A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7500 images, 3.9 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 4,000+ total posts
(Jean Baptiste) Amedee Couder wrote L'Architecture et l'industrie comme moyen de perfection sociale, which was published in Paris (by Brockhaus et Avenarius) in 1842. (Its actually a fairly scarce book, with only two copies found in the WorldCat directory.) I was surprised by this lovely plan among its slim 52 pages--it reminds me of a snowflake. (See also Snowflakes and Fort Construction, which appeared earlier on this blog, here.)
Projet d'un palais des Arts et de l'industrie. 18x14 inches.
[(Please not that the image below is from http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b530065524--I've used their digital image rather than my own because my copy is folded in quarters and is too large and too-attached-to-the-book to get a decent image of it.]
This image of the construction of the Tower of Babel is interesting in a number of ways. For example, the general overt busyness of the construction sight is bright and refreshing, and the designer/architect seems enormous, and holds a compass skyward as the foreman (hat in hand) approaches with some skyward concerns of his own. The skinny wheelbarrow at right is quite fine, as are the Renaissance cranes and scaffolding. And as new as this building is, it seems to have some age built into it, what with the small trees and shrubs growing from it at different levels, a kind of Tuscan deteriorated elegance as the building is being built. This was not an uncommon motif seen in the engravings and woodcuts and paintings recording architecture during this period, but it is unusual to see it in a building under construction.
The print is identified as Anonymous, and a source says that it was printed around 1500, but it looks slightly newer than that to me, maybe more mid-century.
Dr. Odd presents these two fine images as part of the developing series Stuff Blocking the Horizon. The first image is a superb photo montage by Paul Citroen (1896-1983), called Metropolis--complex, controlling, massively detailed, and beautiful.
[Paul Citroen, Metropolis, 1923.]
The second image is another montage of the architectural works of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)
Wren was a complete package, working in many different fields at a high level. His great and polymathic genius fiend Robert Hooke said of Wren ""Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man in so great perfection such a mechanical hand and so philosophical mind"--which was very true. In any event this image (from The Illustrated London News) shows the buildings designed by Wren, all of which are dominated by St. Paul's (on Ludgate Hill), which was probably the greatest of his works and perhaps still the Great Masterpiece of the city of London (and where Wren would be buried).
Photographs of the Wren buildings (courtesy via Wikipedia):
I'm more interested in how this hole was dug and how it got filled up again than in what is filling it. I estimate the "filled" aspect of this reverse-and-inside-out-upside-down monastery to be about 25,000,000 cubic feet, or about two-thirds of the volume of the Empire State Building (which was just being constructed when this article was published). The 40-storey building would about 500' low, and the surrounding supporting structures seem to make the whole of it at least 75' in diameter--finished. That makes for a big hole in the digging of the thing, substantially multiples the volume of the Empire State Building removed in order to achieve the construction needs. That is a lot of dirt.
And so how do we remove the dirt/rock from the 450' level of a 75'-wide hole in 1931? I doubt that it is being hauled out by crane systems, and the hole is certainly wider than 75' at the bottom. I guess these questions could only be answered with the information on what the material is that these folks would be working with. But suffice to say--it would be a big project.
Also: I don't know why this structure would be "earthquake proof", though that is the impetus behind the construction of this monster--the Japanese architects who dreamed this building still had the 140,000 deaths of the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake fresh in their minds. The building looks like it has the capacity to sustain major damage in an earthquake, making it perhaps a flaming and inescapable tomb. It would certainly make a neat if not inexpensive cemetery.
interesting and somewhat futuro-paleo 1944 pamphlet combines two modern interests in one package: Green’s Ready-Built Homes Present the Solar Home
presented both a prefabricated, well-designed house that was also passive solar
friendly. The former is a long-established architectural state of achievement; the later, not so--at least on a popular, let's-have-everyone-own-one level. The architect and engineer was
George Fred Keck (1895-1980) , a true modernist, and designer of one of
the twelve “Homes of the Future” for the Chicago “Century of Progress" World’s Fair in 1933--this effort (which is also the copyright deposit copy) was published in 1944.
