Architect Robert Venturi got a tricky assignment in 1976: The National Park Service wanted to commemorate Ben Franklin’s residence in Philadelphia, but Franklin’s house had been demolished in 1812 and no record of its appearance had survived.
“There were fire insurance descriptions and archaeological remains of the house, so you could tell the exact configuration of the walls, and there were letters about the house exchanged between Franklin and his wife while he was in London and the house was in construction,” Venturi said. “But, with so little visual information, the Park Service was pretty easily persuaded not to try to reproduce the house.”
He solved the problem with a “ghost house” outlining the dimensions of the original house with a steel armature. “The aim was to create a delightful open place in the center of the dense texture of the city,” he said. “So the courtyard became a pleasant neighborhood amenity for people who live there, as well as for tourists.”
In 1965, sculptor Claes Oldenburg proposed building a colossal Good Humor bar on Park Avenue in Manhattan. All the traffic would have to be routed through a bite in the bar’s corner.
He also proposed replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan and the Washington Monument with a pair of scissors.
The fan, he said, would guarantee workers in lower Manhattan a “steady breeze.” “You can also think of the Fan as a sort of substitute image of America. The suggestion is probably there but I haven’t drawn a conclusion.”
In 1766, French draughtsman Charles-Louis Clérisseau painted a room in the Trinità dei Monti convent in Rome to resemble a ruin, complete with a fallen ceiling and broken walls. A table was disguised as a damaged cornice, a desk as a shattered sarcophagus, and the kennel of the monks’ dog became a toppled urn.
“Building ruins in Rome might seem a waste of effort,” writes Robert Harbison in The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable, “but the point was that one could comfortably inhabit this one, getting all the beauty of disorder without the inconvenience.”
For a 1793 treatise on the principles of Gothic architecture, Scottish architect Sir James Hall built an example using natural materials:
The wicker structure, as shewn in the frontispiece, was formed according to the plan of the cloister of Westminster Abbey, by a set of posts of ash about three inches in diameter thrust into the ground, with a set of willow rods of about an inch in diameter applied to them, the whole being conducted as already fully described. The construction answers perfectly well in practice, and affords a firm support for the thatch.
“The summit of the roof within is about eight feet high,” he added, “so that a person can walk under it with ease.”
A cowshed shaped like a cow, by the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu, 1795. He labeled it simply “The Cow Byre faces south on the cool meadow.”
Elsewhere he proposed a henhouse shaped like an egg. Perhaps he was simply literal-minded.
In the 1970s, Best Products enlisted architect James Wines to design a series of wildly unorthodox facades for its retail stores. The chain’s owners, Frances and Sydney Lewis, were avid patrons of modern art, and they gave Wines free rein in designing nine storefronts.
Wines’ bizarre buildings drew twice as much traffic as Best’s conventional stores — Tom Wolfe called them “the only touch of intentional humor and joie de vivre in the entire history of modern architecture” — but the chain lost out to changing retail trends and closed its doors in 1996.
In 1980, artist Tom Van Sant arranged 90 mirrors in the Mojave Desert at angles precisely calculated to overexpose the sensors on NASA’s Landsat II satellite 600 miles overhead and produce the image of a human eye 2.5 kilometers wide.
Two years later Van Sant commissioned the National Research and Resource Facility for Sub-Micron Structures at Cornell to etch the image of an eye a quarter-micron wide into a salt crystal:
The first image was 100,000 times larger than a human eye, the second 100,000 times smaller, two renderings of the same image that differ in scale by a factor of 10 billion.
“So the same artist who made the smallest drawing ever has also made the largest,” Richard Feynman told an audience. “Let’s go up another scale, the same amount again, another hundred thousand, and then try to draw an eye: Where would we have to draw it? Well, it turns out that it’s there — it’s a beautiful eye in the heavens, namely Saturn with her rings!”
More information at Van Sant’s website.
In 2005 Toronto artist Brian Joseph Davis assembled more than 5,000 film taglines into one long narrative.
This version, read by voice-over artist Scott Taylor, is only an excerpt — the whole thing runs to 22 pages (PDF).
On learning that weather erodes granite one inch every 100,000 years, sculptor Gutzon Borglum added an extra three inches to each president’s features on Mount Rushmore.
“Three inches would require 300,000 years to bring the work down to the point that I would like to finish it,” he said. “In other words, the work will not be done for another 300,000 years, as it should be.”
