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Gold and Leaden
The original plan for the Olympic park was better than this -- more organic, more green, more diverse in its breakdown of space. But the Chinese have a strange way of soliciting plans and then messing them up. The Boston-based urban planning firm Sasaki Partners did much of the overall design concept for the Olympic Green. But the company is at pains to let the world know that "Sasaki had no involvement in the design and final implementation of the landscape for the Beijing Olympics," according to its Web site.
"We've done about 35 competitions in China and we won over 30, and not a single competition has ever gone forward in a way that we would want to be associated with," says Dennis Pieprz, president of Sasaki.
The Chinese have certainly done many things right, incorporating the lessons of previous Olympics host cities. Housing for visiting athletes has already been sold to new condo dwellers who will take possession after the Games. Mass transit has been expanded. Trees have been planted all over Beijing, a welcome greening of the city and a desperate attempt to clean the air before the Games.
But given the billions spent, the input of the best architectural and planning minds in the world, and the all-out participation of a committed populace, why are the Beijing Olympics so ugly?
The Chinese have made an extraordinary effort to build for the Olympics, but they haven't mastered the chaotic forces that undermine so much of their architectural ambition. Many of the facilities have been built so quickly and haphazardly that they look cheap. Some temporary sites, such as the archery field (a collaboration between an Australian firm and a Chinese partner), are embarrassingly functional. The taekwondo stadium, built to serve as a permanent sports facility for the Beijing University of Science and Technology, is covered with red metal panels that make its front oppressive. Worse, they obscure windows. Despite the use of focused skylight fixtures inside the arena, many of the building's spaces feel dark and enclosed. Unfortunately, during a visit in May, an effort to take a closer look at the building's plans, which were still posted in a hallway, met a typical Chinese response.
"I am sorry, it is for security," said Liu TianTian, an Olympic's representative, as she interposed herself between a visitor and the drawings.
The metal panels that cover the taekwondo facility aren't an exception. The main basketball facility, built in the western part of the city, is also covered with metal panels, though much more intriguingly arranged, in a seemingly random, organic, grasslike pattern. And yet they, too, cover windows. To enter the building, you must cross pedestrian bridges over a moat, though unlike the Water Cube, where the moat is an elegant aesthetic addition to the building, the basketball stadium's moat is designed to hide underground access to VIP parking, according to Chen Xiaobing, a press officer for the facility.
"Not VIP, Olympic family," corrected another Olympics official during a recent visit, apparently sensitive about the obvious: This Olympics will be byzantine in its choreography of privilege and status.
The panels covering the basketball facility are also a reflection of an official obsession: the passion for green or green-seeming architecture. The arena's architect, Hu Yue, has an explanation.
"Originally, I didn't plan to use this material," says Hu, one of the country's "national design masters" and a professor at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design. "But the year before last, there was a new energy-saving standard recommended for public facilities."
It wasn't mandatory, says Hu, but such is the encouraging power of state suggestion that he thought the solar dampening panels would be a wise addition. Hu managed the change of plans fairly elegantly, but in lesser buildings, you can sense the capricious and frustrating results of China's design-by-committee mentality.
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There is no one overriding sense of style to the new venues. A fuzzy futurist sensibility governs many of them, including the tennis facility, which some say resembles a lotus blossom but looks more like a mechanical pincer with its jaws open. From the outside, the low dome of the velodrome looks like a spaceship; from the inside, its steel supports are so dense and heavy that the openness of the interior space is undermined by the industrial thickets of supporting material above it.
Interior spaces are little better. At the temporary facilities, interiors resemble modular, prefab office space. Even at the velodrome, which will remain a cycling center after the Olympics, the overuse of polished stone suggests a vast, communal shower, as if the whole thing should have a drain in the center so it can be hosed down after use. Interiors often seem designed to defend against people rather than welcome them.
Few challenges tax a city's resources like preparing for an Olympics. The huge disparities between the best of the Olympics architecture and the dull mass of it are perhaps to be expected. But the showpieces of much new Chinese architecture, imported from outside the country, say more about Chinese buying power than they do about native Chinese architectural skill. They are "face" projects, advertising icons, symbols, chits in a game of architectural one-upmanship. But they aren't Chinese.
The public is expected to play this game -- embrace the buildings with a nationalist fervor -- without noticing that they stand so far and above the local product (even in partnership with Western architects) as to call into question whether China's own architects are even in the same league (or have been invited to play in the same league). If you talk with Chinese architects long enough to get beyond the formulaic expressions of admiration for the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, there is a bit of resentment: Western architects come in and build big, but without much sensitivity to local style, while Chinese architects struggle under great swamps of too much work, and regulation and interference.
The image of Hu, the diver seen in the Adidas commercial, suggests an ideal: an exceptional being, created by the people, giving back to the people. But it's curious how much the image of Hu echoes one of the great Olympic propaganda moments of all time, the diving sequence that concludes Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Berlin Games, "Olympia." The human body in flight is a powerful image of the sublime -- man transcending the forces of nature -- which seems to have particular appeal to authoritarian governments.
Like Hu on his human platform, the star architecture of the Olympics is meant to be eye-catching, or, as one Olympics official put it, "a gift to the Chinese people." But it is also designed to keep the public focused on flashpoints of beauty -- purchased at great cost from outside China -- rather than the great sea of concrete mediocrity that they can rightfully claim as their own.