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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!

The Algonquin Hotel is an historic New York City property situated on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, about  two blocks from Times Square.  Built in 1902, the Algonquin is probably most noted for the Round Table, a regular lunchtime gathering of brilliant young literary types including Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman, who set the standard for witty, acerbic criticism. (Parker’s reviews are known, for instance, for such gems as “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force;” “Miss Hepburn’s performance ran the emotional gamut from A to B;” and “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”)

I stayed one night at the Algonquin, during a ten-day series of seemingly endless board of directors meetings in New Brunswick, NJ. New Brunswick is, mercifully, less than an hour’s train ride from New York, and a one-day break in the PowerPoint festivities gave me the opportunity to abandon New Jersey and see a Broadway show (it was the utterly brilliant “Follies” revival, with Bernadette Peters, if you must know). Being dedicated to personal comfort and convenience, I decided to spend the night in the city, and take the train back to hell–er, New Jersey–the following morning. And the Algonquin is where I stayed.

The Algonquin is small and charming, and the rooms even smaller and more charming. My room, for instance, was exactly large enough to contain a full-size bed with just enough space to walk around it. My view (and here, at last, we get to the meat of this thing) was of the air shaft. For those of you unfamiliar with New York urban design, all residential buildings erected after 1871 were required to have a window opening to the outside in every unit. Since not all apartments could be on the front, with charming views of parks and the skyline, space was left between buildings that would otherwise have abutted each other at the sides and back. The result is the air shaft: a tall, undecorated brick-lined well punctured with windows and accented by ductwork, ventilation systems, and exposed plumbing, with a patch of sky just visible if you twist your head the right way.

But this is supposed to be about photography, though, and not about urban design or architecture or literary history, so I’ll get to the point.

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about being the “attentive eye,” that finds how “each moment of the year has its own beauty and…beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before and shall never be seen again.” I don’t know about the “never before/never again” bit, since my room at the Algonquin presumably has a pretty rapid turnover rate, but the bit about finding beauty in each moment is relevant. That’s because, to me, there was stunning and stark beauty outside my window; it was only necessary to get past the “oh damn I don’t have a nice view” response, and really start looking:

Air shaft at night

There was, for instance, a large steel tube running up the side of the shaft. Whether this was for ventilation, or heat, or a garbage chute I have no idea. What I do know is that it photographed well:

Close up of steel chute

But look again at that first photo of the air shaft. I honestly didn’t notice it at the time, but only when I was safely back in Southern California cropping the photos in Photoshop. Look closely: just above the water tank on the roof of a neighboring building, there’s a bright pink room. The whole photo is very muted (it was, in fact, around 11PM when I took this photo, so it was about as dark as New York gets, and the exposure  (0.8 at f/3.5) was challenging for a hand-held shot), but there’s a bright pink window in the upper right.

To me, it’s a mysterious and evocative little detail. It makes me wonder who lives there, and why their room is so garish, and what exactly goes on up there. The neighboring rooms aren’t festively colored, just that one. Is it a one-window studio apartment inhabited by an uninhibited Bohemian artist, with beaded curtains and furnished in eclectic thrift-store chic? A prostitute’s bedroom? A little girl’s nursery? A lonely woman clinging tragically to her youth? The gamut of possibilities runs considerably farther than Dorothy Parker’s estimation of Hepburn’s acting.

It’s a tiny detail in the overall image, but it lends itself to the title: “The Pink Room.” What I like about that title is that it forces the observer to look for the detail that gives the photo its name. At first glance, a nighttime view of an air shaft should be called “Air Shaft, Night, 43” or something. “The Pink Room” suggests a lot of other possibilities not entirely expected.

This makes me think that maybe I’ll write about titling photos someday. But for now, it’s really all about this one: Finding the strange and mysterious little pink window in the vaster image of exposed brick and steel and window air conditioners. Being a photographer is about being Emerson’s “attentive eye,” after all. I would have been prouder had I noticed the pink window when I was taking the picture, but I was honestly thinking more about the air shaft as a whole: how to frame its lines and textures and perspective in my viewfinder, and how to hold the camera still for a long exposure in the dark, and how to avoid reflections in the glass window I was shooting through. I was distracted by all those “big picture” considerations from the very real, very interesting bit that, in the end, made the photo unique.

And that, I guess, is the moral of this story: You may think you’re taking a picture of one thing, only to find out later that you were really taking an altogether different picture. And that’s OK: the finding of the real “thingness” of what’s being photographed is as much a part of the photographer’s art as finding beauty in places and things that run contrary to established norms of aesthetic beauty, like air shafts for instance.

Allerton Hotel, Chicago, air shaft at night


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