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Metaphors and materials meet in Beijing’s National Stadium

Exteriors, Features | May 1, 2008 | By:

China’s civic infrastructure and economy continues to grow at Olympian proportions. With thousands of skyscrapers, factories and new towns opening each year, design and architecture are moving at the speed of capitalism. Yet, with such a rapid pace everyday design is often uninspired and over-literal in attempts at historicism. Yet, with thousands of years of recorded history, the Chinese are also capable of thinking and building for ages. And for the Chinese, if there were ever a time to build for the millennia, it is the 29th Olympiad to be held in Beijing in the summer of 2008.

In a Blade Runner urban landscape of change and glitter characteristic of most Chinese cities, the Olympics offers the rare chance to build something much more permanent, to make a landmark for history that evokes the best of Chinese traditions and future technology. No small order. The Aquatics Centre, Digital Beijing (the Olympics media and command center) and the National Stadium are each projects of different scales and purposes, yet a trio of design icons that will endure in memory (and purpose) long after the Olympic torch dims. Designers for each were afforded extraordinary opportunities of time to plan, the budget to achieve quality, and the chance to apply highly-innovative engineering and materials.

National Stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 29th Olympiad along with track and field events. During the Olympics, the stadium will hold 91,000 including 11,000 visitors in temporary seating. The Chinese are very fond of metaphors for new projects—a tendency that can sometimes lead to unfortunate results for western architects such as when a building ends up looking like a toilet seat or when a proposed tower in Shanghai with a 45.7m circle cut into its exterior reminded local authorities of a Japanese rising sun. It didn’t help that the tower was to be Japanese-owned; and its American design was ultimately rejected.

Yet, for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese were eager for international participation in the design competition (albeit with the required participation of a government-sanction Chinese partner.) Almost a decade ago, wary that the upcoming competition might not be entirely fair and laden with cultural hazards, Herzog & de Meuron asked the advice of a former Swiss ambassador to China who recommended that they team with Ai Weiwei, a prominent and outspoken Beijing artist who could help them navigate the torrents of cultural misunderstandings. When Weiwei arrived in Basel, he found the studio reserved for the stadium competition was papered with images of Chinese baskets, jades and ceramics. It’s not surprising that Herzog & de Meuron, who have long been known for the innovative skins are their buildings, should look to Chinese materials. Their challenge was to find a 21st century interpretation that recalled the patina and texture of the past while not creating a trivializing and themed pastiche.

In 2002, when the team’s winning design was unveiled, the Chinese media predictably found a metaphor and soon started calling it the “Bird’s Nest.” Evoking the yin and yang of randomness and order characteristic of both tightly-woven nests and craft pottery, the Stadium’s exterior structure contains 36km of steel members that weave into a frame 12m in depth. Beneath this frame, the architects and engineers, as they did at their renowned Allianz Arena in Munich, clad the structure in 40,000m2 of single-ply EFTE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) sheeting.

To add yet another metaphor, architect Jacques Herzog has described this interlaced facade as “an architectural forest.” Take your pick. But the fascinating quality of this project is that it balances seeming randomness with a deeper organic and structural order. It connotes strength and lightness at the same time and, like the Allianz Arena takes on a magical glow at night made possible by light porosity of ETFE.

Opened in the spring of 2008, National Stadium is believed to be the world’s largest enclosed open space with a gross volume of 3 million m2. Spanning such space with a retractable roof is no small feat in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. As with the Allianz Arena, the international firm of Covertex collaborated with the designers in the fabrication and installation of ETFE and PTFE fabrics that contribute to the remarkable lightness, structural flexibility, and translucency of this project. In response to Beijing’s ever-present threat of earthquakes, Arup separated the structured roof from the seating bowl. Spanning 313m by 266m, the saddle shaped roof is clad with a series of ETFE panels on the upper surface and an acoustic Teflon™ (PTFE) membrane (50,000m2) beneath the steel structure reflects and absorbs stadium sound.

Covertex created specific shop drawings for each of the 983 ETFE-panels for the sidewalls and transferred this data to manufacturing software that guides custom cutting patterns. They then forwarded the manufacturing specifications to a subsidiary company in Shanghai for fabrication at a rate of about 10 panels per day. The engineers also developed a new aluminum profile that is hooked into the secondary-channel-construction. This innovation saves labor costs when compared with traditional fastening methods using nuts and bolts that connect small centerhole dimensions.

Recent completion photos show the drama of the stadium at night as the interior glows a warm tone through the sidewalls and light effuses outward through the roof into the night sky. Inside, spectators experience the changes of daylight even when the roof is fully closed. So is this place a nest? Or a forest? Or a Song Dynasty ceramic? The metaphor matters less than the materials—the steel and industrial fabrics that create the illusion that this landmark can be many things and not just one kind of replica. The fact that there is no single image here, that National Stadium is both seemingly Chinese yet boldly modern may be its greatest feat of all.

Frank Edgerton Martin writes regularly about landscape architecture and sustainable design. His piece on The New Museum of Contemporary Art appeared in the March/April issue.

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