The architect Pierre de Meuron at the construction site of the National Stadium for the 2008 Games.
Scenes from Jinhua, Part 1 Herzog & de Meuron hoped to create new districts for as many as 300,000 people.
Scenes from Jinhua, Part 2 Herzog & de Meuron's pavilion, 2005, in Jinhua's architecture park.
"Everyone is encouraged to do their most stupid and extravagant designs there. They don't have as much of a barrier between good taste and bad taste, between the minimal and expressive. The Beijing stadium tells me that nothing will shock them." — Jacques Herzog
For architects, China is the land of dreams. The construction statistics tantalize. The Chinese consume 54.7 percent of the concrete and 36.1 percent of the steel produced in the world, according to a 2004 report in Architectural Record. Hungry architects are drawn to China by the abundance of economic opportunities. But Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss firm that designed the stadium, doesn't need to drum up business. It has more work than it can handle. What attracted the firm's leaders to China is an openness to audacious projects, which they attribute to the lack of timidity and inhibition in the people there. "They are so fresh in their mind," Herzog says. "They have the most radical things in their tradition, the most amazing faience and perforated jades and scholar's rocks. Everyone is encouraged to do their most stupid and extravagant designs there. They don't have as much of a barrier between good taste and bad taste, between the minimal and expressive. The Beijing stadium tells me that nothing will shock them."
After Beijing was awarded the Olympic Games, the city authorities, with national encouragement, set out to display the material progress of their society. A euphoric wave of architectural commissions ensued. Most of the recent construction in Beijing is numbingly banal, yet a few projects — especially the headquarters for CCTV, the national television company, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas's firm, OMA, along with Herzog & de Meuron's National Stadium — promise to be modern monuments, a gutsy wager on the figures who are advancing the frontiers of Western architecture. "On the one hand, you have these two projects — CCTV, which could only be built in China, and the stadium — and you have on the other hand thousands of uninteresting projects, like mushrooms," says Pierre de Meuron, who runs the firm with Herzog. The Olympics have galvanized China's imperial impulse to impress the world, by whatever means necessary. "What is probably really amazing and amusing for the Western audience in terms of what is going on in China is this openness in attitude," says Yung Ho Chang, the chairman of the architecture department at M.I.T., who also practices in Beijing. "People start to speculate, 'Do they know what they are getting?' They want to showcase their economic success. In that sense they know. But do they know what Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron are trying to achieve in architecture? Probably no."
On their side, these innovative foreign architects are equally in the dark, frequently blindsided by forces they never anticipate or fully comprehend. Even the identity of the true decision maker can remain mysterious. Everywhere in the world, not only in China, the struggle to realize a design is vulnerable to forces outside the architect's reach: the budget shrinks, the program changes, the financing collapses, the building code alters, the client reneges. In an authoritarian and secretive state that is trying to spur capitalist initiative without relinquishing government control, however, these calamities occur with less warning or transparent reasoning. "It's like two walls in front of each other," Herzog says. "You have no clue what really happens, what are the dynamics really." Both the reigning government bureaucrats, who respond to social and political pressures, and the newly ascendant capitalists, who try to anticipate market conditions, make sudden and seemingly capricious decisions. Their explanations are incomplete and unconvincing.
A year ago, when I began looking into the work of Herzog & de Meuron in China, the firm had six projects there. By the time I began reporting six months later, only two were moving forward — the giant stadium in Beijing and a minuscule pavilion in the provinces. China is the land of disillusionment, not only of dreams. I told de Meuron that I'd heard his experience there had turned his hair gray. He smiled. "It's not only China," he said. But he acknowledged that many times over the last few years, he despaired that even the stadium would be constructed as designed. Herzog & de Meuron's Chinese adventure has two strands that occasionally intersect. "There is the building or project process," de Meuron says, "and parallel, this whole strategic and political process, which is as interesting or thrilling." At any moment, a project could slip through his fingers and smash or vanish without his ever knowing why.
The eye-popping physical transformation of China shimmers even more vertiginously when viewed from small, staid Switzerland, a country best known for discreet banking, precision watchmaking and a beady-eyed civic etiquette in which the candy wrapper that some miscreant (no doubt non-Swiss) has dropped on a train platform cries out as an unfathomable act of vandalism. Herzog & de Meuron, one of the most admired architecture firms in the world, is deeply Swiss. Located in Basel, where its two principals met as 7-year-old schoolboys, the practice first gained an international reputation for the exquisite ornamentation and detailing of its Modernist buildings. In architects' parlance, Herzog & de Meuron was renowned for covering facades with unusual "skins," like woven copper strips or photographically printed polycarbonate panels. The partners began exploring unconventional cladding because, in the steel, glass and concrete universe of Modernist architecture, it beckoned as new territory. Even before they captured the awareness of the general public with their first large-scale project, the Tate Modern in London, which opened in 2000, they were moving beyond simple boxlike structures with gorgeous skins to design formally expressive buildings that somehow manage to be both wildly imaginative and coolly restrained. The National Stadium, daring though it is, constitutes a logical arrival point for Herzog & de Meuron: the basket weave of steel that composes its facade is also its load-bearing structure. Its skin is made of bones.
