BEIJING (Reuters) - China officially unveiled its bubble-wrapped National Aquatics Centre, nicknamed the "Water Cube", on Monday, one of the two iconic venues for this year's Beijing Olympics.
The imposing rectangular box, clad in a honeycomb of transparent cushions, will host the swimming, diving and synchronized swimming during the August 8-24 sporting spectacular.
The 1.03 billion yuan ($143.2 million) complex does not yet match the "dreamlike and water-blue building" of the official description and the ETFE pneumatic cushions clearly need a clean to get rid of the grime of construction.
There was no disguising, however, the delight of the officials in the completion of the complicated structure, which was designed by an Australian consortium and on which work started in 2003.
"I feel very excited and proud of this venue," Li Aiqing, president of the Beijing State-Owned Assets Management Company, told reporters.
"It is one of the biggest swimming centers in the world. The whole project is complex and unique. After five years of effort, we are very, very happy."
The "Water Cube" was a unique project for the Beijing Games in that it was funded by contributions from "overseas Chinese", including $25 million from late Hong Kong billionaire Henry Fok and his family.
The pool, where American Michael Phelps could become the first man to win eight gold medals at one Games, sits flush by the diving pool, where China hopes to scoop a bundle of medals.
But it is to the ceiling of cushions above the 17,000 seats -- 11,000 of them temporary -- that the eye is constantly drawn.
The building will perhaps be at its best at night when an LED system with 16.7 million tones will turn the arena into a vibrant kaleidoscope of color both inside and out.
"Mostly it is a building of water, so we'll mainly use the colors of water," said Zheng Fang, chief architect with China Construction Designs International.
The most tricky part of maintaining the venue is cleaning the interior, which will be done once or twice a year by workers suspended on cables, Li said.
Rainfall will provide all the necessary cleaning for the exterior and bird excrement will not be a problem, Zheng added.
"Birds never sit on transparent surfaces so there's no danger of them soiling it," he said.
The centre will host its first test event with the China Open swimming competition, which starts on Thursday.
The second showpiece venue of the Games, the neighboring 91,000-seater National Stadium, or "Bird's Nest", is scheduled for completion by the end of March.
Editing by Peter Rutherford