A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3 million hits| History of Science, Math & Tech | Press & appearances in The Times, Le Figaro, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places...
While looking through D. Guilmard's La Connaissance des Styles de l'Ornementation (published around 1860)--a work that is a sort of early clip-art assembly of aspects of bits and details of historical ornamentation from the Gothic to Louis XVI-- I found several engravings of mirrors with some unusual detail. For some reason the Renaissance mirrors nearly all had a small white dot--a hole--in the center of their jet-black mirror surface. I imagine that this was a simple printing error, but I liked the idea of this spec of a mistake right in the middle of a dark field, in effect making a hole in the mirror, looking something like a light leak. It makes for an intriguing series of images.
Which is a detail (about 2x2 inches in life) from the full sheet, below
A while ago I wrote a post on Herman Soergel's plan for extending the landmass of the countries around the Mediterranean Sea by damming the straits of Gibraltar, lowering the sea and irrigating the Sahara--an original, interesting but not very good idea, filled with briney cultivation and racial politics. In the past on this blog I've written about other city plans--and in particular, for New York City--that have involved floating Manhattan into the harbor, or filling up large chunks of the Narrows, or floating the city on an enormous anti-gravity platform, and so on. Some of those plans were real, some science fiction, and some were plainly beyond both. The plan presented above is another monster, but at least this one could work, if not for the doing of it, and the expense. And the will.
But the bottom line, according to the engineer doing the thinking on this project, Kennard Thomson, would supposedly net the city a cool billion dollars after everything was said and done, and that would be 1916 dollars--that was equal to about 5% of the American GDP (!) in 1916, which would be about $400 billion in terms of 2010 GDP. I'm not sure how Thomson came up with this very big/very round number, though it must have been done for effect--I can just imagine him standing before a smokey room filled with civil engineers talking about his massive plan for enlarging NYC and throwing out the billion-dollar figure, watching the cigars glow red in exhaled disbelief.
Thomson did know what he was talking about--he was a busy (and "leading" according to the NYT) Manhattan civil engineer of stature, working on the Canal Barge and being the principal engineer for the Municipal and Singer buildings, for example--and his project seems to be well within the scope of possibility. Their sensical aspects however are, well, questionable.
Here's the story--around 1911, while examining proposals to repair and extend New York's wharves, Thomson came upon the idea--a magnificent, fabulous idea--of adding new wharves by adding new lands to the city. In short, the overall plan was to fill in the East River (!!) and reclaim the new land for city living, dam Hell Gate, construct a New East River (from Flushing to Jamaica Bay), extend the tip of Manhattan Island from the Battery to within a quarter-mile of Staten Island (!), create a new 40-square-mile island between Sandy Hook and Staten Island, extend the Jersey shoreline, add two new Manhattan-sized appendages to the east shore of Staten Island, and more. All of this would be connected by various new bridges and roads and tunnels, as well as a 6-track elevated railway that would circumnavigate the city. The purpose of all of this would be to add 100 miles of new docks, an enormous amount ("50 square miles of reclaimed land") of new land and the capacity for NYC to house 20+ million people, all of which would be worth a billion dollars.
Thomson really meant "really" in the title for the proposal. There have been reclamation projects undertaken in New York Bay since then of course, and I think that virtually all of what Thomson talked about could be done. I think it would be a very interesting project for a class of some sort to undertake an estimation of what such a thing would cost today (and I would guess to duplicate the idea in real terms now would take up a sizable chunk of the GDP). Maybe all of this will make sense at some more future point.
And along this line of thinking I include a very interesting drawing made by architect Lebbeus Woods, showing the bedrock part of Manhattan. He empties the East River and damns (?) the Hudson, and also builds some new port extending from Staten Island or out from Jersey...but the effect of the dry river bed between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Andthen some--he empties the river, and then deepens/excavates, heightening the depths (?!) of Manhattan Canyon. The depth of the river where we can see it in the drawing is maybe 100 feet, and certainly (judging the depth against the heights of the structures in the lower island) the canyon is deeper than that--maybe an order of magnitude deeper.
The following example of Great Obviousness comes from one of the great masters of perspective on the Continent, Jan Vredeman de Vries, (architect, engineer and man with a vision), and appear in his work Variae Architecturae Formae, and published in 1601. (The whole of the book is available at the Internet Archive, here.)
