Two iconic Olympic venues, set apart by time, distance and culture, but both receiving the collective awe of the world in their architectural achievements.
Beijing National Aquatics Center
Hailed as the most innovative architectural design in China since the Great Wall, the National Aquatics Center (or the Water Cube as it is more popularly known) is a must-see on anyone’s tour of Beijing, possibly in the whole of China.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Beijing National Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest, was designed for use throughout the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Being somewhat circular in stature, designers felt that the neighbouring aquatics centre should be square in order to represent the popular Chinese cultural lore that the circle and square together represent heaven and earth.
What they ended up with was, in fact, a cuboid inspired by both molecular science and cutting-edge architectural design theory. And it is awesome.
At an international architectural competition in 2003, 10 design proposals were put forth and the winning team included architects from Australia as well as engineering and construction groups from China.
In its conception, the Australian architects envisioned a steel structure coated in a type of polymer called ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which is actually a type of teflon. Besides its well-known applications in the kitchen, the designers felt it would be an ideal construction material for several reasons:
A It is safe because of its high melting temperature combined with its non-flaming properties
B It is more transparent and has higher insulating property than glass, which means is it more energy efficient
C With just 1% the weight of glass, it can bear 400 times its own weight
D Due to its non-stick surface, it is self-cleaning
E It is recyclable
Once the design and material were chosen, the architects now had to ponder how to build a model to show the selection committee. They decided to use an epoxy printer to construct a 3D model with 22,000 irregular beams and 3,500 pillows. Unfortunately nothing of this complexity had been tried before and the ‘printer file’ was over four times larger than anything previously printed. Up against time, the architects carved the structure into smaller units. They then flew to Australia to ‘print’ the model, and returned to China – each architect with piece in their carry-on luggage!
What perhaps wowed the selection committee the most, however, was the application of ETFE towards design – the lining of the structure uses ETFE to form pillows that appear as bubbles. Not only appropriate for an aquatics centre, but what seems to be a totally random pattern is in fact a fascinating and rigorous application of geometry, with uses that are often present in nature such as with crystals and even soap bubbles.
The more than 4,000 ‘bubbles’ were created by layering 634 translucent membranes of ETFE which were then swollen with air at low pressure. Although each bubble is only 22 mm thick, the structure is incredibly strong because it follows nature’s strongest and most efficient formation: the 12- and 14-sided polyhedral honeycomb.
Truly it is organic in nature, molecular in structure, and geometric in its application. It is also so ultra lightweight that the building management company, Arup, believes the entire structure can be turned on its end and still maintain its integrity. Now that I would like to see.
London Aquatics Centre
In stark contrast with typical English austerity, the bold design of this Olympic venue helped London to win the bid to host the 2012 Games.
Within the state-of-the-art design of Beijing’s Water Cube for the 2008 Summer Olympics, more than 25 world records were broken. And before this year’s Summer Games commenced, many were wondering whether the London Aquatics Centre will be able to compete.
But that wasn’t the only debate at hand. Was the design of the Olympic venue too contemporary for England’s penchant towards historical landmarks? The bold design is part of why London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics in the first place.
Nicknamed ‘The Stingray’, the Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Summer Olympics is situated across from the Olympic Stadium on the opposite bank of the Waterworks River in London’s East End.
As the most architecturally challenging construction design for the 2012 Summer Games, it is a demonstration of pre-cast concrete skills. This means the concrete, including a finer grade of aggregate stone, is moulded in a factory in a controlled climate and then transported to the construction site.
The moulds for casting the concrete can be used over and over again, which offers a significant cost reduction. It’s also safer to construct because the production occurs at ground level. And since the pre-cast concrete more closely resembles natural stone, it does not require cladding or painting, which is of course friendlier to the environment and, again, saves money.
In fact, it was initially reported that the aquatics centre would cost a mere US$116.4 million (£75 million), but in the end cost three times that amount. The architects and site managers blame an increased VAT as well as the estimated costs for converting the site into a public park following the Olympics.
Never mind. What they have created is a stunning example of simplicity – contemporary simplicity.
Internationally acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid designed the permanent structure where more than two-thirds of the spectators were to enter the Olympic Park via a bridge and then onto the Aquatics Centre’s roof.
And the roof is really what we’re talking about here. Wave-like in design, it rests atop just two concrete supports at the north and south ends of the structure. To begin with, two temporary supports were created and then, in one fell swoop, the entire 3,000-tonne structure was lifted up and placed back down on to its permanent concrete supports. Only after the roof was in place, the three pools inside could be dug out and fitted with more than 180,000 tiles.
Hadid describes her design: ‘A concept inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, creating spaces and a surrounding environment in sympathy with the river landscape of the Olympic Park. An undulating roof sweeps up from the ground as a wave, enclosing the pools of the Centre with its unifying gesture.’
She makes it sound like poetry in motion, but critics still suggest that it’s not exactly the work of Shakespeare. Concrete? Water wings? Don’t worry, Queen Mum – the wings come down after the Olympics during its conversion to a public water park. Quite right.