MOSCOW – When the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games begins in a few days, viewers will be presented with a minutely choreographed spectacle swathed in nationalist kitsch. Of course, images that recall Hitler’s goose-stepping storm troopers are the last thing that China’s leaders have in mind for their Olympics; after all, official Chinese nationalism proclaims the country’s “peaceful rise” within an idyll of “harmonious development.” But, both aesthetically and politically, the parallel is hardly far-fetched.
Indeed, by choosing Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler’s favorite architect and the designer of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to design the master plan for the Beijing Games, China’s government has itself alluded to the radical politicization of aesthetics that was a hallmark of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Like those regimes, whether fascist or communist, China’s leaders have sought to transform public space and sporting events into visible proof of their fitness and mandate to rule.
Speer Jr.’s commission was to lay out a master plan for the access to the Olympic complex in Beijing. His design centered on the construction of an imposing avenue to connect the Forbidden City and the National Stadium in which the opening ceremony will take place. His father’s plan for “Germania,” the name Hitler selected for the Berlin that he planned to construct after World War II, also relied on such a mighty central axis.
China’s rulers see the Olympics as a stage for demonstrating to the world the exceptional vitality of the country they have built over the past three decades. And that demonstration serves an even more important domestic political objective: further legitimizing the regime’s continuing rule in the eyes of ordinary Chinese. Given this imperative, an architectural language of bombast and gigantism was almost inevitable.