Excited by the possibility of working in China, Herzog and de Meuron wondered where to make their initial foray. In 2002, contemplating an invitation to compete on short notice for the CCTV commission, de Meuron sought advice from his friend Uli Sigg, a former Swiss ambassador to China and an early Western collector of Chinese contemporary art. Along with strategic counsel, Sigg provided an introduction to his friend Ai Weiwei, a prominent and very plugged-in Beijing artist. When Sigg called Ai to ask if the CCTV competition would be fair, Ai replied, "Never, from my experience in China, will you have a fair competition." Beset with complicated (and doomed to be unrealized) projects in Abu Dhabi and Moscow, Herzog & de Meuron declined to enter. Upon the victory of their friend and rival Koolhaas, with whom they enjoy a relationship reminiscent of Matisse's with Picasso, they regretted the decision. "Afterward they thought if they participated, they would have won," Ai remarked. He agreed to serve as their artistic collaborator in the next big Chinese trophy hunt — the National Stadium competition.
The rules of that competition laid out certain functional requirements. Beyond the obvious need to provide playing fields and spectator seating, the competition brief emphasized commercial post-Games uses and made an unusual demand for a retractable roof that could be closed in bad weather. In developing an Olympics strategy, the Beijing authorities hoped to avoid the head-splitting hangover that Athens and Sydney woke up to once the 17-day party ended — the obligation of maintaining a costly and impractical stadium. Yet the iconic value of the stadium might also be great, however hard to quantify. In the long months ahead, whenever their design was threatened, Herzog and de Meuron would suggest that if constructed to plan, the National Stadium might do for Beijing what the Eiffel Tower, itself erected for a temporary exposition, has achieved for Paris.
International juried architectural competitions are a novelty in the People's Republic of China. Indeed, only in the last quarter-century have foreign architects established a toehold there at all. Until then, all building plans came from the state-owned local design institutes, which churned out nondescript schemes according to a system that valued speed and efficiency over originality. In 1983, these design institutes lost state financing and were forced to become self-supporting. Still, they initiate most new construction. Furthermore, any private firm working in China is required by law to collaborate with a local design institute, which bears ultimate responsibility as the architect of record. (This system resembles Western practice, in which a visiting architect must cooperate with a locally licensed partner.) A few of the design institutes have the reputation for an enlightened attitude. The China Architecture Design and Research Group (CAG), which Ai recommended to Herzog & de Meuron, is one of the best.
When Ai traveled to Basel to discuss the stadium concept, he was joined by Li Xinggang, a young architect in the CAG. Upon arrival at the offices of Herzog & de Meuron, the Chinese emissaries found that the area set aside for the stadium design was postered with images of Chinese ceramics, baskets, jades and bronzes. Finding new ways to invoke an ancient tradition within a modern context is the intellectual challenge that animates the work of Herzog & de Meuron in China. There are many approaches to the problem, most of them awful. At the onset of the Beijing building boom in the late 1980's, the city's mayor preferred that skyscraper architects tip their hats to the Chinese past. All across town you can see tall buildings capped by absurdly historicist roofs in the style of the Forbidden City. "If you wanted it approved, you had to add a big roof," says Cui Kai, the chief architect of the CAG. "That's a very simple way to connect modern and traditional. Herzog & de Meuron are doing it in a much more interesting way."
To optimize view lines and place spectators closer to the action on the rectangular playing field, the architects designed a bowl that was higher on the short east-west sides than on the north and south. The shape, which reminded them of a Chinese basket or a vase, then had to be fine-tuned. "Two sides high, two sides low — it is not a good thing in China," Li Xinggang recalls telling them. "People will say it is like a baby toilet. This is dangerous. If you give this possibility for a competition in China, it will be enough reason to cancel the scheme." He also thought the stadium's conceptual design bore a risky resemblance to a policeman's cap. Any suspicion I might have had that Li was exaggerating the Chinese propensity for analogy was dispelled a few days after our conversation, when I drove by the headquarters of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Another architect had told me that the sleek building, designed by the Western firm Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), reminded the Chinese of a snazzy tankless toilet manufactured by Kohler. Sure enough, some cheeky advertising director, playing off that likeness, had placed a billboard for the toilet directly opposite the building. Li was right. What might in Basel evoke a Shang dynasty vessel could have less lofty and pleasant associations in Beijing.
