January 28: making a splash

2012/01/28 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2008 construction of the Beijing National Aquatics Center came to an end.

Construction on the complex had lasted just over four years since the groundbreaking on December 24, 2003 in preparation for the Summer Olympics.  With the National Stadium, the Aquatics Center was a central event site and main architectural symbol of the Olympics.  As they are better known, the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are significant in Olympic architectural history.  Oftentimes a particular building becomes symbolic of the games (at least while they are underway), but none so intentionally as these two structures.  Built to a combined sum of just over two billion dollars (the Bird’s Nest is about a quarter of that, a virtual bargain by comparison with the Cube), symbolising not just these summer games and China’s gigantic investment in them but also, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of Beijing and China as a major financial force in the global market.

Engineered to display China’s power, most of the games’ pomp was staged next door at the Bird’s Nest, which would also be an arena of more contested argument due to the participation, and later disassociation, of Ai Weiwei with the project. As much as it expressed the intended glory of China, the Stadium also then attracted the most criticism, being the poster child of the destruction of Beijing’s historic fabric (countless irreplaceable hutongs torn down to make way for this vision of future glory) and a monument of human rights abuses.  The Water Cube sidestepped (side-stroked?) the political fray, which may have made it less spectacular, but ultimately more engaging.  It’s also much more architecturally innovative: its exterior steel framework mimics the sections of soap bubbles, rendered here as huge ethylene tetrafluoroethylene pillows that are illuminated from within.

But more pertinent to the games, the Water Cube was the site of amazing great sport events.  Clio is not much of a sports fan, but since she maintains her address of record in the place that invented the Olympics, she tunes in every four years like the rest of the gods, and most of you mortals.  In 2008 she was rather impressed by the swimmers.  Of course these were the Games of Michael Phelps, who is indeed impressive in the pool, but out of it, is so non-Vitruvian it’s distracting to her sensibilities.  Clio’s hero (and you know she doesn’t use that word lightly) was Jason Lezak.  One of the old-timers who made headlines in Beijing, he competed at the almost decrepit age of 33 and clinched the unanticipated victory of the US Men’s Relay team.  Because Clio claims no country, wears no foam hand, she certainly does not chant USA! and wave the stars and stripes.  But she does enjoy events when people “of a certain age” prove their vitality.

You may watch all thrilling 3 minutes and 8.24 seconds of the race here.

And speaking of old dogs and new tricks: you can go with this, or you can go with that.

Image: synchronized swimming event, photographed 22 August 2008 by Al Bello (from this source)

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