It would be interesting to know the history of this tree and its obvious salvation--it doesn't seem to be older than the street or the buildings, yet, there it is, a tree the diameter of an adult waist in the middle of a very populated street
Below you can see the detail of the man at the middle right--he is absolutely pointing to teh tree, perhaps sharing his amazement with the man and child coming down the street. The pointer had been seated, probably, on the bench behind the bar that was in front of the bar/saloon/draughthouse that he was probably inside of, perhaps enjoying a pint of five, perhaps making the tree even more amusing than it was. (The tilted stein is clearly visible advertising a place for thirsts to stop.) The child is reacting to something, and even so the dogs--the second of which seems to be stopped mid-stride in amazement.
Another exzmple of the unexpected tree comes later in the same book, when we see one tree in th emiddle of a plan garden and the other growing on top of what might be an herbarium. (On closer inspection the figure at lower right is a woman collectig some water in a jug; without magnification the seen looks a little more sinister than it is.)
I am hardly an historian of the theatre (and having said that will give me a chance to make some mistakes in what I am about to say) but so many of the stage designs of Giacomo Torelli look to be concentrated at an infinite horizon that I wanted to collect a few of them in one place. Torelli (1608-1678) was an artist and artistic-technician who brought engineering skills to the stage, and was evidently a much-sought-after designer, given his very special
[Image source: WIki, here.] Set design for Act 5 of Pierre Corneille's Andromède as first performed on 1 February 1650 by the Troupe Royale at the Petit-Bourbon in Paris.]
I do have to say that the Torelli puts me in mind of the perspective king of 17th c Continental architecture, Vriedman de Vries (1527 – c. 1607), especially with the columns (from his Architectura, 1633):
talents and innovations. He was absolutely interested in one-point perspective and the techniques used to gather the audience's vision and suck it all into the low-center of the back of the stage, giving the production a fabulous quality of depth and distance. (He also provided the ingenuity and gearwork for quick changes of massive scenery by one stagehand, working under the stage with pulleys and winches, hauling large elements on and off stage during a performance. His work can be seen in the iconic Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot in a section for "Machines du theatre" in 1772.)
The other thing that strikes me immediately with these images is their absolute usefulness in toy paper theatre. By making eight copies of the first image (above) and by cutting out each seven layers of columns (the opening space between the two sides becoming progressively smaller), and then the last and eight level of the mansion in the background and then standing them up and placing them all-in-a-row with an inch between them (accordion style), one could make a lovely 3-dimensional miniature stage. (Scene changes would be an entirely different matter.)
[Source: Publishing.cdlib.org, Operain Seventeenth Century Venice, the Creation of a Genre, by Ellen Rosand.]
[Francesco Buti/Isaac de Benserade, "Les Noces de Pelée et de Thetis"; Source: Oesterreichisches Theatre Museum, here]
1. Bryan, Michael| (1889). Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical. Volume II : L-Z,
new edition, revised and enlarged, edited by Walter Armstrong &
Robert Edmund Graves. Covent Garden, London: George Bell and Sons
There seem to be few designs for Very Tall Buildings in the Renaissance that weren't churches or towers--I mean, structures with storys, and ninth floors, and small glazes, and so on.
That is why this design for an eleven story building by the architect Jacques Perret de Chambery (in his book Architectura et perspectiva des fortifications et artifices, which was printed in Paris in 1601) bursts into the brain as being so remarkable.
Describing this building and quoting the bookseller site Martayan Lan, Inc. "One extraordinary pavilion would seem to have its
ultimate source in the fifteenth-century Temple of Virtue and Vice
designed by Filarete. It is eleven stories in height, with huge expanses
of glazed openings. Its site plan, the last plate in the publication,
is a beautiful ornamental geometrical design in the manner of du
Cerceau, composed of such elements as gardens, moats, and fortifications
that frame the square, towering pavilion."
The "Temple/House of Virtue and Vice" referred to above is the work of Antonio di Pietro Averlino (c. 1400 - c. 1469), and also known as"Averulino"and "Filarete" (Greek for "lover of excellence"), a Florentine architect and designer, who produced real and imagined works, a highly-skilled thinker engineer, and who is also remembered for his contributions to the development of urbanism and ideal communities, seen here in his design for the city of Sforzinda, below:
(It is interesting to note that "sforzinda" is awfully close to "sforzado", a musical term meaning "sudden" or "sharp", which this design must have seemed to be, back there in the high Renaissance.) [Text and illustrations: Gallica .] The House of Virtue and Vice was a nine story building to be located in Sforzinda, a structure with the highest floors devoted to learning, and the lowest to a house of prostitution. Perhaps the floor placement was reversed.
