SBD/Issue 219/Olympics

Beijing Venues Impressive Despite Local Firms, "Modest" Budgets

Aquatic Centre Draws Rave
Reviews From Architecture Critic
Though BOCOG officials are "not so keen to admit it now to foreign reporters," they have "tilted the balance of architectural power [for Olympic venues] decidedly in the direction of local firms and modest budgets," according to architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne of the L.A. TIMES. The Wukesong Indoor Stadium, where basketball will be played, was designed by the Beijing Architecture Research Institute (BARI), a group of government architects "about as avant-garde as its name would imply." As a result, the arena is a "good deal less flashy than planned." It is a "boxy arena clad in strips of aluminum alloy that resemble stalks of wheat blowing gently in the wind: hardly innovative but quite handsome all the same." However, organizers "never lost sight of the fact" that the Beijing National Stadium and the Aquatic Centre, nicknamed the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, respectively, are "sure to star in worldwide television coverage of the Games." The Bird's Nest "lost a planned retractable roof to cost-cutting, but its total capacity fell just 10,000 seats, to 90,000, and it remains the most daring stadium built anywhere in the last decade." At the Water Cube, the "whole structure radiates the idea of water," as the structure is "covered in huge bubbles, some nearly 25 feet across." If the concept "seems a bit forced, the final product has an easy, unforced charisma." Inside the Water Cube, the "quality of light filtering through those bubbles is ethereal, combining with the diving platforms and the blue-and-white plastic seats to create an effect somewhere between community pool and Gothic cathedral." The Bird's Nest and Water Cube also "suggest the huge civic and urban-planning importance that ruling-party officials in Beijing attach to these Olympics." The largest venues are "landmarks in an old-fashioned sense, and the ruling party is determined to bask in their reflected glow" (L.A. TIMES, 8/4).

MASSIVE MAKEOVER: In London, Clifford Coonan notes of the 31 Olympics venues, 12 are new, 11 are renovated older buildings and eight are temporary structures. Beijing's new architecture "looks amazing," and the building boom "has been matched by impressive levels of organisation elsewhere." And despite the "destruction of large swathes of the city, most of the people remain unapologetically enthusiastic about the games" (London INDEPENDENT, 8/4). Also in London, Jane Macartney notes Beijing has spent US$40B and "spared no effort" to make the Olympics the "most spectacular Games of modern times." The "not-so-subliminal message that the venues are determined to project is that China is a force to be reckoned with." It seems Beijing "has come full circle" (LONDON TIMES, 8/4). In N.Y., Filip Bondy writes the Bird's Nest is an "architectural knockout" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 8/4). But in Pittsburgh, Shelly Anderson wrote while observers may be "dazzled by the modern, almost pop-art Olympic venues," it is "unclear if that will be enough to quiet concerns over human rights issues" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 8/3).

RETRO-CHIC: In Chicago, Blair Kamin wrote the "spectacular architecture will play a leading role" in the Games, as TV cameras will capture "some of the most eye-popping new structures on the planet." But Chicago Mayor Richard Daley "already has signaled that a Chicago Games would be based not on the Beijing model, but on the Barcelona model, which emphasized refurbishing the urban spaces between buildings rather than attention-getting architecture" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 8/3).

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