June 02, 2006:

[achtung! kunst] *architecture* : The China Syndrome

nyt, may 21, 2006
The China Syndrome

A visit to the construction site of the National Stadium in Beijing is
as close as you get in the 21st century to seeing what it must have been
like to put up the Great Wall of China. At one point, 7,000 workers were
toiling on the stadium, dispatched in six-month stints from the
countryside and organized like an army into squadrons. When I visited at
the end of March, their number had diminished to a couple of thousand:
the concrete had already been poured for the huge bowl that will seat
91,000 spectators at the 2008 Olympic Games, and the raising and welding
of the steel columns and beams -- tasks that require extra training and
elbow room -- were well under way. Cranes more than 300 feet tall
hovered above, hoisting metal pieces as heavy as 350 tons to form a
lattice of interwoven steel. Knowing that the nickname ''bird's nest''
has clicked with the Chinese public, I could imagine the enormous cranes
as Godzilla-fied birds and the dangling curves of steel as worms being
lowered for the chicks.

The 24 main columns are gargantuan -- 1,000 tons each, far more than the
weight of those in a conventional stadium and spaced in what appears to
be a random pattern. ''Everyone thinks this is the most remarkable piece
of architecture we have ever designed,'' the architect Jacques Herzog
told me months before in Switzerland, where he lives. ''To realize that
project there is amazing.'' It defies expectations to see this
avant-garde building rising in China, and yet, Herzog had remarked,
''such a structure you couldn't do anywhere else.''

For architects, China is the land of dreams. The construction statistics
tantalize. The Chinese consume 54.7 percent of the concrete and 36.1
percent of the steel produced in the world, according to a 2004 report
in Architectural Record. Hungry architects are drawn to China by the
abundance of economic opportunities. But Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss
firm that designed the stadium, doesn't need to drum up business. It has
more work than it can handle. What attracted the firm's leaders to China
is an openness to audacious projects, which they attribute to the lack
of timidity and inhibition in the people there. ''They are so fresh in
their mind,'' Herzog says. ''They have the most radical things in their
tradition, the most amazing faience and perforated jades and scholar's
rocks. Everyone is encouraged to do their most stupid and extravagant
designs there. They don't have as much of a barrier between good taste
and bad taste, between the minimal and expressive. The Beijing stadium
tells me that nothing will shock them.''

After Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games, the city authorities, with
national encouragement, set out to display the material progress of
their society. A euphoric wave of architectural commissions ensued. Most
of the recent construction in Beijing is numbingly banal, yet a few
projects -- especially the headquarters for CCTV, the national
television company, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas's firm, OMA,
along with Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium -- promise to be modern
monuments, a gutsy wager on the figures who are advancing the frontiers
of Western architecture. ''On the one hand, you have these two projects
-- CCTV, which could only be built in China, and the stadium -- and you
have on the other hand thousands of uninteresting projects, like
mushrooms,'' says Pierre de Meuron, who runs the firm with Herzog. The
Olympics have galvanized China's imperial impulse to impress the world,
by whatever means necessary. ''What is probably really amazing and
amusing for the Western audience in terms of what is going on in China
is this openness in attitude,'' says Yung Ho Chang, the chairman of the
architecture department at M.I.T., who also practices in Beijing.
''People start to speculate, 'Do they know what they are getting?' They
want to showcase their economic success. In that sense they know. But do
they know what Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron are trying to achieve
in architecture? Probably no.''

On their side, these innovative foreign architects are equally in the
dark, frequently blindsided by forces they never anticipate or fully
comprehend. Even the identity of the true decision maker can remain
mysterious. Everywhere in the world, not only in China, the struggle to
realize a design is vulnerable to forces outside the architect's reach:
the budget shrinks, the program changes, the financing collapses, the
building code alters, the client reneges. In an authoritarian and
secretive state that is trying to spur capitalist initiative without
relinquishing government control, however, these calamities occur with
less warning or transparent reasoning. ''It's like two walls in front of
each other,'' Herzog says. ''You have no clue what really happens, what
are the dynamics really.'' Both the reigning government bureaucrats, who
respond to social and political pressures, and the newly ascendant
capitalists, who try to anticipate market conditions, make sudden and
seemingly capricious decisions. Their explanations are incomplete and

A year ago, when I began looking into the work of Herzog & de Meuron in
China, the firm had six projects there. By the time I began reporting
six months later, only two were moving forward -- the giant stadium in
Beijing and a minuscule pavilion in the provinces. China is the land of
disillusionment, not only of dreams. I told de Meuron that I'd heard his
experience there had turned his hair gray. He smiled. ''It's not only
China,'' he said. But he acknowledged that many times over the last few
years, he despaired that even the stadium would be constructed as
designed. Herzog & de Meuron's Chinese adventure has two strands that
occasionally intersect. ''There is the building or project process,'' de
Meuron says, ''and parallel, this whole strategic and political process,
which is as interesting or thrilling.'' At any moment, a project could
slip through his fingers and smash or vanish without his ever knowing why.

