The National Aquatics Center, aka the Water Cube, aka that icon of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which, along with the Bird's Nest, came to symbolize the financial toll of a massive international sporting spectacle, has reopened as a water park. And, naturally, it's an even bigger spectacle.
The park is designed by Toronto-based Forrec, and it's a technicolor explosion that's like Candy Land on a cocktail combo of steroids and crack. It's got slides, some seven-stories tall, with fearsome names like Aqualoop, Bullet Bowl, and Speed Slides. It's got monster jellyfish dangling from the ceiling and done up in gentle pastels as if to distract people from the fact that there are monster jellyfish dangling from the ceiling. There are whirlpools and rides frighteningly called "deep-sea tornadoes" and giant rainbow-colored funnels that could pass for an acid freak's idea of smoke stacks. The whole thing looks like a coal plant crossed with the set from The Little Mermaid. And apparently, people can't stay away.
It's a remarkable conversion for a building that should've been resigned to cobwebs and sweet memories. Mounting any Olympics is risky business, and nobody approached the task with more zeal than China, which spent billions dotting Beijing with architectural monuments to its own greatness. The historical ledger is filled with cautionary tales against outsize capital building campaigns (see here and here), and Beijing seemed doomed to the same fate. Sure enough, the tourists who were supposed to throng the city never showed, and the Bird's Nest turned into a creepy shell of its former self; an attempt last winter to revive it with a snow park initially attracted more journalists than visitors. This, of course, conflicts with the official dispatch from state-run Chinese media, which claims that both the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube are "examples to the world of the correct way to run Olympic facilities after the competition."
They got one thing right. The Water Cube has enjoyed a sunny after life. According to the L.A. Times last year, it had been used almost continuously since the Games ended in 2008. It's leased for weddings and corporate galas, and it once hosted a high-profile performance of Swan Lake by the Imperial Russian Ballet (complete with synchronized swimmers and floating, fiberglass swans). And until the facility closed for renovations back in October, locals could pay $7 a day to swim in the same pool, where Michael Phelps broke practically every damn record in the book.
Which makes the refurb bittersweet. As Agence France-Presse reports, the water park's entrance fee is 200 yuan for adults and 160 yuan for children. Minimum wage in the city is 960 yuan. That makes it a park for tourists, not the city's working poor (which, to be fair, is true of most theme parks). So yeah, Beijing might make good on some of its investment. But you have to wonder whether it's really an example to the world of "the correct way to run Olympic facilities."