How much bigger were China's Olympics than Britain's Olympics? The opening ceremonies that Danny Boyle directed for London's games cost a reported $42 million, less than half the $101 million that Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou spent on the opening ceremonies for Beijing. But Beijing is so big that they are also hosting London's opening ceremonies. Hours after the end of Boyle's production in London, a Beijing-based company called a British theater producer and asked him to develop a musical based on the London opening ceremonies and bring it to China.
In a sense, Beijing had more to prove and less to risk than London. Hosting the Olympic Games was the kind of opportunity that money can only buy once every four years: a way for China to demonstrate before the largest possible audience its progress as a culture and an economy. That the Bird's Nest stadium has fallen into disuse is hardly a relevant criterion for evaluating the impact of hosting the Olympics for a city that has made it a point to tear down ancient structures in its rapid rush to industrialize.
So the comparison between Beijing and London, cast in terms of money or structures, is not an even one. A story from Mashable drives the point home: the future of the Olympics is "portable," defined by the sort of temporary structures that have defined the London 2012 Olympics. ARCHITECT's own Lindsey Roberts was the first to interview Populous's Jeff Keas, project lead for the 2012 Olympics, and he spoke at length about the firm's strategic approach to building soft in London. "And as simple as it may sound," Keas told ARCHITECT, "when you work with temporary structures, you can build in places you could never build permanently."
Yet it's easy to imagine Beijing gearing up for a 2016 Olympic Games and taking absolutely none of London's lessons to heart. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird's Nest stadium with Herzog & de Meuron, took his name off the project and denounced the 2008 Beijing Olympics to protest China's forced removal of migrant workers from Beijing in advance of the event. To Ai, the Bird's Nest was a failure: He later photographed himself giving the stadium the middle finger as an artwork. In the west, the Bird's Nest has been greeted as a failure—or at least, designers are making a strong about-face from the kind of epic design evinced in Beijing.
But Beijing got what it paid for. It was inevitable that a stadium such as the Bird's Nest would fail in the traditional sense: the Beijing Guo'an soccer team draws some 10,000 fans to its matches, which would be an embarrassing display at a stadium with a capacity of more than 90,000. Perhaps, had Beijing gone temporary, that stadium would get more use today—but such a design would have been a failure from China's persepctive.
To say that the future of the Olympics is "portable" is to say that future of the Olympics in cities like London is portable. Beijing is nothing like London. Rio is nothing like London. The economy staggers so significantly from one Olympics to the next that the London of 2016 and beyond could be nothing like the London of 2012. Design for the Olympics will necessarily vary as much as kind of design does from nation to nation.