BEIJING (Reuters) - Envisioned as the iconic centrepiece for the Beijing Olympics, the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium is an architectural expression of China’s pride and burgeoning confidence.
The 91,000-capacity stadium, which dominates the Olympic Green in the north of the city, was opened to international media for the first time on Wednesday and will admit its first paying customers on Friday.
Although its distinctive twisted steel exterior sprung from the minds of feted European architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, some feel the Swiss have successfully put a modern twist on local artistic tradition.
“In a way it is a very random pattern that is similar to some Chinese artworks like bowls with cracked patterns and ancient pottery that you would see in a museum,” Michael Kwok of stadium engineers Arup China told Reuters.
“It portrays a very strong image to the world of what China wants to portray — a modern, strong nation with the determination to succeed in this event.”
The army of mostly migrant construction workers who built the stadium in 52 months were given a clear indication of the importance of the 3.5 billion yuan project.
“You have written a brilliant page in China’s architectural history,” Chinese President Hu Jintao told them during a visit to the site in 2006.
“We must try our best to host the Olympics well, in order to enhance the confidence, the spirit of striving, the self-pride and coherence of all Chinese people, and fight together to realise the great revival of the Chinese nation.”
After winning the right to host the Games in 2001, China quickly made it clear that it would be looking to make a statement with its showpiece stadium.
Designs were solicited and among the 13 delivered in March 2003 was Herzog and de Meuron’s proposal for a 70-metre tall structure encased in twisted steel.
Chinese architect Li Xinggang worked with the Swiss and said practical matters were important.
“It was able to offer spectators the best balance of distance and clear view,” Li told Reuters by e-mail. “It was the best form for a sporting venue.”
The competition committee was made up of six international architects, including Kisho Kurokawa and Rem Koolhaas, as well as seven Chinese architects, structural designers, Olympic experts and officials.
Harbin architecture professor Mei Jikui was a big supporter of the Bird’s Nest.
“For an Olympic venue, it had such a unique shape,” he said.
Some, such as committee chairman Guan Zhaoye, preferred other designs but the Bird’s Nest got the most votes and was put forward to the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) with the next two most popular proposals.
“The Bird’s Nest ranked first,” Guan told Reuters. “That night (BOCOG) president Liu Qi came to see the top three proposals. He said, ‘as you experts have chosen this one, I have no disagreement’. The decision was made.”
After some 10,000 people had been relocated from the surrounding area, worked started on the stadium in December 2003.
Seven months later, however, construction was suspended after some members of the Chinese Academy of Science appealed to Premier Wen Jiabao that the project was costing too much.
“The later disputes were mainly on its huge expense, which was caused by the requirements at the beginning — the size, the number of seats and the retractable roof,” said Guan.
“I think such requirements were linked to the blind ambition to be number one in the world.”
Wen then dictated that the project should be “frugal and uncorrupted” and the roof, 9,000 seats, 12,000 tons of steel and 400 million yuan were cut.
Criticism remained that Beijing had become a playground for foreign architects, where they would try out the ideas they could never realise in their own countries.
But the designers believe this stadium, at least, has won the hearts of Chinese people.
“It’s loved by the general public. Also the Bird’s Nest nickname was given to it by the general public,” said Kwok.
Certainly, it is rare to meet a Beijinger who is not excited and proud of their new stadium.
Guan, a professor of architecture at Tsingua University, thinks it could become one of Beijing’s iconic buildings.
“But I think the architecture which can really represent Beijing would always be the historical pieces, like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall,” he added. “They are unique and only found in Chinese culture.”