Argentine artist Leandro Erlich calls himself an “architect of the uncertain,” drawing equally from his countryman Jorge Luis Borges and from filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, who he says “have used the everyday as a stage for creating a fictional world obtained through the psychological subversion of everyday spaces.”
The apparently gravity-defying Victorian property above is actually a large mirror suspended at a 45° angle over a facade set into the ground, which visitors are free to climb on. It’s appearing this month on a street in Dalston, East London.
The same participatory spirit informs Erlich’s installation Swimming Pool, below, which appeared at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2008. The lower room is covered with a sheet of acrylic and a thin veil of water.
“Games and play are something that children do in order to learn the world,” Erlich says. “I do think [playing] is a positive way to trigger the process of thinking.”
In 1877 James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for panning his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” Ruskin had written, “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The trial saw this exchange between Whistler and Ruskin’s attorney, Sir John Holker:
Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?
Whistler: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it.
Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.
Similar: When Henry Ford’s engineers were unable to solve a problem with a huge new generator, he called Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz listened to the generator for two days, made some calculations, mounted a ladder, and drew a chalk mark on its side. If the engineers would remove 16 windings from the field coil at that location, he said, the generator would work perfectly. He was right.
Afterward, Ford received a bill for $10,000. When he respectfully asked for an itemization, Steinmetz sent this:
Making chalk mark on generator: $1
Knowing where to make mark: $9,999
Total due: $10,000
At least six of Felix Mendelssohn’s songs were written by his sister. Like Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn had trained as a child with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who wrote to Goethe in 1816 that she “could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.” But the bias of the times restricted a woman’s ambitions, and a lady of leisure could not be seen to pursue a profession publicly. Like the Brontës, George Sand, and George Eliot, Fanny found an outlet by publishing under a man’s name.
In an 1842 visit to Buckingham Palace, Mendelssohn found a copy of his Opus 8 songs on the piano in Queen Victoria’s sitting room. When he asked to hear her sing, she chose Fanny’s song Italien. Mendelssohn wrote to his mother, “After I had confessed that Fanny had written the song (which I found very hard, but pride goes before a fall) I begged her to sing one of my own works.”
Artist J.S.G. Boggs hand-draws depictions of U.S. banknotes and exchanges them for goods and services — he’ll trade a drawing of a $100 bill for $100 worth of goods. The drawings are one-sided, and the patrons understand that they’re not actual currency; they’re choosing to trade goods for artwork rather than for money.
Is this counterfeiting? Well, what is money? A $100 bill is valuable only because we all agree that it is — it’s an arbitrary social convention. If someone can create an alternative that people value equally, shouldn’t he be free to trade it in the same fashion, if all parties are informed?
“It’s all an act of faith,” Boggs says. “Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands for. … That’s … what my work is about.”
In 1784, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed building an enormous cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a cypress-fringed globe 500 feet high. A sarcophagus would rest on a raised catafalque at the bottom of the sphere; by day light would enter through holes pierced in the globe, simulating starlight, and at night a lamp hung in the center would represent the sun.
“I want to situate Newton in the sky,” Boullée wrote. “Sublime mind! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Accept the homage of my weak talents. … O Newton! … I conceive the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery, and thus, somehow, surrounding thee with thyself.”
As far as I can tell, this is unrelated to Thomas Steele’s proposal to enshrine Newton’s house under a stone globe, which came 41 years later. Apparently Newton just inspired globes.
Johann David Steingruber fulfilled his literary ambitions on a drafting table — his Architectural Alphabet (1773) renders each letter of the alphabet as the floor plan of a palace.
Antonio Basoli’s Alfabeto Pittorico (1839) presents the letters as architectural drawings:
Perhaps next we can actually build them.
As a boy in Romania, György Ligeti had been enchanted with the story about a widow who lives in a house full of clocks. “Nobody comes, maybe for a hundred years,” he said. “Nothing happens. So there is a combination of movement, which is machine-like, and absolutely nothing … a timelessness … no beginning and no end.”
When he became a composer, Ligeti set out to capture this feeling with Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. At a conductor’s signal, each of 10 players winds up 10 metronomes; after an interval, the conductor gives a second signal, at which the players set the metronomes running, each at a unique tempo, and the performers leave the stage.
As soon as some of the metronomes have run down, changing rhythmic patterns emerge, depending on the density of the ticking, until, at the end, there is only one, slowly ticking metronome left, whose rhythm is then regular. The homogeneous disorder of the beginning is called ‘maximal entropy’ in the jargon of information theory (and in thermodynamics). The irregular grid structures gradually emerge, and the entropy is reduced since previously unpredictable ordered patterns grow out of the opening uniformity. When only a single metronome is left ticking in a completely predictable manner, then the entropy is maximal again — or so the theory goes.