This gorgeous, near-pre-Dadist image belongs to Niccola Zabaglia, who published the engraving in his book Castelli, e ponti di maestro Niccola Zabaglia con alcune ingegnose practice, e con la descriziojne del trasporto dell’obelsico Vaticano, e di altri del cav. Domenico Fontana, in Rome, in 1743. This is the literal and absolute height of pre-modern, pre-mechanized building construction in the soaring Roman Baroque, ordained by “maestro”, the master, Zabaglia (1664-1750), a spectacular (and necessary) proponent of practical mechanics as applied to the building trades. Among the “Castles” and churches and bridges alluded to in the title of his book, Zabaglia was responsible for affecting the maintenance and repair of St. Peter’s (more particularly to the basilica and the vault)—specifically, he had to figure out how to get the workmen and materials into place, and into very difficult and very high places, without damaging or destroying any of the existing decoration, artwork, sculpture, frescoes, and so on. This was no easy feat to perform back there in the dim, 265+ years-ago pre-electric pre-power past, with enormous technical and operational difficulties, and Zabaglia accomplished this was superior affect, devising complex and elegant moving and stationary scaffolds, hoisting and holding mechanisms for the ladders, and much else. He did just beautiful work, and he is a patron saint in the history of repair.
Ladders and scaffolds were important of course but were among the least of Zabaglia’s numerous accomplishments and inventions—they were so plentiful and useful that two Pope Benedicts ago (Pope Benedict the 14th) ordered their publication with actual teams of artists and engravers performing specific tasks.
It cannot be left unsaid that Zabaglia's portrait as the frontispiece to his work presents almost without a doubt the most approachable, humane and amused representations of a major engineer/artist/artisan published in almost any work of the 18th century--I mean, the man just looks so happy in his work. There he is, surrounded by the tools of his trade, in work clothing and a scruffy hat, and needing a shave, and just looking as pleased as can be. No?
But to the ladders: the examples in the engraving above are certainly massive. The ladder in the middle I would say must be 70' tall (judging that it has 60-odd rungs and that there are 5 rungs to the men who are stabilizing it at bottom), and since they're made of a good hardwood (to prevent bowing that must occur in a lesser material), the things must've weighed a good amount. And offhand I'm not exactly sure how they raised them. I can't see the tops of the building, but I would assume that there was a pulley up there. I hope. In any event, the ladders and their found geometries are gorgeous things. Also, I would guess that in the very long histories of ladders (a ladder appears in a cave painting from 10,000 BCE and also appears in one of the very first photographic experiments) that these must've been among the high points in ladder construction.
"Walker Evans climbed to the roof of the Fisk Building on Central Park South to photograph the web of steel struts and electric signs that were rapidly filling the skies over Manhattan. The electric signs in this photograph alternately flashed the company's name and the names of its two principal products. As there were approximately a hundred million wheels rolling over America's roads in 1928, the sale of tires quickly overtook that of rubber galoshes. The image expresses Evans' conviction that modern art could be timeless yet topical when perfectly wrought of vernacular materials."--Metropolitan Museum of Art
This is one in a series of posts made on found geometries--here are a few others:
This is an image of an engineered redemption, found in the mist of Placquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 1939. There is no doubt in my mind that the author, Mr. E. Riche, was done with running from whatever it was that was chasing him--printing his truth would no doubt cut it down. "I am wrong arrested" Mr. Riche says, and wants "help from the public eye".
Oh my g_d. If this isn't a Mr. Cash song, I don't know what is.
This is a photograph of fantastic humanity, of a person witnessing for themselves, stating their beleift, defending their honor, exploring the present, and staking a very visual land claim in reality. And then--with all that said, all of this person's dignity and belief displayed for everyone to see--the author lives in the sign he or she created. It is as though someone has engineered a three-dimensional public-philosophical house in which to live, and then actually lives there.
As a testament to a simple call to fairness and justice, this image is an extraordinary and powerful reminder to the power of spirit. For some reason I can feel this person's letter down to the cellular level.
I was very happy to find a full-text and nicely-navigable copy of this classic work online. Giorlamo Francini's Le Cose maravigliose dell'alma citta di Roma, anfiteatro del mondo : con le chiese, et antichita rapresentate in disegno / da Girolamo Francino ; con l'aggiunta del dottor Prospero Parisio (In Roma : Ad instanza di Gio. Antonio Franzini, & herede di Girolamo Franzini) was printed in 1600 and is considered an iconic work on travel writing, as well as one of the first sophisticated/modern "guide books" to the city of Rome. It was pocket-sized, and contained all manner of information about buildings and artists--useful info, if you had never been to the city before. It was also a distinct difference from books intended to the pilgrim; this book was definitely looking for a popular, general readership, looking to benefit in their stay in Rome by having a literary, artistic, and architectural key to the city.
