Published: May 2008

Olympic Boom

National Stadium

The New Great Walls

With the Olympics looming, China is pushing architecture to its limits for a giant coming-out party.

By Ted C. Fishman
Photograph by Greg Girard

Lunch for the workers constructing the China World Trade Center Tower in Beijing begins at 11:45. Thousands of hard-hatted men pour out of the site of the 74-story high-rise that will be the city's tallest. Most dig into their lunches on the sidewalk. Others head for a food stand where a tin bowl of sheep-gut soup costs 14 cents. Mr. Wang, who comes from a rural village in Henan Province, runs a crew installing ventilation shafts in the first 30 floors of the trade tower. His helmet, too narrow for his formidable head, sits high and rocks when he talks, more so when he laughs. Wang, at 51, has a burly body and a confident eye, but several of his charges are teenagers fresh off the farm. As boss, he bears responsibility for their mistakes, so sometimes he speeds their training with his boot.

Wang and his crew are part of an army of largely unskilled workers, more than a million strong, that has helped turn Beijing into what is perhaps the largest construction zone in history, with thousands of new projects under way. Once a flat cityscape dominated by the imperial Forbidden City and monumental but drab public buildings, Beijing has been struck by skyscraper fever. Over the past 30 years, China's economy has averaged nearly 10 percent annual GDP growth, driven by the marriage of world-class technology with a vast low-cost workforce. That same dynamic has turned China into an architects' playground, first in Shanghai in the 1990s as its skyline filled in with high-rise marvels, and now in Beijing, which is building at a mad pace in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in August.

Beijing's newest buildings push aesthetic and technological bounds, each outshimmering the last. Most major projects have been designed by foreign architects: Chinese clients crave innovation and hunt beyond China to get it, says American architect Brad Perkins, founder of Perkins Eastman in New York. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, architects were more technicians than artists (even the term architect was considered bourgeois), and private architectural firms were a rarity until a decade ago. "By turning to foreigners like me," says Perkins, "the Chinese are buying 30 to 40 years of experience they didn't have."

China's low-wage workers in turn allow foreign architects to design structures that would be too costly to build at home, with decorative tops, intricate latticework, and bold engineering. The linear grace of the China World Trade Center Tower, for instance, comes from an innovative cross-bracing system that gives it strength against the city's seismic rumblings and high winds, and from glass louvers engineered to make the most of the city's sunlight. But the tower's architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, also used technology that could be handled by crews working at breakneck speed. The building's prefabricated window walls can be snapped together rather than cut on-site, as they would be with more highly trained workers. Using huge construction crews that work around the clock, foreign architects get to see big projects to completion in China in a remarkably short time, often within three to four years. "Some people in China—including Chinese architects—believe their country has become the Western architects' weapons testing ground,' " says Perkins.

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