China's Banner Stadium
"In China, they use things like sports venues as a catalyst to redevelop entire areas," says Ellerbe Becket's Gordon Wood, principal in charge of the Guangdong project. "The stadium will be very much a hub area. The main train from Hong Kong comes right by, as well as a highway. It's going to be a regional recreation center."
A recent trend in the United States is a sometimes-sentimental historicism, in which relatively recent ballparks, like Camden Yards in Baltimore, are built to intentionally recall a beloved predecessor. Without a significant predecessor to reflect on, the Guangdong Olympic Stadium takes a more radical approach to proclaiming its identity.
Waving the Banner
Transportation hub notwithstanding, the more immediately notable aspects of the stadium are its bold visual elements. And in consonance with Chinese architectural tradition, the site includes numerous symbols evoking the local culture and environment. Together these make the Guangdong Olympic Stadium not just a commercial gathering place, but an instant architectural icon.
The year-round greenery of Guangzou (formerly Canton) and its balmy climate have given it the nickname "Flower City." Developing the floral theme, the architects moved the columns inward to give the stadium's seating bowl the appearance of growing outward from the ground to a sculpted upper edge — resembling the petals of a flower.
These days, outdoor stadiums almost always have some kind of roof. People pay too much for their tickets to be willing to brave the elements. Guangzou is flanked by the Pearl River, the figure of which is evoked in the stadium roofline that covers most of its seating area.
The twin bands of cantilevered roof are each approximately 250 feet (75 meters) long and 52 feet (16 meters) wide. Each is supported along one edge by 21 pairs of concrete pylons. Parting in the middle, these roof forms ripple and meander with an organic flair. They are also deliberately reminiscent of the ribbon broken by a victorious runner.
The architects used state-of-the-art 3D modeling software when designing the roof forms for ribbon- and river-like fluidity. Those forms are juxtaposed with more stately design elements — a seating bowl, the track and field — making them all the more striking.
References to roof and river also carry through the details. "The project team spent time understanding the use of color throughout the stadium," says Mike Sabatini, Ellerbe Becket's lead designer for the project. The wave pattern of the roof is echoed in the bowl's seating colors, in the concourse floor tile, and even in the light fixtures outside the stadium.
Finding a Place among Traditions
Many of the detail elements were constructed by hand, such as the carving on individual floor tiles, made possible by low labor costs. "For example," Sabatini says, "we did some pretty things with concrete beams and arches that were less expensive than they would have been in the United States. The roof is all hand-welded connections, which would have been predrilled in the United States. However, some technology-oriented things like curtain walls were more expensive."
China's emphasis on manpower over technology can also be seen in the approach to stadium security, which is always a concern at the Olympic Games. "They tend to secure the site at the perimeter more than we do," says Wood. "They have layers of fences and retractable gates, and they'll have lots of people all along there when the time comes."
Despite attention to symbolic references, Ellerbe Becket says their design never attempted to actually recreate classical Chinese architecture. "We chose not to mimic or interpret Chinese architectural traditions," says Sabatini. "It was more important to say something about Guangzhou than its architecture."
Wood applauds the use of design competitions like the one for Guangdong Stadium as a means of raising the bar for the architecture that follows. "You have more of an opportunity to challenge conventional design elements and create a dynamic image," he says. "That's what allowed us to explore new ideas for forms that had remained traditional for so long, like the image of what a stadium roof can be."
One wonders, on occasion, if the bold gesture that wins over a jury will continue to ring true into the future. To search for a stadium's identity in the essences of its locale surely makes good sense. But dismissal of local architectural language that directly embodies long distillation of the locale in deference to generically international curtain walls may raise tough questions about the architectural sensitivity of cross-cultural translation. Does Guangdong Stadium present to the world the enduring symbol of a proud new China, or is it projecting instead an ultimately ephemeral symbolic Olympic triumphalism?
Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis and Architectural Record.