That distinction, between the best and rest, wasn't being made at the swanky expo-center set up at the Olympic site before the Games. A few months ago, Chinese Olympic officials were shepherding journalists through the center, where models of the facilities were laid out on tables, as if they were all of equal interest, displayed like jewelry in an upmarket shop. On the wall, a Photoshopped mural showed happy people, from around the globe, milling around what is being called the Olympic Green, the parklike setting where many of the most-watched events will take place. It was a curious image, so clumsily done that the same people were repeated over and over again, some dressed for winter, others for summer. And then there was a busker, a scruffy guy with his guitar case open looking for handouts. It was, in short, an image of what the Olympic park will almost certainly not be: an open, social, freewheeling space.

A quick study of the Beijing map reveals that the Olympic Green, a massive 2,800-acre park centered on the main north-south axis of the city, is primarily a political space. That axis line, which runs from the north of the capital through the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square (the symbolic heart of Beijing), connects the power of the state to the spectacle of the Games. And the greatest spectacle of the Games, so far, are the two architectural gems that sit next to each other, straddling that line: the "Water Cube" and the "Bird's Nest," as the National Aquatic Center and the 91,000-seat National Stadium have become known.

For these two iconic facilities, the organizers of the Beijing Olympics went all out. The Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, famous for converting London's dour and Dickensian Bankside Power Station into a popular new gallery space for the Tate museum, beat out 13 finalists to win the competition for the National Stadium in 2003. Its design, a complex, 42,000-ton latticework of steel surrounding a concrete stadium bowl, is perhaps the single most recognizable advertising symbol for the Games. Its slightly off-center oval shape appears on almost anything that can be marketed, and it is ubiquitous on state television.

The "Bird's Nest" name is a happy accident. The architects originally likened the tracery of steel girders to the finely cracked glazing of Chinese pottery. But as the building took form, the public dubbed it the Bird's Nest, an auspicious form in a country that also eats delicate bird's nests (made from the spittle of swifts) in a highly prized soup.

Opposite the delicate and curvaceous Bird's Nest is its fraternal twin, the rectilinear blue box known as the Water Cube. Designed by the Australian firm PTW, the Aquatic Center is designed to mimic bubble structure. Its steel frame repeats an organic pattern on the outside, as if a cluster of soapy foam has been sliced on a plane to reveal its inner structure of seemingly random and densely packed cells. Inflatable blue pillows, made of a space-age polymer, have been fitted inside the framing, creating a delightful set of contradictions: The building is rectangular, even severe, in shape, but the outside is soft and inviting. The pillows, some of them 30 feet across, are strong enough to walk on, but also vulnerable to piercing. And so the entire cube is surrounded by a water moat to keep sharp objects away. It is also translucent and the effect at night, when it glows a rich aqua blue, is stunning. Elegant, minimalist white entryways enhance the simplicity of the shape.

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Both buildings are masterful in the old modernist sense -- their structure, shape and purpose have a seamless unity. It's tempting to think that as architecture becomes vitiated in stylistic chaos, these two buildings will be remembered as shining examples of new ideas from a tired discipline. They may, perhaps, be remembered rather like Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs," or the intellectually vibrant but deeply conservative poems of Philip Larkin -- the summation of a tradition. If nothing else, they prove that if you don't nickel-and-dime the architecture, stadiums don't have to be boring machines for selling beer and hot dogs.

Unfortunately, despite their beauty, they have been placed in the midst of a plaza that demonstrates the default thinking of so much of Chinese urban design. "I do like the grandiose," architect Michael Sorkin quotes Mao Zedong saying 50 years ago. And Mao would no doubt love this vast, dehumanizing space that swallows up architectural good intentions. Overhead, huge multi-armed lighting poles seem to stalk the plaza like aliens decamping from a hostile spaceship. The plaza's surrounding buildings echo one another's curves, and their masses are well balanced. But the effect is cold, elegant and unwelcoming. The overwhelming amount of open space, painfully more apparent in the months before the Olympics when it was empty of all but workers, is oppressive, and it will be hard to make the plaza anything more than a totalitarian showplace after the Games. Even the stubby trees and sculptures seem forlorn and inadequate to their task: softening a hard, forbidding place.

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