National Stadium lies beyond Beijing's Fourth Ring Road, at the northern end of the imperial axis that cuts through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. But it can be seen almost everywhere in the capital. Billboards, magazines, television ads, soda cans, clothes, hats, and ashtrays bear the likeness of Herzog & de Meuron's woven-steel building, reflecting the propaganda, marketeering, and pure fascination that surround the city's Olympic centerpiece. In a place where architectural feats tend to attract puzzlement, if not ridicule (locals use "The Egg" with a derisive tone when referring to Paul Andreu's National Performing Arts Center), the $423 million stadium has become a rare architectural celebrity. Everyone calls it the "Bird's Nest," which in China means it is something much prized, an expensive delicacy eaten on special occasions.
Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, along with their project architect Stefan Marbach, developed the stadium's distinctive design in close collaboration with a number of key Chinese players. Artist Ai Weiwei, a provocateur who famously shattered a pair of ancient Han Dynasty vases in one work, showed the architects how he manipulates old and new, and contributed ideas throughout the design process. "We learned how radical Chinese art has become," recalled Herzog at a lecture at Columbia University in May.
Another important guide was Li Xinggang, the chief architect of China Architecture Design and Research Group (CADG), the local design institute with which Herzog & de Meuron worked. At their first design meeting in Basel in 2003, Li suggested that the Swiss architects move away from the delicate facades for which they had first become known. "Until then, the entire architectural discipline had the impression of Herzog & de Meuron as the ‘skin' architects," said Li. "In my opinion, if they had submitted this kind of design for the competition, they would have been denied by the Chinese people," he said. "China wanted to have something new for this very important stadium." The architects weren't interested in repeating the past either. "We don't want to be typecast," stated Herzog, "so we are always trying to escape our biography."
The design team began by studying Chinese ceramics. "We wanted the stadium to be a collective building, a public vessel," explained Herzog. But they also wanted it to be "porous," open to its surroundings. So they explored the idea of a bowl with no skin, which eventually led them to the nest scheme. At the time, Herzog & de Meuron was starting to build Allianz Arena, a soccer stadium in Munich with a translucent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) envelope that wraps around an elliptical frame. For the Olympic stadium, the architects went in the opposite direction, using an exposed structure, rather than a dramatic skin, to define the building's form.
Although the stadium's curving steel nest grabs the most attention, the building actually combines a pair of structures: a bright-red concrete bowl for seating and the iconic steel frame around it. Sight lines from the seats to the playing field helped determine the form and dimensions of the concrete bowl, while the need to include a heavy retractable roof (a requirement in the competition brief) informed the giant crisscrossing steel members on the outside of the building. Because the architects disliked the massive parallel beams necessary to support the retractable roof, they developed a lacy pattern for the other steel elements to disguise them. In the process, they created a structure that seems random and nonrepetitive. "We're interested in complexity and ornamentation," said Herzog, "but of the kind you would find on a Gothic cathedral, where structure and ornamentation are the same." For Michael Kwok, the director at Arup in charge of the project, the design was gratifying. The structure may seem complicated, but it "expresses the engineering beneath it," explained Kwok.
View the BusinessWeek slide show of innovative structures built in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
With reporting by Clifford A. Pearson.