Gold and Leaden
Amid China's Dull Olympics Architecture, in a City More Gray Than Green, Two Imports Shine

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.

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.

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