The treacherous symbolic power of buildings in China is demonstrated by the history of another KPF project, this one in Shanghai. In 1993, the Tokyo-based Mori Building Company, which is an important KPF client, announced its intention of erecting the Shanghai World Financial Center in the Pudong District. The architects arrived at a striking abstract form that tapers like a chisel; at the summit, they cut out a circle 150 feet in diameter to relieve wind pressure. Although not the inspiration for the scheme, Chinese mythology represents the earth with a square and the sky with a circle. It made a nice story, and in China, a succinct, evocative subtext can be as important as subbasement pilings in getting a building off the ground. Unfortunately, the Shanghai authorities were discerning an alternate narrative. For them, a giant circle on a Japanese-owned tower unequivocally evoked the rising-sun flag. "They didn't tell us exactly what the issues were, but they said there's concern in Beijing that public opinion is upset about this project and we can't approve it when people are against it," recalls Paul Katz, the KPF principal in charge. The negotiations dragged on for more than a year. "You can't just back down," Katz explains. "Part of the waiting was to see what the real message was." Eventually, they compromised on a trapezoid. "I'm happy with it," Katz says. Construction resumed last November.
In China, nicknames can be important. Of the major projects by foreign architects that won juried competitions and are under construction in Beijing, Paul Andreu's widely reviled National Grand Theater, which borders Tiananmen Square, is insultingly called "the egg." The headquarters of CCTV has been likened to a bench, a person kneeling or a doughnut, despite pains taken by the architects at OMA to emphasize the functional reasons behind its calligraphic swoop. Lord Norman Foster's airport terminal bears an unmissable resemblance to a beast revered in traditional Chinese architecture and folklore. "Norman Foster's airport building looks like a dragon, so of course it wins," says Li Hu of Steven Holl Architects. "If it looks like a snake, it's finished." (Its use of the imperial colors red and gold is just painting the lily.) Li Hu points out that the bird's-nest analogy for Herzog & de Meuron's stadium is a positive one: "In China, a bird's nest is very expensive, something you eat on special occasions." Culinary associations aside, a bird's nest is a harmonious natural object.
When conceiving the stadium, Herzog & de Meuron developed a scheme for practical, not symbolic, reasons. In any project, one or two design issues dominate. For the Tate Modern, the question had been how to take a massive industrial space with the towering Turbine Hall and make it people-friendly. For the stadium, a key issue was finding a way to incorporate the retractable roof inconspicuously. To mask the two large parallel beams that were necessary to support the heavy roof, the architects enmeshed them in crisscrossed steel. Aesthetically, they compared the interwoven steel to the crackled glaze of a Song ceramic vase or the wooden lattices in a Ming window. To explain how the structural steel would compose the visible facade, however, the competition document used the analogy of a bird's nest, in which the twigs that support the shape are right on the surface, devoid of any ornament. Where covering was needed, as in the roof area over the seats, translucent plastic membranes would be stuffed like the grass and leaves in a nest. The public loved it. The stadium looked like a bird's nest! Even though they had come up with the metaphor to describe the building's construction concept, not its visible appearance, the architects saw no need to correct the happy misunderstanding.
Li Xinggang says that when he took the model to the exhibition hall and saw the rival entries, he thought to himself, "We will win this." He was right. The stadium-design jury (which included Koolhaas and the eminent French architect Jean Nouvel) awarded first place to the Herzog & de Meuron scheme. As required, however, the jury also short-listed two others. Rather than a green light, the design victory was to be the first in a string of yellow blinkers that illuminate this cautionary tale.
The very idea of doing something architecturally new in China is itself so new that ambitious architects must surmount novel challenges. The popular mentality, however open-minded, is enmeshed by a web of shifting and inconsistent rules. "It's not that we don't have systems," says Yung Ho Chang of M.I.T. "We have incomplete systems. We have this superprogressive energy code, but a decades-old structure code. It is pretty easy for the bureaucrats to make exceptions, which they love to do. They think every case is unique, so they will break the code. Not you.It's this kind of incomplete changeable system." The Chinese language is itself poetically vague compared with English and more open to interpretation. Winning approval of a design often involves finding a receptive official. "You go to one person who says yes and then another person says no," complains Li Hu, who, with Steven Holl, is building a mixed-use complex in Beijing. "We were almost there, and the person died of a heart attack, and we had to start all over with a new person. No one wants to be responsible."