Soalr panels such as we have known them over the last few decades were not available back in 1944. The “solar home” that he offered here used seasonal variations and house
location to regulate heating/cooling, glazing and siding, air movement, and the
storage of thermal energy in building materials—mostly, there were lots and
lots of transfer-friendly double-paned windows, all of which were
forward-thinking ideas for 1944.In
addition the house was prefabricated, making construction easier, simpler, and
quicker than any of the stick-built houses being constructed at that time.There was also an impetus for quick, good
construction given the housing shortage caused by the returning WWII veterans.
The prefab idea was also a relatively new one in architecture—though there are
instances of bits and pieces of prefab architecture reaching back hundreds of
years, the first earnest attempts at providing such housing on a mass scale
dates only to the 1920’s. In any event, the double-effort here was a fairly early effort at combining these two ideas--and certainly something that seems to have been about 60 years too early.
This lovely cover belongs to W(illiam) A(iken) Starrett's Skyscrapers and the Men who Build Them, published in 1928. It is a design cut into the publisher's blue cloth and highlighted a bit in gilt, and at least to my experience is fairly well singular. Or at least very unusual. The "skyscraper" as a building was at least seven decades old (as was the safety brake for the elevators--first referred to as "vertical rail car"-- that made these six+ storey buildings possible back in the early 1860's) when the Starrett book appeared. Its an interesting achievement, and seems to be filled with a fair amount of history (he does talk about the history of elevators, for example) but mainly concentrates on the new buildings of the 1920's. Mostly, though, I liked the book cover.
I like the foreground of the more-antique skyscraper in blue, giving way to the recent turn-of-the-century-esque skyscraper in gold, and then the massive under-construction monster in blue in the background--all set against a gold sky. Its a job well done by the nameless designer. The design has a Renaissance flavor to it, skyscrapers or not.
A review of the book appeared in the Town Planning Review in 1931 and is available in full text here. And a detail of those lovely (2mm) windows at bottom:
This Rococo edition of Vignola [Jacopo (Giacomo) Barozzi da Vignola (Italian, Vignola 1507–1573 Rome)] features fabulous interpretations of the classic textbook, the images of columns and plans of buildings and designs of rooms and so on all are decorated with bits and pieces of 18th century humanism. The detail above (with the nearly-full engraving below) is embellished with a very uncommon scene of children fighting and playing. It is one of many that are illustrated with scenes of everyday life which really have nothing to do with the image in which they find themselves, a little bit of When Worlds Collide happiness.
[Source: private. The full title of the book: Livre nouveau, ou, Regles des cinq ordres d'architecture / par Jacques Barozzio de Vignole ; nouvellement revù, corrigé et augmenté par Monsieur B*** architecte du roy ; avec plusieurs morceaux de Miche-Ange, Vitruve, Mansard, et autres célebres architectes tant anciens que modernes ... ; le tout d'après Mrs. Blondel, Cochin et Babel, graveurs ..Edited by Jacques-François Blondel (French, Rouen 1705–1774 Paris); designed by Pierre Edmé Babel (French, 1720–1775); engravings designed by Charles Nicolas Cochin II (French 1715–1790); title page engraved by Jean-Charles Le Vasseur (French, 1734–1816).]
Walter Gropius (1883-1969, founder of the Bauhaus School and one of the principle builders of modern architecture) and Martin Wagner (1888-1957) were thinking of a new type of “town”, of a different sort of settlement for people, when they wrote this exercise instructional for their Harvard course. Housing as a townbuilding1 problem, written during the war in 1942, was intended to be an exercise (or “problem”), a case to be studied by the students in the departments of landscape architecture and the graduate school of design at Harvard. The class opened with this rare2 pamphlet as a basis for course work, given to the students on 2 Feb 1942, with the problem’s answers expected to be on Gropius desk five weeks later. Gropius and Martin put a tough, wide-ranging, landscape-changing question and expected answers in a very short period of time, though they definitely had a very structured plan and approach to dealing with massive implications of their exercise. The theory was outlined there in the paper, of course, and was expanded much more fully in class. And then there was this: a full page of datelines and expectations, a way of dealing with a large problem in logical chunks, adding up the answered bits, and then delivering a larger answer at the end and on time.
[The original work is available at our blog bookstore.]
I’m not an architecture or design historian, so much of this paper was a little lost on me–but I could definitely appreciate the way in which the great Gropius outlined the process of problem-thinking and solution for his students. This may be the part of this paper that I liked the most.
