Changing China

Giant on the move

A Cubist magic trick

August 12, 2008

The water cube

After years of seeing just a hole in the ground, then a mess of construction cranes, then mysterious activity going on behind barrier walls, yesterday I finally got to enter the Water Cube.

There’s no doubt that it’s impressive from the outside. The rectangular building is known for its transluscent facade that evokes giant soap bubbles and at night the whole thing glows in hues of blue, a warm beacon on the otherwise grey and beige horizon of Beijing.

Too many buildings impress from the outside but inside could be any other office block or stadium. Not so with the Cube.

Inside, its ceiling extends all the way up to the soap-bubbled roof, allowing in natural light and an environment that avoids any cloying chlorine stuffiness.

What really blew me away though was the facade itself, made of a material called ETFE, a durable plastic that filters light and is a better insulator than glass. The material is such a curiosity that there is a designated place in the stadium where visitors are allowed to touch it.

What does it feel like? A lot like plastic wrap. It’s bendy to the touch and feels like you could poke a finger right through it. (I didn’t try.)

There are two layers of it and in between you can see some of the steel bands that form the structural supports, but still, it’s amazing that a material that seems so flimsy can keep the whole thing together.

I’d been impressed before by the architecture; now the whole building feels like a magic trick.

PHOTO: The National Aquatic Centre, also known as the ‘Water Cube’, during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 8, 2008. REUTERS/Hans Deryk

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