Monday, August 4, 2008

Architecture at the Beijing Olympics

The VRC Image of the Month for August is the "Water Cube" - the National Aquatics Center - built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing by PTW Architects, an Australian firm.

The Water Cube glows at night with an eerie blue light through the 4000 "bubbles" of the exterior cladding. Resembling irregular and asymmetrical honeycombing, these bubbles are made of EFTE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) by Vector Foiltec. The Water Cube uses these bubbles to capture solar energy; vents in the cavities between the bubbles can be closed in winter to trap heat and opened in summer to reduce the temperature.

During the day, the Water Cube is just as compelling as the bubbles of EFTE shimmer within outlines their steel structure.

In this picture (from Flickr), the Water Cube is in the foreground and next to it is the "Bird's Nest" - probably the iconic building for the 2008 Olympics. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron, with Arup engineering and CADG (China Architecture Design and Research Group, in design collaboration with the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Bird's Nest (National Stadium) also uses an asymmetrical, seemingly random pattern of exterior elements. Like the Water Cube, it also makes bold use of color, as the steel exoskeleton surrounds a crimson concrete stadium.

Other unusual buildings created for the Beijing Olympics include Digital Beijing by Studio Pei-Zhu and the Tennis Center by Bligh Voller Nield (you can see images of these buildings on the VRC's digital image database at:

if you search for Olympics in the keyword - email the VRC to get a password if you don't already have one!) The first image of the Water Cube and the image of the Birds Nest are from the July Architectural record, where you can also read about the Olympic construction in Beijing!

There are many interesting pictures of the Olympic Park in Beijing and of Beijing in general on Flickr, as well. The OMA/Rem Koolhaas building nicknamed the "Shorts" is another example of unusual (and perhaps exploitative?) architecture under construction in Beijing. The CCTV - China Central Television Headquarters -- is a creative and gravity-defying work that is sure to turn heads away from the grandeur of old Beijing's Forbidden City and new Beijing's Olympic structures.

(To me, the CCTV building looks like the Seattle Public Library -- another OMA/Rem Koolhaas work, you will remember -- stood up!)

The Beijing Olympics, of course, are more controversial than these unique buildings. The political controversies, athletic controversies, environmental controversies, and media access controversies are ubiquitous in the news and on the Internet; these issues open up dialog across lines of countries, sports fans, and human rights groups. I leave those controversies untouched and only present the architecture as the topic of this blog!

I have a fondness for the Olympics because my parents and my sister and I went to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 - as spectators, not participants! It takes a lot of planning ahead and sheer luck to pull off a trip to the Olympics - although it might be easier in this day and age with the Internet. Getting the tickets to events is dastardly and trying to line up hotel reservations and planes not too far in advance but not too late is critical!

My parents found us hotel rooms in a little town outside of Barcelona called Sitges, which is a beach resort town right on the Mediterranean, and is connected to Barcelona by rail. We stayed at a place called the Hotel Romantique (which had a fabulous courtyard where breakfast was served) which was nice but not fancy and casual but elegant, too. (We may have been the only heterosexuals there - the place was recommended by some friends of my parents from their Episcopalian Church in downtown Washington, DC!). We absolutely loved it. We lounged by the Mediterranean like we were in some movie on these lovely cabana chairs....

My sister took care of the plane tickets for our trip - which went well except our luggage did not arrive in Barcelona with us, having changed planes (or not changed planes) with us in Madrid. We were able to wait for the next flight to get our bags, but trying to explain all this to the Spanish airport officials was challenging! But all was well coming into Barcelona in the end. (Leaving Barcelona was another adventure, as there was a huge thunderstorm and the airport lost electricity for several hours! Leaving travelers in the dark and planes unable to take off -- our return flight to New York from Madrid was missed, of course! )

I arranged the event tickets - we had decided to try and see events that you never see on television and avoided the high profile events like gymnastics, diving, and American basketball - (that was the year of the "Dream Team" in the Olympics.... ) which were REALLY startling expensive to get tickets to, as well. Hundreds of dollars a ticket to see gymnastic, for example. So we saw equestrian events, fencing, boxing, field hockey, swimming, basketball (China vs Mexico, I think it was!), and two days of Track and Field. All were fantastic!

My sister drove the rental car while we were there (really brave!) for sightseeing - we went to Andorra, just to say we could, and drove along the (totally unmarked) country roads of the Catalan countryside with vineyards on each side...

Barcelona is a wonderful city and full of great things to see - a fabulous zoo, the Picasso Museum, the old Cathedral, all the lovely Gaudi buildings! During the Olympics, of course, the more unpleasant parts of a city are tightly controlled and pickpockets and prostitutes are hidden away - people are more patient with tourists and their horrible language skills and weird eating habits!

I made a special pilgrimage to Mies van der Rohe's reconstructed Barcelona Pavilion (which was pretty close to the swimming venue) and photographed the crap out of it! It is a lovely building and I was surprised at the color and warmth of the rather exotic and sumptuous stone (which was quarried from the location of the original stone). It was built for the International Exposition in Barcelona in 1929.

We also went to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's never-finished cathedral, and my sister and I climbed one of the belltowers! It was really a trip to remember and I hope the visitors to the Beijing Olympics enjoy it as much as we did the one in Barcelona!

But I moved away from architecture in a digression of a personal nature so I will close with a reminder that the buildings in Olympic buildings in Beijing are sure to remain a topic of conversation long after the sports are over and the tourists have gone home!

Try searching for some images from Beijing on Flickr

or on the VRC's digital image database!


Heather Seneff
Visual Resources Collection
College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Washington