"We are so proud to have this stadium. It’s a great thing for Beijing," says student Dao-Ming Chen, who has already stood for half an hour taking pictures. She is one of the many Chinese from the city and beyond who cluster around the stadium as it reaches its final stages of completion, eager to photograph the iconic event, or simply view the building from a better vantage point.
And whilst the eager photography might be partially attributed to a cultural predilection for the activity, there is no question that this is a building which has set a dizzying precedent for all other Olympic venues.
Fondly dubbed ‘the Bird’s Nest’, the stadium combines all-too-elusive architectural goals. It is a truly functional space which manages to carry off a form which is not only fantastical, but a highly suitable addition to its Chinese locale to boot.
Inside the stadium, a few months before completion, is a hive of activity to say least. Although at this stage the steel girders have long been completed, and the process of adding retail units has begun in earnest, the woven structure is still peppered with people making final checks. To the naked eye, the soaring arches really do have the appearance of a worker-ant colony, as hundreds of tiny figures make their way amongst the rafters.
The Chinese Government is tremendously wary of journalists, and we were banned from conversing directly with construction staff. But at a cursory glance at least, this has all the hallmarks of a solid project, doing justice to a design which is already receiving global acclaim.
The design for the project is a collaboration between Swiss Pritzker Prize winning architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Chinese Architecture Design & Research Group, who joined forces to win a worldwide design competition commissioned by the Chinese Government in 2002.
BEIJING OLYMPIC STADIUM DESIGN
Their ambitious design has called for 45,000t of unwrapped steel knitted in an intricate open-weave structure to form the gentle curving basis of the stadium. The final building will house 91,000 spectators, alongside shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and meeting spaces.
So far the project looks set to finish on time, and the view from inside a few months before the Olympics showed the 69m-high structure to have been completed, ready for the retail developments to be brought in.
But prior to this year the project has certainly not been without problems. Building was temporarily halted in 2004 due to financial concerns, and at one point it looked as though the weatherproofing would not be part of the final building, meaning that thousands of spectators would be getting wet.
This, combined with increasing political tensions relating to Tibet has meant the stadium is likely to be the site of protesters as well as sports fans for this year’s Olympics – hardly the image the Chinese Government was looking for.
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
In addition, at least ten construction workers have died during the course of the project, with rumours of many more having been covered up. And whilst no-one has directly suggested that the project has been taken on without due care exercised towards staff, the implication is rife.
From an architectural perspective, of course, this context is unfortunate, but hardly the fault of the designers, who have themselves stated that the accidents on-site have been tragic, but nothing to do with the scale or ambition of the project. In fact, the logistics of the stadium have run, fittingly for their Swiss creators, like clockwork.
During construction the heavy steel girders were supported by construction towers, which were eventually removed, allowing the building to settle to 23cm – exactly the depth calculated by the architects.
What’s more, the highly praised structural innovation of the stadium allows the coalescence of the interior and exterior structure in one seamless shape, which has in turn allowed a number of other exciting features.
BIRD’S NEST MATERIALS
Not least these include the dynamic use of a building material which is gaining increasing acclaim amongst architects. Fluorocarbon-based polymer, ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) was developed by Teflon manufacturers DuPont in the 1970s, and was originally designed solely for use as an insulation material in the aeronautics industry.
A few decades later saw the first few tentative architectural uses of the material in small building projects, mostly as a light-weight replacement for glass, or as a weatherproofing material.
The highly durable resin can be spun into large thin sheets, which can take the place of glass but with a number of appealing advantages. Firstly the tough sheets can be made into sections up to ten times larger than glass panels, affording architects much greater flexibility when it comes to building in windows and transparent sections.
It is also an elastic material which can stretch to three times its original size, and is flexile enough to be rolled up like cling-film making it a logistically favourable material to move around a building site.
But it is its capacity to be made into inflatable pillows which have led to the truly exciting developments in Beijing’s Olympic offerings. In fact they are the reason why the Bird’s Nest’s open-weave structure has been possible. Unlike more traditional buildings where a weatherproof exterior membrane protects the interior contents, the looping steel joists of the stadium have been designed to be packed full of ETFE cushions, which can be inflated in accordance with weather conditions.
Both the architects and the Chinese government were also keen to make the stadium a green project, which utilised both new and existing technologies to for minimal environmental impact. To this end solar panels are part of the project, siphoning off sunlight energy to help power the stadium and reduce the use of other fuels.
ETFE has proved its mettle in this respect as well, as easy transportation of the lightweight material means a smaller carbon foot print for the building materials. It is also more recyclable than glass, as it can be easily melted at lower temperatures for reuse.
ETFE has also formed the main body of Beijing’s other equally impressive Olympic building – the Watercube. This fantastical structure uses different shaped ETFE bubbles, held between steel girders to provide the futuristic walls which house the Olympic pool.
Unlike the Bird’s Nest, these bubbles will stay inflated, allowing them to heat up in the sunlight and help provide additional solar energy for the building’s various needs.
Both buildings have provided architects with a fantastical vision of how the design of the future might progress, and despite political unrest and concerns for the workers involved in the project, have already crowing jewels in Beijing’s contemporary architecture offerings.
Even months before completion the inside of the stadium is awe-inspiring – a well-crafted mass of soaring girders, with space enough for an entire village of shops and services. It only remains to be seen how they will weather both Beijing’s stormy summer climate, and the growing numbers of people opposed to its politics involving Tibet.