Chinese national flag and Bird's Nest stadium, viewed from the Convention Center

The Bird’s Nest viewed from the Beijing Convention Center

(This is Part Two in a series of photography blogs about my recent travels to China.)

During my last business trip to Beijing, I stayed at The Beijing North Star Continental Grand Hotel, which is connected by a sort of maze-like afterthought of a hallway to the Beijing Convention Center. The hotel sits about two blocks from Olympic Park (Aolinpike Gongyuan – 奥林匹克公园), the site of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To get there, one takes one’s life in one’s hands and scurries as quickly as ever so possible across Bei Chen Dong Lu, pausing on the traffic island under the entrance ramp to Ring Road 4, then ambles through a cluster of food vendors, takes the slightly wooded path around the public restroom building, and thence through the turnstiles to the main entrance to the Park. This, you’ll recall, is where the breathtakingly phenomenal Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics were held in the striking Bird’s Nest (formally “National”) stadium  (Niǎocháo – 鸟巢). You remember those: 2,008 drummers beating illuminated drums in perfect unison; a synchronized salute to movable type; the deflating sense, that grew as the evening unfolded, that the phrase “Opening Ceremonies” was being redefined right before your eyes, and that a dozen grinning children in traditional national costumes performing indigenous folk dances while rhythmic gymnasts twirled long ribbons and a pop singer sang something about this-is-the-moment were just not going to cut it anymore, opening-ceremonies-wise. This was where that happened.

Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing at night

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008).

Sometimes a famous landmark fails to live up to one’s inflated expectations when seen in real life. I remember my first impression of the Coliseum in Rome being, “but it’s so small…”, my mental image of the ruin having been forged by movie sets and CGI models that made the Coliseum appear, well, vastly more colossal than it actually is. The Bird’s Nest, not so much. It really is quite a gorgeous piece of architecture, carefully placed in its surroundings with an eye to the Chinese fondness for feng shui.

Bird's Nest stadium reflected in Main Lake, Beijing

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008), viewed across Main Lake.

“Feng shui” (風水) is an interesting, ancient concept that I shall proceed to butcher through simplification here. Basically, it’s a philosophy governing the mindful placement of structures and their components in a way that is both aligned with the natural elements of their surroundings and harmonious with more esoteric considerations. The result of successful feng shui design is the creation of auspicious conditions for the inhabitants and a generally more pleasing environment for everyone. The idea dates back, like practically everything else in China, it sometimes seems, to before 4000 BC. So it’s not a trendy new idea despite its current popularity with some interior designers. The phrase feng shui refers to wind and water—elements that naturally flow when unimpeded, or back up and create unpleasant pressures and inconvenient consequences when blocked. Feng shui attempts to enhance the free flow of elemental energies through and around structures.

You can see feng shui at work in the Olympic Park, where architectural and natural elements are intentionally placed to interact with one another. A winding, lily-lined, man-made lake (that’s designed to resemble the 2008 Olympic torch) reflects the Bird’s Nest in about as perfectly aesthetically balanced a way as one could want. The Bird’s Nest itself is an artificial concrete and steel object made to resemble a natural, nurturing one; an open structure that allows air and light to flow freely through its body, creating constantly changing patterns of light and shadow. (You can also see feng shui at work in the rhythmic flow of progressing through the Forbidden City (more on that later), and, as I wrote about here, in the way the Great Wall hugs the mountaintop terrain over which it winds.)

Beijing National Stadium, reflected in Main Lake at night,

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. Architects: Herzog & de Meuron,Stefan Marbach, Ai Weiwei, and Li Xinggang (2008), reflected in Main Lake at night. There’s a convenient fence surrounding the lake that makes a serviceable tripod for long-exposure night photography.

Back at the Olympic Park, you can see feng shui at work in the Beijing National Aquatics Center (popularly referred to as the “Water Cube”), where Michael Phelps swam to multi-medalled glory. A building that physically embodies the “wind and water” of feng shui, it’s a high-tech construction of more than 4000 thin, inflated plastic bladders mounted on different sized frames surrounding a pool: literally a box of air containing water. Unlike the Bird’s Nest, the Aquatics Center’s ETFE walls have not aged particularly well in the punishing weather and pollution of Beijing, and now have the powdery dullness of a grocery bag snagged in a tree when viewed in the harsh light of day. At night, though, the Center glows with a blue iridescence.

National Aquatics Center, Beijing

National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”). Architects: PTW Architects (Australia) (2008).

Bird's Nest and Water Cube at night

Beijing National Stadium, Olympic Green (Aolinpike Gongyuan), Beijing. and the National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”), at night. Note how the wall around the stadium resembles the Water Cube’s geometry.

Coming soon: Forbidden!