Arts & Culture

Symposium held on ‘Olympic’ architecture

6 min read

The Olympics are never just about sport. This summer’s Beijing Olympics have been emphatically about architecture, too. In preparation for the games this August, the Chinese capital is undergoing an urban transformation unprecedented in recent history.

The Olympics are seen as an opportunity to put the Chinese “brand” front and center on the world stage, to build infrastructure that’s been badly needed anyway, and to prove that China has “arrived” as a superpower in the making.

To consider what it all means, well over 100 people packed into Piper Auditorium in Gund Hall Saturday morning (March 15) for a daylong symposium titled “Archi-Olympics: Shaping of a New Beijing.” (The questions weren’t just academic, by the way. When the audience was asked to indicate who was planning to attend the games, dozens of hands shot up.)

Symposium presenters, drawn from New York, Washington, D.C., and even China, as well as from Harvard and the Boston area, credited Chinese leadership with setting a high bar in getting the difficult work of preparing for the games done. (Unflattering comparison was made with the Athens Olympics of 2004, at which it wasn’t clear until about a week before the games opened that the host city would be truly ready.)

But the symposium also included some sharp critiques of the Chinese Olympic efforts. The “Bird’s Nest,” the main Olympic stadium, for instance, drew criticism as a wasteful and even dangerous design.

Presenters also criticized Beijing for its bulldozer approach to urban renewal. “They’ve torn down Beijing and put up Houston,” as Jeffrey Soule, policy director of the American Planning Association in Washington, put it.

The symposium was sponsored by ChinaGSD, with support from Kohn Pederson Fox Associates in New York and Sasaki Associates in Boston, as well as the Harvard Asia Center and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research.

“Basically the entire city has been rebuilt,” Douglas Wu noted in an interview before the symposium. He’s president of ChinaGSD and a candidate for a master’s in architecture (’09) from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “China really sees this as their big coming-out party,” a way to show “China on the rise,” he added.

He also said, “This is one of the most politically charged Olympics since 1980,” when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

He mentioned film director Steven Spielberg’s decision to withdraw as artistic adviser to the Olympics on the grounds that China is not doing enough to end the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region.

The symposium was held at the end of a week during which reports of a Chinese police crackdown on demonstrations in Tibet had been making continual headlines.

Both Asia hands and followers of the Olympics as an institution are looking to see whether the Beijing Games will model the Barcelona Games of 1992, which successfully showed off the host city as revitalized and transformed, or the acrimonious Moscow Games.

In a paper he presented at the symposium, Alfred (Peigen) Peng, professor of architecture at Tsinghua University in Beijing, blasted the Bird’s Nest stadium as an “atrocious design.” It has earned its nickname because it really does look like a nest made out of strands of steel. But there’s nothing featherweight about it. The weight of its roof as a proportion of total building weight is 76.3 percent — which puts it between “very poor” and “dangerous” on the international scientific standard used to measure such things, he said. Peng quoted his colleague, Zhou Gan Shi, another sharp critic of the stadium, who has asked, “Why do we have to hold a Sherman tank over our heads?”

By comparison, he said, the same architects who designed the Bird’s Nest, the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, designed a much lighter-weight structure, the Allianz Arena, for the World Cup soccer competition in Munich in 2006.

Like other critics of Beijing’s Olympic transformation, he also criticized Chinese authorities for handing the commission for the stadium to foreign firms with no particular understanding of Chinese culture or architectural traditions. “The Egg,” the national theater designed by Paul Andreu of France, and Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Tower building were other examples he cited.

Jeffrey Soule, in a preview of his presentation, lamented the “star architects syndrome” that has characterized China’s Olympic building boom, with too much focus on buildings as objects rather than as part of a coherent whole. He also lamented that the Chinese have stuck to the “ring road” concept of development they picked up with the Soviets during the 1950s. Sidewalks and other ways to buffer pedestrians from motor vehicles, common in the West, are unknown in China, he said. He added that when he’s in China, unless he’s “well inside” a building, he watches out for cars.

If the architects and designers came down hard on the architecture, conference presenters from other disciplines found more to like.

Ezra Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard, and an experienced Asia hand, spoke admiringly of the resources China has brought to bear to get buildings, subway lines, and the enormous new airline terminal built.

He acknowledged that China is continuing to block certain search terms on the Internet — but noted that people are discovering work-arounds to search for the forbidden information. He also gave China credit for its efforts to open up somewhat to Western media. Taking a long view of press freedom in China over the past half century, he remarked, “A lot of Westerners are going to be surprised at how open things are.”

Vogel identified “two unpredictables” for Beijing: air quality and security. “If people have to wear masks when they run, that’s a very signature moment.”

And Chinese officials are “giving a lot of attention” to protests on the part of Tibetans and Uighurs. “If it’s a good environment, and no huge incidents, then it will be a success.”

One of the themes from the symposium, though, was that it is too early to tell what the significance of these games will be. When Wu pressed Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, on whether Beijing was likely to follow the Barcelona model or the Moscow model, Greyser responded on a somber note: “I think it’s very premature to say. Who would have predicted what the Munich Olympics of 1972 would be remembered for?”