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The Bird's Nest Stadium, Beijing, China

Issue 44 Aug / Sep 2008 : Architectural : Stadium


The eyes of the World will be on the National Stadium when it hosts the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Games. Arup Lighting had to create a lighting scheme that worked just as well for the TV cameras as it did for the thousands of visitors.

The National Stadium, designed by Herzog and de Meuron, Arup and China Architecture Design & Research Group, is an aesthetic marvel, a feat of engineering and is a new icon for China and the City of Beijing. The form of the National Stadium is popularly described as a ‘bird’s nest’ with interwoven twigs and the pattern was also inspired by traditional Chinese ‘crazed’ pottery, found in Beijing markets. Although seemingly random, the pattern abides by complex rules imposed on the structure in order to be able to define the geometry. The circular form of the National Stadium represents Heaven, while the adjacent square form of the National Aquatics Centre, is a reflection of the Chinese symbol for Earth.

Lighting concept design
Arup Lighting’s Jeff Shaw, working closely with Herzog & de Meuron, developed the architectural and ‘effect’ lighting concept for the Stadium and the lighting concept for the surrounding landscape.
The overall external image of the Stadium at night is very important, and this is true both for the view of the Stadium at ground level but also considering the appearance when viewed from above as filmed by helicopter during an event such as the Olympics. The lighting is a key factor in highlighting the unique architecture and ensuring that the Stadium stands out as a landmark.

The lighting concept design was developed with simplicity in mind, allowing the architecture to speak for itself and ensuring the Stadium glowed from within, reminiscent of a Chinese lantern, drawing people to the hive of activity within. The concept was to create an abundance of light glowing from within the Stadium, forming a silhouette effect with the exterior beams and columns. This is the powerful visual effect that allows the building to have two distinct images at day and night.

The functional lighting goes part of the way to achieving this goal (the sports lighting, lighting for the seating in the arena and the main concourse lighting using custom pendant fixtures). This is complimented by additional ‘effect lighting’ to create the overall concept. There are four main elements that are lit by this effect lighting: the roof, the interior columns, the red-painted outside surface of the arena bowl and the vertical surfaces of the building cores and interior spaces.

The roof is made up of two layers – the white, translucent acoustic ceiling above the arena seating and the semi-transparent surface on top of the roof structure. The proposal was for the roof to glow from within at night by uniformly lighting the top surface of the acoustic ceiling with a series of evenly spaced floodlights mounted within the roof structure. This lit surface is intended to be visible in aerial views of the building and has the effect of making the whole roof volume glow at night when the Stadium is viewed from on the ground.

Accent lighting for the interior columns is instrumental in enlivening the space as well as adding to the overall external silhouette lighting effect. Very narrow beam spotlights were to be mounted on the columns at various heights to accentuate the outer surface of these columns.
Also important in creating the overall image of the Stadium is the wash of light over the outside surface of the red Stadium bowl. An even wash of saturated red light on the bowl surface was proposed using asymmetric floodlight fixtures mounted at key locations around the bowl.

The final element to create the external silhouette effect, as well as enhancing the brightness and ambience of the interior of the concourse spaces, is the wallwashing of the vertical surfaces. All surfaces of the cores and the glass walls that face out of the Stadium were proposed to be lit by a regular series of linear wallwash fixtures.

Detailed lighting studies were carried out to ensure that the above lighting elements worked well together to deliver the desired appearance, this involved selecting fixtures with the appropriate light distribution and aiming them within a 3D model to ensure an appropriate distribution of light was achieved while minimising glare and visual distraction from the luminaires.

Functional lighting to the main concourse areas is provided by the custom-designed pendant fittings, designed by Herzog & de Meuron with advice from Arup Lighting. These are regularly spaced along the length of the concourse on each level.

The exterior lighting concept was to keep the light sources to be low to the ground, keeping the Stadium itself as the focus of the site, and to extend the lighting out like roots from the geometry of the Stadium. This is achieved with points of light positioned along the edges of the various pathways leading to the main entrances of the Stadium.

The area immediately around the Stadium is lit primarily by spill light from the Stadium itself, and analytical design studies were carried out to quantify this light and to ensure sufficient levels would be achieved. Beyond the security perimeter, the low level path lighting is used. These are custom-designed low-level ‘lanterns’ mounted at a regular spacing along the paths. The design of these, developed by Herzog & de Meuron with advice from Arup Lighting, references the design of the ‘bird’s nest’ Stadium itself. Additional functional lighting was developed for the security control points and for feature lighting for the vegetation around the landscape.

