You are on page 1of 8

Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008

in Beijing.

Jonas Babics Birkbeck College, University of London

Abstract: China has drawn global attention for building large-scale constructions by famous international architects. Some projects led to discussions and criticism in China itself and also in other countries. One of these megaprojects is the National Stadium in Beijing designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron for the Olympic Games 2008. This case study describes the different stages of the project and its difficulties. It also discusses issues that are criticized in connection with the globalization of architecture and its influence on culture and people. The National Stadium was completed on time for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. This case study describes what was necessary to make the project successful.

Introduction In 2002 Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron made their way to China where the preparations started for the Olympic Games 2008. The purpose of the visit was to get the details for the competition to build the most important building for the Olympics in Beijing, the National Stadium. This journey to the Middle Kingdom was the start of their new project and so far biggest challenge. Herzog and de Meuron are the founders of one of the worlds most well-known architecture office and became especially famous for converting the Bankside Power Station in London into Tate Modern. The two architects have been friends since their childhood and work together very efficiently and creatively despite or maybe even because of their very different personalities (Birds Nest, 2008). Not only for the architects it is one of the biggest and most important projects in their career, but also for the central government in China the National Stadium is of prime importance. The Birds Nest, how the stadium was named by the media in China due to its shape and structure, is the highest profile architectural project of all the 31 stadiums, which were built for the Olympic Games in Beijing (Ren, 2008). For China, the Olympics and with it the construction of iconic architecture allowed the government to show the world their transition from a developing country into a leading power on the economic and political world stage.
Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing London, December 2011 1

Building the Birds Nest was a clash of culture. While the Chinese were mainly interested in just having a stadium from an international architect, which should get global recognition, Herzog & de Meuron had a highly creative and perfectionist demand for the completion of this complex project. However, China has a strong aversion to outsiders, who want to tell them how things are done. The National Stadium for the Olympic Games had full attention from the people in China and the media, wherefore the central government was under pressure throughout the project. They once even stopped the construction for two months. This interruption was a direct reaction on a petition submitted by academics from the Chinese Academy of Science who criticized the stadium design for its extravagance, huge costs, wasteful use of steel, engineering difficulty and potential safety problems (Ren, 2008). The Birds Nest was finished on time for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, which began on 08/08/2008 at 8.08 pm. This case study will describe the process of the construction of the National Stadium and its difficulties. It should point out the different stages of the project, the problems faced by the architects, the solutions they worked out and could lead as an example for large-scale global engineering projects. With this case study I also want to raise two questions regarding the globalization of architecture and its impact on people and culture. Different large projects from international architects were highly criticized in China. Wu Chen for example made a cynical remark and called Beijing a laboratory for foreign architects (Wu, 2005). Western architects are able to realize projects in China, which would not have been possible in their home countries, due to cost and regulations. Do architects use developing countries as playgrounds and bypass cost restrictions and safety regulations they would face in their home countries and therefore extend their boundaries of creative freedom? The second question is about the clients for whom the architects carry out their jobs. Is it ethical to build for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes? Building for oppressive regimes might give indirect support to a regime, which is said, should not be supported (Owen, 2009). Do largescale projects with international character give legitimacy to the governments, which commissioned them? Herzog & de Meuron and their journey to the Olympics in Beijing The two architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have the headquarters of their architecture office in Basel, Switzerland. They belong to the worlds most famous architects and were awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2001. Their trip to China in 2002 was the beginning of a long and challenging journey, but one they definitely do not regret. In an interview, which is part of a documentary by Christoph Schaub and Michael Schindhelm, Herzog
Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing 2

said that if they had not done this visit to China, they would have missed the opportunity to build the probably most important building of their career (Birds Nest, 2008). However, carrying out a project in China and especially one with this scope needs a huge amount of time and effort and is combined with a reputational and also economic risk. Before Herzog & de Meuron started with the planning of the submission for the competition to build the National Stadium in Beijing, they approached Dr. Uli Sigg, an expert in Chinese culture. Uli Sigg was Swiss Ambassador to China between 1995-98 and counts as the most influential collector of Chinese contemporary art in the world (China.org.cn, 2004). He recommended very early integrating Ai Weiwei into the project as cultural interpreter, which helped the two architects to understand the background of Chinese culture and architecture. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, architect, curator, publisher, poet and urbanist is a very important personality within the movement of Chinese contemporary art (Obrist, 2011) and became famous through writing a blog, which was later shut down and censored by the central government in China. While Herzog & de Meuron started to work on the functional and structural side of the project, Ai Weiwei researched figures and forms appearing in Chinese tradition. In their discussions and in the combination of these two aspects, the design of the National Stadium developed. The nickname Birds Nest received the National Stadium by locals and the Chinese media due to its grid-like steel structures with interwoven twigs, which reminds of a birds nest (Ren, 2008). This figurative reading by the public became almost a tradition in China and has also an impact on the outcome of architecture competitions of large-scale projects in China (Bingham-Hall and Ruan, 2006). The name of Herzog & de Meurons Birds Nest might have helped them to win the competition, since the association of a birds nest was received positively by the Chinese people. The Birds Nest was never officially announced as the winner of the competition. As Herzog explained, it became step by step clearer for them that they were chosen as architects for the National Stadium, but they never received a letter to tell them that they won (Birds Nest, 2008). For Herzog and de Meuron the very important part of the construction is the room between the outside and the inside. They studied the behavior of Chinese people in public spaces and noticed that the Chinese very often spend time under the roof in galleries and pavilions in parks. The three-dimensional room between the inside of the stadium and the outside was built for the people and should serve as common space also after the Olympic Games. The design of the stadium contained a retractable roof for a multiple use for the time after the Olympics. On 24th December 2003 was the breaking ground. The stadium had to be finished in 2007. Herzog and de Meuron and their team of mainly Swedish, German and Chinese architects had 4 years time to complete the construction. This was already a tough time period and the project was not allowed to have any delays. However, the client of Herzog & de Meuron, represented by
Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing 3

the Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Corporation soon started to make their life complicated. Costs had to be decreased. From the planned 3.9 bn CNY (450 mio EUR), the contract was changed to 2.6 bn CNY (300 Mio EUR) and after that they requested another decrease of 10% (Birds Nest, 2008). Throughout the project Uli Sigg consulted Herzog and de Meuron how to communicate and negotiate with the Chinese bureaucrats. De Meuron mentioned that he continuously received new tasks and changes in the plans and he always came back with solutions, until he realized that this was a mere game (Birds Nest, 2008). The Chinese wanted to see how they tackle the challenges and react on their demands. De Meuron started to just leave some points open and hand back the chaos to the client, which actually helped him to gain respect from the Chinese and for him the work got more relaxed. The only possibility to reduce the costs so significantly was to remove the retractable roof. Herzog & de Meuron knew how important the roof was for the Chinese, since they wanted the stadium with the largest retractable roof in the world. Therefore, they needed the Chinese to make the proposal to not include the retractable roof into the construction. For Herzog and de Meuron it was actually a better solution from a design perspective. The Birds Nest got a much clearer design structure and the stadium was, as de Meuron mentioned, just better without roof (Birds Nest, 2008). The Chinese at the end made the proposal to remove the roof and Herzog and de Meuron pretended to be very unpleased about it, but eventually agreed. The cost reductions however, still seemed not enough and behind the scenes there started a dispute. The media began to criticize the project and commented that safety measures were insufficient and that the steel construction was complex, extravagant and just too expensive. Herzog & de Meuron had many meetings with lawyers and the Chinese just waited for them to make a mistake. The media reported that the steel construction of the Birds Nest would use 160,000 tons of steel, although in reality it was only 44,000 tons. Nevertheless, Herzog & de Meuron had to reduce steel and change the construction. It was a huge challenge to reduce steel without compromising the design. Proposals were made to use plastic instead of steel and Herzog & de Meuron were actually challenged in their function as architects of the National Stadium. At some point the Chinese even considered options to expulse them from the project, but realized that this would make the situation worse. Li Aiqing, the chairman of the Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Corporation stated in an interview that the architects have to execute the changes demanded by him. The task of the architect is to satisfy and comprehend the needs of the client and then realize it technically. He also remarked that Herzog & de Meuron did a very good job. If they were doing it with their heart he does not know, but they did it very well (Birds Nest, 2008).

Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing

The dilemma between nationalism and globalization China has drawn a lot of attention for their huge architectural projects, mainly by foreign architects. The Shanghai World Financial Center designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, Paul Andreus National Theater of China, the headquarters of the China Central Television from Rem Koolhaas, the terminal 3 of Beijings international airport designed by Foster + Partner and Herzog & de Meurons Birds Nest, described here, are only the most prominent examples. Ren (2008) states that in the age of globalization iconic architecture from international architects are used by state politicians and bureaucrats to rebrand their cities and nations. However, this leads very often to controversy internationally and in the country itself. There was a public outcry in China after a terminal of the airport in Paris partly collapsed, which was designed by Paul Andreu, the French architect who was also building the National Theater of China in Beijing. Four people were killed, two of them Chinese. Wu Liangyong, a senior architect supported the Chinese government to select international designs for projects, which were financed by the state. However, he also criticized some of the buildings and stated that in his opinion some Chinese cities have become experimental sites for novelty for noveltys sake by foreign masters (Kahn, 2004). Professor Zhi Yin from the Tsinghua University said in connection with the construction of the National Stadium that state politicians want to realize projects to show their power, the bigger and more bizarre they are, the better. They would not think if the designs are technically and cost wise realistic and the technical aspect does not get as much attention as it should (Birds Nest, 2008). The decision to use Herzog & de Meurons design for the National Stadium was also challenged by local cultural conservatives, who submitted a petition to the central government in China. The new administration in China reacted on the petition to gain popularity, stopped the construction and requested a financial review of the stadium. This however, was met with criticism by cultural liberalists for the governments inconsistent and nontransparent decision-making process (Ren, 2008). The building owners side for the construction of the National Stadium was a public-private partnership. A consortium led by China International Trust and Investment Corp (CITIC) won the ownership tender. The Chinese government was represented by the Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Corporation (BASAMC). They set up a project company to work on the building of the National Stadium. CITIC had arisen out of a state-owned company and its top managers are party members. Therefore, the government had a huge influence on the project and took a leading role for the project organization and its control. Chi et al. (2011) suggest that this was actually the reason why the project was successful and the stadium finished on time for the Olympic Games. We argue that relational governance (i.e., relational ties that generate
Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing 5

