Beijing, 22 January 2013
Readers of my posts will perhaps know that I have a certain fondness for Chinese porcelain. So it should come as no surprise to them to hear that when I read in the China Daily of an exhibition at the Capital Museum on porcelain I immediately suggested to my wife that we visit it. Which we did this weekend.
The exhibition was of porcelain ordered by the Empress Dowager Cixi (the last real imperial ruler of China). I’m afraid to say that it was a disappointment. The porcelain on show was undoubtedly of the highest quality, but the designs were … well, twee is perhaps the best way to describe them. Lots of canary yellow background, and lavish use of birds and butterflies as motifs.
Somewhat disconsolately we went to see what else the museum was offering. There was an exhibition from Taipei, from the Museum of World Religions, and for lack of anything better we visited that. It was nothing special, just a collection of religious memorabilia from various world religions. So we left that exhibition even more disconsolate than before and went to the museum shop. We were running a listless eye over what was on offer when something caught our attention. It was a small something – we were not sure what it was – which, critically, had written on it “MIT chapel”. We had to buy it.
I should explain: my wife and I were married in that chapel, I was doing my graduate studies at MIT at the time. It’s a lovely chapel, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. Probably his most well known works are the old TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. He did many other big works for corporations and governments, but he also did a number of smaller, more intimate works like the MIT chapel.
From the outside the chapel doesn’t look like much, just a small circular brick building set down on a lawn and some trees.
Snow makes it more interesting.
The interior, on the other hand, has a wonderful feel to it. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the chapel is the altar bathed in light streaming down from the skylight above it, while the installation over the altar leaves you very much with the sense of angel dust raining lightly down from on high.
Then there is the wall. Outside, it is a normal circle. Inside, it is wavy and is roughened by bricks sticking slightly out of the wall. It also holds a regular pattern of bricks that reminds me of the ventilation systems used in brick barns in northern Italy.
And then there is the organ, small but perfect, in its organ loft.
Our friend who volunteered to take the photos failed miserably (he forgot to press some button or other on the camera), so we have very few photos of the wedding. But it is all still fresh in our minds. My wife wore a pink tailleur and I a dove grey suit. She kept that tailleur for many years, while a rapidly increasing girth meant that I had to abandon the suit quite quickly. We had come up with our own vows – the parish priest had grumbled at this, asking why we wanted to abandon the beauty of the traditional vows, but we had insisted. A copy of them slumbers on together with all the rest of our stuff in storage in Vienna – we have carried them with us everywhere we have gone. We had our rings designed by a goldsmith in Milan: double gold bands, which echoed the design of the engagement ring I had given my wife from the same goldsmith. My mother-in-law, who was a great lover of music, chose the organ music (not Mendelssohn’s wedding march …). My parents and a couple of siblings had driven down from Canada, and the rest of the chapel was filled with university friends from MIT and Johns Hopkins, where my wife was doing her graduate studies. After the wedding, we had all gone downtown to a restaurant on Boston Commons for our lunch. No speeches, nothing like that; just good food. Because of timing, we had gone on our honeymoon before the wedding, in the Shenandoah Valley, together with my mother-in-law (I liked her a lot …). Immediately after the wedding, we started classes again.
So I’m sure my readers understand why we just had to buy that article with “MIT chapel” written on it (which, by the way, turned out to be a small case containing a tiny pad of ruled paper, a ruler, and an unsharpened pencil – quite where the connection was with MIT remains a mystery).
MIT chapel: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993341-mit-chapel-wikimedia-commons2-375×500.jpg
MIT chapel-winter: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/6339334.jpg
MIT chapel inside-altar: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3383/3478369283_08678cfd7a_z.jpg
MIT chapel inside-wall: http://jmcvey.net/sylva/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/chapel_interior_wall2.jpg
MIT chapel-organ: http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/1297993330-mit-chapel-caribbeanfreephoto.jpg