Beautiful & Outlandish Color Illustrations Let Europeans See Exotic Fish for the First Time (1754)

Whether in the tanks into which we gaze at the aquarium or the CGI-intensive wildlife-based gagfests at which we gaze in the theater, most of us in the 21st century have seen more than a few funny fish. Eighteenth-century Europeans couldn't have said the same. The great majority passed their entire lives without so much as a glance at the form of even one live exotic creature of the deep, and most of those who have a sense of what such a sight looked like probably got it from an illustration. But even so, some of the illustrated fish of the day must have proven unforgettable, especially the ones in Louis Renard's Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes.

First published in 1719 with a second edition, seen here, in 1754, Renard's book, whose full title translates to Fishes, Crayfishes, and Crabs, of Diverse Colors and Extraordinary Form, that Are Found Around the Islands of the Moluccas and on the Coasts of the Southern Lands, showed its readers, in full color for the very first time, creatures the likes of which they'd never have had occasion even to imagine. The book's 460 hand-colored copper engravings depict, according to the Glasgow University Library, "415 fishes, 41 crustaceans, two stick insects, a dugong and a mermaid."

The specimens in the first part of the book tend toward the realistic, while those of the second "verge on the surreal," many of which "bear no similarity to any living creatures," some of which bear "small human faces, suns, moons and stars" on their flanks and carapaces, most possessed of colors "applied in a rather arbitrary fashion," though brilliantly so. In the short accompanying texts, "several of the fish" — presumably not the mermaid — "are assessed in terms of their edibility and are accompanied by brief recipes."

Renard himself, who lived from 1678 to 1746, seems to have had a career as colorful as the fish in his book. "As well as spending some seventeen years as a publisher and bookdealer," he also "sold medicines, brokered English bonds and, more intriguingly, acted as a spy for the British Crown, being employed by Queen Anne, George I and George II." Far from keeping that part of his life a secret, "Renard used his status as an 'agent' to help advertise his books. This particular work is actually dedicated to George I while the title-page describes the publisher as  'Louis Renard, Agent de Sa Majesté Britannique.'"

You can behold more of Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes at the Public Domain Review. "If the illustrations are breathtaking to us now, with all the hours of David Attenborough documentaries under our belts," they write, "one can only imagine the impact this would have had on a European audience of the eighteenth century, to which the exotic ocean life of the East would have been virtually unknown."

Though received as a respectable scientific work in its day — and even, as the Glasgow University Library puts it, "a product of the Enlightenment" — the book now stands as an enchanting tribute to the combination of a little knowledge and a lot of human imagination.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Are we truly in the midst of a human-caused sixth mass extinction, an era of “biological annihilation”? Many scientists and popular science writers say yes, using terms like “Holocene” or “Anthropocene” to describe what follows the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Peter Brannen, author of extinction history The Ends of the Earth has found at least one scientist who thinks the concept is “junk.” But Brannen quotes some alarming statistics. Chilling, even. “Until very recently,” he writes, “all vertebrate life on the planet was wildlife. But astoundingly, today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass… almost half of the earth’s land has been converted into farmland.”

This state of affairs does not bode well for the millions of remaining species getting edged out of their environments by agribusiness and climate change. We learn from extinctions past that the planet rebounds after unimaginable catastrophe. Life really does go on, though it may take millions of years to recover. But the current forms of life may disappear before their time. If we want to understand what is at stake besides our own fragile fossil-fuel based civilizations, we need to connect to life emotionally as well as intellectually. Short of globe-hopping physical immersion in the earth’s biodiversity, we could hardly do better than immersing ourselves in the tradition of naturalist writing, art, and photography that brings the world to us.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an “open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives,” has for many years been making it easy for people to connect to nature through nature writing and illustration. In 2012, they announced the “success story” of their Flickr streams, both containing thousands of illustrations and photographs uploaded by the BHL staff and readers from their huge collections of books.

The first stream, currently at 122,281 images, has been carefully curated, and includes searchable galleries and albums divided by book title or subject, such as “Exotic botany illustrated,” “The Birds of Australia v.1,” and “Bats!” The second stream, consisting of over 2 million images, is a massive grab-bag of photos, illlustrations from nature, advertisements, and imaginative renderings.

Though far less useful for the scholar—or the very purposeful user—this second photostream offers more potential for chance discovery, through the aimless wandering that often leads to serendipitously sublime experiences. The formal BHL stream does not disappoint, though it may offer fewer surprises. Both of these image archives offer expansive views of humanity's encounter with the natural world, not only through statistics and academic jargon, but through the artistic recording of wonder, scientific curiosity, and deep appreciation.

