Olympic Architecture

In August, 31 stadiums and sport halls – both new and renovated – will form the backdrop to the Beijing Olympics. They’re not all spectacular, but they are all important contributions to a developing city.

When the Olympic Games start on 8 August, the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and the ‘Water Cube’ will no doubt be the centres of attention. It could almost make you forget that the majority of the athletes will not compete in these two stadiums. Beijing’s Olympic infrastructure consists of 31 venues that in their design, and re-design, aspire to carry out the threefold motto of ‘Green Olympics’, ‘High-Tech Olympics’ and ‘People’s Olympics’. Their focus on post-Olympic urban life is also important. With a lotus-like stadium, a flying saucer and a Swiss TV set turned into a Chinese bamboo box, some designs infuse an Olympic Order into the capital’s construction chaos of the past decade. The highlight of the Olympic urban transformation is a new 580-ha Olympic Park, designed by Sasaki Architects. Expanding Beijing northwards along the axis of the Forbidden City, the park, close to New York’s Central Park in size, sits between the fourth and fifth ring road, and is a Garden of Eden in this polluted paradise for the area’s surrounding middle class. A specially designed 6-km subway line will have four stops in this area.

Of the 31 venues, 12 are new, 11 renovated and 8 temporary. The temporary stadiums will feature outdoor events like archery, baseball, beach volleyball and bicycle motor cross (BMX). Sports like football, boxing and water polo will take place in renovated stadiums dating from the socialist-inspired architectural era, like the Workers’ Stadium and Worker’s Gymnasium. The new stadiums were constructed, in true Chinese fashion, at record speed and house, among other things, athletics, basketball, tennis, table tennis, cycling, swimming and wrestling. The new stadiums are clustered according to discipline and are either distributed throughout the western and north-western part of the city (within the university campuses), or inside the Olympic Park.

Weightlifting Stadium | Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics campus

Two of the more memorable buildings are located in the western part, on Beijing university campuses. Here the gymnastics-weightlifting-wrestling competitions will take place. The weightlifting stadium is a renovation of a stadium built in 2001 on the Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics campus (BUAA ). It is a true spaceship. The renovation combined an exterior cleaning with an interior energy efficiency upgrade through heat and sound insulation, a heat redistribution system and water conservation equipment. A focus on light and ventilation characterizes the China Agricultural University (CAU) Gymnasium which will host the wrestling competition. The building’s wave-like shape consists of a cascade of glass layers which can be automatically adjusted to allow ventilation and add natural lighting. The skylights provide enough lighting for daytime activities even in the cloudy weather, which is, as known, Beijing’s most common weather condition. The complex can seat up to 8,500 people. After the weightlifters and wrestlers have tested these infrastructures, the BUAA Gymnasium will be converted into a student facility and a community fitness centre while the CA U will serve as a multifunctional facility for the university students and staff, as well as the residents in the neighborhood.

Wrestling Stadium | China Agricultural University Gymnasium

Basketball Stadium | Wukesong Indoor Stadium

Two other interesting new buildings – demonstrating the peculiar aspect of China’s adaptation of creative ownership – can be found along the western part of Line 1, the 31-km subway running under Chang’An Avenue, Beijing’s main east-west axis: the Wukesong Indoor Stadium (for basketball) and the Laoshan Velodrome.

The Swiss office Burckhardt+Partner won the competition for the schematic design of the Olympic basketball gymnasium with the idea to construct ‘a stadium designed like a huge TV set so that even those who can’t afford to buy a ticket will be able to see from the outside what is going on inside’. Their high-tech cubicle was apparently even too much for the ‘High-Tech Olympics’ and their proposal was pragmatically transformed by the large state-run Beijing Architecture Research Institute into a box decorated with aluminum alloy boards, that beautifully pop out above the building’s roof. From afar, this gives the impression that it is covered with bamboo.

Basketball Stadium | Wukesong Indoor Stadium

Instead of a TV set, one now has a UV set with a façade capable of reflecting 80% of the heat generated by far-infrared. Compared to ordinary glass, the alloy boards lead to energy savings of 60% in the summer and 70% in the winter. The building covers 168,000 m2, with three floors underground and four floors above ground, and can accommodate up to 18,000 spectators.