Li Hu's unconventional Beijing project — which is powered by 600 geothermal wells and features eight towers joined by sky bridges — is called Linked Hybrid in English. The Chinese name translates rather redundantly as "Modern MoMA." "We all know MoMA is the Museum of Modern Art," says Han Fengguo, the C.E.O. of the Modern Land Group, which is developing the site (with 622 apartments, a boutique hotel and a cinema) on the outside edge of the Second Ring Road, where the ancient city wall stood until Mao had it torn down. "We want to make our new buildings as art." Like many Chinese real-estate developers, Han once worked in government and is obscurely well connected. His company procured an excellent site for this project, close to an airport expressway that has sprung up overnight. In the model sales office, a color rendering of Linked Hybrid adorns the wall, part of a sequence that also features the projects of Koolhaas and Foster as well as Herzog & de Meuron, under the shared heading "Future Landmarks of Beijing." (Andreu's unpopular theater is conspicuously absent.) Recognizing the sales appeal of distinguished architecture, the Modern Group has also pumped up the reputation of Dietmar Eberle of Austria, a foreign architect it discovered before finding Steven Holl. "For the Modern Group, Eberle would be perceived as important as Steven to the buyers of the condos," Yung Ho Chang says. "They made this brief history of modern architecture from Mies and Corbu to Eberle. Later on they added Steven." Han was chain-smoking premium-brand Chunghwa cigarettes with black filter tips, as a female assistant poured green tea into disposable cups and coffee into porcelain demitasses. He personified the message he was preaching: the convergence of Chinese and Western tastes at the rarefied level of the luxurious modern lifestyle.
For the Chinese, especially the new rich, a famous architect's imprimatur graces a building with designer-label status. "There is a new luxury beyond Louis Vuitton and BMW," Han says. An even more successful developer, the architecturally savvy Pan Shiyi of SOHO China, who has solicited (but not used) designs from Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito, says: "In the past there was a debate whether you could combine avant-garde and commercial. But I think the value of the avant-garde will be recognized in the market. Like Picasso's paintings, which were once avant-garde, and now they are very valuable." Of course, the craze for theatrically expressive schemes by famous architects also exists in the West, where public institutions, particularly museums, vie for the services of a handful of stars. The difference is that Western executives recognize that commissioning an unconventional design from Koolhaas or Herzog & de Meuron will entail a greater outlay of money, time and uncertainty. "In America, if an architect is conceived to be avant-garde, you probably wouldn't ask him to do a big housing project," says Yung Ho Chang. "In China, a developer would think, Avant-garde is a different style, we will try that."
In the months following the stadium competition submission, Ai Weiwei was approached surprisingly often by developers who told him they were looking for "the best architect in the world." He would recommend Herzog & de Meuron. Even before the stadium commission was decided, he escorted the Swiss architects on a drive four hours southwest of Shanghai to Jinhua, a small (by Chinese standards) city that is the birthplace of his father, the revered poet, Ai Qing. In 2002, at the invitation of the city authorities, Ai Weiwei designed a memorial to his father on the south bank of the Yiwu River. The city was so pleased that he was invited to plan a park on a ribbon of land that runs along the river's north bank. At the same time, he was asked his opinion of a master plan that had been commissioned for a new district of the city. "You'd better not build," he told them. "Not to build is better than to build this." The city planner solicited his recommendation. "There is no company in China that can do this," he said. "The education limits their imagination." Prodded for a referral, he said, "I am working with architects who might be interested."
Herzog and de Meuron were very interested. The opportunity to design a new city — not a gated community but a bustling commercial and entertainment district intended to serve as many as 300,000 people — arises rarely in the West. The firm's master plan would transform the former rice fields into three urban precincts, which were dubbed (in the local fashion) the Mountain, the Village and the Field: respectively, a high-rise complex, an entertainment area and a warren of small shops. They were also asked to design all of the buildings. "In Europe, you couldn't do it, because it would feel like a ghetto," says Ascan Mergenthaler, the partner directing the project. "But here they will move in and take the shell we give them and make something out of it. If you don't stop them, they start building rooms on the balconies." Also in Jinhua, Herzog and de Meuron agreed to assist with the mile-and-a-half-long strip of park by the river, where Ai proposed constructing 17 pavilions of avant-garde architecture. Herzog & de Meuron helped recruit young European architects and also agreed to build a pavilion of its own.
In these early days of their China infatuation, Herzog and de Meuron signed on to three other projects through Ai Weiwei. Two were for a Beijing developer. The larger one was a for-profit, adult-education campus at the outer edge of the city; without kitschy quotations, the Herzog & de Meuron architects designed campus quads, featuring interior courtyards and gardens, that evoked the traditional hutong neighborhoods vanishing quickly from Beijing. The other Beijing project was an unusual rental office complex, TPT Tower, which combined three high-rise buildings of different sizes on a common base at the curve of an expressway intersection. In the rendering, it resembles three ruby-colored crystals rising from a red matrix. Almost every one of the 7,000 plates of glass on the faceted facades is a different shape. When Herzog and de Meuron considered a similar scheme for a symphony hall in Hamburg, the high price of manufacture mandated a much simpler version. "Construction costs in Beijing are one-tenth the amount in the West, and in New York or London, it is 14 times as much," de Meuron says. Cheap labor, at least as much as an unfettered outlook, permits the flourishing in China of avant-garde architecture, with its penchant for original engineering, unorthodox materials and surprising forms.
