The Politics & Philosophy of the Bauhaus Design Movement: A Short Introduction

This year marks the centennial of the Bauhaus, the German art-and-design school and movement whose influence now makes itself felt all over the world. The clean lines and clarity of function exhibited by Bauhaus buildings, imagery, and objects — the very definition of what we still describe as "modern" — appeal in a way that transcends not just time and space but culture and tradition, and that's just as the school's founder Walter Gropius intended. A forward-looking utopian internationalist, Gropius seized the moment in the Germany left ruined by the First World War to make his ideals clear in the Bauhaus Manifesto: "Together let us call for, devise, and create the construction of the future, comprising everything in one form," he writes: "architecture, sculpture and painting."

In about a dozen years, however, a group with very little time for the Bauhaus project would suddenly rise to prominence in Germany: the Nazi party. "Their right-wing ideology called for a return to traditional German values," says reporter Michael Tapp in the Quartz video above, "and their messaging carried a typeface: Fraktur." Put forth by the nazis as the "true" German font, Fraktur was "based on Gothic script that had been synonymous with the German national identity for 800 years." On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Bauhaus created "a radical new kind of typography," which Museum of Modern Art curator Barry Bergdoll describes as "politically charged": "The Germans are probably the only users of the Roman alphabet who had given typescript a nationalist sense. To refuse it and redesign the alphabet completely in the opposite direction is to free it of these national associations."

The culture of the Bauhaus also provoked public discomfort: "Locals railed against the strange, androgynous students, their foreign masters, their surreal parties, and the house band that played jazz and Slavic folk music," writes Darran Anderson at Citylab. "Newspapers and right-wing political parties cynically tapped into the opposition and fueled it, intensifying its anti-Semitism and emphasizing that the school was a cosmopolitan threat to supposed national purity." Gropius, for his part, "worked tirelessly to keep the school alive," preventing students from attending protests and gathering up leaflets printed by fellow Bauhaus instructor Oskar Schlemmer calling the school a "rallying point for all those who, with faith in the future and willingness to storm the heavens, wish to build the cathedral of socialism." In their zeal to purge "degenerate art," the Nazis closed the Bauhaus' Dessau school in 1932 and its Berlin branch the following year.

Though some of his followers may have been firebrands, Gropius himself "was typically a moderating influence," writes Anderson, "preferring to achieve his socially conscious progressivism through design rather than politics; creating housing for workers and safe, clean workplaces filled with light and air (like the Fagus Factory) rather than agitating for them." He also openly declared the apolitical nature of the Bauhaus early on, but historians of the movement can still debate how apolitical it remained, during its lifetime as well as in its lasting effects. A 2009 MoMA exhibition even drew attention to the Bauhaus figures who worked with the Nazis, most notably the painter and architect Franz Ehrlich. But as Anderson puts it, "there are many Bauhaus tales," and together "they show not a simple Bauhaus-versus-the-Nazis dichotomy but rather how, to varying degrees of bravery and caprice, individuals try to survive in the face of tyranny."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Magazine Pages Were Created Before Computers: A Veteran of the London Review of Books Demonstrates the Meticulous, Manual Process

The London Review of Books is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but somehow the magazine has always felt older than that: not like the product of a stuffier age, but of a more textually and intellectually lavish one than the late 1970s. Pick up an early issue and you'll see that, as much as it has evolved in the details, the basic project of the LRB remains the same: publishing essays of the highest quality on a variety of subjects literary, political, and otherwise, allowing their writers a length sufficient for proper engagement of both subject and reader, and — perhaps most admirably of all — refusing, in this age of internet media, to burden them with semi-relevant pictures and clickbait headlines.

"Much in those early numbers still looks fresh," writes Susannah Clapp, who worked at the LRB during its first thirteen years. "But the apparatus and surroundings that produced them seem antique. Typewriters. Letters covered in blotches of Tipp-Ex, for which the office name was 'eczema.' No screens; hand-drawn maps for layout; tins of Cow Gum." The cow gum was an essential tool of the trade for Bryony Dalefield, who since 1982 has worked "pretty near continuously" for the LRB as what's called a "paste-up artist." In the video above, she describes how her job — whose title remains "pleasingly still in the vocabulary in the digital age" — once involved "literally cutting up copy and pasting it onto a board so it could be sent to the printers and photographed for printing."

