Review: ‘Bird’s Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China’

Doc explores the cat-and-mouse relationship between the Chinese gov and the Swiss firm hired to design Beijing's 91,000-seat National Stadium.

The cat-and-mouse relationship between the Chinese government and the Swiss firm hired to design Beijing’s 91,000-seat National Stadium is explored from a frustratingly elliptical remove in the up-to-the-minute docu “Bird’s Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China.” Though full of thought-provoking discourse on the nature of urban architecture and the importance of avoiding Western ideas in favor of Chinese cultural traditions, pic is light on visual human drama. Pre-Olympics interest will be keen, with subsequent value as a niche tube item.

Nicknamed “Bird’s Nest” by the local media for its steel webbing and curved lines, the impressive structure is followed from its December 2003 groundbreaking through late 2007.

Basel, Switzerland-based architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are childhood friends who have taken the art form by storm since forming their own firm in 1997. Their higher-profile projects include London’s Tate Modern, New York’s 40 Bond Street and Munich’s Allianz Arena.

With Herzog stationed in their home office and the de Meuron on site to consult with local conceptual artist Ai Weiwei and navigate the bureaucracy, the stage is set for a high-stakes chess match with Chinese tradition and government officials, one of whom serenely points out, “When we demand changes, they have to make them. It is their job to make us happy.”

Dissension from within comes in the form of urban planning and design prof Zhi Yin, who pops up occasionally with haughty criticism. “Increasing freedom in China comes with an overestimation of the avant-garde,” he sniffs. “This phenomenon is a result of politics and not a natural development within art. That is why Beijing cannot create architecture to stand the test of time.”

To diminishing returns, footage of stadium construction is interrupted to follow a second project being planned by the team — a mammoth city center to be built in Jinhua, near Shanghai. But that plan never gets much beyond the concept stage, and dissipates the tension generated by the pic’s main subject.

Tech credits are discreet, with numerous computer-massaged effects photos putting the massive stadium in context with its then-undeveloped surroundings.

Bird's Nest: Herzog & de Meuron in China



An Icarus (in the U.S.)/ Columbus Film (in Switzerland) release of a T&C Film production. (International sales: T&C Edition, Zurich.) Produced by Marcel Hoehn. Directed by Christoph Schaub, Michael Schindhelm.


Camera (color, DV), Stephane Kuthy, Matthias Kaelin; editor, Marina Wernli; music, Peter Braeker; art director, Feinheit Kreativ Studio; sound, Martin Witz, Marc von Stuerler. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, June 13, 2008. (In Silverdocs Film Festival, Silver Spring, Md. -- Silver Spectrum.) Running time: 88 MIN.


Pierre de Meuron, Jacques Herzog, Uli Sigg, Ai Weiwei, Li Aiqing, Li Xinggang, Yu Qui Rong, Zhi Yin, Mia Haegg, Stefan Marbach, Zhang Xin, Fang Hangting. (German, English, Mandarin dialogue)
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