Saturday, December 14, 2013

AIA’s Practical Utopias: The Bird’s Nest

Beijing National Stadium is the symbol of China’s Olympic PR triumph, but it was designed and built by two Swiss architects and a dissident artist.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the construction was almost as dramatic as the soaring finished structure.  Christoph Schaub & Michael Schindhelm follow the complicated process in their documentary, Bird’s Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China (trailer here), which screened as part of the Practical Utopias programming at AIA New York’s Center for Architecture.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron had prospective projects in China fall through before, but they clearly did not let that inhibit their ambition.  In addition to the iconic Olympic venue, the architects were also planning an ambitious mixed-use urban development for the Jinhua district.  Five years later, the Bird’s Nest would be completed, but the Jinhua project still exists only on the drawing board. Frankly though, the Swiss architects did rather well for themselves, given the eccentricities of the Chinese bureaucracy.  For one thing, they carried on without ever having one of those whatamacalits: a contract.

Shrewdly, the Swiss architects recruited a prestigious team of local collaborators and advisors, most notably including Ai Weiwei, demonstrating their good taste if not exactly a determination to curry favor with Party apparatchiks.  For the establishment, they also called on the counsel of Dr. Uli Sigg, the former Swiss Ambassador, and several other academics and architects.

Happily, Ai Weiwei is his irrepressible self throughout, expressing rather mixed feelings about the whole Olympic appeal to “nationalism.”  It is too bad he is not around more. There are many telling encounters with state corruption, incompetence, and rampant CYA-ing in the film, but Schaub & Schindhelm show a pronounced editorial preference for scrupulously sober, academic moments.

Still, in many ways, Bird’s Nest offers an intriguing perspective on China’s go-go development.  At one point, the Swiss partners attend the opening of Architecture Park, a public park conceived by Ai Weiwei to showcase small creations of prominent world architects, including de Meuron.  It was envisioned to serve the residents of the as yet undeveloped Jinhua development, but instead it is a surreal Dahli World in the middle of nowhere.

The Center’s post-screening discussion also added helpful context on the issues involved, including post-Olympic development in host nations.  According to Thomas K. Fridstein, Executive Director of the Cunningham Group China, the Bird’s Nest has seen little use since the 2008 Games, aside from drawing a bit of tourist traffic.  However, it still looks great despite the lack of upkeep and will probably remain as it is, because of its tremendous symbolic value to the regime. 

Those contemplating a Chinese co-venture will probably find Bird’s Nest instructive and any screen time devoted to Teacher Ai is always worthwhile.  Recommended for those fascinated by the subject matter rather than general interest doc watchers, Schaub & Schindhelm’s Bird’s Nest is distributed by Icarus Films, so keep an eye on their website for future nonprofit screenings.