Thursday, Aug. 7 at 1 p.m. ET

Olympics: In Beijing, a New Architectural Identity

Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Culture Critic
Thursday, August 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott will be online Thursday, Aug. 7 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about the Olympic venues, and about how preparation for the Olympic games has changed Beijing

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


Philip Kennicott: Welcome one and all to the chat. In today's paper, and on the website, there's an extended review and a video documenting some of the architecture that China has produced specifically for the Olympics. But follow the links, and you'll find other stories, and videos, that go more deeply into architecture and urbanism in China today. Questions on all of these subjects are welcome. Comments too.


Oxford, Md.: Mr. Kennicott -- I thought your pieces on this topic, both written and video, were brilliant and I sincerely enjoyed them. Did you encounter any difficulties from the government in reporting your stories?

Philip Kennicott: Constant small hassles. The Olympics people were the worst, not obsructionist, but just not very good if you had any question that wasn't already in the little file of answers they had prepared. For instance, who was the architect of that building? Hmmm, it's not here in my file. Well, can you recommend someone who might know? Well, we aren't authorized to give that information. Who might be authorized? We'll get back to you. And then they don't. Seemingly simple answers were very hard to come by.


New York, N.Y.: I would like to comment on the video regarding the Birds Nest and the Water Stadium. It was excellent. The ending shot in the subway with the Adidas ad was beautifully done and the link to the ad and the cultural direction of China is telling. Thank you. Interactive Video: In China, a New Architectural Identity (Post, August 7)

Philip Kennicott: I was struck by that poster from the first minute I arrived in China. I tried to put it out of my mind because first impressions are often misleading, and they're generally not lasting impressions after you've spent time in a new place. But I kept coming back to it. I especially admire Travis Fox's weaving together of the Riefenstahl and the poster. That's something you simply can't do in the print version of a newspaper.


Oxford, Md: Any controversy that the Nest was designed by a foreign company?

Philip Kennicott: There's not much controversy among the general public. Even Chinese architects are mostly impressed by the structure. The architect Wei Wei, who was involved with the stadium design, has, however, been quite critical of it, and of the offical "smile" of the Olympics. If you speak with architects long enough, there is also some resentment about the resources poured into the Bird's Nest, the huge quantity of steel, at a time when steel prices are on the rise. Check out the story on architecture we ran a few weeks ago, that looks into the steel issue through the prism of the CCTV tower, another mega project in Beijing.


Reston, Va.: I wonder what sort of impact Beijing will have on the tourists that go to see the Olympics. I fear that people who have spent huge amounts of money to travel there will not take advantage of learning more about Chinese culture and history, current Tibet and government oppression aside, and see the contributions of this long-lived country. China has had such a huge and positive impact on the development of civilization in the world. What are your thoughts?

Philip Kennicott: Everyone travels differently. I hope people do some homework, and get out beyond the carefully controlled Olympics bubble. The subway in Beijing works very well. Take it to a random stop, get off, walk for twenty minutes. Turn right, walk for twenty minutes. Do this until you're back where you started. Ponder.


Washington, D.C.: Are there examples of other structures built for previous games that you really admire?

Philip Kennicott: Really admire? No. I don't think the Olympics have generally been a great architectural boon to any city. The size of stadium they require is often overwhelming. That said, I think Montreal ended up with an interesting structure. And I admired what I saw of the Calatrava in Athens when I visited recently.


New York: Did it appear to you that China envisions personal automobiles having any prominence in the emerging urban lifestyle? I've heard both "yes" and "no" and was curious as to your thoughts?

Philip Kennicott: I think they absolutely have envisioned that, and have already put in much of the infrastructure to perpetuate that dependence. I also think they are rapidly realizing the downside of that model and working quickly (in some places) to find other solutions. As always in China, there are different trends moving at different speeds. People in the forefront of the societal juggernaut are already thinking about how to fix the problems that people in the back end are still in the process of making. "Trend" stories out of China are always tricky...


