Behind the Olympics: An architectural tour of the venues

If you’re watching the Olympics on TV, you’re quite familiar with the over-the-top athletic venues here. To say they boast a “wow” factor is an understatement. These testaments to China’s growing architectural prowess (or at least their deepening wallets, as most of the designs are by foreign architects) are sure to be tourist destinations long after the end of these Games.

But if you’re a bit confused as to what’s the bird’s nest versus the bird’s egg or whether the water cube is made out of water, here’s a cheat-sheet for you.

  • Bird’s nest. Its official name is the National Stadium, but locals and foreigners alike will forever call it by what it looks like. This venue hosted the epic opening ceremony, which culminated in a torch lighting never seen before (Chinese gymnast Li Ning “ran” or “flew”, depending on how you see it, around the stadium’s rim on wires). Now it’s host to the track and field competitions along with some soccer bouts.
  • Water cube. An iconic venue in its own right, the water cube sits right next to the nest. Again, its official name is more staid: the Aquatics Center, which houses some 17,000 people here too watch swimming and diving. And those bubbles? No water inside–they’re made out of ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), a plastic.
  • National Indoor Stadium. The lack of a cute name should clue you in. Not much of an architectural gem here, unless you’re into the whole communism school of thought. You’ll be stuck here if you have tickets for gymanstics, handball, or something called trampoline (and no, this stadium isn’t in someone’s backyard).
  • Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing Park. Considering that China makes its first Olympic debut in rowing–a sport it’s literally invested millions upon millions–this facility is quite remarkable and worth a visit, if nothing else to do some kayaking or rowing and escape the fumes in the city.
  • Peking University Gymnasium. Possibly the poshest college gym ever, this new facility–get this–holds nothing else but ping pong matches. It’s well worth the visit because you’ll be on the campus of historic Peking University, the Harvard of China, with its spectacular Asian scenery and little temples on lakes.
  • Terminal 3. Host of the hang-gliding events (OK, I wish), terminal 3 is the newest addition to Beijing’s rather flimsy airport. But Norman Foster’s newest creation, in the shape of a giant plane, boasts some 60 restaurants and 80 restaurants. It’s also the biggest terminal in the world. You might have to fly here just to see an airport.