A Picture is Only Worth a Thousand Words

by | January 14, 2016 2 Architecture

Architects are accustomed to long distance relationships; Beginning as students we fall in love with images of buildings, we read what we can, study the floor plans, but only after a long courtship do we eventually meet in person. We base a lot of our admiration of architecture on a limited collection of well-circulated photos, but when we finally see these works in person we often see that something has been lost in translation.

The photos come up short.

Like every architect, I drag my family to out-of-the-way places to check in on some of these photos I’ve admired from a distance. One of my early architectural pilgrimages, to Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas, was nearly our family’s last. Architect E. Fay Jones gave the first guest lecture I attended as an undergrad and I couldn’t wait to see this masterpiece. Seven years later, and after an hours-long detour on a small, twisting road through the Ozarks, I stood at the center of the chapel and apologized to my fiancé: “I thought it would be a little bigger.”

We had a better result staying in one of the guest rooms at LeCorbusier’s monestary at La Tourette a few years later. Exploring the complex building in its pastoral setting, and sharing a communal meal with residents and guests made for a you-just-had-to-be-there experience. The photos I’d studied did not capture the qualities of mass, light, and simplicity of the detailing the way you experienced them in person. We even endured the building’s ice cold showers and considered it a feature of the monastic experience.

This past August we attended the World Track and Field Championships in Beijing, a trip that I combined with a long-awaited pilgrimage to the Big Three monuments of the 2008 Olympics: the Bird’s Nest (Herzog and deMeuron), the Water Cube (PTW Architects) and the CCTV Tower (OMA).

The Big Three are some of the most recognized buildings in the world, particularly as the centerpieces of the Olympic coverage, but I primarily understood them from the handful of headshots that appeared in the architectural journals at their debut. I studied as much as I could and watched a documentary on the design and construction of the stadium, but there was just no substitute to being there. Just navigating Beijing’s massive scale to get to the Olympic Green was necessary to understanding the scale of these projects.

The Bird’s Nest

Birds Nest - Overall

The Bird’s Nest is an elegant solution to bringing people into and out of an 80,000 person stadium all at once. The interwoven straps, or twigs, create a porous envelope around the entire perimeter of the stadium. Like a sponge, the stadium absorbs and expels a capacity crowd each night without any bottlenecks. Since security is handled at the perimeter of the Olympic Green, once inside, you can approach the stadium from any direction and walk through the deep field of columns to the inner concourse and take your seat in the most direct manner.

That endlessly photogenic field of columns also served as a shading device to protect against the brutal August sun. As we walked around the stadium we dove in among the columns at the first chance. Disappointingly, the Bird’s Nest has rarely held a capacity crowd since the Olympics. The government built the Olympic venues for a one-time use and spends about $15 million a year in upkeep to host an occasional soccer game or endurance tightrope walking exhibition.

The Water Cube

Water Cube - Exterior

Just across the plaza from the stadium, The Water Cube has found new life as a public indoor water park but the primary competition pool that was the setting of Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals sits unused and under repair. The skin of the building still delivers a fantastic effect for night shots as it glows in combinations of blue and red. But by day, its famous ETFE panels reveal the dust collected from seven years of Beijing pollution. There were also a number of residential details that were out of place in such a modern building. For instance, at the one end of the competition pool was a red carpeted area and wood handrail wrapped in an ornamental ribbon. These may have been after-market additions, but we noticed details like this in several modern buildings around Beijing. The pattern seems to be consistent with what I know of China’s strong relationship with traditional symbols. They embrace modernity but make accommodation for elements and symbols of their ancient heritage. And make them red.

The CCTV Tower

CCTV - From Third Ring Road

The CCTV tower is visible from any high point in the flat landscape of Beijing, but is most often experienced from the Third Ring Road, an elevated freeway that passes through the financial district as it makes its way around the city. The building is scaled appropriately for an audience of drivers who pass under that cantilevered armature of the top floors, 500 feet above the roadway, but from sidewalk it’s difficult to approach. As China’s official media source, the building is closed to the public and surrounded by security.

Several of the details of the skin can be appreciated from the sidewalk level, but most of the magic is happening at the cantilever above. One of the revealing aspects of viewing the building from the ground level, though, is the urban context from which the CCTV tower has sprung.  A walk around the superblock takes you past a traditional hutong neighborhood of aging, single-story buildings where residents washed their dishes in the streets and hung their laundry out to dry. It was interesting to imagine what the site must have looked like 10 years ago and easy to see that high rises would replace the rest of the block soon.

The Grand Tour

This trip reinforced the importance of the seventeenth century practice of the Grand Tour – that to complete an education, a student must travel to the ancient world and visit cities, art and architecture in their original context. That in-person perspective remains invaluable today. Photos and other two-dimensional views can capture the basic idea of a project like the Bird’s Nest, but until you hear a hometown crowd cheer in unison for a Chinese high jumper in gold medal contention, it’s hard to appreciate what a photo of that stadium is all about.


  1. Fantastic account of your Grand Tour, Craig! And a very real perspective of the architecture scholar.

  2. Shelby Schroeder says |

    I love the final lines of this entry. I think architecture should elicit a feeling: awe, delight, even indifference or disgust. How could know for sure how a building makes you feel if you’ve only seen it in an edited image online or in a magazine? Thanks for sharing, Craig!

Leave A Comment