Perhaps you know someone like this. Perhaps you know a person who remains perfectly calm no matter how harsh the deadline, how manic the boss, how deafening the noise, how near the chaos. A person whose expression never flickers, no matter what's pounding in his head or running though his gut or jerking on his arm.
I know a building like this.
Suppose you laid down a concrete slab, erected some walls and a roof over it and then invited in the biggest judo tournament in the world, and all the seats and mats and showers and locker rooms that went with it. And then you added the biggest fencing tournament in the world, and the biggest Greco-Roman wrestling tournament and the biggest weightlifting tournament. And then you threw in the biggest table tennis tournament, the biggest freestyle wrestling tournament, the biggest team handball tournament and one of the five disciplines of the modern pentathlon—eight Olympic events and some leftover change, more than have ever been held beneath a single roof. And then, because you could, suppose you hauled in and installed the most extensive telecommunications complex in history, requiring 1.5 million feet of cable and 550,000 square feet of space. And then you invited in roughly 100,000 people a day—the population of, for instance, Albany, N.Y. And then, just for the sheer hell of it, you ran 70 trains a day through the building's entrails. And ringed it all, in the wake of the Centennial Park bomb explosion last Saturday morning, with the tightest Olympic security ever, including a phalanx of metal detectors and two searches—one outside, one inside—of every bag or backpack.
And the building shrugged. And the building yawned. I met a building like this.
Suppose you are one of the quarter million people a day who find themselves standing on Atlanta's International Plaza, amid the Olympic "cluster" that includes the Georgia Dome and the Omni. You're staring at the big brother of those two arenas, asking your eyes to take in a vastness that they simply cannot. This building is more than a third of a mile long—so long that its engineers had to account for the curvature of the earth. It's a fifth of a mile wide. It's 11 stories tall. It's the $207 million Georgia World Congress Center, the hub of the 1996 Summer Games.
Architecturally, nothing about it grabs you by the lapels and drags you inside. It's just a huge box of concrete, steel and glass built on a railroad gulch and an old city dump. "A big old bowling shoe, from outside," Dan Graveline, the executive director of the GWCC Authority, has fondly called it. But you're clutching your Olympic ticket, and you're being swept along by a river of humanity, not to mention a series of volunteers on raised chairs, like lifeguards, who bark through loudspeakers, "Weightlifting, judo, table tennis, fencing, wrestling—right this way!" So into the concrete box you go. You take a few hundred steps and then a few hundred more. And then you go down one long bank of escalators, and then another and another. And then you stop and blink up at one of the building's 20,000 light fixtures, and you scratch your head, and you realize that there's still no end in sight, and you're just a tiny insect in the scheme of the universe, and the universe is just one building.
You're looking down a concourse that is more than twice as long as Atlanta's tallest skyscraper is high. Gazing at just a fraction of the GWCC's 2.5 million square feet. At the inside of a building whose eight exhibition halls, which take up less than 40% of its total space, could contain five Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. At the edifice whose proportions convinced the International Olympic Committee that Billy Payne, the man who set out to bring the Games to Atlanta, wasn't the crock of delusions he may at first have appeared to be. And you ask a volunteer security guard—say, 38-year-old Elbert Green of Oklahoma City—where in hell you are, and he says, you tell me and then I'll tell you. "Have I been lost here?" says Green. "I be lost right now. Every time I have to go to the bathroom, I end up asking the fans where to go. This building swallows you up. Wish I had some popcorn to leave a trail so I could find my way back."
"What I do when I hire a new man," says Alan Davis, chief of the building's police force, "is hand him a canteen of water and say, 'I'll see you in 40 days and nights.' Each year after the Boy Scout convention, I have this fear of finding a Scout camped out somewhere in the building two weeks later, earning his badge for survival."
Odd, isn't it? People enter this building damp from the humidity, dumbstruck by the barrage of carny vendors, crushed from the overburdened transportation systems, unsettled by the security threat, but once they're inside, you can almost hear their collective sigh. It's the net effect of the building's towering ceilings and windows, the three-story waterfall, the trees and gardens, the 72° temperature, the wall-to-wall carpeting containing 70,000 miles of yarn, enough to circle the globe nearly three times. Hell, it feels like you're in history's biggest hotel atrium, not its busiest Olympic site. Why go back outside into the madness when you can catch nearly one fifth of the entire Olympics here? Why worry about running the Olympic marathon in a city this hot—why not run the Olympic marathon in here?
If your pockets are deep enough and your legs strong enough, you can race down the building's west-side concourse, poke your head into each hall and see, within the span of a few minutes, 16 Ping-Pongers ponging, 14 handballers handballing, 12 fencers fencing, four judokas judoing and one weightlifter lifting nearly a half-ton of iron above his head. Then you can race past the Southeast's largest ballroom, 76 meetings rooms, 10 restaurants, who-can-count-how-many kiosks, a gift shop, a business center, a FedEx office, a Delta Airlines office, a U.S. Postal Service center, an international telephone center and a Laundromat, going by way of the tunnel that burrows under the Norfolk Southern railway line...which places us in the building's east side, center for the 11,000 broadcast-media personnel from 164 organizations sending 3,000 hours of Olympics to 3.5 billion viewers. The TV broadcasting center alone, built on the floor of three joined exhibition halls strictly for the duration of the Games, is so large that street names had to be assigned in its labyrinth of passageways: Pierre de Coubertin Way, Lillehammer Lane and Sydney Street are just a few. But this being America, even 2.5 million square feet don't cut it, so plans are in the works to add another half-million square feet of exhibition space within the next five years.