Not surprisingly, the Laoshan Velodrome is often compared to a flying saucer. Originally designed by the German office Schuermann Architects to resemble a slick cycling wheel, someone added a so-called ‘super skylight’, 56 m in diameter, to it during the design phase. Schuermann Architects are still recognized as the designers, most likely because they are the world’s most famous dynasty of velodrome designers, working since 1925 on an impressive Olympic CV: Berlin (1936), Rome (1960), Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), Seoul (1986) and Barcelona (1990). It has seating capacity for 6,000 spectators, including 3,000 temporary seats. The Laoshan Velodrome now looks like a concrete mushroom with a base made up of a lattice framed steel structure and the ‘super skylight’ head. The latter is not without reason, as in August Beijing’s sun will be shining at full capacity, and with cyclists speeding inside up to 85 km/h, direct light and reflections will need to be avoided. The skylight is fitted with double-layer polycarbonate panels letting in ample amounts of natural light and refracting it, so no stray light rays will be able to enter through the skylight. The 240 m2 of skylights can open to let in fresh air and as such help ventilate the building.

Indoor Cycling Stadium | Laoshan Velodrome

Such climate-related considerations have also had great impact on the layout of the tennis courts, located in the northern part of the Olympic Park. The design of the tennis courts was done under the management of the China State Construction International Shenzhen Design Consulting Company. The main court is a dodecagonal structure, with each of the 12 sides used as stands, resembling a lotus-structure. This appeals to the Chinese tradition of gardens and nature and so fits smoothly into the ‘Green Olympics’ idea. The building is of the poetic high-tech type. The dodecagonal structure enhances natural ventilation, mandatory as this open-air stadium poses the challenge to deal with the peak of the Beijing summer heat, in the middle of August, with a maximum of 40 and minimum of 20°C. Combining machine ventilation (installed in the 12 petal-shaped stands) with fresh air circulation, the structure is an organism that will supposedly reduce the court’s inside temperature by 5°C. After the Olympics the tennis courts will be used by the citizens, as tennis in China is gradually becoming a popular sport, embodying a middle-class leisure utopia that combines fashion, dynamics and health.

Tennis Stadium | Olympic Park

Besides the High-Tech and Green Olympics there are the People’s Olympics. In June 2007 the Centre On Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE ) published a report called The Mega- Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights Project. The report states that mega-events, like Olympic Games, can’t be convened without forcibly evicting people. The numbers given by COHRE are impressive: ‘By April 2007, at least 1.25 million people have already been displaced as a result of urban development linked to the Olympic Games, and unknown numbers of these people were forcibly evicted. At least a further 250,000 people are expected to be displaced in the final year before the Olympic Games.’ Soon after European and American media eagerly took over the news, forcing Sui Zhenjiang, director of Beijing’s construction committee to reply that ‘the ultimate goal of Beijing’s construction development is to benefit the people’ and that ‘the reason we have been able to move so quickly is because of the understanding of the people whose houses have been relocated. With their support, our work has been progressing smoothly.’ Sui said some 40,000 to 50,000 households a year had been relocated, not the 1.5 million people the report claims.

The 2008 Olympic Games influence the urban development of Beijing and the redistribution of its inhabitants, but so does the creation of its Central Business District. On a positive note, the Games bring in sports and leisure programs in a city urgently needing these infrastructures for its local communities. These stadiums will, once the Games end, contribute to the civic life of several districts in Beijing. Distributed along major axes, conveniently accessible by subway or within university settings, they fill some urban programmatic gaps and are easy to reach for large numbers of people.

Overall, the Olympic Architecture goes beyond the mediocrity of the capital’s architecture, embodying a certain identity while following the logic of the economic quantum leap China is making, turning a society of producers into a society of urban consumers, where there is room for spectacles that aren’t political mass movements. At the same time, the architecture expresses a search, successful or not, for forms that are recognizable, thereby mixing tradition with technology. In the repetitive sea of housing and bland corporate skyscrapers the new buildings are islands of amusement, competition, consumption and distraction.

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“Olympic Architecture” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Mark Magazine #14 June/July, 2008

Other publications in MARK Magazine;
A Letter from Beijing | Published in MARK Magazine #09 (July-August, 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | Published in MARK Magazine #12 (Feb-March, 08)

The Official Website of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
COHRE – Centre On Housing Rights and Evictions
Schuermann Architects
Sasaki Associates, Inc.
Burckhardt+Partner – Beijing Wukesong Cultural and Sports Center Olympics 2008

Pictures by Bert de Muynck & Mónica Carriço | movingcities.org


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