"In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the real star has been the architecture," writes AIA EVP/CEO Chris McEntee in the August Institute Update. "The architectural marvels of the Beijing Olympics and the great building boom transforming China's cities was covered in every section [of the media]—front page, editorial, business entertainment, and sports." A separate issue, though, isn't what was covered but what seems to have been covered up.
Much has been made of the "Bird's Nest" Olympics Stadium. Designed by Herzog & De Meuron, it is indeed an eye-catching structure that also highlights Arup's exquisite engineering. The bubble-box natatorium next door shows off the design skillls of PTW and, again, Arup was part of the engineering team. This incredible architecture, conceived and completed in less than a decade, includes the Olympic village, the many new hospitality facilities, and an incredible central business district building blitz.
And all of this in the midst of a city of 17 million. How is that kind of massive urban renewal possible in such a short timeframe? How was so much real estate available, much of it covered with centuries-old urban hutong warrens of courtyard family complexes? Here's a hint: It wasn't democracy in action.
Made in China once meant cheap and shoddy. The results-oriented Chinese have long-since changed that to cheap and of adequate quality (lead paint and ethylene glycol sweeteners aside). They have industrialized beyond the West's wildest imagination, recently becoming the third largest economy behind the U.S. and Japan. With almost 10 percent GDP growth, China is poised to astound the world with its power. For a totalitarian nation soaking up the Earth's resources and despoiling its environment, is this a good thing? If it creates a closer sense of community between China and the rest of the world, it very well could be.
But back to the Olympics. In many times past, nations have used the games to show the world they have arrived. Sometimes, such as the 1936 XI Olympiad, not so successfully. So far, for China, the success has been pretty good, despite torch-procession protests, a high-profile murder/maiming/suicide, and smog that won't dissipate despite many draconian measures.
True, the Olympics just feel good, especially when there's some winning involved. (The Chinese 119 Program to win more gold than any other nation is related to the state-over-individual mentality too, but another digression entirely.) Also, as McEntee points out, a lot of the feel-good quality of the Beijing Olympics has to do with the beautiful architecture. And what more of a feel-good name is there than "the Bird's Nest"?
As David Brussat of the Provident (R.I.) Journal wrote on the eve of the August 8 opening ceremonies, though: "Maybe the stadium is called the Bird’s Nest only because party officials got there first with a sweet name rather than one with a sharp bite. Maybe the Chinese who would rather call it the “Barbed-Wire Nest” are afraid to do so out loud."
Brussat pointed out that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whom he actually credited with coining the Bird's Nest moniker, was less than pleased with the Chinese government. Indeed, the same day as Brussat's article, August 7, Ai wrote an editorial in the London Guardian, "Why I'll Stay Away from the Olympics' Opening Ceremony." In it, he writes of his homeland:
"For the past 30 years, we have dismantled barriers, opened doors and windows, been dazzled by sunshine and felt the wind of profound change. In the Olympics, we expect to witness new heights of effort and hope, speed and strength, that will inspire China to lift the pace of reform, to be more determined, more courageous, and more at peace with ourselves."
That's certainly uplifting. But he goes on:
"To reach this point, China has endured disasters, suffering, humiliation, and a darkness that made people hopeless. Almost 60 years after the founding of the People's Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have an open media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself. Today is not the time to dwell on our problems, but neither should we accept those who tell us these games are not political."
In the many readers' comments attached to that article, the more common sentiment was that Ai was complaining about a client after the commission was paid. And, moreover, that the games are about sports and not political motives; can't we just enjoy them?
Perhaps. But, as Ai writes:
"When I helped conceive Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium, I wanted it to represent freedom, not autocracy: China must change ... We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people."
Those are watchwords for us all, and, personally, I'd like to think that a new sense of openness and freedom of expression is indeed incubating in the Bird's Nest. Or maybe I just like watching Michael Phelps breaking world records in the next building over.
Enoy the Games.