The Watercube - National Aquatics Centre, Beijing

By PTW Architects
public spaces

National Aquatics Center, Beijing


The Watercube, photograph by Ben McMillan & Arup. Copyright 2008.


CSCEC + PTW + CCDI and ARUP won the International Design Competition for the Beijing 2008 Games Aquatic Centre. The scheme meets international standards for competition and maximises social and economic benefits. In addition to being an aquatic competition venue for the games, the centre provides public multi-function leisure and fitness facilities for use both before and after the games.

The design of the National Swimming Centre, associates water as a structural and thematic leitmotiv, together with the square, both important in Chinese tradition and mythology. Conceptually the square box and the interior spaces are carved out of an undefined cluster of foam bubbles, symbolizing a condition of nature that is transformed into a condition of culture.

The overall appearance of the aquatic centre is therefore a cube of water molecules - the WATERCUBE.

The National Swimming Centre was one of the two main venues for the 2008 Beijing Olympics located on the Northern end of the city, on axis with the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing. It is situated across the main axis of the Olympic Green from the new National Stadium designed by Herzog & De Meuron.

PTW sought to establish a Yin and Yang relationship with the National Stadium. The square geometry of the plan draws on traditional Chinese forms to establish this interplay. As a counterpart to the existing, energy giving, masculine, totemic image of the National Stadium, the Water Cube appears as serene, emotion-engaging, ethereal and poetic, with changing moods that directly respond to people, events and changing seasons.

The Watercube demonstrates how improvements in technology can affect design in terms of material use and computer software technology employed. The entire geometry is based on a unique lightweight-construction, developed by PTW with ARUP, and derived from the structure of water in the state of aggregation of foam. Behind the totally randomized appearance hides a strict geometry as can be found in natural systems like crystals, cells and molecular structures. This was simplified into repetitive units, generating a highly rationalised design, in which the architectural space, the steel structure and the facade are integrated as one element.

The building design uses state-of-the-art materials to create a building that is visually striking, energy efficient, and ecologically friendly. The exterior is made up of a transparent dual ETFE cushion envelope (ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene), like bubbles, achieving great thermal efficiency. The Watercube has more than 4,000 bubbles, the largest of which is 9m in diameter, forming a building 177m square and 30m high.

The Watercube aesthetic is a pure expression of the design idea - a design which refects a form of water, responsive to its physical and urban setting, demonstrating principles of traditional Chinese architecture and embodying latest technologies and materiality. It is a result of cross-fertilisation of ideas between cultures and between architectural and engineering disciplines. For this reason, this project is truly unique.

Location: Beijing Olympic Green, Beijing, People’s Republic of China

Client: People’s Government of Beijing Municipality, Beijing State-owned Assets Management Co., Ltd

Date Completed: 2008

2009 RIBA International Award
2009 IOC/IAKS Award for Exemplary Sports and Leisure Facilities
2009 International Biennial "Barbara Cappochin" Architecture Prize, Honourable Mention
2009 China's Most Successful Design Awards, Diamond Award-
2008 AIA The Jørn Utzon Award for International Architecture
2008 International Design Awards, International Designer of the Year Award
2008 International Design Awards, Architecture of the Year Award
2008 World Architecture Festival Awards, Category: Sport - Highly Commended
2008 The Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, International Architecture Award
2008 Finalist of the First London International Creative Competition,
2007 LEAF Award for Public Building of the Year
2004 Venice Biennale “Metamorph” Special Award for Most Accomplished Work in Section “Atmosphere”