Published: May 2008 Olympic Boom
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

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.

For centuries China's leaders have reshaped the capital to showcase their power and reflect their preoccupations. The Forbidden City was constructed during the 15th century to project the Ming dynastic rulers' connection to heaven. A throng of Soviet-style halls, stadiums, and vast boulevards sprang up in the 1950s and '60s following the Communist Party's rise to signify the collective strength of workers and the absolute control of Mao's rule. Today Beijing, the national emblem, is being remade as China's global city. When new buildings open, officials like to speak of how the structures embody the country's "soft power." Outsiders, goes the message, need not fear China as an aggressor nation or military power.

This message is clearest in the 40-billion-dollar building spree occasioned by the Olympics, the nation's coming-out party. The buildings say that China is big and powerful, but also inventive, sophisticated, and open. Look at three of the most prominent new structures: One is a stadium that looks like a bird's nest, another an aquatic center that resembles a blue bubbly cube, a third an arts center in the form of an egg as big as a city block. Nests, eggs, and bubbles—a whimsical, approachable China. And then there's the "twisted doughnut," the stunning giant home to CCTV, China's government-run broadcaster. Still unfinished, the building connects at the top with cantilevered sections that meet 31 feet high in the air. Practical-minded Beijingers crane their necks and wonder aloud whether the skewed tower will tumble.

A complaint often heard: Many of these structures are designed for foreign tastes, not Chinese. "China is not confident of its own designs, and people prefer to try something new," observes Du Xiaodong, editor of Chinese Heritage magazine in Beijing. "The results are disconnected from whatever's next door, and the newest building in the world sits next to some of the oldest, standing together like strangers."

One of the public shames of Beijing is that its building boom has destroyed most of the city's old hutong neighborhoods of traditional courtyard houses, whose residents are often forcibly relocated to make way for projects that enrich local officials and developers. Pei Zhu and Tong Wu, the Chinese architects who designed the digital command center for the Olympics, are among the few architects trying to preserve and adapt what remains of the old city. Instead of razing and building over historic neighborhoods, they'll take a factory constructed during Mao's time and refashion it with courtyards and glass walls that offer vistas of the old city. The approach restores Beijing as a city for walkers. Above all it balances the old with the new, a fitting combination for an ancient capital in transition.

As for Mr. Wang, he will likely be among the million or more migrants who will have returned home or moved on to other jobs before the Olympics commence. When the television cameras roll, the city's futuristic vista will have little place for the workers who built it.