The last of the Chinese projects that Ai delivered to Herzog & de Meuron inspired a design that, aside from the stadium, was their most startling. In the city of Qingdao (famous for its German heritage and Tsingtao beer), one of Ai's college friends was planning to start the first branch campus of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. As is so often true in China, the program was inchoate. The project team designed spaces for classrooms, dormitories and production facilities in long, rectangular bar-shaped buildings, which could be subdivided according to function at the last minute. Then they piled up the bars in great heaps that looked as casually arranged as tossed pick-up sticks. Where the bars overlap, multistory atriums would encourage mingling and transmit light.
By the time I arrived in China, all of these ventures, except the tiny architecture pavilion — "the smallest project in China," Ai joked blackly — were struggling or dead. They had fallen victim to the bubbling social tensions and contradictions in a state-controlled economy that is trying to fuel growth without triggering social unrest, corrupt cronyism or an unsustainable financial bubble. Another important reason for the collapsing projects was the inexperience of the nascent developer class.
The effort to build an adult-education campus had succumbed to a newly enforced national policy that prohibits private deals between village chiefs and builders — such deals had invited corruption and provoked widespread protests. Instead, land must now be auctioned publicly. TPT Tower was stalled by the developer's need to sell other properties or find investors to pay for new construction, as the central government has tightened bank financing for commercial development. Because of a change in national policy, the city of Jinhua could not bankroll its new district directly but was compelled to auction off the development rights to three private investors, each one with an opinion — indeed, many opinions, depending on the day you inquired. It didn't help matters that the idealistic municipal official who was committed to the project had been promoted, as typically happens in Chinese government after four years. His successor seemed unmotivated to push through someone else's visionary scheme, leaving its fate uncertain.
Worst of all was the situation in Qingdao, with a discordant partnership between the local developer and Ai's old friend. Short of money, the developer of the film academy questioned the unconventional scheme and resisted the design fees. Even Ai's idealistic friend was disconcerted. "He said he wanted the best architects in the world," Chen Shu Yu, an architect who works for Ai Weiwei, told me. "We have a famous story in China. There is a person who likes dragons very much, and he likes to draw the dragon. Finally, when the dragon really tries to visit him, he is scared." In June, Herzog & de Meuron canceled its connection with the Qingdao project. The firm is still owed payment for its work. With a blithe disregard for intellectual property, the developer handed over the preliminary sketches to a local design institute, naïvely believing that the same architecture can be executed more cheaply. They broke ground last winter. "They are damaged by their own craziness," Ai says. "They don't know anything about architecture."
The one Herzog & de Meuron project that has been completed in China is the small concrete pavilion in Jinhua's architecture park. It was designed with the aid of a computer, which generated a gnarled solid out of patterns similar to the openings in brick walls that had been created for Jinhua's new district. The architects liked the pavilion so much that they developed a vertical wooden version for a museum exhibition in Basel: manufactured with a robot saw under the control of a computer program, "Jinhua Structure II — Vertical" was the first Herzog & de Meuron project to be digitally made from conception to execution. For the park in Jinhua, the building technique was worlds apart. To permit the local workers to fabricate the forms for casting the concrete, the Basel office prepared section drawings, sliced every 10 centimeters on the vertical and horizontal axes, and faxed them to Jinhua. The dusky rose concrete of the finished structure has rough edges, and some of the openings are not where the drawings specified. It doesn't matter. The pavilion has a powerful and original presence. And, unlike its Basel cousin, which is sternly marked "Keep Off!" in two languages, "Jinhua Structure I" can be clambered over freely.
It is inevitable that the mortality rate, which is high even in the West for unorthodox designs, will be still greater in China. "You need to start 10 projects to finish 2," Sigg says. The firm can take some of the concepts developed in China, however, and use them elsewhere. For example, the notion of piling up bar-shaped rough containers for the film academy in Qingdao — a scheme that was inspired by an old piece of layered wood in Ai Weiwei's collection — may magically materialize in a refined glass version as an office building for a pharmaceutical company on an orthogonal block in Basel. (The plans are still awaiting the client's approval.) "I'm sure it will look very different than it would in China," says Ascan Mergenthaler, the firm partner, "but you might say it is where the start of the idea came from."
Despite the disappointments, both Herzog and de Meuron say they have no regrets about undertaking these risky projects. "I would rather have this experience than to ask too many questions and be too careful and miss the experience," de Meuron says. "Being confronted by this culture, you mix new experiences in your own work. The ambition is to discover new ways of developing architecture." Ai, however, doesn't share this Zenlike acceptance. He advises Herzog and de Meuron against accepting more Chinese commissions. "I am so disappointed," he told me. "If it was not the National Stadium, I don't think they would get anything done."
