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Olympics

Reused and reimagined: Beijing’s Olympic architecture

A bird’s nest, an ice cube and a — is that a giant stiletto?

Beijing Olympic Committee

Shougang Big Air, a competition venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Familiar structures and new creations are scattered around China’s Winter Olympics complex as the country hosts the Games against the backdrop of a global coronavirus surge and loud cries for boycotts against human rights abuses.

The 2008 Beijing Summer Games saw similar calls for boycotts, but that year also marked China’s coming-out as a global power.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Fireworks explode over the National Stadium during the Opening Ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2008.

Julie Jacobson/AP

Julie Jacobson/AP

Some of the iconic buildings from 2008 are being reused or repurposed, while new constructions represent the more insular feel of this year’s Games.

Foreign architects helped design what became the most memorable venues of the 2008 Games.

Julie Jacobson/AP

Venues for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

But for the 2022 Olympics, strict covid-19 travel restrictions, as well as deteriorating relationships with Western governments, meant that designs for repurposed and new venues fell mostly to Beijing-based architects and firms.

“It’d be unthinkable for Beijing to offer the highest prizes to architects in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, the countries that have declared a diplomatic boycott,” said Xuefei Ren, a sociology professor at Michigan State University’s global urban studies program.

Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

Like in 2008, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies this year will be held in the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest.

Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images

The National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in 2008.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The stadium during the 2008 Opening Ceremonies.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Designed by a Swiss architecture firm, the engineering marvel is made of 22 miles of steel beams, carefully placed to keep the more-than-40,000-ton structure erect. It can seat some 80,000 people and withstand a large earthquake.

Despite its ultra-modernity, the stadium evokes some of China’s traditional architecture.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

The roundness, as well as the nickname “Bird’s Nest,” was meant to symbolize the Temple of Heaven, a site in central Beijing dating back to the 1400s, said Susan Brownell, a history professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

“I really feel that that design made its way into global popular culture,” she said. “There was even an iPhone case that used it.”

Clive Rose/Getty Images

Next to the stadium is the singular National Aquatics Center, which in 2008 hosted swimming events and became known as the Water Cube.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

The National Aquatics Center

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Ahead of the Winter Games, the Water Cube has turned into an “Ice Cube” and will host curling events.

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

The National Aquatics Center, nicknamed the Water Cube, on Day 15 of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A curling test event at the facility, now called the Ice Cube, in April 2021.

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

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Beijing Olympic Committee

Designed by Australian and Chinese architecture firms, the square structure was built to play off the neighboring stadium’s roundness and represent another Chinese historical site, the Forbidden City, Brownell said. There is even a moat around the cube to further resemble its 15th-century counterpart.

But the building is otherwise all modern: Its exterior bubble pattern was taken from a mathematical formula based on the structure of soap bubbles, and developing the structural blueprint required linking supercomputers for about a week.

Beijing Olympic Committee

The Capital Indoor Stadium, built more than 50 years ago, has also been repurposed for the Games to host short-track speedskating and figure skating.

Beijing Olympic Committee

China and the United States face off during their volleyball match at the Capital Indoor Stadium on Day 7 of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Inside the stadium in April 2021.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The National Speed Skating Oval, known as the Ice Ribbon, is brand new and designed by Beijing-based architects.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The National Speed Skating Oval.

Carlos Garcia/Reuters

Carlos Garcia/Reuters

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Reuters

A speed skating test event in October 2021.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Another new structure on the outskirts of Beijing is the Shougang Big Air, which will host some snowboard and ski competitions.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Designed by Beijing-based architects, the construction was named after and built on the site of the now-closed Capital Steel Factory, or the the Shougang Corporation. Once the largest steel mill in the country, the factory closed in 2010 because of the pollution it was emitting. Beijing chose to preserve and repurpose the area, adding the Big Air and converting the silos into office spaces.

Many have quipped that the nearly 200-foot-high building resembles a high-heeled shoe.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Shougang Big Air, seen during the 2019 Air+Style competition.

Lintao Zhan/Getty Images

Lintao Zhan/Getty Images

Xuefei said the site marked a unique “preservation of socialist industrial heritage.”

“Most preservation projects are for much older buildings,” she said. “A lot of people just didn’t think that socialist-style factories were worth preserving.”

Lintao Zhan/Getty Images

Shougang Big Air.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The site’s backdrop of industry is also a reminder of the labor issues overshadowing this year’s Games. Rights groups allege the country is using the forced labor of detained Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to produce Olympic merchandise, a charge the International Olympic Committee has been reluctant to address.

Human rights abuses also muddied the pomp of the 2008 Games: To make way for structures like the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, more than 1 million people were forcibly displaced, and working conditions raised alarms.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Fireworks light the sky over the Water Cube, left, and the Bird's Nest during the 2008 Opening Ceremonies.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Lars Baron/Getty Images

“The dazzling landmarks in Beijing, including the Bird’s Nest, were built upon the sweat and toil of millions of migrant workers from rural areas in China,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They work for low wages, endure workplace safety hazards.”

She added that “while the facilities look state-of-the-art and dazzling, people in China don’t have a say in deciding what to be built, how to build them or how much money to spend, and criticism towards the government concerning these projects is silenced.”

Lars Baron/Getty Images

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Credits

Editing by Reem Akkad. Photo editing by Toni Sandys. Video editing by Jason Aldag.