The Birds Nest & the television experience


Amazement operated on many levels during the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. During each performance, my mind struggled to process what I was seeing. What is this? How in the world did they pull this off? Where does an idea like this even come from?

TV: These small boxes will now take the form of a keyboard, and the keyboard will sprout a peach blossom.

Doug: … Huh.

TV: Now the small boxes, which have made precise, machine-like movements for the last ten minutes, will reveal that humans have been operating them the whole time.
Doug: … Wait, what? … How …
TV: Now a globe will rise, and dozens of people will fly around it in precise circles.
Doug’s brain: [explodes]

In a Wahington Post editorial, Roger K. Lewis recently wrote that NBC didn’t once mention the architects of the venue, Beijing National Stadium. Hmm. That’s funny. I didn’t mention them during the telecast either, but that’s because my brain had been reduced to a pre-verbal state.

Kidding aside, it’s an interesting topic. NBC’s broadcast of the Opening Ceremonies had many, many stunning elements, and obviously Herzog & de Meuron‘s translucent arrangement of delicately interleaved metal, a.k.a. the Birds Nest, was prominent among them. Why would NBC decide to leave the architect’s name out? Who knows? Too hard to pronounce? Seemed irrelevant? Personal score to settle?

Lewis’s rationale for the exclusion of the name is that it’s an American cultural tendency to downplay the role of the architect.

Most Americans are pragmatists, utilitarian in their attitudes about architecture. Aesthetics are secondary to functional and economic considerations. Consequently, practicing architects are frequently treated not as artists but rather as part of an assortment of expert consultants hired to produce complex drawings showing contractors what to build.

While this may be an accurate cultural critique, I think that it’s important to consider that we’re talking about TV here. It’s possible that the exclusion was at least as much about the flattening of content in the television experience as it was about Americans seeing architects as “c”-words. NBC producers authored the experience, and I would guess that, for them, the stadium likely served as a useful and dramatic backdrop for what they saw as the “content” — lights, fireworks, performances, and so on.

It’s a matter of where you’re sitting

To use the iPhone as an example, I would guess that Apple’s goal is to get people to spend more time discovering new delight in everyday activities than parsing the individual technical elements that make them possible. Similarly, if you’re sitting at home watching the Opening Ceremonies, I would guess that NBC producers want to keep you focused on the spectacle of the Beijing ceremonies: the performances, the parade of athletes, the lights, and so on. (Would it have really been that distracting to mention the architect’s names? Probably not. But it’s a slippery slope. What about the fireworks designer? Seriously, what about the fireworks designer. I want to meet him/her).


The Birds Nest will be an attraction for years to come, but I would guess that, like the stunning LCD panel on the iPhone, it was simply the container and medium for the content of the experience. Looking through the keyhole of TV, Herzog & de Meuron stood alongside the dozens of others — choreographers, set constructors, lighting geniuses, fireworks magicians, etc — who contributed an individual component to the televised mix.

Images: Arcticiceboy.

Doug LeMoine

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