Herzog on Building Beijing's Olympic Stadium 'Only an Idiot Would Have Said No'

Star architect Jacques Herzog, the man behind the new Olympic Stadium in Beijing, tells SPIEGEL his arena is a subversive place where people can meet in locations not easily monitored by officials. He also defends his decision to build for a regime criticized for human rights violations.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Herzog, in the coming weeks billions of people watching the Olympics will be looking at your architecture. You can claim to have built the world's most famous arena. Where will you be sitting during the opening ceremony in Beijing?

Herzog: I have no idea. Until a few months ago, we didn't even know whether we would be invited to the festivities at all.

SPIEGEL: You can't be serious! Your structure is one of the government's favorite projects. The stadium is already being depicted on currency.

Herzog: It just happens to be the case that in China, you can never be quite sure how anything will turn out. Over the years, we were often completely perplexed, because we couldn't gauge how our design was being received. What was missing was a clear response. But everything fell nicely into place in the end.

SPIEGEL: Your sports arena has been received with great enthusiasm, and with precisely the broad recognition that your clients were seeking. But what happens if a political scandal overshadows the Olympic Games? Couldn't that ruin your reputation just as easily?

Herzog: That's far too speculative. The question you are really asking is why we even accepted a commission in a country, a dictatorship, that doesn't accept human rights. Should we be permitted to do this or not?

SPIEGEL: And, are you permitted?

Herzog: Yes. We are now convinced that building there was the right decision. We too cannot accept the disregard for human rights in any form whatsoever. However, we do believe that some things have opened up in this country. We see progress. And we should continue from that point. We do not wish to overemphasize our role, but the stadium is perhaps a component of this path, or at least a small stone.

SPIEGEL: But it's also an important mosaic piece in the way the Chinese portray themselves.

Herzog: Who else but architects should be familiar with the effects of buildings? But there is also such a thing as an inwardly directed effect. The stadium is a good example of this. In fact, it achieves the maximum of what architecture can achieve.

SPIEGEL: Because it is so popular among the people?

Herzog: We normally don't think in terms of symbols, but the stadium has become one. This building is literally adored. The Chinese themselves describe it as one of their most important cultural monuments, on par with the Great Wall of China. They identify with it and call it the bird's nest. In essence, who built it is no longer relevant.

SPIEGEL: Well, that can't exactly be in your best interest.

Herzog: Yes, it can, because it attests to a high degree of acceptance. For us, this stadium is more than just a building. It's a part of a city. Vision is always such a big word, but our vision was to create a public space, a space for the public, where social life is possible, where something can happen, something that can, quite deliberately, be subversive or -- at least -- not easy to control or keep track of.

SPIEGEL: Your architecture as an act of resistance? Aren't you exaggerating?

Herzog: No. We see the stadium as a type of Trojan horse. We fulfilled the spatial program we were given, but interpreted it in such a way that it can be used in different ways along it perimeters. As a result, we made everyday meeting places possible in locations that are not easily monitored, places with all kinds of niches and smaller segments. In other words, no public parade grounds.

SPIEGEL: They exist in front of the arena.

Herzog: But the stadium itself is more like a mountain with all kinds of different routes and paths where people can run into each other in unexpected ways. Although we have done similar things with museums in London and Barcelona, in a country like China these kinds of urban spaces acquire a different, almost political meaning. We think that many people in Beijing will understand it this way and use it for their pleasure, because the Chinese generally value public space -- more, at any rate, than we have observed elsewhere.

SPIEGEL: You engaged the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, known in Germany since the last Documenta art festival, as a cultural advisor. But he does not plan to attend the opening ceremony because, as he says, he cannot abide national self-congratulation.

Herzog: He also demonstratively refused to visit the construction site, even though he could hardly contain his curiosity. Ai Weiwei is deeply enthusiastic about the project. But I understand it when he, as an artist critical of the regime, keeps his distance from anything that could be seen as an endorsement of the regime's policies.

SPIEGEL: These games are unique, precisely because they are taking place in a country with such a controversial regime like China's. It's obvious that the architect who creates the structural frame for this event will be in the global limelight. Did this make the commission so tempting as to override moral reservations?

Herzog: Only an idiot -- and not a person who thinks in moral terms would have turned down this opportunity -- would have said no. I know that there are architects who now claim that they would never have even considered building in China. This is both a naïve and arrogant position, one that reflects a lack of knowledge of and respect for the incredible cultural achievements this country has continuously provided over the last 5,000 years and still provides today.

SPIEGEL: Isn't this an excessively positive standpoint, given the recent political turbulence? Some of your colleagues aren't as charitable.

Herzog: In the last few years, in particular, we have experienced the emergence of a new generation of artists, architects and intellectuals, and they have the ability to change the society in a lasting way. Playing a role in shaping this new era is far more interesting and probably even more moral than taking part in a boycott from one's desk. We aren't just referring to architects in this regard, but also to other creative figures. Steven Spielberg agreed early on to be the artistic advisor for the opening ceremony, and then he withdrew, essentially at the last minute, because the regime was no longer to his liking ...

SPIEGEL: ... in February 2008.

Herzog: It just smells like cheap propaganda, first agreeing to take part in this sort of event and then cancelling for a current political reason that was predictable. China has not become less democratic and does not respect human rights less than it did before. China is still a long way from what we in the West expect, but the establishment of a broad, new intellectual class is a hopeful sign of change.

SPIEGEL: Really? The Tibetan conflict aside, critics are still harassed just as much as they were in the past, under the guise of a supposed liberalization.

Herzog: From our perspective, the society has in fact become freer and more diverse. But many refuse to see this, because they measure everything against our democratic conditions, which are unique and rare and, especially in central Europe, not even all that old. The interesting thing about architecture is that it exists, in a very physical and concrete way, becomes part of the history of a society and can help shape this society. Seen in this light, withdrawals and boycotts are less credible contributions.

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