“Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors until it became so dark that he had to retire to the forest without stopping to pick a pawpaw for supper.” — Adriaan Kortlandt

The Alphabet Building

Dutch architects MVRDV created a unique design for Amsterdam’s Alfabetgebouw, an office building for small and mid-size creative companies. On the building’s east side a series of dotted windows spell out the building’s street number, 52, and on the north side the shape of each window reflects the unit number of its tenant.

To make the alphabet fit on a 6 × 4 facade they had to omit two letters — but “the IQ is inside the building.”

Field Reports

Explorers of foreign countries can produce strikingly different maps — here’s Joseph Husson’s Map of a Woman’s Heart (1840):

And here’s D.W. Kellogg’s Map of the Open Country of a Woman’s Heart (circa 1833-1842):

Who’s right? Looks like the safest plan is to drop into the center by parachute.

“The Attack of Love”,_The_Attack_of_Love,_1730,_Cornell_CUL_PJM_1020_01.jpg

How a woman assails a man’s heart, by German map publisher Matthäus Seutter, 1730. Princeton map curator John Delaney explains:

[F]orces are attacking and defending the fortress of Manhood that sits in a frozen, passionless sea. The side of Love, representing the fairer sex, employs four sets of artillery batteries (on the left) to bombard the walls with appeals to vanity, offering delightful surprises, charms, and joys, and plying with tenderness, wishful thinking, and ‘un certain je ne sais quoi.’ Over the walls, naval ships lob such feminine wiles and virtues as beauty, pleasant conversation, gentleness, and ‘regards languissant’ (languishing looks). Love’s forces are camped for the duration (at the lower left), commanded by their general, Cupid.

As the key states, there are also methods for defending and conserving one’s heart against this unrelenting onslaught: memory, prudence, industry, experience (see the lettered outposts along the fortress walls). Ultimately, however, it is a war of attrition. As the trail winding through the fortress and along the coastline proves, the love-struck victim surrenders, retreating, first, to his friends for advice, deliberation, and information, before moving onward to the garden of pleasure and his first encounter with his beloved. … From there, via a subterranean passage, he arrives at the Palace of Love — note the change from fortress to palace — which resides in a sea of peace. Entering is easy, according to the note, but leaving is impossible without losing one’s liberty. Another definition of a prison?

There’s a high-resolution image in Cornell’s rare manuscript collection.

Sitting In

In 1915, American artist John Singer Sargent donated a blank canvas for auction at a Red Cross benefit, promising to paint a portrait of the donor who purchased it. Sir Hugh Lane bought it for £10,000 but died in the sinking of the Lusitania. He left his art collection to the National Gallery of Ireland, which didn’t know what to do with the blank canvas, so the executors finally held a referendum to ask whose portrait Sargent should paint. The popular choice, to Sargent’s surprise, was Woodrow Wilson.

At the White House Sargent confided his nerves to first lady Edith Wilson, who tried to amuse him at the easel. Still, she didn’t care for the result. “I think it lacks virility and makes Mr. Wilson look older than he did at the time,” she said later. Advisor Edward M. House said he thought it too austere, but then “I think I never knew a man whose general appearance changed so much from hour to hour.” Wilson’s opinion is not recorded.

Bonus blank canvas story: In 1951 Robert Rauschenberg painted a series of “white paintings” with the explicit intention that they appear untouched by human hands. Some patrons considered this an outright swindle when the paintings were first exhibited in 1953, but Rauschenberg wasn’t kidding: In 1962, when curator Pontus Hulten wanted to show them at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, the paintings had been lost, so Rauschenberg simply sent him the measurements and samples of the paint and the canvas, and Hulten remade them from scratch.

Podcast Episode 168: The Destruction of the Doves Type

In March 1913, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson threw the most beautiful typeface in the world off of London’s Hammersmith Bridge to keep it out of the hands of his estranged printing partner. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore what would lead a man to destroy the culmination of his life’s work — and what led one modern admirer to try to revive it.

We’ll also scrutinize a housekeeper and puzzle over a slumped child.

