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Nests, cubes and ducks -- a design primer

Posted by John Powers, Globe Staff  August 14, 2008 11:25 AM

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From my hotel window I can see the Water Cube in all its bubble-icious wonder. At night, the exterior of the Olympic natatorium turns different colors -- now blue, now white, now pink, now rainbow, and your eyes blur if you look at it long enough. Over to the left, there's a slice of the Bird's Nest stadium, encased in its metal twigs, glowing red from within, with the Olympic flame burning 24/7 above. They're the two most popular and imaginative of the Beijing venues, but they're not the only architectural fantasies at these Games.

The Water Cube
The water cube. (AP Photo)
The badminton venue (the Beijing University of Technology Gymnasium) is shaped like a shuttlecock. The roof atop the table tennis gymnasium at Peking University resembles a ping pong ball; the shooting center's is like a rifle. The velodrome is configured like a bicycle wheel. There's a wonderfully Chinese sense of practicality (why shouldn't a building look like what's played inside of it?) and whimsy going on here and it's another reason why these Games are like none that have come before.

The organizers (and these Olympics are organized to the molecule) could have amazed and amused the world merely with the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube, which are aligned according to feng shui guidelines, with the fiery stadium balanced by the watery natatorium. But they've designed all of their venues with the same sense of pragmatic artistry. The tennis court, for example, is arranged like the petals on a lotus flower.

The Velodrome
The Velodrome. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)
What's extraordinary is that Beijing had only seven years to conceive and construct everything after it was given the Games in 2001. A few of the facilities, like the Workers' Stadium that was erected in 1959, already were on hand, but most of them were built from scratch and finished a year early. If you think about it, the Chinese have been working on these venues for thousands of years. They've always been masters of engineering, design and presentation.

Tonight at dinner, I had a duck roasted Kunming style. It had been dissected into two dozen pieces, then reassembled with the cooked head and beak. The chef could have just arranged the meat on a platter, but it was important that the diner know that he was eating a duck. That way, nothing gets lost in translation. Even if you can't speak Mandarin, you can find your way to the velodrome. Just look for the spokes on the roof.

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