Boston: Really enjoyed the video tour and commentary, but your "voicing" needs work. I suggest you narrate your entire script outdoors and avoid tracking in studio, where your voice is clipped, too fast, sounds more like reading than talking, and words are dropped or not fully spoken. Many people have this problem, where they forget they're talking to someone in front of mic, but come across well on camera. Hope you take this as a positive suggestion for improvement, rather than a jab.

Philip Kennicott: Thanks for the comment, and sorry about the sound quality on the current video. Check out the Five Buildings of Beijing video, where the sound is much more even throughout.


Oxford, Md.: Were there any notes about your experience that you couldn't include in the story that you could share with us now?

Philip Kennicott: There's always a huge amount of material that ends up on the clipping room floor. I met with a bunch of young architects who are doing very interesting work, but on a small scale. They are working on small houses, restaurants, and so on, projects that don't make the headlines. I also met with architecture students, and was struck by their idealism. We want to work small. We want to work green. We want to look for Chinese answers to Chinese problems. And we want time, like many of our Western colleagues, to think and theorize. The pressure to build, however, is enormous. Still, there are architects in their 20s who aren't getting sucked into the maelstrom.

_______________________ Video: Five Buildings in Beijing (Post, June 20)


Minneapolis: It seems to me that the scale of the Olympics has gotten out of hand, and the scale of the architecture, too. Ideally, this should be a competition of amateur athletes, so why has it become so important to build a bunch of monuments that are supposed to stay around forever. I guess it's in part for tourism, but isn't this also part of what makes it so ridiculously expensive to host the Olympics? I'm intrigued by Chicago's plan of building a temporary stadium that afterwards would be downscaled to a smaller venue for track and field and actually be useful to the community thereafter. What would be your thought about recasting architecture at the Olympics to focus on more temporary structures, and redefining the architectural importance of these buildings?

Philip Kennicott: I think we could go two directions on this. You've defined one, the temporary architecture route. And the Olympics are often defined by a lot of temporary architecture, especially to house the sports that don't have much cultural resonance in the host country. But I'd vote for something else, exactly the opposite: a full time, every-four-year host city that never changes, with permanent architecture. Maybe we could put them in Athens, and leave them there. Have the spectacle coordinated not by local countries with a nationalist axe to grind, but by an international committee. And stop this crazy building every four years. In any case, I think the world is going to think long and hard about reforming the games after the Beijing Olympics.


New York: What was your personal reaction to Shanghai? I believe it is accurate to say many architects are somewhat appalled at what they see there, in terms of the lack of any aesthetic quality to the excess and expanse.

Philip Kennicott: A lot of the new buildings in Shanghai, especially in the Pudong area, have been compared to Houston. And I'd have to agree, pretty much standard high-rise architecture without much thought or innovation. I like the urban feel of Shanghai, however, especially in the older parts and along the Bund. The time and place to really consider this question is 2010, when the city will be host of the World Expo. There is a lot of building already going on in preparation for that. And I'd love to see the results.


New York: Phil, man, you sound like you believe the Olympics are about athletics and competition and collegiality. Dude, it is all about corporate excess.

Philip Kennicott: Heh.


Re: temporary vs. permanent buildings: Even if the buildings aren't always as strikingly beautiful and unique as the ones in Beijing, other cities have found ways to incorporate Olympic structures into life post-Games. In Atlanta, for instance, they turned the stadium into a new home for the Braves, the swimming venue was turned over to Georgia Tech for continued use, and Centennial Olympic Park has become a popular place for many events, including concerts and a focal point for new museums and the aquarium.

Philip Kennicott: And they're thinking along these lines in Beijing as well. The Olympic village has already been sold as condos, to be occupied afer the games. Many of the stadia will be used for universities, too. The Water Cube is designed for effective winter use too. So they're planning for the future use of much of the architecture. The plaza, however, is a big IF. I just don't see it working without a lot of reconfiguration.


Philip Kennicott: Well, thank you all for visiting. The buildings discussed in today's video and story will probably be stars of the show, tomorrow, when the opening ceremonies begin. I can't wait to see what they look like through the loving nozzle of the TV camera, and under the flattering glare of fireworks.

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