All this went right over the heads of the Holland audience for whom the piece debuted in 1963. “The last tick of the last metronome was followed by an oppressive silence,” Ligeti remembered. “Then there were menacing cries of protest,” and a planned television performance was canceled. Undaunted, Ligeti later altered the performance so that the metronomes were already running when the audience entered the concert hall, “so that the piece truly runs like a machine: metronomes and audience are confronted with each other without any human mediation.” “Radicalism and petit-bourgeois attitudes are not so far from one another,” he wrote. “Both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded.”
Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman set a 26-meter inflatable rubber duck floating around the world in 2007. So far it has visited Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, Belgium, France, New Zealand, and Brazil, and it will eventually reach the United States.
“It brings joy, obviously,” Hofman told ABC News. “It brings people together. We are living on a planet, we are one family, and the global waters are our bathtub.”
This musical map, by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto, presents all 2,053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998, at a rate of one month per second. Each nation is represented by a different tone.
Hashimoto said, “I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave but present problem of the world.”
He undertook the work in 2003, so it doesn’t reflect North Korea’s tests in 2006 and 2009.
There’s a museum on the moon. As Apollo 12 prepared to depart in 1969, New York sculptor Forrest Myers commissioned drawings from six prominent artists and had them engraved on a ceramic wafer, then arranged for a Grumman engineer to smuggle it onto the lunar lander.
Two days before launch he received a telegram confirming that the engineer had been successful. If he was, then the tiny museum is still up there, bearing drawings by Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Forrest Myers, and Andy Warhol. Perhaps they’ll attract some patrons.
In 1933 sculptor John Skeaping carved a horse of mahogany and pynkado and sent it to be displayed in Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. “Perhaps I ought to tell you that I have concealed something in the belly of my horse,” he told the Daily Mail. “It is a little bundle of papers containing my private and personal views and opinions about my contemporary artists and their work! … Posterity (if my horse survives) may get some fun out of what I have written. I hope it will, at any rate!”
Skeaping died in 1980. In 1991, conservation workers at the Tate Gallery found a folded document inside the horse:
This is practically my only opportunity of
Saying exactly what I think about
In truth I am only interested in
myself and my own pleasure. I think that almost everyone I know
in the artistic world are just one mass
Henry Moore is a good
sculptor in a very limited way.
Barbara Hepworth has hardly got an
original idea in her head.
There are no other sculptors except
J. Epstein is one of the best artists
that we have
_____ Cedric Morris is one of the
__ and _____ ____ people I am ______.
The missing sections had faded or been eaten by insects. “I found this concealed artefact strangely moving,” wrote poet Paul Farley. “It was as if the art object, built from sound materials and designed to endure, had admitted something very human and very fragile.”
Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 conceptual artwork An Oak Tree presents a glass of water with a plaque explaining that it’s a tree — not symbolically but literally: “The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.”
This is a comment on transubstantiation and, by extension, on the patron’s faith in an artist’s presentation of his work, but it backfired: When the National Gallery of Australia bought the piece in 1977, customs officials barred it as “vegetation.”
When Napoleon left France for Elba, his supporters wore violets as a secret sign of their allegiance. This 1815 colour print by Jean-Dominique Etienne Canu, Le Secret du Caporal La Violette, conceals images of the exiled emperor, his wife, and his son. Where are they?
On the pale yellow sands
Where the Unicorn stands
And the Eggs are preparing for Tea
On the pale yellow sands
There’s a pair of Clasped Hands
And an Eyeball entangled with string
And a Bicycle Seat
And a Plate of Raw Meat
And a Thing that is hardly a Thing.
On the pale yellow sands
That has nothing to do with the case.
On the pale yellow sands
There’s a Dorian Mode
And a Temple all covered with Lace
And a Gothic Erection of Urgent Demands
On the Patience of You and of Me.
— Lord Berners
In the minuet in Haydn’s Symphony No. 47, the orchestra plays the same passage forward, then backward.
When Will Shortz challenged listeners to submit word-level palindromes to National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday in 1997, Roxanne Abrams offered the poignant Good little student does plan future, but future plan does student little good.
And Connecticut’s Oxoboxo River offers a four-way palindrome — it reads the same forward and backward both on the page and in a mirror placed horizontally above it.