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

Meet the 35-Year-Old British Man Who Lives Entirely in the Year 1946

Ben Sansum is something of a young fogey. He's only 35 years old, but he lives in the year 1946. Entirely. The pictures on his wall in his Cambridgeshire home, the supplies in his cupboard, the music played on his turntable, the clothes he wears--everything comes from 1946 and the post WWII era. His motivation is partly aesthetic. He likes living in a period home, he tells us. But it also goes deeper than that. As he notes, our modern world moves so quickly, it sometimes pays to hang onto old world charms.

via Coudal

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Mona Lisa Selfie: A Montage of Social Media Photos Taken at the Louvre and Put on Instagram

"Over 6 million people visit the Mona Lisa at the Louvre each year. Many share their visit on social media." Created by Daniel McKee, this dizzying video gathers together hundreds of the photos that get taken at the museum and then wind up on Instagram. Only a minute long, it's a nice succinct commentary on our time...

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How a Korean Potter Found a “Beautiful Life” Through His Art: A Short, Life-Affirming Documentary

I like to think I appreciate all aspects of the culture of South Korea, where I live, but different attractions bring different foreigners here. Some come for the food, some come for the music (pop, traditional, or somewhere in between), some come for the medical tourism. Others, like British ceramicist Roger Law, come for the pottery. The half-hour documentary above will give you an idea of what makes Korean pottery, and the Korean potters who craft it, so distinctive, taking viewers into the workshop of Lee Kang-hyo, who has become famous by there bringing together the distinct traditions of onggi glazed earthenware pottery and buncheong white slip decoration.

"As a high school student, I asked myself some fundamental questions," says Lee in voiceover as we watch him beat the clay of what looks more and more like a large jar into shape. "What would be good to do for a living? What is my best talent? How can I enjoy a life of peace? It was then I decided to become an artist." As he creates, he tells us about the long history of pottery in Korea and his experience practicing and mastering the traditions in which he works. Looked at onggi, he says, "I never thought they were simply big jars. I thought they were great sculpture."

“My documentary tells the story of Lee Kang-hyo’s search for a beautiful life, through his work with clay and the love of his family," says director Alex Wright, a story that "gives an insight into the spiritual journey that plays a vital part in his artistic practice." For Lee, this had to do as much with the heart and mind as with the hand, loosening up and lightening up even as he grew more skilled, a realization that first occurred when he became friendly with Japanese master potter Koie Ryoji. "Kang-hyo, why don't you try to change your thinking?'" Lee remembers Koie asking after he presented him with his latest piece. "And he lifted it up and crushed it. He said: 'Form doesn't always have to be straight. It can be beautiful.'"

That lesson holds in other cultural spheres as well. "Ceramic culture is very closely connected to dietary life and food culture," Lee observes. "Korea has developed a fermented food culture. A lot of foods are fermented and stored, such as sauces and kimchi," which might stay in their ceramic jars for years before consumption. And so "Korea has developed the skills to make big jars, more than any other country" with the "quickest and most perfect forms." This might sound like the makings of a rustic, utilitarian pottery — and indeed cuisine — but in fact the work of Lee and other Korean masters increasingly aligns with the growing global taste for things outwardly simple but inwardly refined. In that particular sensibility, whether expressed as pottery or food or music or anything else, Korea might well lead the world.

Lee Kang-hyo 'Onggi Master will be added to our collection of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Research Finds That Intellectual Humility Can Make Us Better Thinkers & People; Good Thing There’s a Free Course on Intellectual Humility

We may have grown used to hearing about the importance of critical thinking, and stowed away knowledge of logical fallacies and cognitive biases in our argumentative toolkit. But were we to return to the philosophical sources of informal logic, we would find that we only grasped at some of the principles of reason. The others involve questions of what we might call virtue or character—what for the Greeks fell into the categories of ethos and pathos. The principle of charity, for example, in which we give our opponents a fair hearing and respond to the best version of their arguments as we understand them. And the principle, exemplified by Plato’s Socrates, of intellectual humility. Or as one punk band put it in their Socratic tribute. “All I know is that I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”

Intellectual humility is not, contrary to most popular appearances, reflexively according equal weight to “both sides” of every argument or assuming that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. These are forms of mental laziness and ethical abdication. It is, however, believing in our own fallibility and opening ourselves up to hearing arguments without immediately forming a judgment about them or the people who make them. We do not abandon our reason and values, we strengthen them, argues Mark Leary, by “not being afraid of being wrong.” Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, is the lead author of a new study on intellectual humility that found “essentially no difference between liberals and conservatives or between religious and nonreligious people” when it comes to intellectual humility.

