5 aug 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Why do the Olympics start on 8-08 at 8:08 pm? For the same reason that many Chinese skyscrapers are 88 stories tall

By Blair Kamin

There's a simple reason for the profusion of eights in the Beijing Summer Olympics. The Chinese word baat, which means eight, rhymes with faat, which means good fortune.

In architecture, the eights come into play through the Chinese practice of feng shui, the practice of foretelling a building's success or failure by discerning whether its location, shape and other factors are pleasing to supernatural forces.

When I.M. Pei's Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong was under construction, the placement of the tower's final piece of steel was set for August 8, 1988, which was believed the most fortuitous date of the 20th Century.

Similarly, Chicago architect Adrian Smith's nine-year-old, pagoda-inspired Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai is 88 stories tall, which suggests double good fortune. In addition, Smith designed the building's core in the shape of octagon and crafted its setbacks as a series of plays on the number eight. The building's base, for example, is 16 stories tall, or eight times two.

Whether such numerology yields great architecture--or turns design into a superficial game--is a matter of debate.

Daniel Libeskind famously suggested that the height of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero be 1,776 feet tall to symbolize the year when the Declaration of Independence was signed. But that didn't stop his appealingly shard-like initial design from being turned into an awkward, urban fortress by developer Larry Silverstein and architect David Childs. In any event, few would argue that Americans have superstitious building customs of their own--for one, no 13th floors in certain office buildings.

One final note about buildings and eights: As all good Chicago Cub fans know, the first night game at Wrigley Field was played on the same day Pei's Bank of China Tower topped out--August 8, 1988. It rained that night, forcing the game to be postponed. Actually, a little rain in Beijing wouldn't hurt right now. It would cleanse the air of all the smog that threatens to mar the Olympics.