All our childhood homes contained books we couldn’t quite explain. I remember feeling particularly mystified, though not displeasingly so, by a slim volume called Cosmic View, originally published in 1957. The book seemed to me unimaginably old, strikingly lavish, and faintly alien, like a visual time capsule from a forgotten era in a parallel reality. The outlandish name of the author, Kees Boeke—surely not a name at all—only strengthened these imaginative impressions. Every few months, I would flip through and wonder at Cosmic View‘s full-page images. A girl with a cat? Planetary orbits? The galaxy itself? A bug? A cell? I suppose I could have read a bit of the text and understood the context for all of this, but I preferred at the time to leave the strange little volume’s rhyme or reason obscure. Today I understand Boeke’s aim: to view our universe at every possible scale, cosmic and otherwise, zooming all the way in and then all the way out from our everyday perspective.
The 1977 short film Powers of Ten would do the same, but in motion. Taking Cosmic View as a starting point, Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic little film (first above) starts with a fixed point in Chicago, then moves out into the universe by factors of ten. And, before too long, you find yourself 100 million light years away. It’s eight minutes of brilliant work. But they didn’t come easily. Almost a decade before releasing Powers of Ten, the Eames produced a less widely seen prototype. 1968’s A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe (second above) reveals some of the thinking and process the American designers undertook to envision a cinematic Cosmic View. They ultimately succeeded, having fleshed out this basic but still impressive concept over the following decade. In 1982, the project would come full circle by returning to print with Powers of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.