A national centerpiece governed by an inflexible due date, the stadium could not be canceled like these other projects. The continuing involvement of Herzog & de Meuron, however, was far less certain.
After the Swiss architects placed first in the design jury, the public had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of all 13 contestants and register their opinion. Thousands cast their votes. "This is a kind of show, for the attitude of transparency," says Huang Yan, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning. An architect who studied at Harvard with Koolhaas, she organized the stadium competition. The Herzog & de Meuron team rallied to the populist call, believing it emanated from the national government. Li Xinggang and his colleagues stayed all day long at the exhibition, explaining the project to visitors and handing out picture cards of their design. "It's like an election campaign," Li says. Sigg and Ai coached him until midnight before he appeared on a popular morning talk show on CCTV. "This is the people's Olympics," Li explains. "We have to win the public vote." Otherwise, the authorities would find themselves in an awkward dilemma. It's impossible to know, in the absence of outside monitors, how accurate the tally was. Whatever the case, the design by Herzog & de Meuron, in collaboration with the CAG and Arup, a Western engineering firm, won again, although by a far narrower margin than with the expert jury. In April 2003, the firm learned it was the official victor of the design competition.
Having survived a juried contest and a public vote, Herzog & de Meuron nervously watched as the city authorities called in yet another jury to select the private consortium that would contribute 42 percent of the stadium financing in return for the construction contracts and a 30-year operations lease once the Games ended. The nod went to a group led by the giant state-owned conglomerate Citic. (The term "private" in China basically means "profit-seeking business.") Citic would take a leading role in construction as well as put up financing alongside the controlling municipal authority, Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Company. Perhaps any private partner would have appeared adversarial to Herzog & de Meuron, too eager to reduce construction expenses and maximize commercial features. But as it happened, Citic had a longstanding relationship with one of the world's largest architecture firms, HOK, which had competed unsuccessfully in the stadium design competition.
It seemed to de Meuron that the HOK losers were trying to backhandedly snatch a victory, promising greater experience and lower fees. "That was the most critical moment of the whole project," he says. "The private investor said, 'We believe in HOK, they are more professional, a bigger company than Herzog & de Meuron, more experienced with sports stadiums.' " To make his case with the city authorities, who were the ultimate arbiters, de Meuron relied on Li Aiqing, the strong-willed director of Beijing State-Owned Assets. Li says de Meuron is exaggerating the threat to the design. "Pierre can be childish," he says. "He is an artist; I like him. He worried in that time if HOK takes over the design work, they would change the original idea. But HOK didn't. I could not permit it to happen. I told the top leaders it cannot happen, because of legal, political, business issues. I report to the government, and the government supports me." On the other side, he advised de Meuron to reduce the design fee, optimize construction costs and speed up the process. Calculated on a construction cost of $325 million, which is in itself about a tenth of what it would cost if it was built in the West, Herzog & de Meuron agreed on a design fee of $20 million — or 6 percent, which is much less than what the firm would negotiate in the West, to be shared with the CAG (which gets a quarter) and Arup.
"In one year I was here 14 times, during SARS and everything," de Meuron told me in Beijing in March. "It was necessary. And for the Chinese people, it was an expression of confidence and respect. They don't want to deal with phantoms or names. They want to eat with you and drink with you." It took six months of tense negotiation before the consortium in charge of the stadium reached a contractual agreement with Herzog & de Meuron. By that time, to meet encroaching waves of deadlines, the firm had already completed its schematic design. In this contest of nerves, inaction counted as a kind of action. "It was a way for me to get to know myself better," de Meuron says. "We had been working without a contract for a long time. It was a risk. Will we get the contract? If not, we won't get money. It was very dangerous. But I knew the time was a factor. The more we worked and weren't out of the project, it was working to our advantage, because there was no time left for them." In November 2003, the contract was signed.
In China, the only two tempos are largo and prestissimo, and when the speed accelerates, there can be missed notes. Now that the protracted delay was over, the client wanted to begin construction immediately. De Meuron was summoned to appear at a groundbreaking ceremony on Dec. 24. "I said, 'I can't come, it's Christmas, for my family it's like Chinese New Year,' " he recalls. "They said, 'No, it is the 24th, it's a good day in the Chinese calendar.' " He broke the news to his wife and dutifully flew to Beijing. No one was there to greet him. When he arrived at the stadium site for the ceremony, he went to pick up a shovel and join the official guests. A female security guard pushed him aside. "I said, 'I'm the architect,' but she didn't understand," he recounts. "I don't need the shovel, but I came for that. I thought it was impolite to have someone come all that way and not participate. Then it was over, and it was too late."
