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Star architects eye Beijing skyline

Beijing's skyline battles traditional architecture and modern highrises.
Beijing's skyline battles traditional architecture and modern highrises.

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BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- The last time Beijing stumped the world with mind-blowing architecture, a Ming dynasty emperor had ordered up the Forbidden City in the shadows of the Great Wall.

Enter Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, who are among the latest foreign hotshots the city has enlisted in pursuit of modern wonders as bold and mystifying.

Come the 2008 Olympics, their National Stadium will allow the hosts to cut a surreal, progressive figure. The veiny flesh of their steel-roped creation is its very bones.

Beijingers know the space-age project by a more down-home nickname -- the "bird's nest."

"I think the Chinese people understand that it's a strength to open themselves and to ask people from the outside to work," de Meuron told Reuters on a recent visit to the capital.

The city, built on a flat ancient grid, is today a crazy quilt of old and new, hidden under covers of neon and dust.

Jumbled by seismic historical shifts and diced up by construction, the urban jigsaw sketches a century of change -- from exclusive courtyards to crumbling labyrinths, proletarian tenements to commercial hunks of kitsch.

Beside the bird's nest, Frenchman Paul Andreu's contentious National Theatre, or the "duck egg," as some residents dubbed it, is due to open diagonally opposite from the Forbidden City next year.

Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas's state television headquarters, which some have labelled a "twisted doughnut," will loom over the city's corporate heart by 2007.

In November, Beijing pronounced Briton Norman Foster the winner of a contest to design a new $2 billion airport terminal.

So much for monuments made in the image of emperors, cadres and technocrats. The totems of the next age appear to be zany engineering experiments picked by semi-democratic juries.

"They see this as a sign of strength," said de Meuron.

By 2008, only two hosts of the Summer Olympics other than Beijing will have opened the Games in a venue designed by a foreigner. French architect Roger Taillibert crafted the stadium in Montreal for the 1976 Olympics. Spain's Santiago Calatrava is renovating the main stage for the 2004 event in Athens.

A truly strong nation, some Chinese designers contend, would not import its Olympic stage.

Critics of the big-name commissions have preferred blueprints more clearly in tune with the classic surroundings, and budgets more befitting a developing country.

By depending on the world's wizards to perform their magic, others fear, China is failing to confront its own aesthetic anxieties vis-a-vis the West.

An underlying problem is that the capital, like most Chinese cities, is still fumbling for its own contemporary look.

Domestic architects are pinched by a government beautification drive and margin-obsessed developers.

They also had to throw off the yoke of long-dominant Beaux-Arts and Soviet classicist schools, said architect Zhang Yonghe, a Peking University professor.

"It's not about capability, but rather I don't think Chinese architects are ready to take on some of the tough agendas of contemporary architecture, from the very social aspects to some technological issues," he said.

The pace of change and a deluge of outside influences compounds their sense of cultural schizophrenia. "Nobody knows what's really contemporary Chinese architecture," said Zhang.

That is why some architects view the stadium project as another lost opportunity.

"This is the national stadium, not just any stadium," said Tsinghua University's Wu Yaodong. "It's an international stage. It would have been a great chance for a Chinese artist."

Instead the spotlight is on Herzog and de Meuron. Their credits include London's Tate Modern gallery and an $80 million Prada store opened this year in Tokyo.

But their brainchild has yet to set off the vicious backlash predecessors Andreu, and to a lesser extent Koolhaas, endured.

It is not your typical bowl of a ballpark. It looks more like a ball of ribbon or a caged lantern, with a roll-on roof for rainy days.

Translucent cushioning lines parts of the edifice, the rest breathes naturally. The structure, grey outside and red inside, borrows the archetypal color scheme of a Beijing courtyard. The prescribed budget, state media say, is $500 million.

Detractors pointed out similarities between the bird's nest and the pillowed lattice-work the architects are building in Munich for the 2006 World Cup.

But an international jury chose it overwhelmingly over finalists from China and Japan.

"Chinese very much think in images and compare buildings to animals and to landscape and to other forms of nature," Jacques Herzog told Reuters by e-mail. "Fortunately, the Chinese identified some of that in our design."

The pick was no accident, said Zhang and others. Just as Chinese jet setters yearn to drive BMWs and their wives covet Louis Vuitton bags, a new generation of city planners have stacked juries in hopes of landing brand names.

Ultimately, the Communist Party elite reserves the right to veto.

"From the leadership point of view, it shows how much they want to show their openness," said Wu, a dissenting member of the Koolhaas panel. "So I'm a little worried."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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