Dalefield doesn't just recount the process but performs it, summoning a presumably long-dormant but well-honed suite of skills to paste up a current page of the LRB just as she did it in the 80s. First she takes the text of an article, fresh from the print shop, and cuts it into columns with scissors. Then she spreads the Cow Gum, with its "strong petrol smell," to fix the columns to the board, fearing all the while that she'll stick them on out of order. Even in order, they usually require the addition or removal of words to fit just right on the page, and at the LRB, a publication to whose meticulous editing process each and every contributor can attest, another round of edits follows the first pasting. We then see why X-ACTO knives are called that, since using one to replace individual words and phrases on paper demands no small degree of exactitude.

With the wrong bits cut out and the right ones pasted in and held down with Magic Tape, the completed page is ready to be sent back to the printer. Pasting-up, which Dalefield frames as a marrying of the work of editors and typographers, will seem astonishingly labor-intensive to most anyone under the age of 50, few of whom even know how magazines and newspapers put together their pages before the advent of desktop publishing. But the very word "desktop," in the computer-interface sense, speaks to the metaphorical persistence of the old ways through what Dalefield calls the "falling out of trades" in the digital age. I myself have done a fair bit of "cutting," "copying," and "pasting" writing this very post — but I suppose I never did say, "Oh, that's very sticky" while doing so.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

MIT Researchers 3D Print a Bridge Imagined by Leonardo da Vinci in 1502— and Prove That It Actually Works

Photo by Gretchen Ertl, via MIT News

Unfortunate though it may be for the dreamers of the world, we're all judged not by what we imagine, but what we actually do. This goes double for those specifically tasked with creating things in the physical environment, from engineers and architects to inventors and artists. Leonardo da Vinci, the original "Renaissance man," was an engineer, architect, inventor, artist, and more besides, and five centuries after his death we continue to admire him for not just the works of art and technology he realized during his lifetime, but also the ones that never made it off his drawing board (or out of his notebooks). And as we continue to discover, many of the latter weren't just flights of fancy, but genuine innovations grounded in reality.

Take the bridge Leonardo proposed to Sultan Bayezid II, who in 1502 had "sent out the Renaissance equivalent of a government RFP (request for proposals), seeking a design for a bridge to connect Istanbul with its neighbor city Galata," writes MIT News' David L. Chandler. Writing to the sultan, Leonardo describes his design as "a masonry bridge as high as a building, and even tall ships will be able to sail under it."

At the time, such bridges required the support of piers all along their spans, which prevented large ships from passing underneath. But Leonardo's design would do the job with only "a single enormous arch." About ten times longer than the typical bridge of the early 16th century, it took a page from the bridges of ancient Rome, designed as it was to "stand on its own under the force of gravity, without any fasteners or mortar to hold the stone together."

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Alas, Leonardo, who had better luck with Italian patrons, didn't win this particular commission. His bridge design must at least have impressed the sultan with its sheer ambition, but would it have held up? A team at MIT consisting of graduate Karly Bast, professor John Ochsendorf, and undergraduate Michelle Xie recently put it to the test, scrutinizing the material Leonardo left behind, replicating the geological conditions of the proposed site, and building a 1:500 scale model out of 126 3D-printed blocks. Not only could the model bear weight using only the strength of its own geometry, the design also came with other features, such as stabilizing abutments (which Chandler compares to the legs of "a standing subway rider widening her stance to balance in a swaying car") to keep the bridge upright in that earthquake-prone area of modern-day Turkey.

That particular location didn't get a bridge until 1845, when Valide Sultan ordered the construction of the first, wooden, Galata Bridge. It stood for 18 years until its replacement by another wooden bridge, part of an infrastructure-building push before Napoleon III's visit to Istanbul. The third Galata Bridge, completed in 1875 from a design by a British engineering firm, floated on pontoons. The fourth was a German-designed floating bridge in use from 1912 until a fire damaged it in 1992. Only the fifth and current Galata Bridge, with its tram tracks above, its pedestrianized deck full of shops and market spaces below, and it drawbridge section in the middle, was built by a Turkish company. In all its iterations, the Galata Bridge has become one of Istanbul's cultural reference points and major attractions as well — not that having been designed by Leonardo would have hurt its image any.

