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Beijing's Water Cube still drawing crowds

A year after the Summer Olympics, the fancifully designed aquatics center is popular with tourists and is regularly booked for weddings and galas, including an extravagant production of 'Swan Lake.'

August 14, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Where Michael Phelps last summer swam for the Olympic gold, there are now swans -- or at least ballerinas and synchronized swimmers pretending to be swans, plus a few plastic ones for good measure.

The Water Cube, officially known as the National Aquatics Center, has gotten a whole new life post-Olympics.

Defying the destiny of most Olympic venues to become white elephants, the bubble-clad wonder has been in almost constant use since the 2008 Summer Games. It is leased out for weddings and corporate galas. By day, members of the public can pay $7 to swim in the warm-up pool and, as at China's other public pools, undergo a quick health check and swim test.

And now the Water Cube is the site of an unusual production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." The Imperial Russian Ballet is performing on platforms constructed alongside and on top of the pools. Completing the effect of the extravaganza, synchronized swimmers kick their legs out of the water like burlesque dancers; fiberglass swans the size of paddle boats float around the edge of the pool; stunt divers plunge off the high board in the adjacent pool, used for the Olympic diving competitions.

The distinction of the Water Cube, designed by a consortium of Australian and Chinese architects, is the exterior, with its 3,000 air cushions that are supposed to convey the essence of water. The effect, especially at night, is stunning: The building looks like a swimming pool turned inside out, casting a turquoise glow on everything around it.

"It is a magical building," said Maggie Miao, a clerk at the souvenir shop in the lobby, ringing up the receipts after a performance of "Swan Lake."

The building has inspired lines of jewelry, teapots, watches, key chains, purses, liquor and perfume bottles, thermoses, towels, swim goggles and bathing suits. There's even a Water Cube line of, yes, just plain water. A $200 cellphone covered in rubbery turquoise bubbles sold out quickly and is now available only on the Internet.

On the other hand, the shape of the "Bird's Nest," the national athletic stadium that housed track and field events during the Games, lends itself more readily to souvenir ashtrays. The $500-million structure was supposed to be the signature building of the Olympics. But the colossus of twisted steel has been scorned as a classic case of China's "edifice complex" -- too big, too expensive, too intimidating.

Concert and sports promoters have shied away from scheduling events at the Bird's Nest for fear they won't be able to fill all 100,000 seats. Since the Games ended, it's been used for only a handful of events, among them an Italian soccer competition to mark the first anniversary of the opening of the Olympics.

The Cube hasn't had such problems. Audience members leaving the venue after "Swan Lake" said they had bought tickets out of interest in the building more than the ballet.

"The building is great," said Anna Yan, an engineer. "I tried during the Olympics to get tickets for the swimming events, but it was hard to get tickets. This is our chance."

So far the building has gotten better reviews than the shows inside. This "Swan Lake" struck one Chinese culture blogger as a "hodgepodge, like frying up French food in a Chinese clay pot and serving it with McDonald's hamburgers and chopsticks."

In any case, the Water Cube's stint as a theater is coming to an end. Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Co., owner of the building, plans to close the Water Cube in October for extensive renovations that will turn it into a water park and recreation center.

Copycat buildings are springing up around the country. Last year in the southern city of Guiyang, a businessman unveiled a replica of the Cube that houses a health spa, foot massage parlor and karaoke club, all tucked beneath a highway overpass.

A spokeswoman for the Cube's owner said the company was considering legal action against the spa and another business in Shenzhen, a city famous for its knockoffs of iPhones and other big-name products.

But why bother? Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Said Shen Chao, manager of the Guiyang facility: "The Water Cube is the pride of China." --

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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