Architectural White Elephants: Beijing, London, and The Post-Olympics Curse

Can London and its architectural icons avoid the post-Olympics curse? By Melinda Liu.

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Once the razzle-dazzle of the Summer Games’ closing ceremonies fades, one question always pierces the post-Olympics hangover: can all that construction avoid being called a white elephant?

That goal may be within reach for London 2012 and the city’s justifiably proud citizens. Its masterminds promised a “prudent Olympics” and designed many stadiums so the seats could be dismantled. But for a lesson on what can go wrong once the perennial Olympics curse strikes a host city, just look at Beijing, host of the Summer Games four years ago.

A raft of architectural icons completed just before Beijing’s 2008 Olympics include stunning state facilities like the “Bird’s Nest” national stadium and the “Water Cube” aquatics center, as well as a number of nonsports venues such as the National Center for the Performing Arts and the state-run television’s gargantuan CCTV headquarters. Most have struggled in the post-Games period. The National Stadium is described as suffering empty-nest syndrome because it lags so far behind any notion of sustainable use.

To be sure, Beijing is no different from many other cities that hosted the Olympics. After holding the 1976 Games, Montreal was in hock for three decades. In 2000, Sydney spent three times its original $2 billion Games budget—its Olympics facilities still operate at a loss. Most of Athens’ stadia remain empty, some in graffiti-covered disrepair (the city itself isn’t exactly in robust financial health, either).

In the Chinese capital, the Bird’s Nest cost $423 million to build yet is virtually unused for much of the time. Immediately after the 2008 Games, the stadium drew hordes of tourists—100,000 in just one three-day holiday weekend—willing to pay about $8 per ticket just to see the place, without any activities taking place. But tourist numbers have dropped more than 40 percent year-on-year since 2008. Bird’s Nest ticket sales, which used to make up nine 10ths of its income in 2009, now contribute just 42 percent. Meanwhile, the stadium eats up more than $13 million in yearly maintenance—and events with enough income to justify its 91,000 seats are few and far between.

The National Aquatics Center may face somewhat better prospects, after a 10-month renovation completed a year ago. Some 11,000 seats were removed, and the competition hall was redesigned as a venue for cultural events and performances. Swimmers now enjoy its 12,000-square-meter aquatic theme park. Even so, tourist numbers to the Water Cube are dropping, and the place needs 2 million visitors annually just to break even.

Lesser sports facilities—used for rowing, baseball, and kayaking contests in the 2008 Games—now seem deserted. The Wukesong stadium, which hosted basketball matches in 2008, became Beijing’s first Olympic stadium to sell its naming rights—for which MasterCard is forking out $4.8 million a year. But both the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube have been banned from selling their naming rights to commercial interests. The stadium's managers rejected the idea because they feared such a display of commercialism might "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” This crimps the facilities’ earning potential, since three fourths of the world’s large sports stadiums rely on marketing their “intangible assets,” as Wukesong did.

Some other architectural masterpieces that featured in the city’s Olympics makeover have finally recovered from early setbacks. The National Performing Arts Center, which witty Beijingers dubbed the “Duck’s Egg,” is a vast titanium-skinned ovoid that mesmerizes many who see it for the first time. Initially, however, music aficionados were less than impressed by some of its performance offerings. Now, the Duck’s Egg, nestled to the west of Tiananmen Square, is arguably one of the more successful of the city’s Games-related architectural treats (and performance-goers don’t seem to mind that the average construction price per seat was $70,000).

The most dramatic tale of “edifice complex” gone awry involved the Rem Koolhaas-designed complex, which now houses the state-run television broadcaster CCTV. (Locals nicknamed the doubled-legged CCTV tower “The Big Underpants” because it resembles upright long johns.) In February 2009 a giant fire broke out in the yet-unopened compound. Although the CCTV headquarters building escaped damage, the blaze killed one firefighter and destroyed a secondary building in which a Mandarin Oriental hotel had been due to open within a few months.

The towering inferno, captured in cellphone images and video that quickly went viral, was entirely avoidable. It had resulted from an illegal fireworks display called up by the CCTV construction boss to celebrate China’s annual Lantern festival; he’d ordered up powerful fireworks of the type used during the 2008 Games opening ceremony, but didn’t bother getting the required permits or ensuring that firefighting equipment was adequate (or even present).

In the wake of the calamity, netizens spewed vitriol over the “arrogant” CCTV’s role in wasting taxpayer’s money and churning out propaganda. "If you play with fire all the time, you will get burned," famous Beijing blogger Han Han declared at the time. "How many evil things has CCTV done in the past decades, such as supplanting truth with lies, manipulating public opinion, persecuting intellectuals, abusing facts, concealing wrongdoing, covering-up problems, and creating fake images of harmony?" Even though the charred building has been refurbished since the blaze, the damage it did to Beijing’s image lingers as part of the city’s Olympic legacy.