via MIT News/Popular Mechanics

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

26-Year-Old Steve Jobs Debates the Utopian & Dystopian Promise of the Computer (1981)

The deeper we get into the 21st century, the fewer aspects of our lives remain disconnected from the digital realm. The convenience of this arrangement is undeniable, but the increasing difficulty of getting through a day without hearing the latest version of the public argument about privacy and data security suggests an accompanying discomfort as well. Have our online lives stolen our privacy — or have we perhaps freely given it away? Some us now even look longingly backward to a time before not just social media but the internet as we know it, a time in which, we imagine, nobody had to worry about the large-scale harvesting and sale of personal information.

As the 1981 Nightline clip above reveals, these concerns went mainstream well before most Americans owned computers, much less went online with them. Even so, Ted Koppel could open the segment claiming that "as a society, we've become used to computer problems of one kind or another, just as we've become used to computers. We're so used to them, in fact, that few of us stop to think of the extent to which they now play a role in our everyday lives, a role that shows every sign of growing even bigger."

There follows footage of the contexts in which computers involved themselves in the lives of the average person in the early 80s: making a phone call, getting money from the ATM, buying groceries at the supermarket, booking an airline ticket. Nevertheless, actually owning a computer yourself could still get you interviewed on the news with the chyron "Home-Computer Owner" beneath your name. After we hear from one such enthusiast, the scene switches to the headquarters of the five-year-old Apple Computer, "the Big Apple in this land of high technology."

A 26-year-old Steve Jobs appears to describe his company's creation as "a 21st-century bicycle that amplifies a certain intellectual ability that man has," one whose effects on society will "far outstrip even those that the petrochemical revolution has had." But then comes the anti-computer counterpoint: "Some people feel threatened by them," says reporter Ken Kashiwahara. "Some think they tend to dehumanize, and others fear they may eventually take over their jobs." Over satellite links, Koppel then brings on Jobs and investigative journalist Daniel Burnham for a debate about the promise and peril of the computer.

"The government has the capacity, by using computers, to get all kinds of information on us that we're really not even aware that they have," Koppel asks Jobs, underscoring Burnham's line of argument. "Isn't that dangerous?" For Jobs, "the best protection against something like that is a very literate public, and in this case computer literate." Predicting, correctly, that every household in the country would eventually have its own computer, he finds reassurance in the inevitably wide distribution of computing power and computer literacy across the public, meaning "that centralized intelligence will have the least effect on our lives without us knowing it."

But Burnham nevertheless warns of "a tremendous danger that the public is not aware of enough at this moment." He didn't describe that danger in the forms of overgrown e-commerce or social media giants — both of those concepts having yet to be realized in any form — or even ideologically opposed foreign countries, but the United States' own Army and Census Bureau. What happens when they decide to use the data in their possession to "break the rules"? Computers are here to stay, it seems, but so are our inclinations as human beings, and one wonders how cleanly the two can ever be reconciled. As aphorist Aaron Haspel puts it, "We can have privacy or we can have convenience, and we choose convenience, every time."

via Paleofuture

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First Music Streaming Service Was Invented in 1881: Discover the Théâtrophone

Every living adult has witnessed enough technological advancement in their lifetime to marvel at just how much has changed, and digital streaming and telecommunications happen to be areas where the most revolutionary change seems to have taken place. We take for granted that the present resembles the past not at all, and that the future will look unimaginably different. So the narrative of linear progress tells us. But that story is never as triumphantly simple as it seems.

In one salient counterexample, we find that not only did livestreaming music and news exist in theory long before the internet, but it existed in actual practice—at the very dawn of recording technology, telephony, and general electrification. First developed in France in 1881 by inventor Clement Ader, who called his system the Théâtrophone, the device allowed users to experience “the transmission of music and other entertainment over a telephone line,” notes the site Bob’s Old Phones, “using very sensitive microphones of [Ader’s] own invention and his own receivers.”

The pre-radio technology was ahead of its time in many ways, as Michael Dervan explains at The Irish Times. The Théâtrophone “could transmit two-channel, multi-microphone relays of theatre and opera over phone lines for listening on headphones. The use of different signals for the two ears created a stereo effect.” Users subscribed to the service, and it proved popular enough to receive an entry in the 1889 edition of The Electrical Engineer reference guide, which defined it as “a telephone by which one can have soupçons of theatrical declamation for half a franc.”