The study challenges many ideas that can prevent dialogue. “There are stereotypes about conservatives and religiously conservative people being less intellectually humble about their beliefs," says Leary. But he and his colleagues “didn’t find a shred of evidence to support that.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that such people have high degrees of intellectual humility, only that all of us, perhaps equally, possess fairly low levels of the trait. I’ll be the first to admit that it is not an easy one to develop, especially when we’re on the defensive for some seemingly good reasons—and when we live in a culture that encourages us to make decisions and take actions on the strength of an image, some minimal text, and a few buttons that lead us right to our bank accounts. (To quote Operation Ivy again, “We get told to decide. Just like as if I’m not gonna change my mind.”)

But in the Duke study, reports Alison Jones at Duke Today, “those who displayed intellectual humility did a better job of evaluating the quality of evidence.” They took their time to make careful considerations. And they were generally more charitable and “less likely to judge a writer’s character based on his or her views.” By contrast, “intellectually arrogant” people gave writers with whom they disagreed “low scores in morality, honesty, competence, and warmth.” As a former teacher of rhetoric, I wonder whether the researchers accounted for the quality and persuasiveness of the writing itself. Nonetheless, this observation underscores the problem of conflating an author’s work with his or her character. Moral judgment can inhibit intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. Intellectually arrogant people often resort to insults and personal attacks over thoughtful analysis.

The enormous number of assumptions we bring to almost every conversation with people who differ from us can blind us to our own faults and to other people’s strengths. But intellectual humility is not genetically determined—it is a skill that can be learned, Leary believes. Big Think recommends a free MOOC from the University of Edinburgh on intellectual humility (see an introduction to the concept at the top and a series of lectures here). “Faced with difficult questions,” explains course lecturer Dr. Ian Church, “people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent…. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken.” The course offers three different levels of engagement, from casual to quite involved, and three separate class sections at Coursera: Theory, Practice, and Science.

It’s likely that many of us need some serious preparation before we’re willing to listen to those who hold certain views. And perhaps certain views don't actually deserve a hearing. But in most cases, if we can let our guard down, set aside feelings of hostility, and become willing to learn something even from those with whom we disagree, we might be able to do what so many psychologists continue to recommend. As Cindy Lamothe writes at New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog, “we have to be willing to expose ourselves to opposing perspectives in the first place—which means that, as daunting as it may seem, listening to friends and family with radically different views can be beneficial to our long-term intellectual progress.” The holidays are soon upon us. Let the healing—or at least the charitable tolerance if you can manage it—begin.

via Big Think

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

Meet the World’s Worst Orchestra, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, Featuring Brian Eno

What is it about objectively terrible works of art that so captivates? Cults form around Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” or amateur girl-group The Shaggs, “the best—or worst—band of all time.” Such utter artlessness cannot be faked, but it can, composer Gavin Bryars found, be deliberately orchestrated, to quite enjoyably terrible effect. In 1970, Bryars staged a three-day talent show at the Portsmouth School of Art, with comedians, ventriloquists, musicians, etc. His own entry was the Portsmouth Sinfonia, now rightly known as the “world’s worst orchestra.” The Sinfonia, writes Dangerous Minds, “welcomed musicians and non-musicians alike, though people of talent were expected to play instruments on which they were not proficient.” The first iteration of the group consisted of 13 students who could hardly play at all.

Later ensembles featured more dramatic disparities in talent. But no matter their level of ability, “all members were expected to play the repertoire to the best of their abilities. The result was a special kind of cacophony: every familiar theme (Also sprach Zarathustrathe William Tell OvertureBeethoven’s Fifth), though played as ineptly as possible, was approached with respect and even care. You will instantly recognize every tune they attempt, and you will probably bust a gut,” adds Dangerous Minds.

Maybe it's the earnestness that gets us, the best of intentions producing the most ridiculous of results. Though formed as a “one-off joke,” Atlas Obscura notes, the Sinfonia continued after an “outpouring of enthusiasm,” and even attracted Brian Eno, who joined on clarinet, an instrument he’d never played, and produced and recorded with the group on their debut 1974 album, Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays the Popular Classics.

The group’s numbers swelled by the mid-seventies to include, Eno wrote in the album’s liner notes, “a membership of about fifty.” He lets us know in his deadpan introduction that the Sinfonia took its work seriously. The orchestra “tends to generate an extra-ordinary and unique musical situation where the inevitable errors must be considered as a crucial, if inadvertent, element of the music.”

