if the little mermaid was a man in qingdao (tbt)

Did you just have a nightmare from that post title? As I briefly mentioned previously a really, really long time ago, I went to Qingdao for a few days of sorta-R&R back in August. And … all in all, I was underwhelmed, but I’ll expand more on that later. Right now, I would like to direct your attention to the glorious photo below that inspired the post title:

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When you see a person on a rock in the middle of the water, you think of the Little Mermaid, right? This guy was fairly far out just chilling there for a while and I found it hilarious, mostly because I kept imagining the guy dressed up and posing as the Little Mermaid.

Anyhow, Qingdao is known for two things: European architecture (because it was a German concession) and its beaches. I really hope I don’t come across as incredibly elitist saying this, but I’ve seen better architecture elsewhere, I found the trash-covered beaches appalling, and I’ve gotten used to Shanghai-style China. Everything was just kinda eh. A lot of the people I encountered were mainland tourists, so to them, Qingdao is probably pretty fun, but I couldn’t get over how dirty it was and how rude people were (spitting, littering, pushing). I guess I expected more from a tourist town like Qingdao, because while the behavior wouldn’t phase me in the countryside, it’s downright low-class by Shanghai standards.

Here are some of the highlights from my trip:

But people don’t really go to Qingdao to see the sites or shop. It’s all about the beaches! When I went, the weather was super nice and the beaches were crowded. I was a bit iffy about getting into the water because of all the floating trash and algae, but I did end up wading in knee-deep and walked along three or four beaches, which was super tiring and gave me some pretty serious tan lines.

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Takeaway: Qingdao is good for a max. two-day trip (or as part of a larger trip as it was for me), just don’t expect too much and be prepared for a mass of tourists. Everything was fairly inexpensive and it’s a good place to get away from the city, walk along a beach, eat fresh seafood, and enjoy blue skies, but not much else. Qingdao was never on my must-see list of places to go, and although I doubt I’ll go again, I am glad I went.

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palm sunday service at the cathedral

I’m going to start off by saying that I am by no means a devout Christian … heck, I ain’t even baptized. But I like going to church and I like the ritual/history of it all. For those reasons I usually end up attending Catholic mass, but today for Palm Sunday I went to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights, which is an Episcopalian church – a beautiful one at that.

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I’ve been inside the cathedral before for their exhibits, but this was my first time attending service there. I’ve been to Protestant youth groups, but never a full on church service other than Catholic mass. This was similar enough, but thankfully they handed out little booklets with all the hymns and prayers so I could follow along.

There was no Latin like I’m accustomed to and there was more singing than I expected, but there was still a whole lot of standing and coughing (from the incense). I was also somewhat surprised to see that there were quite a few people apart from myself who did not partake in Communion. Maybe that’s how it is with Episcopalians or maybe because the congregation is more religiously diverse in New York, but in Texas I always felt SUPER AWKWARD sitting alone while everyone else queued up.

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The cathedral itself is beautiful and historic so it gets a lot of tourists. It was built (or started construction) in 1892 and as cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, it’s the seat of the bishop. For the service I sat closer to the front where there were real chairs and beyond the threshold of “No Pictures Please” signs, so it wasn’t until service ended and I started leaving did I realize there were a whole bunch of people taking pictures in the back.

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They handed out palm leaves (it is Palm Sunday after all) and after the service and a snack at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, I tied them into crosses. The whole thing was such a relaxing experience; one that I really needed. I realize it is really, really weird for a non-religious person to attend church, but it’s one of those things where churches just make me happy. They’re safe, calming … centering places. And even though I’m super busy with thesis, when I’m this stressed out, two hours of church is more helpful than not. Although I have no idea what I’m going to do with these palm crosses now.

back in h-town: chapel of st. basil

Alrighty, peeps. This is my last Houston post. Mostly because, well … I’m not in Houston anymore! And it’ll probably be a while before I return again to the land of sun and Tex-Mex. This series of “Back in H-Town” posts have all dealt with Houston art museums and architecture associated with them in the downtown area. So I’m going to end with one of my “favorite” works of architecture in Houston. Quotations are needed, because there’s so much wrong with this thing, but that in turn makes it fascinating.

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This monstrosity, ladies and gentlemen, is the Chapel of St. Basil. I visited shortly before the new year, so they still had their Christmas decorations up. It is located on the University of St. Thomas (UST) campus – a stone’s throw from the Menil and Rothko Chapel – and was designed by American architect Philip Johnson (also architect of the Rothko Chapel). Johnson designed the university’s Academic Mall, the long two-story arcades on either side of the chapel, way back in the 1950s (on recommendation of the Menils) … but back then he was relatively unknown and his chapel design was rejected … so this chapel wasn’t completed until 1997, after Johnson had become super famous and was really old. In other words, this was one of Johnson’s last buildings, was after his high modernism phase, and came at a time when he was probably having a lark and could do whatever he wanted because people would still worship him.

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Basically there are three elements: the white stucco cube (with the entrance flap), the gold-leafed sphere (actually a semi-sphere dome), and the black granite plane (that doubles as the bell tower), and the intersection of these three perfect forms (cube, sphere, plane) form the chapel. I actually wrote a paper on the chapel in my senior year of college for an architectural criticism course. The entrance sequence, internal layout, natural lighting system, and exterior form are actually quite intriguing. I guess those are things I find similar with the Rothko Chapel, with Johnson playing around with the archetype of a chapel. However, since the Chapel of St. Basil holds services, its program and elements are more typical than the Rothko Chapel, so inside there are pews, religious statuary, an altar, et cetera.