In 1896 "the Belle Epoque pop artist Jules Cheret immortalized the theatrophone," writes Tanya Basu at Mental Floss, "in a lithograph featuring a woman in a yellow dress, grinning as she presumably listened to an opera feed." Victor Hugo got to try it out. "It’s very strange," he wrote. "It starts with two ear muffs on the wall, and we hear the opera; we change earmuffs and hear the French Theatre, Coquelin. And we change again and hear the Opera Comique. The children and I were delighted.”

Though The Electrical Engineer also called it “the latest thing to catch [Parisians’] ears and their centimes,” the innovation had already by that time spread elsewhere in Europe. Inventor Tivador Puskas created a “streaming” system in Budapest called Telefon Hermondo (Telephone Herald), Bob's Old Phones points out, “which broadcast news and stock market information over telephone lines.” Unlike Ader’s system, subscribers could “call in to the telephone switchboard and be connected to the broadcast of their choice. The system was quite successful and was widely reported overseas.”

The mechanism was, of course, quite different from digital streaming, and quite limited by our standards, but the basic delivery system was similar enough. A third such service worked a little differently. The Electrophone system, formed in London in 1884, combined its predecessors' ideas: broadcasting both news and musical entertainment. Playback options were expanded, with both headphones and a speaker-like megaphone attachment.

Additionally, users had a microphone so that they could “talk to the Central Office and request different programs.” The addition of interactivity came at a premium. “The Electrophone service was expensive,” writes Dervan, “£5 a year at a time when that sum would have covered a couple months rent.” Additionally, “the experience was communal rather than solitary.” Subscribers would gather in groups to listen, and “some of the photographs” of these sessions resemble “images of addicts in an old-style opium den”—or of Victorians gathered at a séance.

The company later gave recuperating WWI servicemen access to the service, which heightened its profile. But these early livestreaming services—if we may so call them—were not commercially viable, and “radio killed the venture off in the 1920s” with its universal accessibility and appeal to advertisers and governments. This seeming evolutionary dead end might have been a distant ancestor of streaming live concerts and events, though no one could have foreseen it at the time. No one save science fiction writers.

Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward imagined a device very like the Théâtrophone in his vision of the year 2000. And in 1909, E.M. Forster drew on early streaming services and other early telecommunications advances for his visionary short story “The Machine Stops,” which extrapolated the more isolating tendencies of the technology to predict, as playwright Neil Duffield remarks, “the internet in the days before even radio was a mass medium.”

via Ted Gioia/The Irish Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

19th-Century Skeleton Alarm Clock Reminded People Daily of the Shortness of Life: An Introduction to the Memento Mori

Victorian culture can seem grim and even ghoulish to us youth-obsessed, death-denying 21st century moderns. The tradition of death photography, for example, both fascinates and repels us, especially portraiture of deceased children. But the practice “became increasingly popular,” notes the BBC, as “Victorian nurseries were plagued by measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rubella—all of which could be,” and too often were, “fatal.”

Adults did not fare much better when it came to the epidemic spread of killer diseases. Surrounded inescapably by death, Victorians coped by investing their world with totemic symbols, cultural artifacts known as memento mori, meaning “remember, you must die.” Tuberculosis, cholera, influenza… at any moment, one might take ill and waste away, and there would likely be little medical science could do about it.

Perhaps the best approach, then, was an acceptance of death while in the bloom of health, in order to not waste the moment and to learn to pay attention to what mattered while one could. Memento mori drawings, paintings, jewelry, photographs, and trinkets have populated European cultural history for centuries; death as an ever-present companion, not to be hidden away and feared but solemnly, respectfully given its due.

Or maybe not so respectfully, as the case may be. Some of these novelties, like the skeleton alarm clock at the top, look more like they belong at the bottom of a fish tank than a proper parlor mantle. “Presumably when the alarm went off,” writes Allison Meier at Hyperallergic, “the skeleton would shake its bones.” Wake up, life is short, you could die at any time. “Part of the collections of Science Museum, London, it’s believed to be of English origin and date between 1840 and 1900.”

