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The Water Cube, Beijing, China

Issue 44 Aug / Sep 2008 : Architectural : Stadium

Lighting Design: ARUP LIGHTING Architect: PTW

Arup has engineered a bubble structure that maximises daylighting and lends itself to dynamic LED lighting at night.

The National Aquatics Centre, known as the ‘Water Cube’, will be one of the most dramatic and exciting venues to feature at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Enclosed within the blue bubble walls are the pools for the Olympic swimming and diving competitions, along with seating and facilities for 17,000 spectators.

It has five pools that are six times the size of an Olympic pool, including one with a wave machine and rides. There is also an organically shaped restaurant area carved out of the bubble structure.

Designed specifically for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, after the event it will continue as one of Beijing’s premier recreation centres.

The US $100 million dollar project sits next to the glowing ‘Bird’s Nest’ of Herzog & de Meurons’ spectacular main stadium, the two opposing shapes sitting together in yin yang harmony.

In July 2003, the consortium of Arup, architecture firm PTW, the CSCEC (China State Construction and Engineering Corporation) and the CSCEC Shenzhen Design Institute (CSCEC+DESIGN) won the international design competition for the National Aquatics Centre.

The Water Cube marks a new beginning in design thinking. It responds to an idea about what a structure should or could be. This new thinking has been spurred on by one question: “How does structure fill space?”
Traditionally, structure is all to do with forms and services such as beams, slabs and columns. In big roofs, structural engineers have explored the idea of manipulating the shape to enhance the structure such as arches and domes. Sometimes we have experimented with separating the structure from the shape of the thing it supports. For example, the cable net supporting the roof of the stadium is not the same shape as the roof itself.

The structure was inspired by cells and soap bubbles and is clad in ETFE foil cushions. It is based on a common natural pattern, the most effective sub-division of three-dimensional space – the fundamental arrangement of organic cells and the natural formation of soap bubbles. Arup based the structural design on Weaire and Phelan’s (Irish physic professors at Dublin’s Trinity College) proposed solution to the problem of ‘What shape would soap bubbles in a continuous array of soap bubbles be?’ This problem was both initially posed and tentatively answered by Lord Kelvin at the end of the 19th century but it would be 100 years before the Irish professors proposed a better one.

Arup structural engineers realised that a structure based on this unique geometry would be highly repetitive and buildable whilst appearing very organic and random. Indeed such space filling patterns are regularly observed in biological cells and mineral crystals and they are probably the most common structure in nature.

Though seemingly fragile, in fact the structure is very robust and the ductile space frame that is generated from this geometry is ideally suited to the seismic conditions found in Beijing.

The Water Cube is essentially a structure made from an organic network of steel tubular members and clad with translucent ETFE pillows. The huge complex is 177x177x31m.

The cube is comprised of a series of steel tubes welded to round steel nodes, which vary according to the loads placed upon them. There is therefore a huge variety in sizes, with around 22000 steel members and 12000 nodes in total. There are 4,000 bubbles making up the Water Cube, with some as large as 7.5m wide. The roof comprises seven bubbles and the walls 16 bubbles, which are repeated throughout.
Daylighting design was a challenge for Arup. It is not ideal to have lighting in the middle of a pool as it creates glare for the spectators. Arup therefore designed two structures for either side of the pool that direct light at ideal angles. The structures can be lowered onto the floor for maintenance, and they are also flexible enough for lights to be added or removed at will.

At night, Cree XLamp LEDs illuminate the bubble designs from inside the structure’s translucent walls, allowing the entire building to glow with extraordinary colour-changing LED light.

“The Water Cube is designed to provide spectacular lighting effects to be seen by millions of people around the world during the Olympics and for years to come,” said Dr. XiGuang Fu, chief engineer for Grandar Landscape Lighting and Technology Group, the primary contractor for the lighting project. “We chose Cree XLamp LEDs because they provide industry-leading performance, and they provide the reliability and design flexibility needed for this highly visible project. Cree also provided technical support that will help make the Water Cube a remarkable, world-renowned lighting installation.”

“This unusual venue spans some 80,000 square metres, and has approximately 440,000 Cree XLamp LEDs embedded throughout the structure. The scale of the project, combined with unique lighting controls provided by Grandar, has resulted in a truly memorable display of changing images and colours,” said Scott Schwab, Cree Asia Pacific managing director. “It’s an extraordinary design that relies on LEDs to create dramatic effects while consuming as little energy as possible.”


The Water Cube, Beijing
The Water Cube, Beijing
The Water Cube, Beijing The Water Cube, Beijing
  • The Water Cube, Beijing
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