Cities often approach the Olympic Games as an opportunity to undertake major urban reforms: to justify great expense for projects that are both vanity and necessity. (Growing up in LA, I was glad that the city chose to use existing structures rather than build new ones.)

Beijing is following the path of almost all Olympic cities. Celebrity architects from outside China have been hired to create new buildings for major Chinese institutions and to create sports facilities:

Two Swiss architects … won the competition for Beijing’s main Olympic stadium … [A] British architect … is renovating Beijing’s airport, using a dragon motif …

Dutch architects[] designed an enormous new headquarters for China’s dominant state broadcaster … They proposed building two 55-story Z-shaped towers angled toward each other, with the top horizontals linked in a gravity-defying tango. [They described their] vision [as] “a hyperbuilding of unimaginable scale and complexity” …

Trying to rework the image of China in preparation for the world stage, the government left Chinese designers out in the cold. None were hired for prestigious projects. Furthermore, the government left open the parameters of the designs so that Beijing

ha[s] become [an] experimental site[] for novelty for novelty’s sake by some foreign masters.

Indignant that the government ignored Chines talent, critics of the reforms have found a symbol for criticism: the new National Theater was designed and is being built by Paul Andreu, the architect who designed the terminal in Charles de Gaulle airport that collapsed several weeks ago.

Andreu’s design for the theater, another dome, is drawing criticism for safety and aesthetics. Some critics complain that the bulbous structure violates feng shui; others say that it looks like dried dung when covered by desert sand; still more complain that the large structure is not supported in the middle. Other problems about:

The central dome needs to be illuminated and air-conditioned even if only the smallest of its performance centers is in use. They say the underwater entrance poses an unacceptable safety risk in the event of fire, earthquake or terrorist attack


To add insult to injury, French authorities are investigating Andreu for bribing Chinese officials in order to get his designs accepted.

Regardless of Andreu’s wrecklessness and criminality, Beijing is turning itself into a copy cat of all Olympic cities–employing bold architectual expermination in place of advancing its own cultural traditions.