The illustrations are charming and lovely--even though small (less than two inches square), they provide just enough detail for you to unmistakeably identify the principle structures. The full text (with illustrations) is located here.
Theodore Andrea Cook wrote a lovely book called The Curves of Life, published by the admirable firm of Constable and Company in London in 1914, a book which is filled with all manner of marvels of insight in finding curves in natural and created situation. (I wrote a little about the book in an earlier post about stairs, here.) The beauty of spirals found in fero-concrete, geometries of Minoan clay seals, the beauty of the human laminae of cochlea of interval, the colon of the Dogfish, Maori war canoes, and so on, were all subject matter ripe for the discriminant picking of Mr. Cook as he explored the depths of curves.
One thing that perhaps escaped his grasp--at least in this book--was the curve in the costume of Baroque women oif semi-high (or at least non-ordinary) standing. As I've seen a number of times in some illustrated books, the trend towards the curvilinear is absoutely outstanding. The example that I came across tonight is an excellent example. Of course there was no great need to supply interesting bits of social life in these engravings of famous architectural achievenents outside of supplying a human scale to the structures, but as if often the case the artist (or engraver) went a little further than was really demanded by the artistic "needs" of the image and provided some interesting and at times very unexpected glimpes into somewhat-common street life
This image comes from Regles des cinq ordres d'architecture de Jacques Barozzio de Vignolle, which was originally written by Vignolla (1507-1573) in 1560. and published in 1680 or so. The engraving of our interest here is "Elevation du Portail de la Cathedrale de St. Paul de Londres", and the main part of that is the 1% in the bottom quarter, showing a very roundish dress.
An outstanding curve of high fashion, not seen in the Cook book.
This also reminds me a little of bombing fashinistas in an earlier post I wrote (here), showing parachuting (though they look a little like bombs) on this 1904 image.
There is, buried deep within this engraving, a small but penetrating snapshot of working life in very early 19th century England. Very working life. We'll get to that in a moment, after introductions are made to the brilliant composer of these images.
J.G. Heck wrote and compiled a fascinating and complex work entitled The Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, Literature and Art, and was published in America for the first time in 1851 following Spencer Baird’s translation from its original German.
The key to his work is the amount of data displayed on each of the 500 engraved plates illustrating this work and the way in which it is arranged. The design and layout of the 30,000 items on these 500 plates was a work of genius, and for my money it is easily the best-presented complex means of the display of data and objects that was published in the 19th century.
Take for example this illustration in the technology section (a subdivision of the applied arts which is a sub division of the plastic arts) and, continuing in this complicated scheme, was Plate 1 from Section X Number A1 with a description found in the text on a dozen pages in Section 2 of Volume 2 on section pages 134-150 and overall page numbers 835-851 (!). The plate contains 35 figures, very finely executed and rendered (many of the other of the 500 plates have 100 or more figures), and is in general related to the construction of roads and tunnels (and further, part of the “communications” section).
This of course would be a perfect Hypertext candidate.
The illustration itself contains an enormous amount of information. The row along the top third or so is dedicated to street construction and paving stone, showing stones in plan and profile, as well as a cross section and ground plan of a “typical” street (including sidewalks). It is interesting to note the detail of the cross section and the stonework that is placed beneath the horse and wagon section of the street. There are some other beauties here as well--details of wooden paving blocks, the plan for a Laves of Hanover road, different ways of cutting stone blocks—but we won’t deal with those right now, except to point out that there are several renderings of street cleaners and road rollers (of Shettenmann and another of Schaefer) used to border the street section from the tunnel section.
The middle section of the engraving is of course a cross section of the Thames tunnel of the beautifully-named Isambard Kingdom Brunel (begun in 1825 and completed 1843, the tunnel 35 feet wide (11 m), 20 feet (6 m) high and 1,300 feet (396 m) long, running between Wapping and Rotherhithe at a depth of 75 feet (23 m)). The representation here is only one inch high and ten inches long but is loaded with just fabulous detail, no the least of which are the (less than) 1mm tall workmen that can still be seen in the tunnel. The enlarged detail shows a section of the tunnel being built according to Brunel’s new specifications: a larger, shielded tunnel being constructed around the interior construction of 12 individual tunnels (each about tall enough to allow a (short) man to stand erect.