It is important to stress the main characteristic of the orchestra: that all members of the Sinfonia share the desire to play the pieces as accurately as possible. One supposes that the possibility of professional accuracy will forever elude us since there is a constant influx of new members and a continual desire to attempt more ambitious pieces from the realms of the popular classics.

This is difficult to read with a straight face, but Bryars "was adamant," the blog Classical Music Reimagined explains, "that the musicians shouldn’t play for laughs – they honestly had to play to the best of their ability, and attendance at rehearsal was mandatory. Footage of the orchestra in action shows an incredible level of concentration and focus (if not results)." A few members do seem be having fun with Handel's Messiah in the short clip of a live performance below, featuring a serious Eno. But most of them are genuinely giving it their all.

Experimental theater, conceptual art, or practical joke, it makes no difference. There is truly something “extra-ordinary and unique” about this “musical situation,” you must agree. The so-bad-it’s-goodness of the Sinfonia comes not only from their lack of talent, but also from the enormous gap between intentions and results—a universally recognizable condition of the human comedy. We celebrate the exceptions, those whose great efforts truly produce greatness. But in the Sinfonia, we may encounter the less-great parts of ourselves, ennobled in their ineptitude by the foolhardiness of this tragicomic daring.

via Atlas Obscura +  Dangerous Minds

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

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”

So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)

And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.

Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."

It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.

Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.

Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.

In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”

It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.

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

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

As soon as it began airing on ABC in the early 1990s, Twin Peaks got us wondering where its distinctively resonant oddness, never before felt on the airwaves of prime-time television, could have come from. Some viewers had already seen co-creator David Lynch's films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and may thus have had a more developed feel for it, but for everyone else the nature and origin of the "Lynchian" — as critics soon began labeling it — remained utterly mysterious. Now, with the long-awaited Twin Peaks: The Return having completed its own run, we've started thinking about it once again.

What does the Lynchian look like from the vantage of the 21st century? David Foster Wallace, in an essay on Lynch's Lost Highway twenty years ago, defined the term "Lynchian" as referring to "a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Lewis Bond, the video essayist who runs the Youtube channel Channel Criswell, goes a bit deeper in "David Lynch - The Elusive Subconscious." What is it, he asks, that denotes the style of Lynch? "The same way a hallway sinking into darkness is Lynchian, so is a white picket fence in a slice of Americana."

These and the enormous variety of other things Lynchian must "exude elusiveness, and the enigma of what signifies Lynchian sensibilities lies in producing unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar."At first glance, that statement may seem as obscure as some of Lynch's creative choices do when you first witness them. But spend a few minutes with Bond's wide-ranging video essay, taking in Lynch's images at the same time as the analysis, and you'll get a clearer sense of what both of them are going for. After examining Lynch's use of the subconscious in his films from several different angles, Bond arrives at Pauline Kael's description of the filmmaker as "the first populist surrealist."

"Although his work is puzzling, and more often than not intended to be so," says Bond, Lynch "still manages to strike a chord with the way we feel." Lynch, in other words, puts dreams on the screen, but instead of simply relating the inventions of his own subconscious — hearing someone retell their dreams being, after all, a byword for an agonizingly boring experience — he somehow gets all of us to dream them ourselves. What haunts us when we wake up after a particularly harrowing night also haunts us when we come out of a Lynch movie, but the artistry of the latter has a way of making us want to plunge right back into the nightmare again.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

 

China’s New Luminous White Library: A Striking Visual Introduction

MVRDV, a Dutch architecture and urban design firm, teamed up with Chinese architects to create the Tianjin Binhai Library, a massive cultural center featuring "a luminous spherical auditorium around which floor-to-ceiling bookcases cascade." Located not far from Beijing, the library was built quickly by any standards. It took only three years to move from "the first sketch to the [grand] opening" on October 1. Elaborating on the library, which can house 1.2 million books, MVRDV notes:

The building’s mass extrudes upwards from the site and is ‘punctured’ by a spherical auditorium in the centre. Bookshelves are arrayed on either side of the sphere and act as everything from stairs to seating, even continuing along the ceiling to create an illuminated topography. These contours also continue along the two full glass facades that connect the library to the park outside and the public corridor inside, serving as louvres to protect the interior against excessive sunlight whilst also creating a bright and evenly lit interior.

The video above gives you a visual introduction to the building. And, on the MRDV website, you can view a gallery of photos that let you see the library's shapely design.

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If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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