USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Time, Architecture, and Experience

I exit the subway, ascending a gargantuan staircase which terminates at ground level. Camera poised, I walk with expectation across each riser, expecting to catch a glimpse of the colossus located in the distance. And then, without warning, it appears – a hulking mass of concrete, steel, glass, laying dormant upon a plinth of concrete and stone. I take the obligatory photos, capturing the stadium in the fading daylight. This object of fascination, often referred to fondly as The Bird’s Nest or Beijing National Stadium, is perhaps one of the most recognizable structures erected in recent memory. The centerpiece of the Olympic games in 2008, it has come to represent the vibrancy and vitality of the Olympics and the spectacle of sport. On television, it appears a hub of energy; images taken from endless hours of Olympic television coverage play in my mind as I approach the sleeping giant. As I near the center of the Olympic grounds, the stadium’s iconic image fills my field of view. Surely this visit is a highlight of my experience in Asia thus far.

And yet, something seems wrong. My emotional reaction to this bizarrely familiar place is far from that of the jubilance conveyed by the media’s coverage of the summer games. What once seemed a jubilant structure echoing with the footsteps of tens of thousands of people now seems hollow, devoid of its intended energy. Its sadness is almost palpable. Turnstiles lay barren, staircases devoid of footfall, seats without occupants. The giant, designed specifically to house a record-setting crowd, now sits barren of its program. Street vendors, selling Olympic-themed merchandise, surround its gates as the sole companions of this wallowing giant. Upon closer inspection, the concrete facade is beginning to wear – dirt from rainfall is evident on its steel shell. I begin listening to Stars Of The Lid, a band whose sombre ambience befits a moment so overwhelmingly laden with pathos.

This response on my behalf was completely unexpected, but in hindsight underscores an element in architecture too often overlooked by students such as myself – time. Hyper-temporal architecture, or that designed only for a singular moment in time, only magnifies this dimensionality tenfold. Though some structures are conceived to whether an endless expanse of time, standing with ever-patient dignity, those born with a limited lifespan exude importance of the moment, place, and program in the spirit and image of a structure. The Bird’s Nest, standing empty of its former life, was perhaps even more powerful as a result of its obvious loss and emptiness – an architectural icon forever reminiscent of a singular event. Though saddening, my visit was one of the most overwhelmingly visceral reactions of any architectural icons I’ve visited to date.

As Hans Ibelings describes at length in his book Supermodernism: Archiecture In The Age Of Globalization, architectural theory is closely tied to a series of value judgements. Certain methodologies of design are embraced, rejecting specific principles in favor of ideals which often appear fresh and full of possibility. Though the conceptual implications of different architectural polemics are arguably most visible at a strictly formal level (the stark minimalism and endless repetition of post-war modernism, the visual assault of postmodernism, the abstract formal language of deconstructivism), it is important not to forget time as an important component in the experience of architecture. Whether experienced as an explicit component in Archigram’s “Instant City,” or an implicit constituent of Bernard Tschmi’s proposal for the Kyoto JR Station, time is a fundamental component of architecture. In the case of the Bird’s Nest, even a tacit incorporation of time as a resultant of limited use plays an overwhelming large role in defining one’s experience of such an artifact.


Soundtrack of this experience: Stars Of The Lid – A Meaningful Moment Through A Meaning(less) Process, accompanied by images taken from Disney’s 1966 EPCOT proposal. The superimposed audio in this clip gives the once-auspicious footage new meaning (and with it new emotional implication) in the face of its neglect and disrepair as utopian urban strategy in modern-day America. A must-watch.

Filed under: Architecture, China, Urbanism

One Response

  1. […] by the occasional plaza. In fact, this scene seemed to have more in common with my experience of The Beijing Olympic Stadium than with a busy city […]

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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