Going for gold

Architects join athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in creating a historic spectacle to remember.

The Olympic Green (Getty Images)
The Olympic Green (Getty Images)

Architects join athletes at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in creating a historic spectacle to remember.

Few events have the capability to change a city's skyline as completely as the Olympic Games.

A proven catalyst for urban regeneration, the sporting spectacle that takes place every four years has been credited with changing the fortunes of cities throughout the world, including Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.

However, it is possible that no city in history has taken to the Games quite like Beijing.

Following its selection as the host city in 2001, the Chinese capital has undergone a massive construction boom. It has drawn 'starchitects' from around the world, lured by the promises of plentiful resources, cost-efficient labour and the chance to have their work seen on a unique global stage.

Today, some of the most striking buildings in China are the host venues for some of the events. Totaling more than US $40 billion, they have had a halo effect on the architecture within several urban spaces throughout China.

Middle East Architect's James Boley examines the 'theatres of dreams' that will host the 2008 Olympics this month.

National Stadium

Dubbed the 'Bird's Nest' because of its unique design, the National Stadium is the world's largest steel structure with over 42,000 tons of steel intricately intertwined.

From a distance, the stadium appears to undulate, echoing the rising and falling ramps for spectators inside the stadium. From a closer view, it's possible to distinguish the individual steel components, looking like a chaotic thicket of supports, beams and stairs.


This is the space that will inspire people to move about, to be together and to enjoy each other's company. - Herzog and De Meuron.

To make the roof weatherproof, the spaces in the structure of the stadium are filled with a translucent membrane, just as birds pack the spaces between the woven twigs of their nests with a soft filler.

Since all of the facilities-restaurants, suites, shops and restrooms-are self-contained units, it is largely possible to do without a solid, enclosed facade. This allows natural ventilation of the stadium, which is the most important aspect of the stadium's sustainable design.

The concrete stadium bowl has been designed to bring spectators as close to the action as possible, without compromising on viewing angles. The near-circular footprint of the bowl helps maximise the field of view.

The stadium itself is located on a plinth, with slate walkways leading spectators into the Bird's Nest. The spaces between walkways have decorative features, including sunken gardens, stone squares and bamboo groves.

Of course, an important part of Olympic architecture is its ability to be useful long after the Games have finished. The stadium itself will continue to function as both a sports and performance venue, and plans exist for a shopping mall underneath the plinth from 2009.

Architects: Herzog & de Meuron

Engineers: Arup

Events: Opening and closing ceremonies, track and field events, football

Dimensions: 333m long, 298m wide, 69m high


National Aquatics Centre

PTW Architects' National Aquatics Centre's appearance is inspired by bubbles in foam. Behind the seemingly random appearance is a strict geometry that can be found in natural systems such as crystals, cells and molecular structures.

As well as being an eye-catching venue for the aquatic events of the Games, the National Aquatics Centre also sets new benchmarks for sustainable design.


This public building represents a pair of opposites with the Olympic Stadium, a Yin and Yang of fire and water. - PTW Architects.

The ' Water Cube' has been designed to make maximum use of the sun, allowing in natural light and harnessing solar energy for building and water heating.

The building is able to do this thanks to its unique membrane design. The building is clad in plastic EFTE panels-the largest EFTE project in the world. This turns the Water Cube into a giant greenhouse, passively heating the pool and reducing energy consumption by around 30%.

EFTE also lets in natural light, resulting in a 55% lighting energy saving. This is the first time that EFTE, which is a tenth of the weight of glass, has been used in China.

Tests indicated that the membrane, once complete, should last for at least 100 years. Chief designer Zheng Fang has also specified a 'moat' surrounding the cube and a certain distance between spectators and the interior membrane.

This prevents damage from people touching it. Studies of avian behaviour also suggest that birds won't land on semi-transparent surfaces, protecting the National Aquatics Centre from bird damage.

The building is also able to collect water for reuse, important in Northern China where water is scarce. The outer surface and roof facade can collect 10,000 tons of rain water, 70,000 tons of clean water and 60,000 tons of swimming pool water annually.

And, the venue can save 140,000 tons of recycled water a year.

Architects: PTW Architects

Engineers: Arup

Events: Swimming, diving, synchronised swimming

Dimensions: 177m long, 177m wide, 31m high


National Indoor Stadium

It hasn't pulled in quite the same media interest as either the National Stadium or the National Aquatics Centre, but the National Indoor Stadium designed by Glöckner Architekten and the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design carries on the theme of creating an eye-catching venue that's also sustainable.

Despite its modern appearance, the concept for the NIS is based on Chinese traditions and heritage. The steel structure is based on the appearance of an unfurling fan, an important element of Chinese culture and architecture.


The dynamic of the sports activities taking place in the arena are mirrored in the rhythmic swing of the roof landscape. - Glöckner Architekten.

Beneath the roof is a steel truss made from 14 beams, weighing a total of 2,800 tonnes. It is the longest spanning indoor, bi-directional truss string structure in China and had to be installed with the assistance of nine robots.

Surrounding the entire building is a glass curtain wall facade, glazed with low-E energy efficient glass, which filters out UV rays and reduces heat transfer.

Behind the glass wall are 1,124 photovoltaic panels which can generate around 100kw of energy a day, which obviously reduces the load on the building's lighting system.

Architects: Glöckner Architekten GmbH / Beijing Institute of Architectural Design

Engineers: Beijing Urban Engineering Design and Research Institute

Purpose: Artistic gymnastics, trampoline, handball

Dimensions: 220m long, 130m wide, 43m high


Digital Beijing

While all eyes of the world will be on the events inside the stadiums, ensuring the Olympics runs smoothly requires a massive amount of administrative effort and processing of information.

Studio Pei-Zhu's Digital Beijing will act as the nerve centre for the Games, and will eventually become a virtual museum and exhibition centre for manufacturers of digital products.


If the industrial revolution has resulted in Modernism, the Digital Beijing Building begins to explore what will occur in the digital epoch. - Studio Pei-Zhu.

Reflecting the importance of the digital age, the facade has been conceived as a representation of role of architecture in the digital era. The northern and southern elevations have been designed to represent barcodes.

Meanwhile, details on the eastern and western facades recreate an integrated circuit board.

Digital Beijing was the first project built in the Olympic Central Zone, representing the importance China has placed on the 2008 Games to be the 'Digital Olympics'.

In keeping with the theme of the 'Green Olympics', Digital Beijing includes a rainwater collection system and LED lighting, which can reduce energy consumption by up to 60%.

Architects: Studio Pei-Zhu

Engineers: China Institute Building Standard Design & Research

Purpose: Control and data centre

Building Area: 98,000 square meters

RELATED LINKS: United Nations


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