JF Ptak Science Books (Post 118 from June 2008, expanded)
[I made a post on this subject at the very outset of this blog,m three years ago--I've returned to it this morning to expand and revise it some...]
This image has two things going for it, one obvious, the other not (and just about hidden, until you see it, then you can’t help not seeing it all of the time). It comes from an unusual, somewhat pretty/bizarre visionary work privately printed in Paris in 1913. The lead author, Hendrik Christian Andersen, along with Ernest M. Hebrard (and his brother, Jean Hebrard, who we saw in an earlier post), collaborated on a project (ungainly) called Creation of a World Centre of Communication1, a deeply complex, very detailed, and just plain weird offering for building a sprawling extraterritorial city dedicated to “oneness”, a thing that struggles to be heard over its own insistent shouting. The drawings and plans were lush and lovely, with a lot of thought in their execution but actually very little into how everything might actually be pulled together into some sort of working whole. As the first reviewers of this book demonstrated, simply because something is very big and heavy--as in the case of this huge book--it doesn't give the work any necessary intellectual weight.2
And so it goes. I imagine that if the beautiful Etienne Boullee thought in terms of cities rather than in single structures, he might’ve produced just the same sort of gorgeous, unconnected thing. After all, just because you draw a plan with a lot of buildings almost touching each other doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve drawn a visionary city.
This is one of 22 large images (in real life this print, a heliogravure, measures about 28 inches tall) showing different structures from an art center to a fountain of life. This is the "Tower of Progress"—I don’t know what sort of progress as there’s really nothing to go by, except for the big 100’-tall clock, so at the very least it is a celebration of the progression of time, which needs no monument outside of the trillions and trillions of trillions (or centillions, or 10303?) of bones it has distributed around the planet over the millennia. But for Hebrard it formed the locus of the "a fountain of overflowing knowledge to be fed by the whole world of human endeavour in art, science, religion, commerce, industry, and law; and in turn to diffuse throughout the whole of humanity as though it were one grand, divine body conceived by God, the vital requirements which would renew its strength, protect its rights, and enable it to attain greater heights through a concentration of world effort." Whew. The Tower is really dedicated to progress in learning, and the distribution of information, which stands at the center of this place; the authors believed that the only way that the world would survive the "present war" (WWI) would be through education--I think that the world has so far proved them wrong.
I figure that the tower was to be about 1,500 feet tall (scaling it by the 2mm tall figures scampering around in the image)—a giant tower perched on top of a rotunda placed on top of a table-like something, looking terrifically fake, but lustrous.
The prize though in this portrayal of the "Tower of Progress" is a little smudge-like thing to the middle-left of the tower. Under magnification, we see that it is a man, with a bowler and an umbrella, hurtling down, falling from somewhere way on high in the tower. It is of course a very unexpected feature of this visionary architectural rendering, a hidden joke (perhaps?). These sorts of additions—the work of a disgruntled/drunk/humorous engraver—pop up from time to time in the history of printing. Perhaps the most famous intentional example of this graffiti is found in the earliest copies of the first edition of Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where a male character is featured with
a very large, very lumpy, very noticeable, erection; a proof reader spotted the embarrassment, and the plate was reworked to rid the character of the Natural Function. I’d guess offhand that this was the case with the Hebrard heliogravure, even though there is a second figure in the tower pointing at the figure hurtling past, implying a little more thought in making this a more cohesive joke.
1. An interesting review of this work appeared in Town Planning Review for 1914, here.
2. "This volume is 1 foot broad, 1 foot 6 inches long, and it weighs 10 lbs. It is obvious, then, that if it has a corresponding spiritual gravity it cannot be treated with too much deference..."--source