Monday, 12 May 2014

Why do they do it?

I have had in the back of my mind to return one day to the Birdsnest Stadium, that white elephant icon of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Or more particularly in light of the contrast between the design approach of the Birdsnest, and that of the main stadium of the London Olympics, to the issue of ‘economy’ or ‘elegance’ as it might apply to architecture.
We might recall that the headline claim to the green credentials of the the Olympic Stadium in London was that only 10,000 tons of steel were used, making it over 75 percent lighter in terms of steel use than its predecessor.  Not only that, but some of that steel was recycled from unused gas pipes found on the site.  In comparison, during the design stage of the Birdsnest, Herzog & de Meuron, and their partners Arup, and China Architecture Design & Research Group, struggled with whether, once in place, the 42,000 tons of steel required to build the structure would be able to support its own weight.  The solution was to work with Chinese steel producers Baosteel and Wuhan Iron & Steel to develop new bespoke steel grades that would meet the strength and flexibility requirements of the project.

To achieve such a dramatic improvement in material economy, Populous as the architect and Buro Happold responsible for the civil, structural and building services for the London project, of course did more than allow structural rationale to reassert its driving influence on the design. The stadium design is a 'ground bowl' with a cable-supported fabric roof.  The upper levels are 55,000 temporary seats supported using a scaffold-like structure removed after the event, to reduce the stadium to a manageable 25000 capacity.

I am well aware that the concept of 'Occam's Razor' does not translate without major reservations to the judgement of what is good in architecture.  But after that compelling comparison between two stadia for the same purpose, one would have thought that material economy (if not related green credentials) would become part of the vocabulary of the description of any similar structure dominated building. 

So it was with genuine disappointment that I was introduced to a project by German architecture firm von Gerkan, Marg and Partners (gmp) for the new basketball stadium in the Chinese city of Dongguan with the inane headline on Basketball-inspired Sports Stadium a Slam Dunk.   

Not a word about the obvious structural virtuosity and resultant elegance of the design, the article went on, mainly concentrating on lame similes between the orange colour of a competition ball and the interior of the venue, and the visual similarity of the external structure to the net on a basketball hoop.

The problem, of course is the same lazy ‘journalism’ of which I have complained before. The text is identical in slabs on archdaily, except that they actually acknowledge that it's taken from the architects’ statement.  

Which is the final source of my incredulity.  Why do good architects themselves think it’s a good idea to feed us such rubbish, rather than a robust description of their design rationale, and some useful facts?


Anonymous said...

After reading this article about this good or bad architecture, from my personal perspectives, I found it’s really hard to answer the question writer pointed out in the end. The answer to it is complex.
I’ve also notice the two architecture mentioned by the article are all located in china, which drives me back to look at the ‘Chinese way of thinking’.

First, through good architects would like to design good architecture with their own language, they are limited by the local condition. (Culture/Population/Payer requirement etc.)
Just take Birdsnest Stadium and the Olympic Stadium in London as an example.
Basically, both stadiums were paid by the government, but Chinese government have more money, with a larger population and the Chinese have a total different way of thinking, so two Stadium act differently.
This reason seems rough but what’s behind it is the key point why Birdsnest Stadium is not that material economy:
With Chinese way of thinking, the Olympics is a really remarkable event that they would like to build up something visually strong to memories it and to keep the site last for long and unchanged, and also provide a new place for event such as celebrate festivals and vocal concert. The Birdsnest Stadium is like a ‘Sydney Opera house’ to Chinese, a memorial, and the massy 42,000 tons of steel could represent the nation’s industrial power. To them, material economy of it can be considered poorly when bigger is better.
To the designer, first thing they are required to do is to reach all those goals, then it comes to their design concept. They could achieve sustainability by having water reuse system, but not too many removable sits, for lots of people will visit the Stadium after the Olympics in future plan. (but the truth is almost opposite, few people visit the place)

Second, some architects feed us with ‘rubbish’ architecture for benefit.
The profit of building up an architecture in those Chinese cities is around certain percentage of building cost, through the cost of the building is controlled by the payer and the competitors, it still brings huge amount of profit.
Also, a building with interior of the venue looks like the orange color of a competition ball is easier to describe to the local public, simple but strong information that could drive people’s attention and help to increase popularity.

Why they do that? Because they are largely limited by those payers or they just consider too much about their profits.

Link of Birdsnest Stadium website:
News: ‘restart Chinese top 10 architecture elect’
News: ‘Beijing's Olympic building boom becomes a bust’
Link of the Olympic Stadium in London:

W L said...

Being a Chinese student who get educated and live in Australia, I certainly realised it is a long way for China to catch up on its way to sustainability. By the time Beijing is announced as the host of 2008 Olympics Games, the local citizen whether benefits from the upgrade of infrastructure and slowing down (maybe even slightly improved) environmental deterioration or have to put up with the driven force of national sentiment that anything but good of what they are doing. I guess the most important thing is how different people treat the same problem.
London Olympics set out a different approach in design which works with the problems that Olympics venue faces some operation difficulties after the game. While Beijing is developing a new bespoke steel grades. Not right or wrong in terms of architect’s design. We all know China’s grand vision and British’s innovation. However when we focus on sustainability, the comparison of two is dramatically, in terms of embodied energy, socially and financially. Having the “temporary” structure made the stadium face to reality.
In the end, I still want to say something nice for my hometown. I wondered if the local government publishing the information about what and how they did to change the environment, will it impresses the media. Since the environment did not stop getting worse recently, it’s probably not worth mention.

Tongzhuo Xiao said...

Many challenges that designers and artists have to face are not always about battling themselves over and over to come up with new ideas. More often the pressure comes from clients/audiences and their incapability of reading complexity structures that otherwise in designers’ eyes: “fairly obvious”.
One must understand that not everyone has the same professional insight as an architect and rightfully so. It is part of architects’ job to delivery their architectural gesture to general public in a dramatic fashion. Even that means sometimes put down some of the knowledge that you learn from your architecture school and career. Imagine an architect student from China tries to explain Dongguan Stadium to his 86 years old grandma.
“It’s a basketball hoop that can fit 15000 people in it.”
Of course it cannot justify the oversimplifying of the building design rationale in the article. Their target audiences are people who are either in building industry, trying to get in building industry or at least interested in architecture related news. So we can assume the reader know at least some basic architectural knowledge.
In fact, after looking through couple reviews and news about the Dongguan project, the material economy aspect is rarely mentioned in any manner of speaking. Many focused on the basketball-hoop appearance and the pure size of the building. It seems that is the case with most large scale building built in China recently. Media often address how very large it is, and how very fast it has been built. Sustainability related topic was frequently overlooked. That may because lots of large scale buildings in urban China are in fact, not sustainable, and not designed to be especially environment-friendly. This kind of mindset has started to change due to the environmental hazard happened in the previous few years. Yet there is still a long way to go.

1.Basketball stadium in Dongguan, China, http://www.gmp-

2.Dongguan Basketball Stadium by Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner,

3.Towards a Liveable and Sustainable Urban Environment: Eco-Cities in East Asia, Gang Chen, 93-96.

Wei PENG said...

It is really hard to estimate what a good architecture is or how a bad architecture looks like.
As an architectural student, we have been acknowledged from many aspects of studies that designing under the considerations of design concept, sustainability, environment and cost are all important.
I have to say architectures in China have theirs own way and style of thinking and consideration. And somehow, they likely think in a business way more than how to design in a sustainable way. As writer pointed, the steel used in Birdsnest Stadium are all brand new produced steels. Positively, it could improve the flexibility of manufacturing the structure requirements and show the national abilities of techniques of metal smelting. On the other hand, if they could turn some ‘rubbish’ to be reused with the new steel, it would establish the thinking of material economy, sustainable and environmental design, and advertise the new concept of sustainable design of 21th century architecture.

Furthermore, the London Olympic Stadium is considered in a different way to design. It may be because that after Beijing Olympic Game, the wasting of Birdsnest became a troublesome question. London Olympic Station is decided to turn from temperate to permanent. It is the iconic model of energy-efficient building and the good example of turning ‘rubbish’ to a valuable component of materials. Its design considered the way of how to reduce the use of steel, how to involve recycled material and how to design and promote the idea of sustainability.
Consequently, evaluating architecture in the point view of good or bad is really hard. But in my opinion, I strongly recommend that design a building for our future in an environmental and sustainable way, which could create a new generation of architecture and be benefit for the world future.

Anonymous said...

Sustainability and the Olympics can be seen as an oxymoron, however not as a considerably certain one. Sydney 2000 set the precedent for all future Olympic bids by adding the third ideal of sustainable initiatives to the two Olympic ideals of sport and culture. London 2012 followed suit. Yes, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 might not have achieved the sustainable heights as Sydney and London have, but an argument can be attributed to the pressures of exhibiting their cultural context for such limitations.

Sydney and London are global sporting hubs with a multitude of football codes at their disposal and saw the Olympics as an opportunity to utilise and further their local sports economy. Beijing however does not have this sporting culture in place and despite their perceived future re-usable plans; the Olympics to them was as a one off to showcase themselves to the world, i.e. to present their nation’s industrial power as indicated in the comment above. Herzog & de Meuron collaborated with renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as a design consultant for the Birdsnest and to reiterate the above argument, he stated that “the rationale of the structure called for a maximization and unification of aesthetic functions...the sense of totality was critical.”1

Every Olympic city seeks to outdo its predecessors. London learnt from Beijing’s shortcomings and Rio 2016 will seek to learn from London’s. One must only witness Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the sustainable ventures for their stadiums that won them the selection. Solar powered absorption cooling systems, renewable energy systems powering local communities, disassembling stadium components and transporting to third world nations just to name a few. Could this have been so without Sydney and London paving the way? Without seeing what came of Beijing and Athens?

I can understand the stance that some firms and online magazines take; who are limited by their clients and just want to simply capture the attention of the masses and increase their online popularity with verbose wordplay, as indicated by the first comment above. In this instance, yes Sourceable’s brief copy-paste description of the Dongguan basketball stadium failed to grasp at the opportunity to beautifully elaborate on gmp’s elegant structural design. However on the gmp website, it does manage to briefly allude to the utilising the local context of Liaobu and the cultural context of a basketball mad nation. This does not justify it though, as I feel that architectural firms have an obligation to their audience, particularly their target audience of architects and builders, to delineate their design rationales and provide useful facts. Herzog & de Meuron do this brilliantly with their own stadium design depictions. The analysis of the Birdsnest, Allianz Arena and the new Bordeaux Stadium detail their design vision, the urban connotations, structural/materialistic intricacies and interdisciplinary collaborations with artists and engineers. The utilisation of an architecture firm’s vocabulary in the description and purpose of the structure is imperative in its appeal.

1 Flora Zhang, China’s Olympic Crossroads: Bird’s Nest Designer Ai Weiwei on Beijing’s ‘Pretend Smile,’ The New York Times, August 4, 2008.

Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup:
• Bid Presentation Video:
• Sustainable ventures:

Link to gmp page on Dongguan basketball stadium:

Links to Herzog & de Meuron Stadium briefs:
• Birdsnest:
• Allianz Arena:
• Bordeaux Stadium:

T YANG said...

From my perspective view, I guess the huge differences between the Birdsnest (main stadium of Beijing Olympics) and main stadium of the London Olympics in terms of design approach and material using reflects the big regional and cultural differences.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic was the first time that summer Olympics were held in China, and China sees the Olympics as a chance to show the world an open, confident face of a rising China. Hence, since this project has been much more than a Olympic stadium in China, Chinese government not only wants to build up an unique and notable landmark to celebrates this great event., but also creates a new icon for China. The Birdsnest stadium by Herzog & de Meuron was chosen at the end of a six month long international competition and China paid huge price for this project: it comprises an outer skeleton of 42,000 tons of steel (three times heavier the main stadium of London Olympics), more than double the budget for London 2012 and 6000 homes were demolished to make way for it to built up this nation’s new icon.

However, since the Summer Olympics were held twice in London (1908 and 1948) before 2012 Summer Olympics, London puts emphasis on sustainability and considerable redevelopment rather than showcase the nation's accomplishments. The London Olympic stadium’s approach to sustainability as Steve mentioned above “only 10,000 tons of steel were used, making it over 75 percent lighter and some of that steel was recycled from unused gas pipes found on the site”. Moreover, the removable structure on the upper level that give a chance to reduce stadium to a manageable 25000 capacity shows the careful consideration of future redevelopment.

Furthermore, I guess the online magazine and Architect sometimes only focus on the “appearance” of architecture due to many reasons. In most case, the clients are not very similar with the structural and engineering stuff, hence, when the architect deliver the information to the clients, architect used to put more emphasis on the basic concept and the appearance of the project rather than present the “structural virtuosity and resultant elegance of the design”.

Herzog & de Meuron, “The National Stadium, a new kind of public space for Beijing”

Gordon Rayner, “Beijing Olympics: The Bird's Nest stadium”

Helen Bushby & Claire Heald “London 2012: Ten facts about the Olympic Stadium”

“Basketball-inspired Sports Stadium a Slam Dunk”

Mickael Akkerman said...


Cheap and beautiful are not necessarily opposites, the cheap can be expensive in the long term, environmentally, maintenance wise and culturally. Now when it comes to what a building stands for, meaning its identity, an expensive project might not only look bad (subjective) but also fail to fully express its function, cultural purpose and ideals by which it is driven.

The public not being expert often do not see the true meaning of buildings. It is the responsibility of the architecture that is privy to the projects goals and identity, to communicate it to the public not only through the looks of its design but also by the architectural spatial experience and cultural/historical contextual expressions.

Furthermore, besides economy, culture and resources, technology too has always strongly influenced architecture. It responds to the later influences leading to new accomplishments in terms of budget, structure and environmental impact.

Mies van der Rohe noted that for the future, functional standardization needed to be combined with the required flexibility in construction (Frampton K., "A Critical History of Modern Architecture", 1980, 64.). In other words, technology should assist uprising priorities; of particular projects like the Birdsnest structure weight, or of a global context as the impact on precious eco systems.

So in opposition to the belief that International Style took over buildings Regionalism (Colquhoun A., "The concept of Regionalism", 1997, 13), new technology is to contribute with a flexibility that allows carefully chosen factors to determine the identity of a building. That being said, I believe a building when looked into, speaks for itself with no need for journalists or architects to explain what is already stated by the budget, design, cultural and environmental considerations of the project, if it has any.

Anonymous said...

Singers have X-factor, Amateur cooks have Masterchef and Architects have the Olympics. Yes, the Olympics. Every 4 Years countries bid against one another for the ultimate glory of hosting the Olympics. What better time to show your economic strength and to create mega structures and elaborate stadiums? Sadly, most of these venues take more then they can give, especially from an environmental and sustainable perspective.

The Birdsnest in China for example was designed and built to become the world’s most environmentally friendly sporting stadium, however it is very debatable whether or not they achieved their goal. Yes they implemented photovoltaic technology in order to power the structure but the fact that the stadium was constructed out of 42 000 tons of steel seems rather contradictory. The Birdsnest as mentioned previously seemed to be more of an illustration of China’s Industrial strength. Afar cry from their goal of committing to a more green and sustainable future.

In stark contrast, London proved that sustainability and Olympics could actually work cohesively. London, the home to over 120 stadiums, surely didn’t need any more and hence the introduction of not only a green but also re-usable stadiums. Stadium’s that were not only made out of recycled steel but also able to be dismantled and utilized elsewhere for secondary use was exactly the type of thinking that should have been on China’s agenda.

Where Athens and Beijing failed, London prevailed and illustrated that sustainable design is just as or even more beautiful than mega structures like the Birdnest. The fact that the site will once again thrive and become a useable space post Olympics is a refreshing idea. Although the Birdsnest is striking and awe-inspiringly beautiful, how often has it or will it be used post Olympics? Is this what we call ‘great’ architecture or just a one hit wonder waiting to be taken down?