Bird’s Nest allows Beijing to prove its mettle

Image of Simon Kuper

Jacques Herzog, a thin shaven-headed Swiss architect, sits eating dry brown bread in his group’s offices off a quiet square in Basel. This is his home. It was in kindergarten in Basel that Herzog met his future architectural partner, Pierre de Meuron, and in Basel that they first designed a stadium – for the football team they have always supported, FC Basel. Now, for the Beijing Olympics, they have built a stadium that is meant to be as prestigious as any opera house or museum.

On August 8, the two men will sit in their Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing watching the Olympic opening ceremony. Is it like being the father at a birth? Herzog sighs: “As an architect, you discover more the mistakes than the qualities, mostly, when you go see a building.”

The Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote calls the Bird’s Nest “possibly the most inventive, beautiful and extraordinary stadium to have been built since Rome’s Colosseum”. Some say Herzog & de Meuron should not have built it for China. But Herzog hopes their stadium will help change the country.

He and de Meuron first became famous for creating the Tate Modern museum in London. In 2001, they won the Pritzker prize, architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel, and, since then, they have worked largely in sport. They built Munich’s ground for the football World Cup of 2006. Next up is Portsmouth’s stadium. With Norman Foster building the new Wembley, stadiums suddenly have prestige.

“Our Basel stadium was the first actual example of that change in perception,” says Herzog. “Stadiums had been neglected. Even Liverpool or Man U, all these stadiums were just built by engineers. The museum has been used to transform the city. In the 70s it was often bank buildings. Now stadia are playing a similar role, to make cities more different from another.”

The Bird’s Nest (left) is the supreme example. Just as medieval cities proclaimed themselves with cathedrals, the stadium is meant to herald a bright new Beijing. To Herzog’s surprise, the Chinese authorities gave his group more freedom to build than Basel itself had. Often the Chinese baffled the Swiss. “They would never say to you, ‘Yes, this is perfect, I agree.’ They always leave it in a sort of state of uncertainty.” But in the end they let Herzog and de Meuron do what they wanted, even though the architects consider their Bird’s Nest subversive.

There is no typical Herzog & de Meuron building. Rather, the group tries to tailor each building to its setting. From the outside, the Bird’s Nest is a web of steel girders, faintly reminiscent of giant twigs. Under the girders and in the surrounding gardens are spots where people can pass the time. Herzog says: “The Chinese are unique in their willingness to use the public space to hang out, to dance, to tai chi, to play cards on the street. This is almost the deepest impression we get from there. I’ve never seen any other people in the world who almost occupy the public space, which is amazing in a dictatorship.

“A stadium, because of its size, is always something of a monumental building. But the Bird’s Nest also has more intimate areas, so that people feel at ease, so to speak. It’s not meant to frighten people. We want the stadium to be accepted as a public place after the Games.” He names a surprising role model: the Eiffel Tower. “It was conceived for the World Exhibition but later became an icon of the city and could be used on weekends, and for families to walk under and enjoy that space in an unexpected way.”

Herzog likes to say that, in stadiums, “the people become the architecture”. To him, an architect just builds the thing. The local people then decide whether and how to use it. He says that, just as Londoners decided to hang out at the Tate Modern, Beijingers have begun hanging out at the Bird’s Nest. Significantly, the Chinese themselves came up with the name. Herzog shrugs: “People accept a building and they give it a name, or they don’t. If they think it looks like a piece of shit, they call it the Piece of Shit.”

But should his group have built a “monumental building” for a dictatorship? Herzog glares – “Did you ever check your shoes whether they’re made in China? I’m sure some of what you wear is. We were thinking very carefully about that as a field of problems. We believe it would be ridiculous to say, ‘We want democracy according to our ideas right now and before you have done that I will not go to your country and do a building.’ Also, all our industry in America and Europe is doing business every day with China.”

Herzog knows that the Bird’s Nest was built with cheap labour and that residents were displaced to make way for it. But China is changing, he says. The Bird’s Nest itself is “a little part of transforming China step by step. Because I don’t think there is anything more politically powerful than to offer potential for people to use it as a public space. It’s the most dangerous political situation, and that’s amazing that the Chinese let us do this.”

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