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Thinking beyond the square: innovation theory and technology transfer as they apply to the Beijing Water Cube

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-23, 11:06 authored by Orr, K
The Water Cube National Swimming Centre designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics has been hailed as a highly innovative post-millennial sports facility. Conceptually, its architecture is a cube, carved from a random, organic and homogeneous cluster of foam bubbles. Structurally, it is a mathematically rigorous steel space frame, primarily of pentagonal and hexagonal cells. Materially, it is clad inside and out with ethylene-tetra-fluoro-ethylene (ETFE) cushions whose translucent skin captures and translates water’s natural transient and organic properties to a new context that is ancient, landlocked and manmade. The winning design consortium comprised the Australian architectural firm PTW, Arup (Australia) and China State Construction Engineering Corporation – Shenzhen Design Institute. This paper examines the success of the consortium in the light of innovation theory: it considers the drivers behind the collaborative effort, the structure and characteristics of the design team, and the role of technology transfer in the innovation process. Research shows that innovation in the construction industry is linked to a demand for radically new types of buildings and structures. The Beijing Games have provided such a demand as its purpose-built facilities strive to couple challenging programmatic requirements with cultural aspirations.

The Water Cube is a unique coalescence of Chinese cultural traditions, favouring axial arrangements and rectilinearity in the built environment, with current Western trends towards asymmetric organic forms and structures derived from nature. It has been achieved by the transfer of digital technology to architecture and engineering and by the application of an emergent building material, ETFE. The dynamics of the teamwork approach to design provided rich multi-cultural perspectives and diverse technological know-how that allowed for technology transfer and innovation to take place.


Publication title

Techniques and Technologies: Transfer and Transformation: Proceedings of the IVth International Conference of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia






School of Architecture and Design



Place of publication

University of Technology Sydney

Event title

IVth International Conference of the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia

Event Venue

Sydney, Australia

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