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To understand just how important the Beijing Olympics are to China, you have only to look at where the Olympic Green has been built. In the center is the former imperial residence of the Forbidden City. At least two of the buildings on the Olympic Green—the National Stadium, by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the National Aquatics Center, by the Australian firm PTW Architects—are as innovative as any architecture on the planet, marvels of imagination and engineering that few countries would have the nerve or the money to attempt.
The Chinese, right now, have plenty of both. These buildings, some of the most advanced in the world, are made possible partly by the presence of huge numbers of low-paid migrant workers. The concrete wall of the arena is wrapped with a latticework exterior of crisscrossing columns and beams, a tangle of twisting steel twigs. The center of the roof, over the field, has been left open.
The engineering required to keep all this metal in the air is highly sophisticated: the building may look like a huge steel sculpture, but most of the beams are structural, not decorative. Much of the spectacle derives from the interplay of the steel lattice and the concrete shell underneath. On leaving, you experience the excitement of the knotted metal in a new way, looking out over Beijing through the wacky frame of the slanting columns.
John Pauline, who is the head of the Beijing office of PTW Architects, told me that the design emerged from a desire to find a way of expressing the feeling of water. And then we hit on the idea of foam. It weighs only one per cent as much as glass, transmits light more effectively, and is a better insulator, resulting in a thirty-per-cent saving in energy costs.
The real achievement of the Water Cube is less its technical wizardry than the transformation of the faintly trite idea of a bubble building into a piece of elegant, enigmatic architecture.