commitments) contribute significantly to the success of large Chinese projects given the fact that the current large design and construction firms are spinoffs from government functionary departments and have historical ties and paternal-subordinate relations with the state (Chi et al., 2011: 2-3). They created a research model to be able to measure this relational governance, which is so crucial to the success of megaprojects in China. 1) Level of integration and organizational control. 2) Longevity of relationship. 3) Governmental ties. 4) Idiosyncratic arrangements. Herzog & de Meuron worked together on the project with China Architecture Design & Research Group (CAD), which also had a long history of working with the government. These ties were very important throughout the project. Without the support from the Chinese central and local governments, which acted as major players, the completion of the Birds Nest, a symbol for the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008, would not have been possible. Conclusion and Discussion Completing such a large-scale project like the Birds Nest, designed by Swiss architects and built in China requires extensive cultural understanding. The decision was definitely right to take Ai Weiwei on board, who brought the cultural knowledge, but at the same time understood the contemporary creative approach from architects like Herzog & de Meuron. Uli Sigg with his experience of living between the Swiss and Chinese culture also helped to find the right way of communication between the parties. The relation with the government from the Chinese project partners of Herzog & de Meuron was very important and also the governmental ties from the building owners of the National Stadium were crucial to finish the construction on time. Although, the outcome was a reduced version of the original design, it is still of excellent quality and received international recognition. The integration of the government for large-scale projects in China seems to be inevitable, but is also highly criticized. Ai Weiwei commented, Our society is not yet a democratic society. The decision making process has many remnants from the feudal society I think China must change the current decision making process controlled by big powers instead of people. (Ren, 2008:186). However, Herzog argued that a stadium project in this pace and radical form would have been very difficult in a democracy like Switzerland (Birds Nest, 2008). Although, building the Birds Nest might only have been possible to realize in China, this case study shows that it is far from an easy journey. Herzog & de Meuron were able to design a construction which would not have been possible anywhere else in the world, but the Olympic site does not sound like a playground. The scope of the projects like this are demanded by the Chinese and they do want international
Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing 6

architects to design them. From a creative perspective it would be irresponsible for the architects to not take up this challenge. Otherwise, many buildings, which belong to todays most iconic contemporary architecture, would not have been realized. If this development is positive for the culture and people in China is another discussion and every project has to be judged individually. Herzog & de Meuron tried to design a stadium for the public and the scope of the construction was due to the requirements. A stadium for 91,000 people just tends to be large. The economic and cultural exchange with western economies forces China to open up. Furthermore, the political system in China is very different and cannot be explained by our understanding of right and wrong. Herzog also said that it would be arrogant to require China to do their homework and solve human rights issues and only then, the western people come and build houses for them (Birds Nest, 2008). I argue that art and architecture helps people everywhere in the world to question social structures and supports the development of societies. Owen (2009) proposes an argument that architects may claim that their engagement in nations with authoritarian regimes is in the long run ethical, because their buildings serve as counter-cultural material and start a chain reaction against a regime or culture. The Birds Nest is now in its third year after the Olympics and the people in Beijing adopted it as their home stadium. Its use is very versatile. It was even transformed into a frosted extravaganza with ski-slope, ice rink and one-and-a-half feet deep artificial snow during the Happy Snow and Ice Season (Jiang, 2009). This was maybe not intended by Herzog & de Meuron when they designed the National Stadium, but it seems to serve the public.

Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing

References Bingham-Hall, P. and Ruan, X. (2006) New China Architecture, North Clarendon, Tuttle Publishing. Birds Nest - Herzog & de Meuron in China, 2008. [DVD] Schaub, C. and Schindhelm, M. Zurich: T&C Film Production. Chi, C. S. F. et al. (2011) A Relational Governance Approach for Megaprojects: Case Studies of Beijing T3 and Birds Nest Projects in China paper presented at the Engineering Project Organizations Conference, 9-11 August, Colorado. China.org.cn (2004) The Collector of Chinese Contemporary Art (online) (cited 3rd December 2011). Available from <http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/98257.htm> Jiang, C. (2009) Why Fake Snow Is Filling Beijings Birds Nest, Time, 4 December, New York. Kahn, J. (2004) A Glass Bubble Thats Bringing Beijing to a Boil, The New York Times, 15 June, New York. Obrist, H. U. (2011) Ai Weiwei Speaks with Hans Ulrich Obrist, London, Penguin Books. Owen, G. (2009) Introduction in Owen, G (ed.), Architecture, Ethics and Globalization, New York, Routledge, pp. 1-13. Ren, X. (2008) Architecture and Nation Building in the Age of Globalization: Construction of the National Stadium of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics Journal of Urban Affairs, 30:2, pp. 175-190.

Architectural Projects in China by International Architects: The Construction of the Birds Nest for the Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing