I want to thank Rana Florida for inviting me to be part of the Creative Class Exchange.
There is no question that the National Stadium, awesome in its scale and telegenic beauty, is already the premier icon of the new Beijing and the Olympics.
The genius of the project is embedded in the conceptual and creative collaboration between Herzog and DeMeuron, Ai Wei Wei, the outspoken Chinese artist, and the former Swiss Ambassador to China.
The form of the stadium evolved from a careful study of traditional Chinese vessels and motifs in nature. The huge elliptical form is both a vessel – containing the red concrete playing field with seating for 100,000 within – and an ambiguous figure of enclosure and openness, solid and void.
Located in a park in the Fourth Ring directly north of the Imperial Palace, the Bird’s Nest was inspired by the subtly curving colonnades of the palace which create an elegant promenade along the boundary of inside and outside.
The film documents the challenges facing Herzog and DeMeuron working in China, revealing ongoing negotiations with their clients and engineering counterparts on the issues of construction cost but also the tensions of two worlds coming together – East and West – and their resolution or surrender in terms of social and business exchange.
If London was the capital of the 18th century; Paris the capital of the 19th century, and New York of the 20th century, is Beijing poised to be the capital of the 21st century? This is the current question being posed by the media – from The New York Time’s Nicolai Ourousoff’s front page feature “In the Changing Face of Beijing, a Look at the New China” of July 13th to Kurt Anderson’s “From Mao to Wow” in the August issue of Vanity Fair.
At one point in the film, a montage shows people dancing in the space of the nest, as they do in places like Bei Hei Park, while Jacques Herzog expresses his aspiration to have the Bird’s Nest open to the public for a wide range of communal activities. He likens this vision to the base of the Eiffel Tower which is open to encourage people to promenade and gather beneath it.
Herzog also speculates on whether political regimes – democratic or state-controlled – determine architectural greatness. The French architect, Le Corbusier, upon completion of La Tourrette, a modern monastery in France, was asked whether he was a Catholic. He said he was not, but that you did not have to be a Catholic to design a monastery, only an artist. Consider the monumentality of Albert Speer’s Olympic Stadium in Berlin and the comment of Pierre DeMeuron that what they were seeking was a form that is not monumental.
When you watch the opening ceremonies, sense the asymmetry of the stadium – which disturbs some of the Chinese who value symmetry. See if you can, in this age of high definition, whether the back of seating, seen through the Bird’s Nest, is matte or glossy. And think about this: an artist questioned whether the designers had actually conceived of the stadium a nest, or whether the association followed from popular reading. In the act of creating, does it matter whether the intention of the design is what people perceive? I intend to see the Bird’s Nest in person, with my wife and children, and ideally in the future. In four years what will happen to the stadium? Will its fascinating perimeter remain open to the public or will it be fenced off and closed to the public? When I was in Beijing in 1996, I walked around Tiananmen Square, looking for evidence. The entire Square had been sectioned off into smaller areas divided by long racks of potted plants. Colorful, and a great backdrop for tourists’ portraits, the square was strategically transformed to make people forget about the past.
In the film there is a scene with three bird cages in the background. The question is: will the post-Olympics Bird’s Nest become a fertile nest or a cage?
Below are the two articles mentioned from the New York Times and Vanity Fair magazine:
In a site for mass gatherings, Herzog and de Meuron have carved out psychological space for the individual, and rethought the relationship between the solitary human and the crowd, the everyday and the heroic. However the structure attests to China’s nationalistic ambitions, it is also an aesthetic triumph that should cement the nation’s reputation as a place where bold, creative gambles are unfolding every day.