A win for Team China

Times Architecture Critic

Enough landscapers to fill a green army have been swarming over this city in recent weeks, sticking rows of saplings in traffic medians and rolling out fresh sod seemingly by the mile. If they’ve been visibly laboring -- there is no deadline more solid than an Olympic deadline, after all, and it gets pretty sticky in Beijing this time of year -- there is also something symbolically relaxed about the work they’re doing.

It is the definition of a cosmetic touch-up -- window dressing for a city that by the end of last year had wrapped up much of the construction of its Olympic facilities, which include 12 new venues, 11 existing ones updated for the Games and an additional eight temporary facilities for sports such as motocross, fencing and beach volleyball. Unlike Athens, which became a symbol of civic procrastination in 2004, Beijing made sure its architectural house was in order with nearly a year to spare.

But that sense of calm pervading much of the capital when I arrived in late June masked a complex reality about the way that effort came together. China’s preparations provoked an intense and unusually open debate here about the relationship between architecture and nationalism.


It also raised questions about overspending -- Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, and other leading politicians made pointed calls in the middle of planning for a “frugal” Games -- along with worry that too many plum stadium commissions were going to Western architects. Ultimately, though they’re not so keen to admit it now to foreign reporters lest they dull the cosmopolitan sheen of these Games, Olympic organizers tilted the balance of architectural power decidedly in the direction of local firms and modest budgets.

When Kobe Bryant and the rest of the U.S. basketball team take the court for the first time Sunday, against Yao Ming and China, they’ll do so in an arena, on the far western side of the city, that is a good deal less flashy than planned. The commission first went to a German firm that proposed a sort of arena-as-JumboTron, with video screens covering the exterior. But before construction could begin, the job was handed over to the Beijing Architecture Research Institute, a group of government architects about as avant-garde as its name would imply. It produced 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.

Organizers were careful, however, not to make too many changes to the main architectural icons of these Games: Herzog & De Meuron’s National Stadium, known as the “Bird’s Nest,” and the so-called Water Cube, by the Australian firm PTW, which will hold the swimming and diving events. They never lost sight of the fact that the two buildings are sure to star in worldwide television coverage of the Games, taking up the role that Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple and the main stadium in Athens, with a new roof by Santiago Calatrava, played in recent Olympiads.

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, edging out even Herzog & De Meuron’s own Allianz-Arena in Munich. The Water Cube, for its part, is a sleek, contemporary and wholly persuasive version of the building type that architects and theorists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in their classic 1972 book “Learning From Las Vegas,” define as a “duck”: A structure whose form is synonymous with, or advertises, its function.

The Water Cube is covered in huge bubbles, some nearly 25 feet across, made of a synthetic, translucent material known as ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene): The whole structure radiates the idea of water. If the concept seems a bit forced, the final product has an easy, unforced charisma. And inside, 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 the Water Cube also suggest the huge civic and urban-planning importance that ruling-party officials in Beijing attach to these Olympics. The buildings sit astride a new boulevard tracing the same north-south axis that bisects Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City -- the most significant axis in any Chinese city.

That level of ambition and pride is directly at odds with how Olympic planning has lately unfolded in the West. Officials in London, the 2012 host, seem reluctant -- perhaps simply because they’re British and don’t really do Muscle-Flexing Nationalism -- to make the main stadium impressive for anything but its modesty. The Olympics have come to London twice before, in 1908 (when it filled in for Rome after an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius) and 1948. Peter Cook’s 2012 design calls for a lightweight, low-key building that can be dismantled when the Games are over. Chicago, which is vying for the 2016 Games, is also proposing a self-effacing, temporary Olympic stadium, by the architect Ben Wood.

In Beijing, the largest Olympic venues are landmarks in an old-fashioned sense, and the ruling party is determined to bask in their reflected glow. In recent weeks, the Chinese press, in the sort of quasi-Orwellian turn it has nearly perfected, has begun to give primary design credit for the Bird’s Nest to the local architects who aided Herzog & De Meuron in executing it. Some news reports have excised the Swiss firm completely.

In other cases, Western designers are keen to excise themselves. A few days before I left Los Angeles for China, I phoned the Boston office of Sasaki Associates, the large design firm that created the master plan for the Olympic Green, which extends north from the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, includes nearly a dozen other venues and covers a total of 2,800 acres.

I was put through to Dennis Pieprz, the president of the firm, who oversaw its work on the Green. After I asked him whether he would be in the capital during my visit and available to give me a tour of the results, there was a long pause.

“Well, I haven’t been to Beijing in quite some time,” he finally said, explaining that Olympic officials had taken over and modified the Sasaki plan so extensively that the firm now basically disavows the final product.

And there it was, plain as day on the firm’s website, when I went back to check: “Sasaki had no involvement in the design and implementation of the final landscape for the Beijing Olympics.”

So much for signature Olympic architecture. This is something closer to the reverse: A firm anxious to scrub its name from the official record before the Games get underway.