‘For China, the Games were seen as a coming-out party that demanded a worthy symbol’
First published in July 2008
Most Olympic stadiums enjoy their two weeks of fame and then relapse into well-deserved obscurity. Some host cities, realising that the cameras will focus almost entirely on the athletes, settle for a mediocre design or upgrade an existing structure as economically as possible. For China, as for Japan in 1964 and Germany in 1972, the Games were seen as a coming-out party that demanded a worthy symbol, and Beijing’s National Stadium is a triumph of architectural invention. It is also likely to endure as an urban amenity, enjoying a vibrant afterlife and becoming a defining image for the capital. What makes this achievement so remarkable is that the architects heard about the competition by chance, just days before the deadline for applications, and, as Jacques Herzog recalled, ‘we felt free to go for something totally new and unexpected … even more so because we thought that we had no chance of winning’.
Most surprisingly, the project was realised almost exactly as the architects intended. Herzog & de Meuron share the credit with Arup, which developed new software to engineer an unprecedented concept, and with their Chinese partners, notably Ai Weiwei who brought them to Beijing. It was he who encouraged them to design ‘a crazy, chaotic structure’, rather than create a larger version of the Allianz Stadium in Munich, by helping them to understand the balance of order and disorder in Chinese culture. The stadium prolongs the imperial north-south axis that extends from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City. Nothing could be more rigorous, but the same culture also cherishes fantastically eroded rocks and the expressive strokes of the calligrapher’s brush. The architects’ first sketches were dubbed ‘the bird’s nest’ by Chinese observes, who embraced the poetic, organic quality of the design.
‘For China, the Games were seen as a coming-out party that demanded a worthy symbol, and Beijing’s National Stadium is a triumph of architectural invention’
The architects prefer to describe it as a forest, comprising 36km of tilted and curved steel beams, rising from a gently sloping plinth. The stadium’s rounded form and woven texture read as an imposing mass from afar. Almost circular in plan, it resembles a saddle in profile and its undulating rim echoes the rising and falling ramps that carry spectators to the two upper tiers. Façade and structure are identical. Twenty-four steel beams are arced to define the shell and skirt the central opening as a tangent. These are linked to 24 columns that curve in at the top and are tied together by a thicket of random diagonals. Primary and secondary supports have a uniform girth and are painted silver to lighten their mass and contrast with the red-painted concrete tiers. The architects fought for and secured a quality of finishes and detailing in the places where it matters, while achieving a loose, rugged character that is appropriate to a sports arena.
The structure defines an intermediate space between the plaza and the field, the randomness of everyday life and the rituals of performance. Restaurants, bars, shops and lavatories are integrated within the maze of columns at different levels, giving spectators the experience of moving though a benign version of a Piranesi prison, even as they satisfy prosaic needs. The architects observed the Chinese love of public space and the ways they put this to use. As Herzog observes, ‘We conceived of the stadium working like a public sculpture, like an urban landscape where everyone can climb up and down, meet and dance and do all those fantastic things that people would never do in a Western city.’
That mood of exuberance was evident during the first athletic trials, where Beijingers took possession of the entire complex, rushing around as excitedly as little children and cheering themselves as they appeared on giant video screens. And they stood as one to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the first runner crossed the tape. Following the Games, a supermarket will be incorporated into the plinth to the south and a hotel to the north. Sculptural lighting, trees, gardens and a reflecting pool provide residents and visitors with a new park.
‘The structure defines an intermediate space between the plaza and the field, the randomness of everyday life and the rituals of performance’
‘Beijingers took possession of the entire complex during the first athletic trials, rushing around as excitedly as little children and cheering themselves as they appeared on giant video screens’
The stadium has a permanent capacity of 80 000 seats, which will be increased to 91 000 for the Olympics - a reduction from the original target of I 02 000. The plastic shells are red in the lower tiers, mutating to white at the upper levels; a shift that creates a feeling of lightness. Arup’s expertise in sports architecture ensured that there is easy access throughout and a sense of proximity to the events from everywhere but the highest elevation. The initial design included a retractable roof- a feature that is seldom used even where it is available - and this was eliminated as an economy early on. The opening was widened and, though this may expose the front rows to wind and rain, it improves cross ventilation on fine days. Spaces between the steel roof members are filled with panels of ETFE foil at the top and an acoustic membrane of PTFE fabric on the inner face. This filters light and deflects sound to intensify the excitement of a contest or concert. Banks of spotlights are incorporated into the broad rim of the opening and are suspended below the canopy.
The effect at night, with the lights glowing through the steel forest, is stunning, and the stadium has as neighbours PTW’s Water Cube (AR December 2007) and Pei Zhu’s Digital Building, both of which are marvels of creative illumination.
Architect: Herzog and de Meuron
Photography: Iwan Baan