The spectacle of the 2008 Summer Games surpassed most expectations. Kaleidoscopic illumination over the Beijing National Stadium, better known as the Bird’s Nest, revealed an instant architectural icon, canonized even on the new 10 yuan currency notes. The Swiss firm of Herzog and de Meuron—also winners of the Pritzker Prize (widely considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in architecture)—won an international competition in 2003 for the design of the new stadium. Capitalizing on the opportunity presented by the Olympics, China has ushered in an architectural revolution of sorts.
In selecting leading international architects for new projects, the Chinese have asserted their ambitious civic agenda. Thom Mayne, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Tadao Ando and the Chinese-American I.M. Pei—all Pritzker laureates—are only a few of the architectural stars working on projects in China. In commissioning an expansive typology of new architecture—airports, housing complexes, university campus facilities, opera houses, museums and corporate office buildings—the Chinese leadership has made no secret of its mandate for metropolitan reinvention. China now appears to be the nucleus of a vibrant and provocative architectural avant-gardism.
One noteworthy aspect of China’s building boom has been singularly dramatic for local architects, engineers and contractors: their sudden exposure to cutting-edge standards of design and construction. Chinese building professionals are getting invaluable lessons in upgrading their expertise with new materials and innovative building technologies. In pursuing collaborations with leading architects and engineers from around the globe, the knowledge base for local professionals continues to expand rapidly. How well they adapt these lessons and synthesize them in the post-Olympic era and future projects remains to be seen.
It is clear that the bar has been set high. While Beijing city officials may not have had to contend with widespread public opposition to the large-scale demolitions and relocations necessary for such dramatic urban transformation, other contemporary cities have few opportunities for such massive change.
New Delhi flirted with one such circumstance in its makeover for the 1982 Asian Games. While none of the stadia built for those Games achieved the architectural star power of Beijing 2008, they did offer a glimpse of an urban vision that could dramatically transform citizens’ lives. Several of these sporting venues encouraged a generation of Delhiites to walk, run, bicycle, swim and play. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, commissioned to host the opening and closing ceremonies—and currently being refurbished for the Commonwealth Games—conducted several training camps for aspiring young athletes, and became a popular venue for football and cricket matches.
Scaling up: Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, slated for an upgrade. Rajeev Dabral / Mint
New flyovers constructed in an attempt to streamline vehicular flow became a short-lived but welcome refuge from tedious traffic jams. Residential units, designed and built for the accommodation of athletes in the Asian Games Village, were auctioned to both public sector units and private owners. Even today, with its broad tree-lined avenues and sequence of parks and pedestrian walkways, the Asiad Village represents a rare model of a planned residential community within the heart of the capital city.
Of course, no single event, irrespective of its scale, can possibly remedy all the inadequacies of a city. Not even the Olympics would, for example, necessitate the construction of a citywide network of public libraries, or necessarily result in the creation of new museums for art and sculpture, or new venues for performances of theatre or music or dance. A sequence of pedestrian-friendly paths and new public plazas might make the cut; after all, we do have a historical legacy of festive and sporty uses for both the ‘gali’ (alley) and the ‘maidan’ (field).
How would other equally vital cities with no immediate plans for mega-spectacle events, fulfil these basic aspirations for revitalization and growth? While the surging Chinese national pride was evident in their debut as hosts of the Olympics, not every city can boast of an architectural makeover in the manner of Beijing, or even Francois Mitterand’s Paris and post-reunification Berlin. That would require an enlightened political leadership with a visionary commitment to urban development, working in tandem with the brightest young professionals.
It would perhaps impose many more burdens on ordinary individuals already struggling to avoid the detritus of yet another street excavation. But in just such a vision—planned, sequenced and executed with integrity—we may well find life in our much-maligned metros worthy of another millennia. City building is a fundamentally collective enterprise—one that empowers citizens to articulate and comprehend the ecological, infrastructural and cultural systems capable of nourishing civic life. The distinction of hosting the Games might simply be surpassed by the honour accorded to each citizen of a well-developed urban environment.
Pankaj Vir Gupta and Christine Mueller are partners in the firm vir.mueller architects and are currently based in New Delhi. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org