Arup Lighting also advised on the natural lighting performance of the Stadium roof, focusing on two areas – the field and the spectator experience. A number of daylight studies were carried out to ensure that the grass receives sufficient daylight to grow and that sharp shadows from sunlight on the field are minimised. In addition, work was carried out on the selection of the roof cladding materials to ensure that the spectators benefit from daylight also and to optimise the visibility of the roof structure above the arena ceiling by day to realise the architectural aspirations.

On site
The concept developed by Arup Lighting’s Jeff Shaw was further developed by local parties: the main lighting supplier Landsky, who is also a sponsor of the Olympic Games, and the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD).

The lighting group at BIAD recognised the need for continuing artistic and specialised input and decided to keep Arup Lighting on board, albeit in a limited way. Arup’s Global Leader Rogier van der Heide combined visits to Beijing for other clients with limited input on the Stadium and the evaluation of several mock-ups and lighting tests.

These mock-up viewings were where most of the interaction between the members of the team took place. After all, lighting has to be seen! The architect, Herzog & de Meuron, wanted Arup Lighting’s original design to be executed and joined some of the mock-up sessions. Rogier van der Heide described the lighting scheme as “a scheme that is in all its simplicity a metaphor for the energy that radiates from the athletes.

A red lit core of the stadium, with its light intensity changing as a heart beat, is wrapped into a black-and-white lit façade, which appears much like a paper cut work of art. The contrast between the voluminous red body, living and solid, and the crisp, silhouette-like immaterial black and white, produces intriguing vistas that are never boring and will inspire hundreds of thousands of people who come not only to the Games to see the athletes but also for the sensational experience of the architectural environment.”

The first mock-up was off-site, and focused on the red lighting. The stadium’s “bowl” is lit from the outside in saturated red light, and the main question the design team was facing was whether to accomplish this deep, red glow with red light or with red paint on the wall surfaces. As usually, the right answer lies somewhere in the middle, and budgets play a role too. The mock-up proved that – to create uniformity – fluorescent performs better than LED, and the specifics of the red paint on the wall are crucial as well when defining the effect.

In July 2007, it was time to build a mock-up on site. Jeff Shaw explains the process. “We were going to see the combination of the paper cut effect with its red background for the first time! The paper cut effect relies on great glare control and minimal spill light, and both turned out to be very challenging. It was just a challenge to achieve the desired effect, which relies on precise beam control, given the quality of the locally sourced light fittings. The mock-ups were satisfying in some ways, but proved that a lot of work was still required to live up to the aspirations of the design team. The nice, white light of the main façade (the paper-cut effect) made a gorgeous contrast with the warm, intensely red light of the stadium inside. Rogier van der Heide provided a detailed report to the team around Landsky with comments and recommendations on how to go ahead, carefully considering both the level of ambition as well as what was feasible in Beijing, and within the given time frame.”

A second viewing on site was the final opportunity to secure quality. In April 2008, the installation was already 30% complete and van der Heide concluded that though the red lighting had worked out quite well, the white lighting of the façade (the paper cut effect) was not satisfactory. With Herzog & De Meuron it was agreed not to change the lighting scheme anymore as the understated approach based on purity and simplicity that Shaw had developed with them was still preferred.

But how to gain control of the spill light? Would the big white washlights that Landsky were installing not wipe out the red effect on the inner volume? The viewing of the partly completed installation proved that it was mainly good focusing that the project was lacking at that time. The installed washlights may not be high-performers but they basically did the job. Arup Lighting completed its involvement here, by debriefing the Landsky / BIAD team after the viewing: God is in the details, and good, precise focusing with the help of some theatre-like flaps on the fittings will get it all right.

The final realisation of this lighting concept creates a welcoming and exciting venue for the Olympic Games, it accentuates the architecture at night and it creates a new landmark for the Beijing night sky.




  • Herzog & De Meuron: Pierre de Meuron, Stefan Marbach, Mia Hägg, Christophe Röttinger, Mr. Dong
  • Arup Lighting: Rogier van der Heide (on site) Jeff Shaw, Andrew Sedgwick, Francesco Anselmo (concept design)
  • BIAD: Victor Zheng, Zhe Lu
  • Landsky: Mr. Liang




Bird's Nest Stadium
Bird's Nest Stadium
Bird's Nest Stadium
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