As in Paris--where the Louvre lines up with the Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs-Elysees--Beijing's most symbolically important structures have fallen along the main axis. In the center is the former imperial residence of the Forbidden City. North of this is the Jingshan, a park surrounding an artificial hill where the last Ming Emperor is said to have hanged himself, and, beyond that, the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, which for centuries helped Beijing's inhabitants tell the time. In 1958, when the Communists expanded Tiananmen Square, at the southern gate of the Forbidden City, they placed the Monument to the People's Heroes on the same axis, in the center of the square. Mao Zedong's mausoleum, also in the square, is on the axis, too. And now, spread over twenty-eight hundred acres at the opposite end of the axis, is Beijing's Olympic Green. If the Tiananmen Square is a monument to the Maoist policy of self-sufficiency, the Olympic Green, ten miles and fifty years away, is an architectural statement of intent every bit as clear--a testatment to the global ambitions of the world's fastest growing major economy.
At least two of the buildings on the Olumpic Green--the National Stadium, by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and the National Aquatics Center, by the Australian firm PTW Architects--are as innovative as any architecture on the planet, marvels of imagination and engineering that few countries would have the nerve or the money to attempt. The Chinese, right now, have plenty of both. These buildings, some of the most advanced in the world, are made possible partly by the presence of huge numbers of low-paid migrant workers. When I visited the stadium with Linxi Dong, the architect who heads Herzog and de Meuron's Beijing office, he told me that the construction crew for his project numbered nine thousand at its peak.
National Aquatics Center