Page B1.2 . 20 August 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department
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Beijing Bird's Nest - Architecture


Labored Launch

Symbolism is a kind of wordless shorthand communication, and relationships between the architects and their client often required just this kind of translation and reading between the lines. At first, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron didn't even know if they'd won the job.

"There was never a definite 'yes,'" recalls de Meuron in a new documentary film about the design and construction process, Bird's Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China. "There was no letter saying 'you are now our architects,' but it gradually became reality. Our experience in China shows that yes-no as a clear pair of opposites doesn't exist."

At the same time, the stadium construction had to begin as quickly as possible once the Basel-based firm secured the job, with groundbreaking on December 24, 2003. At that point, they were still working without a contract.

De Meuron reports that there was also a lot of gamesmanship between architect and client. The budget was cut by the government numerous times. An original sum of 3.9 billion yuan was cut to 2.6 billion in a later contract, and then by another ten percent. The architects came to feel that the government was almost purposefully inflicting chaos on them as a kind of test.

Once de Meuron acknowledged this, he says in the film, their relationship with the government went better. "I relaxed and said, 'OK, it can't go on, but it's not my move now,'" he says.

Originally the stadium was also to have a retractable roof. But the government suggested eliminating it as a cost-saving measure. And truth be told, that may have been for the best. After all, in terms of form and symbolism, a bird's nest shouldn't have a roof. Sculpturally, the design has more integrity without it.

The architects say that while it would be arrogant of them as Westerners to preach to the Chinese, they sought to resist monumental architecture that glorifies the Communist government. State media were critical of the perceived excessive cost and fanciness of the design, and even as construction continued, Herzog & de Meuron feared being removed from the job. But ultimately, de Meuron says, "They decided not to because the Chinese are very calculating. It would have been worse for them if we had been kicked out."

Even so, to focus only on the labored birth of the Bird's Nest would be to ignore what is an architectural wonder.

Star Duo

Over the past decade, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron — Pritzker Prize-winning design partners, and friends since kindergarten — have established themselves among the premier architects in the world in a rarified air of stars.

Before the Bird's Nest, their most noteworthy project was probably the Tate Modern museum in London, which renovated the old Bankside Power Station on the Thames into one of the world's top contemporary art centers. Connected by Foster's Millennium Bridge to St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tate Modern is arguably the pinnacle of the late-20th- and early-21st-century era of reimagined industrial spaces (at least until its more mammoth neighbor in south London, the incredible Battersea Power Station, is renovated).

Herzog & de Meuron had experience in East Asia and also experience designing a state-of-the-art stadium. In Tokyo, a city already given to many luxurious fashion houses with garish designs, the firm's Prada store in the chic Omotesando district, with its jewellike facade of thick transparent glass, is a marvel.

So is Allianz Arena in Munich, which is the only stadium in the world with a facade that can change color completely. It's done with inflated airfoil panels that appear white from far away but, when examined closely, seem transparent. This solves one of the biggest problems with large stadiums: how their mass creates a barrier to the surrounding environment.

Structure That Breathes

The National Stadium in Beijing takes this a step further. The curving structural steel columns weave a kind of permeable outer layer that can be crossed or even climbed, thanks to several winding pathways.

"The structure almost breathes," says Jacques Herzog of the stadium, which is 320 meters (1,050 feet) long, nearly 70 meters (230 feet) high, and holds nearly 100,000 seats. "We were aware from the outset that this was an enormous structure. We didn't want this huge stadium to smother or repulse people, but desired the opposite: that it would attract and absorb people."

The stadium stands in the Olympic Green to the north of Beijing, near the Fourth Ring Road, one of several highways circling the city in numerical sequence — the First Ring road being closest to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing, and the Seventh being furthest on the outskirts.

The collaboration with Ai Weiwei shows an evolution for Herzog & de Meuron. Past projects of theirs in Moscow and Abu Dhabi had failed to be realized in part because of cultural differences. This time the architects wanted to absorb and learn about China in order to produce the right design.

"They are very different from all the architects I know," says Ai in the film. "They start a project from zero, with an innocent eye. They have always been concentrated and excited about whatever they see."

Ai was born in China, forcefully sent with his family to the Gobi desert during the Cultural Revolution, and later, by his own choosing, spent 15 years in New York before returning to Beijing.

The design also shows somewhat of an aesthetic evolution for Herzog & de Meuron. In the past, their work consisted of clean, straight, linear forms, not unlike Donald Judd's minimalist sculpture. While the architects were careful not to resort to postmodern caricature in their representation of a bird's nest, the National Stadium has an expressiveness, drama, and sense of curvature that their earlier work did not.

That curving was particularly important for the nestlike effect. Until construction began in earnest to install the prefabricated steel forms of the stadium from temporary construction towers, Herzog & de Meuron worried that the component segments of the girders would not be rounded enough to form continuous curves. However, the Chinese construction team was more than up to the task: that steel curves beautifully.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Architectural Record.



ArchWeek Image

The unusual structure of Beijing National Stadium has earned it the nickname "Bird's Nest."
Photo: Ben McMillan Extra Large Image

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Close to the stadium, at ground level, any structural repetition seems coincidental.
Photo: Martin Dougiamas Extra Large Image

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The complex overlapping steel structure, though largely open, creates a psychological buffer between inside and out.
Photo: Soeren Gruenert Extra Large Image

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Unusual light fixtures hang within the steel framework of Beijing National Stadium.
Photo: Soeren Gruenert Extra Large Image

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Beijing National Stadium seats nearly 100,000 spectators.
Photo: Courtesy Arup Extra Large Image

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A translucent shading system is affixed to the underside of the stadium's structure.
Photo: Shaon Diwakar Extra Large Image

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The visual presence of the Bird's Nest changes dramatically between day and night.
Photo: Rob Price Extra Large Image

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Stairways wind through the exterior structural frame of Beijing National Stadium.
Photo: Courtesy Arup Extra Large Image


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