See full show notes …

Words and Music

Anthony Burgess based his 1974 novel Napoleon Symphony explicitly on the structure of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica:

  • The story is told in four “movements,” whose length corresponds to the listening time of the corresponding parts of the symphony: 118 pages (14:46 minutes), 120 pages (15:34 minutes), 30 pages (5:33 minutes), and 77 pages (11:27 minutes).
  • The allegro takes Bonaparte “from his early Italian triumphs to his crowning as Emperor”; the marcia funebre moves to the retreat from Russia; in the scherzo Napoleon attends a play featuring Prometheus; and the finale depicts his life and death on St. Helena.
  • Where the symphony begins with two sharp chords, the novel starts with Napoleon giving Josephine “two excruciating love-pinches.” In the first movement Bonaparte corresponds to the “masculine thematic group,” Josephine to the “second, or feminine subject.” The sonata form requires repetition, so, for example, the opening sentence, “Germinal in the Year Four” appears in the “recapitulation” with a slight variation, as “Germinal in the Year Seven.” The contrasting themes are reflected in shifts of scene and viewpoint, and harmonic variation is suggested by the frequent repetition of certain phrases with minor changes.
  • In the second movement Napoleon dreams of his death in verses set precisely to the rhythm of Beethoven’s theme (these are printed with the score in his essay “Bonaparte in E Flat” in This Man and Music):

    There he lies,
    Ensanguinated tyrant
    O bloody, bloody tyrant
    How the sin within
    Doth incarnadine
    His skin
    From the shin to the chin.

  • During the retreat from Russia, he approximates counterpoint by writing in two levels of language, which he hopes “will leave an aftertaste of polyphony.” For example: “The primary need, General Eblé said, is to obtain the requisite structural materials and this will certainly entail the demolition of civilian housing in the adjacent township. Now the first job, Sergeant Rebour said, is to get planking, and the only way to get it is to pull down all those fucking houses.”
  • In the scherzo the waltz rhythm is reflected in sentences such as “Dance dance dance! The orchestra struck up another waltz” and “They danced. United Kingdom of Benelux Benelux, Britain gets Malte and Cape of Good Hope.”
  • The finale is based on the so-called Prometheus theme (E-flat, B-flat, B-flat, E-flat), which Burgess visualizes as a cross in the score. He interprets the initials on Jesus’ cross, INRI, as Impera[torem] Nap[oleonem] Regem Interfec[it], an acrostic that recurs throughout the movement.

Overall, Burgess said, he wanted to pursue “one mad idea”: “to give / Symphonic shape to verbal narrative” and to “impose on life … the abstract patterns of the symphonist.”

He dedicated the novel to Stanley Kubrick, hoping that it might form the basis of the director’s long-planned biography of the emperor, but Kubrick decided that “the [manuscript] is not a work that can help me make a film about the life of Napoleon.” Undismayed, Burgess developed it instead into an experimental novel. The critics didn’t like it, but he said it was “elephantine fun” to write.

(From Theodore Ziolkowski, Music Into Fiction, 2017.)

A Lofty Vision

Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer proposed this design for a museum of modern art in Caracas in 1955. He conceived it as a pyramid standing on its apex; the roof would be one vast skylight, and daylight would penetrate the levels inside thanks to spaces at the edges of the floor slabs. There are no side windows so as not to disturb the unity of the slanted walls.

The ground floor would house an auditorium; above that, successively, were a foyer, an exhibition gallery, a mezzanine exhibition space, and the roof, with a sculpture terrace. To free the exhibition halls of load-bearing supports, the mezzanine would be suspended from the four corners of the pyramid by perpendicular tensors.

The whole thing would have perched on a cliff overlooking central Caracas. A change in regime meant that it never got beyond the planning stage.

A Second Look

M.C. Escher’s 1935 lithograph Hand With Reflecting Sphere gave artist Kelly M. Houle an idea.

She drew this image in charcoal on a piece of illustration board:

escher anamorphosis

Now when a cylindrical mirror is placed at the center, it produces this reflection:

escher anamorphic reflection

“When the original image is bent and stretched into a circular swath, the shadows seem to fall in all directions,” she wrote. “When the curved mirror is used to reflect the anamorphic distortion, the forms take on the familiar rules of light and shading that make them seem three-dimensional.”

(Kelly M. Houle, “Portrait of Escher: Behind the Mirror,” in D. Schattschneider and M. Emmer, eds., M.C. Escher’s Legacy, 2003.)