It is unneccessary to say how difficult this work must have been. Cramped, dirty, dark, stale-aired, and dangerous, this was the very definition of a compromised working environment.
In short, the engraving is a superb example of *correct* design of great artistic ability, all accomplished while displayed heaps and gobs of interconnected, complex information.
[I've written earlier on a related and very bad idea, Atomurbia, for atom-bomb-proofing American cities, here.]
Reading Nicholson Baker's Human SmokeI found a set of very unflattering and semi-unbelievable quotes from the unpretty Frank Lloyd Wright. Present at a MoMA exhibition he was sharing with D.W. Griffith (detailed in the publication Two Great Americans published by the museum in 1940), Wright chose the background of the Battle of Britain, in which German bombs were falling on English cities killing thousands, to promote his city design idea of Broadacre (among other things).
In development since 1932 (appearing in his book The Disappearing City) and kept on until his death in 1959, Wright's idea for city /suburban development spread a "city" ti its limits, nearly stripping it of its citiness and expanding it towards the horizon in a wide and low wave of a complete suburbia. With this, Wright must have reasoned, Broadacre City must have seemed "bomb-proof" compared to the normal concept of the city, and decided to make the best of a horrible situation to promote his idea.
And with this, he was quoted in November 1940 in the New York Times, saying:
"I would not say that the bombing of Europe is not a blessing, because at least it will give the architects there a chance to start all over again"
To say that this was an idea best left to the imagination rather than in the pages of the Paper of Record goes without saying.
And what of the architects whose buildings were lost during the Blitz? Say, like Christopher Wren?
"I don't think that anyone will miss Wren's work very much" (This, and the quote above, found in Baker, page 248.)
I've had a problem with Wright for a long time, but had never bumped into this part of his thinking before.
[Wright's wrongs on the Bombing of Britain are also recorded in Peter Shedd Reed (ed), The Show to End All Shows: Frank Lloyd Wright and The Museum of Modern Art, 1940 (MoMA 2004, here), and here, in the Milwaukee Journal for 22 June 1941, and also in the News Chronicle of London in"How I would Rebuild London"]
Auguste Perret, a modern master in the use and adaptation of reinforced concrete, drew this fantastic skeleton representation of his "Theatre des Champs Elysees" (1913)--it was the great stuff that held the building together, minus the walls and everything else that makes a building a building, and a revolutionary approach in modern construction. It reminds me strongly of this image
which is a remarkable illustration of the strength of the new approach to materials in architecture--cast iron--from a 16-page pamphlet by the inventor, architect and cast iron pioneer James Bogardus (1800-1874, Cast Iron Buildings, their Construction and Advantages, 1856 and 1858 second edition).
The history of concrete in itself is pretty interesting and of tremendous antiquity, dating as a very useful and extraordinarily sound material at least to the Roman times. The Peter Greenaway love affair (in his film "The Belly of an Architect") with Agrippa's Pantheon is one of concrete--the building stands today still of course, made of concrete, its dome still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome in the world.
These images "Traffic on Three Levels; Solving Street Congestion" from the Illustrated London News (15 August 1925) struck me as something much more--or much less?--than their appeal to urban design. I think that it is very difficult to look at these images and not see them from the top, down. Even by the time you get to the fourth image at bottom right, the design still pulls attracts your eye to the top of the image and away from the traffic scene below.
They seem to have that sense of abstract art, achieving a type of geometry and disorientation, both at the same time, pulling you into the work and de-arranging it at teh same time. And that to me makes it highly artful, if unintentional. They are sort of hallucinating--I know that is a bit of a stretch--but their confusion of the expected with this sort of misty, unknown atmosphere, has a sense of Rene Magritte to them had he worked his magic in geometrical blocks.
Its easy to assume a modern prejudice regarding the interior decoration of 1910-1940 school rooms, allowing a certain conceit and picturing them in shades of gray, the images formed being "colored" by the images of those things that we have seen, almost all of which have turned up in black-and-white photographs or movies. But of course we know that this can't be true, and that Humphrey Bogart didn't always wear a gray worsted in his movies, and didn't move that gray suit through gray rooms. Its just that the image-formation is influenced by what we've seen, and since what we've seen of these rooms is mostly without color, then our images are difficult to assemble outside black-and-white. This applies to just about everything from that era, which explains why it is such a glorious shock to see motion pictures or photographs of (say) New York City street scenes from 1944. (And why is it such a jolt to the visual system to learn that police cars in Chicago during the 1933 World's Fair were orange?)