In "The Walter Gropius House Landscape: A Collaboration of Modernism and the Vernacular"3 (published in the Journal of Architectural Education, 1984, 57 (3), p. 39) Eric F. Kramer wrote:
“Sounding similar themes in a 1942 joint studio problem for landscape and architecture, Walter [Gropius] wrote of the inspiration of the vernacular landscape and of integrating with existing systems: ‘Such a landscape invites the artist planner to observe and preserve its variety of aspects, and to invent a settlement pattern that .ts into its natural beauty. Fortunately our forefathers have already traced out a settlement pattern that fits very well into the landscape.’ Gropius–the grand master builder and master teacher–set out the problem and the solution”.
There are of course major statements in city-building and human resettlement in this work, but for now, I’m still concentrated on the Bauhaus-founder’s outline for problem solving.
1. The full title: Housing as a townbuilding problem; a post-war housing problem for the students of the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, February-March, 1942.
And in that publication Gropius writes: “When we speak of ‘new townships’ we think of a new type of human settlement “, with a redefined vision of what a “town” means, using an idea of “reception basins” for spheres of cities as centers of culture, art and commerce “and our open country as furtherer if an industrialized agriculture and of forestry and recreation”. (page 21). And all of that to be manufactured along the lines of “planned super-highway systems, one branch of which is to go through New England region and will supposedly cut through the towns of Weston and Weyland”.–Gropius and Martin.
2. This copy was in the Office for Emergency Management; only six other copies have been found and these in excellent collections: MIT, Harvard Special Collections, Harvard College of Design, Cornell, Columbia and the NYPL (Special Collections). So the publication is pretty scarce, and given its method of printing and distribution, it looks like not many survived, though it is difficult to say how many were actually printed. In any event, few survived.
3. The abstract of this paper is helpful: “The Walter Gropius House Landscape A Collaboration of Modernism and the Vernacular”. “The Gropius house landscape is a potent physical manifestation of the design debates of its era. The landscape is an element of both mediation and integration forging a reciprocal and evenhanded relationship between architecture and site. Shaped by modern architectural sensibilities translated to the landscape and developed at a moment when landscape architecture was struggling to .nd a modernist inspiration and voice, it is an object lesson in the development of a modernist landscape architecture in America...” “In these studio problems, Gropius consistently encouraged students to find new form in the functional requirements of modern times and yet to integrate with existing systems through an understanding of their own functionally driven evolution.”
I've noticed a number of different varieties of unusual forests, though mostly they're repurposed, and stand above or on the ground, rather than the one seen in the image below, where the trees are inverted like roots. There's the massive forest that we see every day in the United States, the backbone of our digital culture is strung along the carcasses of dead trees, wires and cables hanging from tree corpses, an enormous chunk of our social interaction and economy dangling above us, moved by the wind and rain. Then of course there's neat and orderly forest, forests that have been cut down, stripped, and the elements stacked in sequences so that people could live inside of them. There are stockade fences, and picket fences. There are old roads from Colonial times and into the 19th century there were made sections of felled trees, and then others that were made from milled lumber (as in Plank Roads). There are forests that have been cut, and then milled all to one size, and laid next to one another in parallels and connected with heavy steel ribbons that stretched for hundreds of thousands of miles, their enterprises given ironic and commodious names with words like "Atlantic" and "Pacific" in them (like the "Union Pacific Railroad"). Dead Wood is everywhere, some of which was simply cut down, stacked, and then slowly burned.
Before being replaced by steel, foundations like this were made of lumber and/or stone, and was hardly uncommon--what is uncommon, to me at least, was to see a picture of finished footings, and then to be given such a creative name like "inverted forest". But this is what they were, as we can see here in the New York World's Fair Bulletin in 1937: 11 miles of forests pounded into the soil to support the weight of the iconic Trylon.
The Trylon is the spire in the middle of the image, next to the sphere--they were both enormous. The spire rose some 600', while the sphere was 180' in diameter--both were gone by 1941, razed at the end of the Fair (1939-1940), their materials used for the war effort. Both stood on the inverted forest.
[From a private collection, via the Library of Congress, from the White House in 1938.]
In the Alphabet of Inverted Things, forests may be the most unusual: inverted chords, melodies, voices, pyramids, river deltas, microscopes, personality. Forests seem so awful in their way. Inverted.
Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1825), a French architect of fabulously distanced sight, produced this breathtaking image in 1792. The Tomb of Lars Porsena, King of Etruria (the great Etruscan king, d. ca. 500 BCE ), is just one of hundreds of works by Lequeu, a re-discovered architectural genius who worked during the same era as other visionary architects such as Etienne Boullee (1728-1799), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1803), Francois Barbier (1768-1826), Charles Bernard (1765-1818), Francois-Joseph Belanger (1747-1818), and others, though these guys are the most famous. As a matter of fact, I think, almost all of these architects were re-discovered—Boullee, perhaps the most famous of the lot, was found again not in his buildings but in his visionary drawings that he deposited with the National Library. But Lequeu—found again in the same way--it seems had to be rescued from an even greater obscurity than the others. He tried to expose a unity that he saw in the world, some secret sort of unity, that he saw all around him, and which was unseen by everyone else in creation—at least until the 20th century.
Lequeu started out in a staid and brilliant way, a successful architect in his own right, and student of Scoufflot, designing ancient-inspiration buildings for the super rich. But along came the Revolution and away went his career—he wound up a surveyor and a cartographer until his retirement in 1815, after which he enters social and historical oblivion, until he finally dies in total obscurity ten years later (or so, the date is unclear). His post-revolutionary vision was as phenomenal as his success in selling his ideas were dismal. Well, this is really a cheap shot—his imagination was shockingly large, enormous, his designs fantastic and beautiful, and completely unexpected, and they seemed to grow larger/loftier and more interesting as time wore away at him.
I think that as Lequeu was cleaved away, cell by cell falling through the floorboards of his single rented room, he reached further into time and deeper into space than almost any architect of that hundred-year period. I also think that he was very well aware of his genius being seen as pure eccentricity—his dozen or so self portraits are among the most bizarre that I’ve ever seen (before 1900).
The odd thing in all of this is that in this brilliance there is still a reluctance to leave the Baroque, and this at a time when just about everyone else---beginning around 1750—was abandoning it. So much of the work of the other visionaries mentioned earlier freed themselves of the Baroque—not entirely true, not true at all, for the unique creations of Lequeu, who (as in the Tomb of Lars Porsena) included more than a few bits of the practice even in his most incredible works.
Somehow Lequeu saw the Lars Porsena tomb as a 650-foot tall (!!) structure, with impossible insight and filigree. Extraordinary. (In the upper corners of the drawing of the tomb Lequeu included a design for a coin and also the plan of the structure. The original tomb of Lars Porsena, according to Pliny the elder in his Natural History, XXXVI, 19, 91ff, was a 15 meter high rectangular base with 90 meter sides--completely destroyed in the wars in the first century.
Perhaps his most sensational creation (and one which was devoid of all Baroque influence, as it turns out) was his Meeting Place at Bellevue. It is almost impossible to believe that it is am 18th century creation—it is as harmonious (armonia) as it is asymmetrical. It looks deeply 20th century, and looked as far into the future as it was deeply unknown.
I was shocked to investigate this seemingly magically-produced engraving under magnification--it was a small piece of inset work used to illustrate an idea within a much larger overall engraving. The detail is about a 5% cropping of the full image:
It is a subset of this detail:
Which in turn is a detail from this beautiful work which is itself a four-by-four inch detail in a larger engraving, the footprint of an elevation of the Sepolcro di Caio Cestio, which was printed in 1840.
The craftsman who produced this engraving incised 250 lines on one side of this 4-inch-square, then proceeded to incise another 250 lines on the other--or so. This means that there are something on the order of 62,000 (or thereabouts) squares produced by the draftsman in order to make a mostly-black background for the image.
The plan is for the pyramidal tomb of Caius Cestius who was a monied Roman who demanded that for the disbursement of his will to be complete had to have this tombstone built to himself in a prescribed period of time--mostly very quickly. The result has been captured by Piranessi and others--a very sharp-pointed pyramid about 130' at its base and 145' tall. When finished the builders incised their victory and documented it on the side of the pyramid so:
Opus absolutum ex testamento diebus CCCXXX, arbitratu (L.) Ponti P. f. Cla (udia tribu), Melae heredis et Pothi l(iberti). ("The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by
the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman".)
All I really wanted to comment on here though is the craftsmanship of producing this finely-lined and remarkable detail
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