The eye-popping physical transformation of China shimmers even more
vertiginously when viewed from small, staid Switzerland, a country best
known for discreet banking, precision watchmaking and a beady-eyed civic
etiquette in which the candy wrapper that some miscreant (no doubt
non-Swiss) has dropped on a train platform cries out as an unfathomable
act of vandalism. Herzog & de Meuron, one of the most admired
architecture firms in the world, is deeply Swiss. Located in Basel,
where its two principals met as 7-year-old schoolboys, the practice
first gained an international reputation for the exquisite ornamentation
and detailing of its Modernist buildings. In architects' parlance,
Herzog & de Meuron was renowned for covering facades with unusual
''skins,'' like woven copper strips or photographically printed
polycarbonate panels. The partners began exploring unconventional
cladding because, in the steel, glass and concrete universe of Modernist
architecture, it beckoned as new territory. Even before they captured
the awareness of the general public with their first large-scale
project, the Tate Modern in London, which opened in 2000, they were
moving beyond simple boxlike structures with gorgeous skins to design
formally expressive buildings that somehow manage to be both wildly
imaginative and coolly restrained. The National Stadium, daring though
it is, constitutes a logical arrival point for Herzog & de Meuron: the
basket weave of steel that composes its facade is also its load-bearing
structure. Its skin is made of bones.

Excited by the possibility of working in China, Herzog and de Meuron
wondered where to make their initial foray. In 2002, contemplating an
invitation to compete on short notice for the CCTV commission, de Meuron
sought advice from his friend Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to
China and an early Western collector of Chinese contemporary art. Along
with strategic counsel, Sigg provided an introduction to his friend Ai
Weiwei, a prominent and very plugged-in Beijing artist. When Sigg called
Ai to ask if the CCTV competition would be fair, Ai replied, ''Never,
from my experience in China, will you have a fair competition.'' Beset
with complicated (and doomed to be unrealized) projects in Abu Dhabi and
Moscow, Herzog & de Meuron declined to enter. Upon the victory of their
friend and rival Koolhaas, with whom they enjoy a relationship
reminiscent of Matisse's with Picasso, they regretted the decision.
''Afterward they thought if they participated, they would have won,'' Ai
remarked. He agreed to serve as their artistic collaborator in the next
big Chinese trophy hunt -- the National Stadium competition.

The rules of that competition laid out certain functional requirements.
Beyond the obvious need to provide playing fields and spectator seating,
the competition brief emphasized commercial post-Games uses and made an
unusual demand for a retractable roof that could be closed in bad
weather. In developing an Olympics strategy, the Beijing authorities
hoped to avoid the head-splitting hangover that Athens and Sydney woke
up to once the 17-day party ended -- the obligation of maintaining a
costly and impractical stadium. Yet the iconic value of the stadium
might also be great, however hard to quantify. In the long months ahead,
whenever their design was threatened, Herzog and de Meuron would suggest
that if constructed to plan, the National Stadium might do for Beijing
what the Eiffel Tower, itself erected for a temporary exposition, has
achieved for Paris.

International juried architectural competitions are a novelty in the
People's Republic of China. Indeed, only in the last quarter-century
have foreign architects established a toehold there at all. Until then,
all building plans came from the state-owned local design institutes,
which churned out nondescript schemes according to a system that valued
speed and efficiency over originality. In 1983, these design institutes
lost state financing and were forced to become self-supporting. Still,
they initiate most new construction. Furthermore, any private firm
working in China is required by law to collaborate with a local design
institute, which bears ultimate responsibility as the architect of
record. (This system resembles Western practice, in which a visiting
architect must cooperate with a locally licensed partner.) A few of the
design institutes have the reputation for an enlightened attitude. The
China Architecture Design and Research Group (CAG), which Ai recommended
to Herzog & de Meuron, is one of the best.

When Ai traveled to Basel to discuss the stadium concept, he was joined
by Li Xinggang, a young architect in the CAG. Upon arrival at the
offices of Herzog & de Meuron, the Chinese emissaries found that the
area set aside for the stadium design was postered with images of
Chinese ceramics, baskets, jades and bronzes. Finding new ways to invoke
an ancient tradition within a modern context is the intellectual
challenge that animates the work of Herzog & de Meuron in China. There
are many approaches to the problem, most of them awful. At the onset of
the Beijing building boom in the late 1980's, the city's mayor preferred
that skyscraper architects tip their hats to the Chinese past. All
across town you can see tall buildings capped by absurdly historicist
roofs in the style of the Forbidden City. ''If you wanted it approved,
you had to add a big roof,'' says Cui Kai, the chief architect of the
CAG. ''That's a very simple way to connect modern and traditional.
Herzog & de Meuron are doing it in a much more interesting way.''

To optimize view lines and place spectators closer to the action on the
rectangular playing field, the architects designed a bowl that was
higher on the short east-west sides than on the north and south. The
shape, which reminded them of a Chinese basket or a vase, then had to be
fine-tuned. ''Two sides high, two sides low -- it is not a good thing in
China,'' Li Xinggang recalls telling them. ''People will say it is like
a baby toilet. This is dangerous. If you give this possibility for a
competition in China, it will be enough reason to cancel the scheme.''
He also thought the stadium's conceptual design bore a risky resemblance
to a policeman's cap. Any suspicion I might have had that Li was
exaggerating the Chinese propensity for analogy was dispelled a few days
after our conversation, when I drove by the headquarters of the China
National Offshore Oil Corporation. Another architect had told me that
the sleek building, designed by the Western firm Kohn Pedersen Fox
(KPF), reminded the Chinese of a snazzy tankless toilet manufactured by
Kohler. Sure enough, some cheeky advertising director, playing off that
likeness, had placed a billboard for the toilet directly opposite the
building. Li was right. What might in Basel evoke a Shang dynasty vessel
could have less lofty and pleasant associations in Beijing.

The treacherous symbolic power of buildings in China is demonstrated by
the history of another KPF project, this one in Shanghai. In 1993, the
Tokyo-based Mori Building Company, which is an important KPF client,
announced its intention of erecting the Shanghai World Financial Center
in the Pudong District. The architects arrived at a striking abstract
form that tapers like a chisel; at the summit, they cut out a circle 150
feet in diameter to relieve wind pressure. Although not the inspiration
for the scheme, Chinese mythology represents the earth with a square and
the sky with a circle. It made a nice story, and in China, a succinct,
evocative subtext can be as important as subbasement pilings in getting
a building off the ground. Unfortunately, the Shanghai authorities were
discerning an alternate narrative. For them, a giant circle on a
Japanese-owned tower unequivocally evoked the rising-sun flag. ''They
didn't tell us exactly what the issues were, but they said there's
concern in Beijing that public opinion is upset about this project and
we can't approve it when people are against it,'' recalls Paul Katz, the
KPF principal in charge. The negotiations dragged on for more than a
year. ''You can't just back down,'' Katz explains. ''Part of the waiting
was to see what the real message was.'' Eventually, they compromised on
a trapezoid. ''I'm happy with it,'' Katz says. Construction resumed last

In China, nicknames can be important. Of the major projects by foreign
architects that won juried competitions and are under construction in
Beijing, Paul Andreu's widely reviled National Grand Theater, which
borders Tiananmen Square, is insultingly called ''the egg.'' The
headquarters of CCTV has been likened to a bench, a person kneeling or a
doughnut, despite pains taken by the architects at OMA to emphasize the
functional reasons behind its calligraphic swoop. Lord Norman Foster's
airport terminal bears an unmissable resemblance to a beast revered in
traditional Chinese architecture and folklore. ''Norman Foster's airport
building looks like a dragon, so of course it wins,'' says Li Hu of
Steven Holl Architects. ''If it looks like a snake, it's finished.''
(Its use of the imperial colors red and gold is just painting the lily.)
Li Hu points out that the bird's-nest analogy for Herzog & de Meuron's
stadium is a positive one: ''In China, a bird's nest is very expensive,
something you eat on special occasions.'' Culinary associations aside, a
bird's nest is a harmonious natural object.

When conceiving the stadium, Herzog & de Meuron developed a scheme for
practical, not symbolic, reasons. In any project, one or two design
issues dominate. For the Tate Modern, the question had been how to take
a massive industrial space with the towering Turbine Hall and make it
people-friendly. For the stadium, a key issue was finding a way to
incorporate the retractable roof inconspicuously. To mask the two large
parallel beams that were necessary to support the heavy roof, the
architects enmeshed them in crisscrossed steel. Aesthetically, they
compared the interwoven steel to the crackled glaze of a Song ceramic
vase or the wooden lattices in a Ming window. To explain how the
structural steel would compose the visible facade, however, the
competition document used the analogy of a bird's nest, in which the
twigs that support the shape are right on the surface, devoid of any
ornament. Where covering was needed, as in the roof area over the seats,
translucent plastic membranes would be stuffed like the grass and leaves
in a nest. The public loved it. The stadium looked like a bird's nest!
Even though they had come up with the metaphor to describe the
building's construction concept, not its visible appearance, the
architects saw no need to correct the happy misunderstanding.

Li Xinggang says that when he took the model to the exhibition hall and
saw the rival entries, he thought to himself, ''We will win this.'' He
was right. The stadium-design jury (which included Koolhaas and the
eminent French architect Jean Nouvel) awarded first place to the Herzog
& de Meuron scheme. As required, however, the jury also short-listed two
others. Rather than a green light, the design victory was to be the
first in a string of yellow blinkers that illuminate this cautionary tale.

The very idea of doing something architecturally new in China is itself
so new that ambitious architects must surmount novel challenges. The
popular mentality, however open-minded, is enmeshed by a web of shifting
and inconsistent rules. ''It's not that we don't have systems,'' says
Yung Ho Chang of M.I.T. ''We have incomplete systems. We have this
superprogressive energy code, but a decades-old structure code. It is
pretty easy for the bureaucrats to make exceptions, which they love to
do. They think every case is unique, so they will break the code. Not
you.It's this kind of incomplete changeable system.'' The Chinese
language is itself poetically vague compared with English and more open
to interpretation. Winning approval of a design often involves finding a
receptive official. ''You go to one person who says yes and then another
person says no,'' complains Li Hu, who, with Steven Holl, is building a
mixed-use complex in Beijing. ''We were almost there, and the person
died of a heart attack, and we had to start all over with a new person.
No one wants to be responsible.''

Li Hu's unconventional Beijing project -- which is powered by 600
geothermal wells and features eight towers joined by sky bridges -- is
called Linked Hybrid in English. The Chinese name translates rather
redundantly as ''Modern MoMA.'' ''We all know MoMA is the Museum of
Modern Art,'' says Han Fengguo, the C.E.O. of the Modern Land Group,
which is developing the site (with 622 apartments, a boutique hotel and
a cinema) on the outside edge of the Second Ring Road, where the ancient
city wall stood until Mao had it torn down. ''We want to make our new
buildings as art.'' Like many Chinese real-estate developers, Han once
worked in government and is obscurely well connected. His company
procured an excellent site for this project, close to an airport
expressway that has sprung up overnight. In the model sales office, a
color rendering of Linked Hybrid adorns the wall, part of a sequence
that also features the projects of Koolhaas and Foster as well as Herzog
& de Meuron, under the shared heading ''Future Landmarks of Beijing.''
(Andreu's unpopular theater is conspicuously absent.) Recognizing the
sales appeal of distinguished architecture, the Modern Group has also
pumped up the reputation of Dietmar Eberle of Austria, a foreign
architect it discovered before finding Steven Holl. ''For the Modern
Group, Eberle would be perceived as important as Steven to the buyers of
the condos,'' Yung Ho Chang says. ''They made this brief history of
modern architecture from Mies and Corbu to Eberle. Later on they added
Steven.'' Han was chain-smoking premium-brand Chunghwa cigarettes with
black filter tips, as a female assistant poured green tea into
disposable cups and coffee into porcelain demitasses. He personified the
message he was preaching: the convergence of Chinese and Western tastes
at the rarefied level of the luxurious modern lifestyle.

For the Chinese, especially the new rich, a famous architect's
imprimatur graces a building with designer-label status. ''There is a
new luxury beyond Louis Vuitton and BMW,'' Han says. An even more
successful developer, the architecturally savvy Pan Shiyi of SOHO China,
who has solicited (but not used) designs from Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha
Hadid and Toyo Ito, says: ''In the past there was a debate whether you
could combine avant-garde and commercial. But I think the value of the
avant-garde will be recognized in the market. Like Picasso's paintings,
which were once avant-garde, and now they are very valuable.'' Of
course, the craze for theatrically expressive schemes by famous
architects also exists in the West, where public institutions,
particularly museums, vie for the services of a handful of stars. The
difference is that Western executives recognize that commissioning an
unconventional design from Koolhaas or Herzog & de Meuron will entail a
greater outlay of money, time and uncertainty. ''In America, if an
architect is conceived to be avant-garde, you probably wouldn't ask him
to do a big housing project,'' says Yung Ho Chang. ''In China, a
developer would think, Avant-garde is a different style, we will try

In the months following the stadium competition submission, Ai Weiwei
was approached surprisingly often by developers who told him they were
looking for ''the best architect in the world.'' He would recommend
Herzog & de Meuron. Even before the stadium commission was decided, he
escorted the Swiss architects on a drive four hours southwest of
Shanghai to Jinhua, a small (by Chinese standards) city that is the
birthplace of his father, the revered poet, Ai Qing. In 2002, at the
invitation of the city authorities, Ai Weiwei designed a memorial to his
father on the south bank of the Yiwu River. The city was so pleased that
he was invited to plan a park on a ribbon of land that runs along the
river's north bank. At the same time, he was asked his opinion of a
master plan that had been commissioned for a new district of the city.
''You'd better not build,'' he told them. ''Not to build is better than
to build this.'' The city planner solicited his recommendation. ''There
is no company in China that can do this,'' he said. ''The education
limits their imagination.'' Prodded for a referral, he said, ''I am
working with architects who might be interested.''

Herzog and de Meuron were very interested. The opportunity to design a
new city -- not a gated community but a bustling commercial and
entertainment district intended to serve as many as 300,000 people --
arises rarely in the West. The firm's master plan would transform the
former rice fields into three urban precincts, which were dubbed (in the
local fashion) the Mountain, the Village and the Field: respectively, a
high-rise complex, an entertainment area and a warren of small shops.
They were also asked to design all of the buildings. ''In Europe, you
couldn't do it, because it would feel like a ghetto,'' says Ascan
Mergenthaler, the partner directing the project. ''But here they will
move in and take the shell we give them and make something out of it. If
you don't stop them, they start building rooms on the balconies.'' Also
in Jinhua, Herzog and de Meuron agreed to assist with the
mile-and-a-half-long strip of park by the river, where Ai proposed
constructing 17 pavilions of avant-garde architecture. Herzog & de
Meuron helped recruit young European architects and also agreed to build
a pavilion of its own.

In these early days of their China infatuation, Herzog and de Meuron
signed on to three other projects through Ai Weiwei. Two were for a
Beijing developer. The larger one was a for-profit, adult-education
campus at the outer edge of the city; without kitschy quotations, the
Herzog & de Meuron architects designed campus quads, featuring interior
courtyards and gardens, that evoked the traditional hutong neighborhoods
vanishing quickly from Beijing. The other Beijing project was an unusual
rental office complex, TPT Tower, which combined three high-rise
buildings of different sizes on a common base at the curve of an
expressway intersection. In the rendering, it resembles three
ruby-colored crystals rising from a red matrix. Almost every one of the
7,000 plates of glass on the faceted facades is a different shape. When
Herzog and de Meuron considered a similar scheme for a symphony hall in
Hamburg, the high price of manufacture mandated a much simpler version.
''Construction costs in Beijing are one-tenth the amount in the West,
and in New York or London, it is 14 times as much,'' de Meuron says.
Cheap labor, at least as much as an unfettered outlook, permits the
flourishing in China of avant-garde architecture, with its penchant for
original engineering, unorthodox materials and surprising forms.

The last of the Chinese projects that Ai delivered to Herzog & de Meuron
inspired a design that, aside from the stadium, was their most
startling. In the city of Qingdao (famous for its German heritage and
Tsingtao beer), one of Ai's college friends was planning to start the
first branch campus of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. As is so
often true in China, the program was inchoate. The project team designed
spaces for classrooms, dormitories and production facilities in long,
rectangular bar-shaped buildings, which could be subdivided according to
function at the last minute. Then they piled up the bars in great heaps
that looked as casually arranged as tossed pick-up sticks. Where the
bars overlap, multistory atriums would encourage mingling and transmit

By the time I arrived in China, all of these ventures, except the tiny
architecture pavilion -- ''the smallest project in China,'' Ai joked
blackly -- were struggling or dead. They had fallen victim to the
bubbling social tensions and contradictions in a state-controlled
economy that is trying to fuel growth without triggering social unrest,
corrupt cronyism or an unsustainable financial bubble. Another important
reason for the collapsing projects was the inexperience of the nascent
developer class.

The effort to build an adult-education campus had succumbed to a newly
enforced national policy that prohibits private deals between village
chiefs and builders -- such deals had invited corruption and provoked
widespread protests. Instead, land must now be auctioned publicly. TPT
Tower was stalled by the developer's need to sell other properties or
find investors to pay for new construction, as the central government
has tightened bank financing for commercial development. Because of a
change in national policy, the city of Jinhua could not bankroll its new
district directly but was compelled to auction off the development
rights to three private investors, each one with an opinion -- indeed,
many opinions, depending on the day you inquired. It didn't help matters
that the idealistic municipal official who was committed to the project
had been promoted, as typically happens in Chinese government after four
years. His successor seemed unmotivated to push through someone else's
visionary scheme, leaving its fate uncertain.

Worst of all was the situation in Qingdao, with a discordant partnership
between the local developer and Ai's old friend. Short of money, the
developer of the film academy questioned the unconventional scheme and
resisted the design fees. Even Ai's idealistic friend was disconcerted.
''He said he wanted the best architects in the world,'' Chen Shu Yu, an
architect who works for Ai Weiwei, told me. ''We have a famous story in
China. There is a person who likes dragons very much, and he likes to
draw the dragon. Finally, when the dragon really tries to visit him, he
is scared.'' In June, Herzog & de Meuron canceled its connection with
the Qingdao project. The firm is still owed payment for its work. With a
blithe disregard for intellectual property, the developer handed over
the preliminary sketches to a local design institute, naively believing
that the same architecture can be executed more cheaply. They broke
ground last winter. ''They are damaged by their own craziness,'' Ai
says. ''They don't know anything about architecture.''

The one Herzog & de Meuron project that has been completed in China is
the small concrete pavilion in Jinhua's architecture park. It was
designed with the aid of a computer, which generated a gnarled solid out
of patterns similar to the openings in brick walls that had been created
for Jinhua's new district. The architects liked the pavilion so much
that they developed a vertical wooden version for a museum exhibition in
Basel: manufactured with a robot saw under the control of a computer
program, ''Jinhua Structure II -- Vertical'' was the first Herzog & de
Meuron project to be digitally made from conception to execution. For
the park in Jinhua, the building technique was worlds apart. To permit
the local workers to fabricate the forms for casting the concrete, the
Basel office prepared section drawings, sliced every 10 centimeters on
the vertical and horizontal axes, and faxed them to Jinhua. The dusky
rose concrete of the finished structure has rough edges, and some of the
openings are not where the drawings specified. It doesn't matter. The
pavilion has a powerful and original presence. And, unlike its Basel
cousin, which is sternly marked ''Keep Off!'' in two languages, ''Jinhua
Structure I'' can be clambered over freely.

It is inevitable that the mortality rate, which is high even in the West
for unorthodox designs, will be still greater in China. ''You need to
start 10 projects to finish 2,'' Sigg says. The firm can take some of
the concepts developed in China, however, and use them elsewhere. For
example, the notion of piling up bar-shaped rough containers for the
film academy in Qingdao -- a scheme that was inspired by an old piece of
layered wood in Ai Weiwei's collection -- may magically materialize in a
refined glass version as an office building for a pharmaceutical company
on an orthogonal block in Basel. (The plans are still awaiting the
client's approval.) ''I'm sure it will look very different than it would
in China,'' says Ascan Mergenthaler, the firm partner, ''but you might
say it is where the start of the idea came from.''

Despite the disappointments, both Herzog and de Meuron say they have no
regrets about undertaking these risky projects. ''I would rather have
this experience than to ask too many questions and be too careful and
miss the experience,'' de Meuron says. ''Being confronted by this
culture, you mix new experiences in your own work. The ambition is to
discover new ways of developing architecture.'' Ai, however, doesn't
share this Zenlike acceptance. He advises Herzog and de Meuron against
accepting more Chinese commissions. ''I am so disappointed,'' he told
me. ''If it was not the National Stadium, I don't think they would get
anything done.''

A national centerpiece governed by an inflexible due date, the stadium
could not be canceled like these other projects. The continuing
involvement of Herzog & de Meuron, however, was far less certain.

After the Swiss architects placed first in the design jury, the public
had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of all 13 contestants and
register their opinion. Thousands cast their votes. ''This is a kind of
show, for the attitude of transparency,'' says Huang Yan, deputy
director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning. An
architect who studied at Harvard with Koolhaas, she organized the
stadium competition. The Herzog & de Meuron team rallied to the populist
call, believing it emanated from the national government. Li Xinggang
and his colleagues stayed all day long at the exhibition, explaining the
project to visitors and handing out picture cards of their design.
''It's like an election campaign,'' Li says. Sigg and Ai coached him
until midnight before he appeared on a popular morning talk show on
CCTV. ''This is the people's Olympics,'' Li explains. ''We have to win
the public vote.'' Otherwise, the authorities would find themselves in
an awkward dilemma. It's impossible to know, in the absence of outside
monitors, how accurate the tally was. Whatever the case, the design by
Herzog & de Meuron, in collaboration with the CAG and Arup, a Western
engineering firm, won again, although by a far narrower margin than with
the expert jury. In April 2003, the firm learned it was the official
victor of the design competition.

Having survived a juried contest and a public vote, Herzog & de Meuron
nervously watched as the city authorities called in yet another jury to
select the private consortium that would contribute 42 percent of the
stadium financing in return for the construction contracts and a 30-year
operations lease once the Games ended. The nod went to a group led by
the giant state-owned conglomerate Citic. (The term ''private'' in China
basically means ''profit-seeking business.'') Citic would take a leading
role in construction as well as put up financing alongside the
controlling municipal authority, Beijing State-Owned Assets Management
Company. Perhaps any private partner would have appeared adversarial to
Herzog & de Meuron, too eager to reduce construction expenses and
maximize commercial features. But as it happened, Citic had a
longstanding relationship with one of the world's largest architecture
firms, HOK, which had competed unsuccessfully in the stadium design

It seemed to de Meuron that the HOK losers were trying to backhandedly
snatch a victory, promising greater experience and lower fees. ''That
was the most critical moment of the whole project,'' he says. ''The
private investor said, 'We believe in HOK, they are more professional, a
bigger company than Herzog & de Meuron, more experienced with sports
stadiums.' '' To make his case with the city authorities, who were the
ultimate arbiters, de Meuron relied on Li Aiqing, the strong-willed
director of Beijing State-Owned Assets. Li says de Meuron is
exaggerating the threat to the design. ''Pierre can be childish,'' he
says. ''He is an artist; I like him. He worried in that time if HOK
takes over the design work, they would change the original idea. But HOK
didn't. I could not permit it to happen. I told the top leaders it
cannot happen, because of legal, political, business issues. I report to
the government, and the government supports me.'' On the other side, he
advised de Meuron to reduce the design fee, optimize construction costs
and speed up the process. Calculated on a construction cost of $325
million, which is in itself about a tenth of what it would cost if it
was built in the West, Herzog & de Meuron agreed on a design fee of $20
million -- or 6 percent, which is much less than what the firm would
negotiate in the West, to be shared with the CAG (which gets a quarter)
and Arup.

''In one year I was here 14 times, during SARS and everything,'' de
Meuron told me in Beijing in March. ''It was necessary. And for the
Chinese people, it was an expression of confidence and respect. They
don't want to deal with phantoms or names. They want to eat with you and
drink with you.'' It took six months of tense negotiation before the
consortium in charge of the stadium reached a contractual agreement with
Herzog & de Meuron. By that time, to meet encroaching waves of
deadlines, the firm had already completed its schematic design. In this
contest of nerves, inaction counted as a kind of action. ''It was a way
for me to get to know myself better,'' de Meuron says. ''We had been
working without a contract for a long time. It was a risk. Will we get
the contract? If not, we won't get money. It was very dangerous. But I
knew the time was a factor. The more we worked and weren't out of the
project, it was working to our advantage, because there was no time left
for them.'' In November 2003, the contract was signed.

In China, the only two tempos are largo and prestissimo, and when the
speed accelerates, there can be missed notes. Now that the protracted
delay was over, the client wanted to begin construction immediately. De
Meuron was summoned to appear at a groundbreaking ceremony on Dec. 24.
''I said, 'I can't come, it's Christmas, for my family it's like Chinese
New Year,' '' he recalls. ''They said, 'No, it is the 24th, it's a good
day in the Chinese calendar.' '' He broke the news to his wife and
dutifully flew to Beijing. No one was there to greet him. When he
arrived at the stadium site for the ceremony, he went to pick up a
shovel and join the official guests. A female security guard pushed him
aside. ''I said, 'I'm the architect,' but she didn't understand,'' he
recounts. ''I don't need the shovel, but I came for that. I thought it
was impolite to have someone come all that way and not participate. Then
it was over, and it was too late.''

Over the next months, as construction proceeded on an unforgiving
schedule, the danger was always that the architects and their design
could be pushed aside just as abruptly. On their side, they had an
internationally famous name and the threat of a P.R. debacle. But how
powerful was that in the face of an Olympics juggernaut? The bulldozers
began moving earth while the architects at the CAG were cranking out
their preliminary drawings for approval. New drawings had to be prepared
while the earlier ones were still being reviewed. ''Every day, they
needed drawings,'' Li Xinggang recalls. ''It was a very difficult time
for the design consortium. Liu Qi, the No. 1 party secretary of Beijing,
took part in a meeting at the construction site. The construction
company said they don't have enough design papers. I stood up and said
we had provided the necessary drawings and every party should cooperate.
Liu Qi understood.''

In the spring of 2004, two momentous events occurred to slow the
process. First was the consolidation of national power by President Hu
Jintao. The central government, questioning whether the 2008 Olympics
projects were too costly, ordered a financial review. Then on May 23, a
new terminal collapsed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, with two
Chinese citizens among the four dead. The terminal was designed by Paul
Andreu, the architect of the National Grand Theater in Beijing.
Construction on the stadium paused for six months at the end of May,
while the designs of high-profile projects were studied by panels of
experts to reduce costs and enhance safety.

Andreu's National Theater is generally seen as a grotesquely
inappropriate building on a supremely sensitive site. It has fueled a
simmering hostility on the part of the architectural establishment
against outlandish foreigners capturing coveted state contracts. That
resentment sputtered to the surface in a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao by
senior academics, questioning the safety and sanity of all these
avant-garde designs. ''They couldn't do this in their own country, so
they are taking advantage of the Chinese psychology that European
thinking is better,'' Peng Pei Gen, a senior professor of architecture
at Tsinghua University, told me. ''They are using the Chinese as their
new-weapons test field.'' On the stadium review panel that the city
planner Huang Yan assembled, experts in engineering advised that
changing the structural system of the stadium so that a few large
columns and beams (supplemented by decorative steel members) bore the
weight would significantly reduce the cost and difficulty of
construction. Unfortunately, it would also nullify the design. Referring
to the old-guard architectural opposition, Ai Weiwei says: ''They never
tell the truth but always try to build up this so-called nationalism
against foreigners who open up society. They lost prestige when society
opened up. For 50 years they never made a single object that is
countable as valuable.''

From his allies Li and Huang, de Meuron learned that the construction
budget, originally set at $500 million and already lowered to $325
million, had to be reduced even further, to $290 million. The steel,
which the designers had slimmed from an unofficial estimate of 80,000
tons to 50,000, needed to come down to 40,000. Value engineering, in
which architects shave away construction costs, could no longer
accomplish the task. ''When they cut the budget by that much, you can
only delete features,'' de Meuron says. There was an elephant in the
room -- or, more precisely, on the roof -- that he dared not mention.
''We never said, 'We want to delete the retractable roof,' '' he
explains. ''That would have been quite dangerous. They might have said,
'Your brief was to bring a retractable roof.' We were very patient.'' He
would keep coming back with alternatives, none of which sufficed. ''This
was a very enriching personal experience,'' he says -- but like many
such experiences, it was also exhausting and painful. ''I am the sort of
person who tries to find a solution,'' he explains. ''You bring me
problems, and de Meuron tries to solve them. It is too much money, or
you can't do it for this building code, or the client wants concrete,
not wood -- I find another way. This is how it worked for me up to now.
In China, it was very different. That was a challenge for me, not only
as an architect but as a person. To have someone on the other side and
they are experts in misleading you or trapping you. It is never one to
one when they say if they like it or don't like it. They played with me.''

As time was running out, he waited and waited, until finally the
government requested that he remove the retractable roof. The decision
saved 15,000 tons of steel. Strangely enough, the desire to mask the
support structure of the retractable roof had been an initial link in
the chain of thinking that eventually led to the ''bird's nest'' design.
The roof would have been an engineering triumph, but without it, the
overall form became more graceful. And beyond the money saved, which Li
Aiqing estimates at $50 million, abandoning the retractable roof saved
construction time, even more crucial after the six-month hiatus. Li says
he worried about finishing on schedule if the roof had been kept. When I
wondered in late March if de Meuron shared that concern, the architect
said: ''If you asked me before, I would have said it would be a problem.
Now that I have been on the site this morning, when I see what they did
in 11 months, I think it is amazing. They are capable of doing almost
unpossible things.''

Because de Meuron and Herzog are committed to hands-on involvement in
their projects, they cannot decentralize their firm. All the important
design is done in Basel under their direction. To propel and control the
stadium project, however, an associate, Mia Hagg, established a Beijing
office in the late fall of 2003. The office also facilitates the asking
of a vital question that shadows every choice: How Chinese is it?

During his three-day visit to Beijing in March, de Meuron met with the
firm's local architects. At this advanced stage of the process, the
design of the steel structure and the concrete bowl was already
determined. In the gap between the two, the architects have inserted a
hotel, a shopping mall, a convention center and some areas intended to
be open at all times to the general public. ''What we think is the
strength of this project is the space in between, the concourse, which
is to be filled with life,'' de Meuron told me. ''In Beijing, even in
this harsh climate, the people use the public space -- to dance, to play
cards -- unlike in Germany or Switzerland.'' Between the red-painted
concrete and the silver-painted steel, he envisioned a continuous pageant.

Most of the unresolved issues pertained to the design of the stadium
interior. The stadium architects had set up lighting prototypes and tile
samples for de Meuron to examine. The most elaborate model was an
undulating wall section, projecting several inches and covered loosely
with red silk. It was under consideration for the V.I.P. reception room.

''We have many V.I.P.'s,'' Tobias Winkelmann, the design project
manager, explained. ''V.V.V.I.P.'s, about 20. About 700 V.V.I.P.'s.
About 10,000 V.I.P.'s.'' In a finely calibrated social ranking, during
the Olympics this reception area would welcome only the V.V.V.I.P.'s and
V.V.I.P.'s, who were to arrive in cars through an underground entryway,
while the mere V.I.P.'s, along with hoi polloi, traveled across the
landscape. ''Originally in our brief we had 1,500 V.I.P.'s,'' Winkelmann
said. ''China is a big country. They kept adding numbers. Now we are up
to a total of about 11,000.'' After the Olympics, the numbers would
collapse like an accordion, and this reception area would admit V.I.P.'s
of all stripes.

Winkelmann flipped through a book of images, looking at V.I.P. rooms in
stadiums. ''This is typical, in the Nanjing stadium,'' he said.

De Meuron examined the picture. ''But this is a meeting room,'' he said.
''What is typical Chinese is the U-shape of the seating plan.'' A
symmetrical and hierarchical arrangement around a focal point evokes the
court of the emperors, whose spirit palpably persists, especially in

During the discussion, de Meuron would interrupt to ask, ''What do the
Chinese think?'' And often, the Chinese architects who worked in the
Beijing office would express harsh thoughts. They were skeptical of the
red silk wall, for example.

''For me, it is very strange,'' a Chinese architect said, once de Meuron
reassured her that he wanted a frank opinion. ''The design is too
Western. And if we have this on the wall, it is too heavy. We don't put
very complicated things on the wall.''

''I think this is maybe too expressive in this depth,'' a Chinese man
said. ''In Chinese traditional design the surfaces are more neutral.''

''And also the color,'' the woman said.

''Not the right red, or should not be red?'' de Meuron asked her.

''In China, we don't make public areas red,'' she replied.

''But we made the whole stadium red,'' said Stefan Marbach, a young
Basel-based partner at Herzog & de Meuron, who, when he began working on
the stadium project, was not even an associate. China has been good to him.

''The outside is different from the interior,'' the Chinese architect
said. ''If you have something red, it is jumping at you,'' de Meuron

Besides, in a red room there would be no way to roll out a red carpet or
display a Chinese flag.

''You know, Tobias, we will do this somewhere else, outside China,'' de
Meuron said to Winkelmann. ''This will be our Chinese influence.''

In this windowless hallway in a nondescript Beijing district, I felt
perched on a hinge of history. By taking on the Olympics, China
committed itself to demonstrating that it is a world-class power.
Acknowledging that their architects were not yet up to the challenge,
the Chinese had imported the best the West could offer, and now young
local architects were collaborating with and learning from Western
masters. By marrying Chinese tradition with a modern outlook, Herzog and
de Meuron were helping to raise the bar for architecture in China. Even
the unrealized projects, which have been widely published, can influence
younger architects. Cui Kai of the CAG says that his protege Li Xinggang
has recently designed a building that reflects the work of Herzog & de
Meuron. In a few years, as the junior Chinese architects become more
sophisticated, foreign practitioners will be less needed and perhaps
less welcome. This period of intense mutual enlightenment may be brief.

De Meuron asked if the V.I.P. welcome room was sufficiently constructed
for him to experience its dimensions during his forthcoming site visit.

''Yes,'' Winkelmann said. ''When you walk through the area, you get a
sense of the size of the steel and the opening.''

De Meuron turned reflective. ''We are Swiss,'' he said. ''Switzerland is
a very small country. The first big-scale project we did was the Tate,
the Turbine Hall. For us, it was a big step. Will it function? I think
it functions very well. It is not oppressive. I think the same goes for
this stadium, so this huge structure is not oppressive. The way we
accomplished that was with the membrane and the bird's-nest idea.'' He
favored a similar approach for the V.I.P. welcome room. ''It is a large
space; it should remain large, but we don't want to be oppressive,'' he
said. ''I am not sure the walls will be that important.''

He cast another fond look toward the wavy red silk model. ''I think this
is beautiful,'' he said. ''Maybe we will use it somewhere else.''

Since the opening of its first large-scale project, the Tate Modern in
London, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron has achieved wide renown. It
currently employs nearly 200 architects, who are at work on 40 projects
all over the world.

Tate Modern, London, 2000: The architects sought to respect the
integrity of a landmark industrial site while infusing it with light. ;
Schaulager Laurenz Foundation, Basel, Switzerland, 2003: An innovative
facility to store and display art, with a rough and fissured concrete
facade.; Prada Aoyama Tokyo, Tokyo, 2003: The building's facade, except
for the glass, is also the load-bearing structure -- a concept that
would be expanded with the Beijing stadium.; Forum 2004 Building and
Plaza, Barcelona, 2004: The building is finished in blue-dyed concrete
and suspended over a public plaza.; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis,
2005: A glittery aluminum-paneled piece of 21st century modernism, to
complement the austere brick classic by Edward Larrabee Barnes.; Allianz
Arena, Munich, 2005: An oval doughnut covered, like the Beijing stadium
roof, with translucent cushions. It can glow red, blue or white,
depending on which team is playing.; De Young Museum, San Francisco,
2005: The copper facade has a pattern of perforations and dents; the
architects sought to bring the outside inside with vegetation that
penetrates the floor plan. (Drawings by Morality of Objects); High Line
Project, New York: 1. The High Line, an elevated railway, was built in
the early 1930's. 2. It was abandoned in 1980. 3. The winning design for
an elevated park, by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro; it
will open in 2008. (Drawing by +ISM)

GRAPHIC: Photos: The National Stadium, Beijing.
OLYMPIC-SIZE BIRD'S NEST: The architect Pierre de Meuron at the
construction site of the National Stadium for the 2008 Games.
THE ARCHITECTS: Pierre de Meuron (left) and Jacques Herzog, leading the
fitful new wave of architecture in China.
THE TRANSLATOR: Ai Weiwei, the Beijing artist who navigated party
bureaucracy for Herzog & de Meuron.
SCENES FROM JINHUA, PART 1: Herzog & de Meuron hoped to create new
districts for as many as 300,000 people.
SCENES FROM JINHUA, PART 2: Herzog & de Meuron's pavilion, 2005, in
Jinhua's architecture park. (Photographs by Margaret Salmon and Dean
Wiand for The New York Times)Charts: ''Olympic Countdown''




with kind regards,

Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)



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