Over the next months, as construction proceeded on an unforgiving schedule, the danger was always that the architects and their design could be pushed aside just as abruptly. On their side, they had an internationally famous name and the threat of a P.R. debacle. But how powerful was that in the face of an Olympics juggernaut? The bulldozers began moving earth while the architects at the CAG were cranking out their preliminary drawings for approval. New drawings had to be prepared while the earlier ones were still being reviewed. "Every day, they needed drawings," Li Xinggang recalls. "It was a very difficult time for the design consortium. Liu Qi, the No. 1 party secretary of Beijing, took part in a meeting at the construction site. The construction company said they don't have enough design papers. I stood up and said we had provided the necessary drawings and every party should cooperate. Liu Qi understood."
In the spring of 2004, two momentous events occurred to slow the process. First was the consolidation of national power by President Hu Jintao. The central government, questioning whether the 2008 Olympics projects were too costly, ordered a financial review. Then on May 23, a new terminal collapsed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, with two Chinese citizens among the four dead. The terminal was designed by Paul Andreu, the architect of the National Grand Theater in Beijing. Construction on the stadium paused for six months at the end of May, while the designs of high-profile projects were studied by panels of experts to reduce costs and enhance safety.
Andreu's National Theater is generally seen as a grotesquely inappropriate building on a supremely sensitive site. It has fueled a simmering hostility on the part of the architectural establishment against outlandish foreigners capturing coveted state contracts. That resentment sputtered to the surface in a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao by senior academics, questioning the safety and sanity of all these avant-garde designs. "They couldn't do this in their own country, so they are taking advantage of the Chinese psychology that European thinking is better," Peng Pei Gen, a senior professor of architecture at Tsinghua University, told me. "They are using the Chinese as their new-weapons test field." On the stadium review panel that the city planner Huang Yan assembled, experts in engineering advised that changing the structural system of the stadium so that a few large columns and beams (supplemented by decorative steel members) bore the weight would significantly reduce the cost and difficulty of construction. Unfortunately, it would also nullify the design. Referring to the old-guard architectural opposition, Ai Weiwei says: "They never tell the truth but always try to build up this so-called nationalism against foreigners who open up society. They lost prestige when society opened up. For 50 years they never made a single object that is countable as valuable."
From his allies Li and Huang, de Meuron learned that the construction budget, originally set at $500 million and already lowered to $325 million, had to be reduced even further, to $290 million. The steel, which the designers had slimmed from an unofficial estimate of 80,000 tons to 50,000, needed to come down to 40,000. Value engineering, in which architects shave away construction costs, could no longer accomplish the task. "When they cut the budget by that much, you can only delete features," de Meuron says. There was an elephant in the room — or, more precisely, on the roof — that he dared not mention. "We never said, 'We want to delete the retractable roof,' " he explains. "That would have been quite dangerous. They might have said, 'Your brief was to bring a retractable roof.' We were very patient." He would keep coming back with alternatives, none of which sufficed. "This was a very enriching personal experience," he says — but like many such experiences, it was also exhausting and painful. "I am the sort of person who tries to find a solution," he explains. "You bring me problems, and de Meuron tries to solve them. It is too much money, or you can't do it for this building code, or the client wants concrete, not wood — I find another way. This is how it worked for me up to now. In China, it was very different. That was a challenge for me, not only as an architect but as a person. To have someone on the other side and they are experts in misleading you or trapping you. It is never one to one when they say if they like it or don't like it. They played with me."
As time was running out, he waited and waited, until finally the government requested that he remove the retractable roof. The decision saved 15,000 tons of steel. Strangely enough, the desire to mask the support structure of the retractable roof had been an initial link in the chain of thinking that eventually led to the "bird's nest" design. The roof would have been an engineering triumph, but without it, the overall form became more graceful. And beyond the money saved, which Li Aiqing estimates at $50 million, abandoning the retractable roof saved construction time, even more crucial after the six-month hiatus. Li says he worried about finishing on schedule if the roof had been kept. When I wondered in late March if de Meuron shared that concern, the architect said: "If you asked me before, I would have said it would be a problem. Now that I have been on the site this morning, when I see what they did in 11 months, I think it is amazing. They are capable of doing almost unpossible things."
Because de Meuron and Herzog are committed to hands-on involvement in their projects, they cannot decentralize their firm. All the important design is done in Basel under their direction. To propel and control the stadium project, however, an associate, Mia Hagg, established a Beijing office in the late fall of 2003. The office also facilitates the asking of a vital question that shadows every choice: How Chinese is it?