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But … in the picture above, do you see the giant tilted cross? Yeah … there’s a giant tilted cross in the side of the cube that’s only viewable from the prayer garden and the street beyond. The official explanation is that it represents the tilt of Jesus carrying the cross, but it seems heretical and reminiscent of the Russian suprematists. Also given that Philip Johnson was gay and not Catholic, but here he was designing a chapel for a private Catholic university … it makes you wonder if he had a smirk on his face as he sketched and why the university let him run wild. UST’s new logo actually incorporates the chapel in its design and they’ve fully embraced this piece of architecture. And yet … it’s atrocious. But immensely fascinating.

back in h-town: rothko chapel

Last week I posted about the Menil Collection, so of course I now need to talk about the little Rothko Chapel as well! It’s a block away from the Menil and was commissioned by the same Dominique and John de Menil, but the last time I visited it was probably around 10 years ago. While the Rothko Chapel is technically a chapel … it doesn’t really feel/seem like a chapel other than the atmosphere inside. It’s actually more of a mini gallery of Mark Rothko’s paintings.

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Er … this cat is not the Rothko Chapel. But he (or she?) was hanging out in front of it, so I just had to take a photo. But hmm … it doesn’t look very happy at having its picture taken. The Rothko Chapel itself is a bit … odd. Okay, very odd. It’s modern architecture (courtesy of American architect Philip Johnson), so whatever. The exterior is brick and the main interior is an octagonal space with 14 large black paintings (that aren’t completely solid black, but still essentially black) on the walls and some benches. Its skylight is baffled, probably because they realized light was bad for the paintings and the dimness of the space now is kinda nice.

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At the Menil, there are a few Mark Rothko paintings that are essentially extras for the Rothko Chapel. That was pretty interesting. In the Rothko Chapel, the large format of the paintings and the darkness of their hues, organized around the perimeter of the very regular and dim space, created a heavy, serene environment that felt safe to be in. But in addition to the front desk/receptionist guy, there were two people monitoring the main space, and  for a such a small space it seemed overkill. When I entered, there was one woman sitting quietly on a bench, but a group of tourists (with a baby!) entered shortly after, and they were not in there for silent contemplation.

I know museum guards and watchful volunteers are necessary to prevent vandalism, which is an unfortunate statement on today’s society … but it’s hard to appreciate a space when it’s made to feel like a prison with someone always watching you. And it’s great that more people going out and appreciating art and architecture … but it’s annoying when they don’t offer the deserved respect. If I could have the Rothko Chapel to myself, now that would be nice. But as it is and despite my love of chapels and churches and cathedrals, I doubt I’ll be visiting it again any time soon … unless I’m bored. Then, maybe.

stained glass prettiness

I’ll admit it, I don’t particularly care for decorative stained glass. My only exception would be rose windows in churches (but that’s mostly due to my love of Christian architecture). Stained glass was apparently quite a thing in the US from the late-19th century to the 20th, but I’m not too familiar with that history.

Below is a detail from “Peacocks and Peonies I” (1882) by John La Farge. This piece of stained glass is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Seeing it up close, you notice the texture and dimensionality of the glass and the amazing intricacy of each piece. The Met also has a bunch of stained glass, but usually I’m too busy in the European paintings galleries to bother venturing all the way over to the American Wing. And unlike the Met, all the Smithsonian museums in DC are free! As in really free, and not fake free with strongly suggested donations accompanied by dirty looks.

I don’t have anything against the medium, but I ain’t won over by it. Stained glass lacks that sense of artistic freedom and artist’s hand that is so obvious in painting. There’s something so craft, so conscious and deliberate about stained glass. It’s not something you can slap together in a fit of inspiration, or change course midway, or go back and alter. It just … is. And though that is compelling in its own way, I find that the hardness of the material creates an inherent sense of static distance with me, the viewer. Pretty. Just not my cup of tea.

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back from boston

A few days ago I took a trip to Boston with roomie D and it was a doozy. Boston was fun, but it’s nice to be back in the city. Anyway, there were a whole host of tourist attractions that had to be seen, so we definitely did the Freedom Trail and saw all those places. One of the places I was most excited to see was the Old North Church, where two lanterns were hung to warn the patriots of the British troops’ arrival by sea (“One if by land, and two if by sea”). Ah yes, the American Revolution was always my favorite war to study in school. The picture is of a chandelier hanging in the church.

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slowly exploring

There’s so much to see in this town and so far I haven’t gotten very far. After all, it took me until the end of my time in Shanghai to actually see the Pearl Tower and the other big Shanghai sights. I actually have yet to ride the subway here (it’s expensive!), which kind of explains why I’ve only really explored my neighborhood. What would explain that more is the fact that I’m lazy. I have walked around Central Park though, so that’s an accomplishment. The Upper West Side has some nice architecture, and I love the grid system because it’s so much easier to find my way.

I’m also very slowly going through my pictures from China, and I hope to be able to share them and print some within the next week. And I just registered for classes, but I might end up switching some of them. Still have a while before classes begin. All in all, things are good, but our landlord still hasn’t told us where to send the rent checks … which is kind of weird, right?

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