Undoubtedly the showstopper is the much-reported and stunning National Stadium by Herzog and De Meuron. The Swiss masters’ 91,000-seater arena has caused controversy itself - while China has promised to deliver a 'Green Olympics', the stadium's complex lattice facade uses far more steel than is structurally necessary. But nevertheless it has become a symbol of the games and the ambitions of modern China.
Slightly less photographed, but perhaps more sustainable, is the National Aquatic Centre designed by Australian architects PTW. Inspired by soap bubbles, the centre uses ETFE - the same plastic cladding used in Cornwall’s Eden Project. The durable material allows natural light into the interior and has better insulating properties than glass.
An even lesser-known gem is the Basketball Gymnasium, by Beijing Architecture Research Institute. With its gold-coloured aluminium cladding, the tactile façade appears to have been built with bamboo.
Although not a sporting venue, one of the site’s most important buildings is Pei Zhu’s Olympics control centre, Digital Beijing. Composed of monolithic grey slabs, the centre can look austere in daylight but comes alive when the gash-like openings are illuminated at night.
Beijing’s new tennis centre is the antithesis of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, the equivalent venue for the 2012 Olympics. While London’s hallowed court is an elegant no-frills affair, the Chinese version resembles a huge lotus flower with 12 concrete ‘petals’ and natural ventilation.
Other newly built venues include the curved roofed National Indoor Stadium, designed by German firm Gloeckner, the flying saucer-esque Laoshan Velodrome for cycling, by Schürmann Architects, and the Shooting Range Hall by Zhuang Weimin.
The park’s landscaping is suitably monumental for the capital of communist China. But the lack of subtle urban planning could harm the legacy of the games. According to The Times’ architecture critic, Tom Dyckhoff, the Olympic Green is “relentless in its overbearing scale, dreariness and inhumanity…full of fascistic plazas, crummy detailing and feeble set pieces.”
The design of the Olympic master plan is credited to US firm Sasaki, yet the practice appears to disassociate itself from the implemented landscape. A statement on the company’s website portfolio said: “Sasaki had no involvement in the design and implementation of the final landscape for the Beijing Olympics.”
London’s Olympic master plan, by LDA Design and Hargreaves Associates, features two different phases – a built-up ‘games mode’ and a leafy ‘legacy mode’ with lush parkland, wetlands, and open water. Londoners should hope that the planning team does not shun responsibility for the end product.