The Willow Cathedral

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.”

Truth in Labeling

lequeu cowshed

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.

Orders of Magnitude

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.

Now Showing

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).

Taking Time

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.”

(Thanks, Matt.)

Social Climbing

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.

Whistler won.

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

A Caged Bird

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.”

Tender Minded

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.”

Great Minds

boullee newton cenotaph

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.