During his three-day visit to Beijing in March, de Meuron met with the firm's local architects. At this advanced stage of the process, the design of the steel structure and the concrete bowl was already determined. In the gap between the two, the architects have inserted a hotel, a shopping mall, a convention center and some areas intended to be open at all times to the general public. "What we think is the strength of this project is the space in between, the concourse, which is to be filled with life," de Meuron told me. "In Beijing, even in this harsh climate, the people use the public space — to dance, to play cards — unlike in Germany or Switzerland." Between the red-painted concrete and the silver-painted steel, he envisioned a continuous pageant.
Most of the unresolved issues pertained to the design of the stadium interior. The stadium architects had set up lighting prototypes and tile samples for de Meuron to examine. The most elaborate model was an undulating wall section, projecting several inches and covered loosely with red silk. It was under consideration for the V.I.P. reception room.
"We have many V.I.P.'s," Tobias Winkelmann, the design project manager, explained. "V.V.V.I.P.'s, about 20. About 700 V.V.I.P.'s. About 10,000 V.I.P.'s." In a finely calibrated social ranking, during the Olympics this reception area would welcome only the V.V.V.I.P.'s and V.V.I.P.'s, who were to arrive in cars through an underground entryway, while the mere V.I.P.'s, along with hoi polloi, traveled across the landscape. "Originally in our brief we had 1,500 V.I.P.'s," Winkelmann said. "China is a big country. They kept adding numbers. Now we are up to a total of about 11,000." After the Olympics, the numbers would collapse like an accordion, and this reception area would admit V.I.P.'s of all stripes.
Winkelmann flipped through a book of images, looking at V.I.P. rooms in stadiums. "This is typical, in the Nanjing stadium," he said.
De Meuron examined the picture. "But this is a meeting room," he said. "What is typical Chinese is the U-shape of the seating plan." A symmetrical and hierarchical arrangement around a focal point evokes the court of the emperors, whose spirit palpably persists, especially in Beijing.
During the discussion, de Meuron would interrupt to ask, "What do the Chinese think?" And often, the Chinese architects who worked in the Beijing office would express harsh thoughts. They were skeptical of the red silk wall, for example.
"For me, it is very strange," a Chinese architect said, once de Meuron reassured her that he wanted a frank opinion. "The design is too Western. And if we have this on the wall, it is too heavy. We don't put very complicated things on the wall."
"I think this is maybe too expressive in this depth," a Chinese man said. "In Chinese traditional design the surfaces are more neutral."
"And also the color," the woman said.
"Not the right red, or should not be red?" de Meuron asked her.
"In China, we don't make public areas red," she replied.
"But we made the whole stadium red," said Stefan Marbach, a young Basel-based partner at Herzog & de Meuron, who, when he began working on the stadium project, was not even an associate. China has been good to him.
"The outside is different from the interior," the Chinese architect said.
"If you have something red, it is jumping at you," de Meuron concurred.
Besides, in a red room there would be no way to roll out a red carpet or display a Chinese flag.
"You know, Tobias, we will do this somewhere else, outside China," de Meuron said to Winkelmann. "This will be our Chinese influence."
In this windowless hallway in a nondescript Beijing district, I felt perched on a hinge of history. By taking on the Olympics, China committed itself to demonstrating that it is a world-class power. Acknowledging that their architects were not yet up to the challenge, the Chinese had imported the best the West could offer, and now young local architects were collaborating with and learning from Western masters. By marrying Chinese tradition with a modern outlook, Herzog and de Meuron were helping to raise the bar for architecture in China. Even the unrealized projects, which have been widely published, can influence younger architects. Cui Kai of the CAG says that his protégé Li Xinggang has recently designed a building that reflects the work of Herzog & de Meuron. In a few years, as the junior Chinese architects become more sophisticated, foreign practitioners will be less needed and perhaps less welcome. This period of intense mutual enlightenment may be brief.
De Meuron asked if the V.I.P. welcome room was sufficiently constructed for him to experience its dimensions during his forthcoming site visit.
"Yes," Winkelmann said. "When you walk through the area, you get a sense of the size of the steel and the opening."
De Meuron turned reflective. "We are Swiss," he said. "Switzerland is a very small country. The first big-scale project we did was the Tate, the Turbine Hall. For us, it was a big step. Will it function? I think it functions very well. It is not oppressive. I think the same goes for this stadium, so this huge structure is not oppressive. The way we accomplished that was with the membrane and the bird's-nest idea." He favored a similar approach for the V.I.P. welcome room. "It is a large space; it should remain large, but we don't want to be oppressive," he said. "I am not sure the walls will be that important."
He cast another fond look toward the wavy red silk model. "I think this is beautiful," he said. "Maybe we will use it somewhere else."
Arthur Lubow, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about the Leipzig School of painters in Germany.
The bird's-nest analogy for the stadium is a positive one: "A bird's nest is very expensive, something you eat on special occassions," says a Chinese architect.