Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

23 JANUARY, 2012

Architecture Without Architects: What Ancient Structures Reveal About Collaborative Design

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From Rome’s theater districts to China’s underground cities, or what pleasure has to do with utility.

The mythology of the sole genius underpins most contemporary creative disciplines, but it is particularly pronounced in architecture, where the image of the visionary diva-architect endures as the gold standard of the discipline’s success. In 1964, Moravian-born American writer, architect, designer, collector, educator, designer, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky examined a whole other side of architecture in Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture — a fascinating lens on “primitive” and communal architecture, exploring both its functional value and its artistic richness, with a focus on indigenous tribal structures and ancient dwellings. Rudofsky peels the pretense of architecture from the creative and utilitarian acts of building to reveal a kind of vernacular, communal architecture embodying a timeless art form that springs from the intersection of human intelligence, necessity, and collective creativity.

I believe that sensory pleasure should take precedence over intellectual pleasure in art and architecture.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Underground city near Tungkwan (China)

Anticoli on the Sabine Mountains (near Rome)

Rudofsky was concerned with the cultural bias of architectural history, so he took a special interest in the vernacular architecture of non-Western communities.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe -Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia- or little more than was known in the second century AD. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only in its late phases.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Cliff dwellings of the Dogon tribe (Sudan)

(Curiously, Rudofsky’s black-and-white photographs of clustered housing units bear a visceral resemblance to the illustrations of Soviet mathematician-turned-artist Anatolii Fomenko, conveying a strange sense of organic order.)

Marrakech (Morocco)

The structures in Architecture Without Architects reveal a kind of purposeful, iterative, social design process that, while dating back centuries and originating in primitive cultures, offers a powerful parallel to contemporary shifts towards collaborative creation.

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20 JANUARY, 2012

Throw Over Your Man: Virginia Woolf’s 1927 Love Letter to Vita Sackville-West

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“…and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads.”

What makes an extraordinary love letter? After Monday’s omnibus of famous correspondence, I revisited a lovely decade-old book titled The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time, which features missives from icons like Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Frida Kahlo, Franz Kafka, and Mozart, covering everything from tender love to lust to bitter breakups.

Among them is this 1927 letter from Virginia Woolf to English poet Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had fallen madly in love.

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.”

The gender-bending character in Woolf’s Orlando, in fact, was based on Sackville-West, and the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”

The greatest love letters, of course, aren’t those written for public greatness — they’re the ones penned for one particular trembling heart, honeycombed with private memories and private miracles, written in the language of the possible.

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20 JANUARY, 2012

The First Kiss in Cinema, 1896

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How Thomas Edison made the kiss Hollywood’s favorite audience-courting device.

Thomas Edison is responsible for some of the most significant technological innovations of modern history, and is even credited as the inventor of the movie industry itself. But besides his visionary take on technology, he also had a keen eye for what audiences wanted, from his YouTube-like 1984 boxing cats to his 1901 footage of legendary aerialist Charmion’s trapeze strip-tease. It comes as no surprise, then, that Edison is also responsible for the very first on-screen kiss in cinema, featuring Canadian actress May Irwin. A mere 23 seconds in length, it was filmed in his Black Maria studio in New Jersey in 1896., at a time when public kissing was greatly frowned upon by Victorian society. In that era, the act of kissing was referred to as “sparkin’” if it took place indoors, usually the parlor, or “spoonin’” when performed outdoors, in a secluded spot far from the public’s eye.

This footage is often confused with another kiss scene, mistakenly credited by some as cinematic appearance of a kiss — it was, however, filmed in 1900 in Edison’s new glass-topped studio in New York City, and was quickly banned in most theaters. The two lovers remain anonymous.

For more on the evolution of kissing, see Joanne Wannan’s Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing. For a scientific lens, my friend Sheril Kirshenbaum wrote the excellent The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us.

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