3 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Behind Beijing's new icons... how what we see on TV will be different than what Chicago wants to build for the 2016 Olympics

By Blair Kamin

The Olympics are a real event in a real place, but they are also a high-voltage television show, capable of conveying powerful--and possibly, distorted--messages about the host country through the buildings that frame the contests of :faster, higher, stronger."

Never will that be more apparent than this Friday, with the opening of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, where spectacular architecture will play a leading role on a stage set that differs dramatically from the one Chicago proposes to erect for the 2016 Summer Games.

If the smog that has shrouded Beijing in recent days mercifully deigns to lift, television cameras will have a clear shot at some of the most eye-popping new structures on the planet.

The National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird's Nest and designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, enfolds a bright-red concrete seating bowl in a criss-crossing web of exposed structural steel. The National Swimming Center, nicknamed the Water Cube and designed by the Australian architecture firm PTW, resembles a box of bubbles, with pillows of advanced plastic enveloping a space frame of welded steel.

These instant icons face each other across the imperial axis that reaches northward from the walled precinct of the Forbidden City, the round Bird's Nest symbolizing heaven, the square Water Cube representing earth.

"I think that Beijing will try to communicate a character of substance and innovation to the world,"; said Chicago architect Adrian Smith, who designed Shanghai's 88-story Jin Mao Tower, a pagoda-inspired skyscraper. "Between 15 years ago and now, there's just a sea change of quality in the way people are living and working with one exception--that's the air. The air quality is their Achilles' heel."

The smog-filled skies are not Beijing's only problem. Striking, stand-alone buildings may make for good TV, but they do not necessarily make up a livable city.

Some American architecture critics have remarked that, despite its wealth of avant-garde design, Beijing now feels like Houston on steroids, a sprawling mess of concentric ring roads and mediocre high-rises. The logical extension of this view is that Beijing's "wow-chitecture" amounts to little more than a dazzling deception, a variation on the theme of the Potemkin village.

The new buildings"mask real urban problems confronting Beijing," the Shanghai-based writer Andrew Yang observed in the current issue of The Architect's Newspaper, published in New York. Huge, monolithic buildings, he continued, threaten "to add to the isolation of Beijing's vast alienating stretches. Anyone who has traveled through rush hour there, where it routinely takes 60 minutes to budge 5 miles, will have contemplated the poor planning implicated by this level of congestion."

The Barcelona paradigm

While Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley plans to fly to Beijing Sunday, he already has signaled that a Chicago Games would be based not on the Beijing model, but on the Barcelona model, which emphasized refurbishing the urban spaces between buildings rather than attention-getting architecture--in short, connective tissue. The London Summer Games of 2012, which will accentuate sustainable design and planning, are another key influence on Chicago.

For the 1992 Summer Games, Barcelona famously reclaimed its seaside along the Mediterranean, creating beaches that kept growing in size and vitality after the athletes had gone home. Indeed, when I interviewed Daley in his City Hall office last year, he had a picture book about Barcelona on his desk, its pages marked with yellow sticky notes flagging the redeveloped seafront and other urban design features.

As with the pathbreaking but unadorned skyscrapers that shot up in the Loop nearly 125 years ago, Chicago's Olympic strategy is born of economic necessity.

Unlike Beijing, where the Games are widely viewed as a national coming-out party, Chicago cannot count on massive funding from the national government, though a Barack Obama Barack presidency could help matters, given that the Kenwood home of the presumptive Democratic nominee is a short walk from Chicago's proposed Olympic stadium.

So Chicago is playing to its strengths, which derive as much from the accident of geography as from its disciplined architecture.

Spectacular urban setting

In Beijing, the Forbidden City and its ancient palace complex occupy the city's geographic center, with ring roads encircling this core in ever-expanding loops. Chicago is laid out completely differently, with road and rail lines extending outward from the Loop like the fingers of a hand. The Loop's dense cluster of modern skyscrapers is set off not only by the "front yard" of Grant Park but also by the waters of Lake Michigan, which magnify the park's expansiveness.

To further take advantage of this spectacular urban setting, Chicago plans to weave comparatively modest Olympic venues along or near its lakefront, letting the shoreline and the skyline preen for the TV cameras. Why build new icons that could become white elephants once the Games are done when your cityscape already is filled with top-drawer buildings?

Accordingly, the main stadium in Washington Park, designed by the Shanghai-based architect Ben Wood, would be a temporary, de-mountable affair, its only flourish an asymmetrical, overhanging roof. The proposed lakefront rowing course, just east of Grant Park, would all but invite blimp and helicopter shots, with its backdrop of the park's greensward and supertall skyscrapers.

"Our venues will be intermixed inside the city," said Thomas Kerwin, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which is serving as the coordinating architect for Chicago's bid. "When you're watching soccer on TV, you'll see the skyline from Soldier Field." Indeed, the press box at Soldier Field was shrewdly placed to give TV journalists--and their cameras--precisely that vantage point.

In Beijing, by contrast, the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube are surrounded by the vast sprawl of anonymous high-rises, like jewels without a proper setting. The new icons of the city's central business district--such as the still-under-construction China Central TV Headquarters, a structurally daring design by the Dutch firm OMA that consists of two inverted towers linked by a cantilevered section--are miles away, well out of immediate camera range.

Risky approach

"The scenery around Chicago creates the opportunity for TV to get these incredible shots, like when you watch a baseball game at Wrigley Field," said Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, who just visited Beijing and is part of a design team working on the Chicago 2016 bid. "In Beijing, there's nothing immediately around [the Olympic venues] that will give you that stunning quality."

Others say Chicago's approach represents a gamble. The city's decision to de-emphasize new architectural icons for the Olympics is "among our greatest weaknesses and greatest strengths," observed Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago sports consulting firm, Sportscorp Ltd. "Our marketing efforts should be that the iconic structures are already here and the Olympics will benefit from them."

As Chicago battles its three rival finalists for the 2016 Games--Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro--before a winner is announced on Oct. 2, 2009, the city's emphasis on its lakefront is already proving to be a double-edged sword. When the International Olympic Committee announced the finalists in June, it was particularly tough on Chicago's transportation plans, observing that many shoreline sports venues are well connected to Lake Shore Drive but not the city's rail lines and stations.

Television blimp shots may do wonders for changing the image of a city or a nation, but if the spectators can't get around--or if the brew of polluted air hinders athletes who have devoted the better part of their lives to training for their Olympic moment--then all the jaw-dropping architecture in the world won't help.