USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Afterlife of Architectural Icons

The chance to host an Olympic Games or a World Exposition is not only an honor, but also an important face-saving opportunity for the host country and city.  The global media coverage of these international spectacles gives the host the perfect platform to market themselves to the world.  For China, hosting both an Olympic Games and a World Expo within a two-year period offered an unprecedented strategic opportunity for the Chinese Government to alter past negative conceptions of China and prove to the World that they were a major player in the world economic market.   Therefore, China was determined to make these events as spectacular as possible using the physical structures constructed to house these events as essential elements of this effort to impress.  Although I came to China a year too late to share in the excitement of the Shanghai World Exposition and almost four years too late to take in the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics, it is impossible to overlook the many remnants of these events in both cities. From the airport signs, that welcome foreign tourists in English and that still point towards the sites of the former Expo or Olympic Sites, to the emblems of the events tattooed upon the sides of buildings, to the bars who serve beer in mugs etched with the Olympic rings and the words “Beijing 2008,” it is impossible to escape the reminders of these impressive, yet temporal events.

In China, there exists an intense and uncanny sentimentalism over the hosting of the Olympics and the Expo that I have not often encountered within the constantly morphing Chinese urban environment.  One cannot fault the Chinese for their pride in hosting such global events, especially when you consider the initiative it took them to construct entire infrastructural systems almost from scratch in order to accommodate the millions of tourists that would flock to take in the festivities in both cities.  For example, while Shanghai added a new airport terminal and expanded several metro lines, Beijing constructed twelve of its fourteen metro lines within the past ten years among other things to prepare for the event.   However with just as much money invested in the creation of iconic buildings to brand the spectacles as on the necessary infrastructure to support them, I question whether the afterlife of the iconic structures will ever amount to more than empty monuments that serve as reminders of the brief and increasingly distant spectacle for which they were erected. Acknowledging that all eyes would be on the venues hosting the Olympics and the World Expo, the Chinese utilized eye-catching architecture to brand Beijing and Shanghai as innovative global cities.  Ironically the economic burden of constructing these super-sized arenas and display facilities coupled with the short-lived use of such structures rendered them ill suited to transition to be a useful component of the urban landscape once the event that spurred them has concluded.  Thus, although considerable effort was expended to construct structures that would awe its viewers, insignificant thought was given to how the structure would be used once the event for which it was constructed had ended.

Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium (The Bird's Nest)

As an architecture student it is easy to get excited about seeing the work of a starchitect firsthand, so when I had the opportunity to visit Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium – popularly referred to as “The Bird’s Nest” – my anticipation level was high.  As spectacular as it was to see this mega-structure illuminated at night, the few pictures I took were enough to cement my memory of the project’s physical splendor.  Other than marketing tours of the 80,000 vacant seats within the arena and housing an overpriced Olympic souvenir shop, the Bird’s Nest remains stagnant and without a purpose.  At one time, a plan existed to convert the top tiers of the stadium into a venue for shops and restaurants and to preserve the lower levels as a soccer stadium and an occasional concert venue.  Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, and the impossibility of filling 80,000 seats deterred any sports team from anchoring activity within the arena.  As a result, Beijing has been left with no choice but to capitalize on the minimal profit they can make by marketing this pricey white elephant as a tourist attraction.

Exposition Boulevard one year after the Shanghai World Expo

In Shanghai, most of the pavilions of the World Expo were razed after the conclusion of the Expo in accordance with the World Exposition regulations.  A few structures, however, remain. These structures, which are deserted and almost completely fenced off, serve as eerie reminders of what the site once was.  Boarded windows, closed fast food restaurants, and vacated transportation hubs that eased the movement of the participants through the Expo, are painful reminders that this area, which once had a purpose, no longer has one.  Even the multi-level Exposition Boulevard that once served as the park’s main thoroughfare has lost its purpose, it remains fenced off like the majority of the structures remaining on the site, forcing the few remaining tourists to walk alongside, rather than on it.   However, unlike Beijing, plans at least are underway to reuse the few structures that remain.  For example, the Chinese pavilion has re-opened as a museum to Chinese Heritage, and the Shanghai Cultural Arena has recently been renamed the Mercedes Benz Arena, hosting numerous concerts and shows since the close of the Expo.  There are also plans to build a new museum on the site that will pay tribute to past World Expositions.  Nevertheless, this fragmented but positive transition is overshadowed by the vast amounts of open land left in the Expo’s wake.  Apart from the weeds that have sprouted up behind the fences that demarcate the vacant lots, the area has not changed since the Pavilions were dismantled.

The failure to use these iconic structures in a meaningful way or to develop the empty lots left in the wake of these events has a trickle-down negative effect on the businesses, schools, and residents of the area.  When these icons sit stagnant, so too do all the spaces and businesses that parasitically depend on them to make a profit and thrive.   In Shanghai, the Shanghai Expo provided the Chinese government with the opportunity and impetus to displace the harmful industrial pollution of the Jiangnan Shipyard that formerly occupied the Expo site.  In so doing, however, it also displaced almost 18,000 residents, only to have the land that once housed them remain empty a year after the World Exposition festivities have ended and no concrete plan for the utilization of the area have been made public.  Regardless of the moral issues I may have about this forced government relocation, the displacement of these citizens came at an enormous economic cost to the city of Shanghai.   Shanghai must now depend on the sale of these vacated properties in order to recoup their loses. The fenced-off restaurants, vacated ticket booths lines, and partially dismantled elevated walkways that mar the barren site are the last faint hints of the once vibrant Exposition. The memory of what these grounds once were will continue to plague these sites until a new function or structure fills its place, invigorating the site and erasing the memory of these white elephant icons.

Partially dismantled elevated walkways one year after the Shanghai World Expo

The Iconic Buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Exposition impressed the image-focused global media. However, reflecting upon the effect that the Olympics had on Beijing and that the World Exposition had on Shanghai, it appears that after these festivities have come to a close, the sites that hosted these spectacles are the only area of the city that has trouble acclimating to everyday life.  The problem is that these structures and ceremonial spaces are far from the everyday, they represent a crowning moment of achievement in China’s face-saving history.  It is ironic that these spaces that successfully marketed China as a key player in the global economy now are one of the only places in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that sit stagnant.  I guess that means that these White Elephants fulfilled their purpose, but at the same time I wonder if all the money put into them was worth it for a fleeting moment of fame.  I would argue that it is the least glamorous and rarely discussed infrastructural advancements that were made in preparation for these events that will ultimately prove to have the most profound and positive effect on the everyday life of the residents of these cities in the future.  The lasting, albeit less publicized, legacy of the robust transportation network – airports, roads, trains and subways — has the potential to stimulate the future progression of these cities so much more than the impact of the stationary icons that initially symbolized these events.


Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, China, olympic bird nest, Shanghai Expo 2010


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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