Saturday, October 25, 2008

Erectile Function

One approach to the world around us is to insist that any and all objects can be reduced to one of two Freudian symbols:  a somewhat linear shape representing a penis or a circular shape resembling a vagina. 

Most architectural landmarks give credence to this theory.  

Buildings which have become easily recognizable international landmarks usually have some distinguishing features.  Whether you consider the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, or the Washington Monument, each has a distinct place in the history and culture of phallic imagery.

Round buildings seem to function primarily as sports arenas or theatrical venues.  Whether one looks at the Colisseum, the Houston Astrodome, an ancient Roman amphitheater,  a Mongolian yurt, or an Alaskan igloo, these structures are meant to gather people around a particular purpose -- whether it be a football game, theater under the stars, or a simple need to stay warm.

With the explosion of new wealth throughout Asia and the Middle East, the past decade has witnessed a new crop of architectural wonders rising up in cities from Dubai to Shanghai, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.  With the 2008 Olympic Games acting as a catalyst for new signature projects, many fascinating architectural statements have redefined Beijing's landscape.

The most  instantly recognizable of these is, of course, the Beijing National Stadium, commonly referred to as the "Bird's Nest" because of its shape and web-like appearance. While sports fans around the world were thrilled by videos of the 2008 Olympics and the opening ceremonies from the National Stadium,  a new documentary by Christoph Schaub and Michael Schindhelm takes a more sober approach to examining the artistic and architectural challenges to its creation.  

Bird's Nest: Herzog & De Meuron in China explores the extremely organic approach the Swiss architectural firm takes toward designing any project (in this case looking for shapes and themes that recur throughout local Chinese culture) and watches as an artistic vision is formed which can then be translated into an architectural model.  The ultimate goal is to win the worldwide competition which will deliver the coveted contract for an easily recognizable international landmark.

Architect Pierre de Meuron

slide show from the official website for the stadium shows the various architectural elements coming together over time.  What it does not show, however, are some of the artistic, cultural and professional challenges faced by the design team.  Once Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (working with Chinese artist-architect-journalist Ai Weiwei) arrived at a design concept which could appeal to both traditionalists and modernists in China's rapidly changing society, they had to conquer numerous challenges in order to get the contract.  

However, business negotiations do not transpire in China quite the same way as in the Western world. Contracts are handled differently, with much grayer areas of understanding than the black and white of Western documents. Cultural protocols must be observed and sometimes take priority over building processes.  Indeed, the ability to enact change orders sometimes depends on whether the project has reached a point beyond which the government can no longer back out without incurring severe embarrassment on an international scale.

At the same time that Herzog and de Meuron were working on the National Stadium project, they were also designing a new district for the town of Jinhua.  With one project designed to be an international showcase, and the other aimed at meeting the practical demands of a local population, their need to rely on local architects to help move each project forward was obvious.

Architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Watching the creative team wrestle with design concepts (such as which shade of red paint will have the best resonance with Chinese culture), physical challenges (new shapes and construction techniques) and age-old architectural headaches (the need to cut costs by more than 10% across the entire project) offers a fascinating look behind the scenes of erecting a sensational new stadium against a crushing deadline.  The cultural needs and political expediency found in the Chinese business sector make architectural projects -- on a physical scale that is almost paralyzing in its scope -- evolve within reality-defying time frames.  Among the unexpected lessons learned is that things can happen quickly with the help of the Chinese government that would never be possible if these projects had been attempted in a democratic culture. 

There is, unfortunately, one severe problem with this documentary (which was shown locally at the SFIndie Fest's DocFest).  Whereas interviews are conducted in three languages (English, German and Mandarin), the film's subtitles are often extremely difficult to read because of the ease with which they blend into the background.  The documentary's trailer gives only the tiniest taste of the challenges faced by the Swiss architects in bringing this project to fruition:


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