The Tim Burton-esque tchotchke appeared in a 2014 British Library exhibit called Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, with many other such objects of varying degrees of artistry: “200 objects from a span of 250 years, all centered on the Gothic tradition in art, literature, music, fashion, and most recently film.” Memento mori artifacts offer visceral reminders that real, daily confrontations with disease and death were “at the base of much of Gothic literature and art.”

Where we now tend to read the Gothic as primarily reflective of social, cultural, and religious anxieties, the prevalence of memento mori in European homes both low and high (such as Mary Queen of Scots' skull watch, in an 1896 illustration above) shows us just how much the gloomy strain of thinking that became the modern horror genre derives from a desire to confront mortality head on, so to speak, and finding that looking death in the face brings on ancient uncanny dread as much as healthy gallows humor and stoic, stiff-upper-lip reckoning with the ultimate fact of life.

via Lindsey Fitzharris

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Human All Too Human: A Roman Woman Visits the Great Pyramid in 120 AD, and Carves a Poem in Memory of Her Deceased Brother

The phrase “history is written by the victors” is a cliché, which means that it is at least half true; official histories are, to a significant degree “written,” or dictated, by ruling elites. But as far as the actual writing down, and excavating, narrating, arguing about, and revising of history goes… well, that is the work of historians, who may work for powerful institutions but who are not themselves—with several notable exceptions, of course—politicians, generals, or captains of industry.

This is all to the good. Historians, and Twitterstorians, can tell stories and present evidence that the victors might rather see disappear. And they can tell stories we never knew that we were missing, but which humanize the past by restoring the lives of ordinary people with ordinary concerns. Stories of everyday ancient Romans and Egyptians, for example, or of ancient Romans in Egypt, visiting and vandalizing the pyramids.

In one such poignant story, circulating on Twitter, a Roman woman named Terentia carved into the limestone facing of the Great Pyramid sometime around 120 AD a touching poem for her brother, who had just recently died. As told by medievalist, linguist, and Senior Editor at History Today Dr. Kate Wiles, the poem might have been lost to the ages had it not been discovered by German pilgrim Wilhelm von Boldensele in 1335.

Knowing Latin, Von Boldensele read the poem, found it moving, and copied it down. (See his manuscript at the top.) Wiles quotes a part of the prose English translation:

I saw the pyramids without you, my dearest brother, and here I sadly shed tears for you, which is all I could do. And I inscribe this lament in memory of our grief. May thus be clearly visible on the high pyramid the name of Decimus Gentianus….

We can surmise that Terentia must have had some means to travel, but in Wiles' abridged Twitter version of the story, we also might assume she could be anyone at all, grieving the loss of a close relative. Terentia’s grief is no less moving or real when we learn that the inscription goes for on several lines Wiles cut for brevity.

Turning to Emily Ann Hemelrijk’s book Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Elite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, Dr. Wiles' source for the Great Pyramid poem, we find that Terentia wasn’t just an educated, upper class woman, she was a very well-connected one. The inscription goes on to identify her brother as “a pontifex and companion to your triumphs, Trajan, and both censor and consul before his thirtieth year of age.”

In his anthology Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Ian Michael Plant provides even more historical context. Of Terentia, we know little to nothing save the Von Boldensele’s copy of her six hexameters (and possibly more that he ignored). Of Decimus Gentianus, however, we know that he not only served as a consul under Trajan but also as governor of Macedonia under Hadrian. Terentia “chose the pyramid for her epitaph to provide a suitably grand and everlasting site for her tribute to him,” writes Plant. (Cue Shelly’s “Ozymandias.”)

Not only is the poem about a victor, but it appears to shift its address from him to the ultimate victor, Emperor Trajan, in its final lines. Should this change our appreciation of the story as a slice of Roman tourist life and example of ancient women's writing? No, but it shows us something about what history gets preserved and why. Despite historians’ best efforts, especially in public-facing work, to make the past more accessible and relatable, they, too, are limited by what other cultures chose to preserve and what to pass over.

Hemelrijk admits, “the poem is no literary masterpiece,” but Von Boldersele saw enough merit in its sentiments to record it for posterity. He also made a judgment about the inscription’s historical import, given its references, which is probably the reason we have it today.

via Dr. Kate Wiles

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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