Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Image by Wrath of Gnon

We’ve all admired the elegance of Japan’s traditional styles of architecture. Their development required the kind of dedicated craftsmanship that takes generations to cultivate — but also, more practically speaking, no small amount of wood. By the 15th century, Japan already faced a shortage of seedlings, as well as land on which to properly cultivate the trees in the first place. Necessity being the mother of invention, this led to the creation of an ingenious solution: daisugi, the growing of additional trees, in effect, out of existing trees — creating, in other words, a kind of giant bonsai.

“Written as 台杉 and literally meaning platform cedar, the technique resulted in a tree that resembled an open palm with multiple trees growing out if it, perfectly vertical,” writes Spoon and Tamago’s Johnny Waldman. “Done right, the technique can prevent deforestation and result in perfectly round and straight timber known as taruki, which are used in the roofs of Japanese teahouses.”

These teahouses are still prominent in Kyoto, a city still known for its traditional cultural heritage, and not coincidentally where daisugi first developed. “It’s said that it was Kyoto’s preeminent tea master, Sen-no-rikyu, who demanded perfection in the Kitayama cedar during the 16th century,” writes My Modern Met’s Jessica Stewart.

At the time “a form of very straight and stylized sukiya-zukuri architecture was high fashion, but there simply weren’t nearly enough raw materials to build these homes for every noble or samurai who wanted one,” says a thread by Twitter account Wrath of Gnon, which includes these and other photos of daisugi in action. “Hence this clever solution of using bonsai techniques on trees.” Aesthetics aside — as far aside as they ever get in Japan, at any rate — “the lumber produced in this method is 140% as flexible as standard cedar and 200% as dense/strong,” making it “absolutely perfect for rafters and roof timber.” And not only is daisugi‘s product straight, slender, and typhoon-resistant, it’s marveled at around the world 600 years later. Of how many forestry techniques can we say the same?

via Spoon and Tamago

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Video Shows the Building of Prague’s Charles Bridge in the 14th Century: 45 Years of Construction in 3 Minutes

Without massive feats of engineering we rarely notice anymore because they seem so commonplace, the built environments we navigate each day wouldn’t exist. When we do turn our attention to how the buildings get made, we are met with surprises, curiosities, puzzles, moments of wonder. How much more is this the case when learning about fixtures of cities that are hundreds or thousands of years old, constructed with what we would consider primitive methods, producing results that seem superior in durability and aesthetic quality to most modern structures?

Of course, while modern structures can take months or even weeks to finish, those of a more ancient or medieval age were constructed over decades and repaired, rebuilt, and restored over centuries. Consider the Charles Bridge, which crosses the Vltava (Moldau) river in Prague.

Construction began on the famous structure—nearly 1,700 feet (516 meters) long and 33 feet (10 meters) wide—in 1357 under King Charles IV. Forty-five years later, in 1402, the bridge was completed. It was damaged in the Thirty Years’ War, then repaired, damaged in floods in the 15th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and repaired, and updated with more modern appointments over time, such as gaslights. But its bones, as they say, stayed strong.

In the digitally animated video above, you can watch the initial construction process in fast-motion–nearly half a century condensed into 3 minutes. Built by architect Peter Parler, it was originally called Stone Bridge. It acquired the king’s name in 1870. “The low-lying medieval structure,” notes Google, who celebrated the 660th anniversary of the bridge in 2017, “is comprised of 16 shallow arches and three Gothic towers, and lined with 30 Baroque-style statues,” added some 200 years ago. Every building has its secrets, and the Charles Bridge no doubt has more than most. One of the first has nothing to do with hidden chambers or buried remains. Rather, “according to legend, during construction, masons added a secret ingredient that they thought would make it stronger: eggs!”

See more animated videos of vintage construction at the Praha Archeologicka channel on YouTube and learn much more about medieval Prague’s many architectural surprises at their site.

via Twisted Sifter

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

Take a Digital Drive Along Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Boulevard, the Famous Strip That the Artist Photographed from 1965 to 2007

Ed Ruscha has lived nearly 65 years in Los Angeles, but he insists that he has no particular fascination with the place. Not everyone believes him: is disinterest among the many possible feelings that could motivate a painting like The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire? Nevertheless, the plainspoken Oklahoma-born artist has long stuck to his story, perhaps in order to let his often cryptic work speak for itself. Originally trained in commercial art, Ruscha has painted, printed, drawn, and taken photographs, the most celebrated fruit of that last pursuit being 1966’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, a book that stitches his countless photographs of that famous boulevard — both sides of it — onto one long, continuous page.

Whatever you think of such a project, you can’t accuse it of a mismatch between form and substance. Nor can you call it a cynical one-off: between 1967 and 2007, Ruscha drove Sunset Boulevard with his camera no fewer than twelve times in order to photograph most or all of its buildings.

These include gas stations (an architectural form to which Ruscha has made the subject of its own photo book as well as one of his most famous paintings), drugstores, appliance dealers, Central American restaurants, karate schools, travel agencies, car washes, Modernist office towers, and two of the most characteristic structures of Los Angeles: low-rise, kitschily named “dingbat” apartment blocks and L-shaped “La Mancha” strip malls.

The mix of the built environment varies greatly, of course, depending on where you choose to go on this 22-mile-long boulevard, only a short stretch of which constitutes the “Sunset Strip.” It also depends on when you choose to go: not which time of day, but which era, a choice put at your fingertips by the Getty Research Institute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles Project, and specifically its interactive feature 12 Sunsets. In it you can use your left and right arrow keys to “drive” east or west (in your choice between a van, a VW Beetle, or Ruscha’s own trusty Datsun pickup), and your up and down button to flip between the year of the photo shoots that make up the boulevard around you.

Many longtime Angelenos (or enthusiasts of Los Angeles culture) will motor straight to the intersection with Horn Avenue, location of the much-mythologized Sunset Strip Tower Records from which the very American musical zeitgeist once seemed to emanate. The Sacramento-founded store was actually a latecomer to Los Angeles compared to Ruscha himself, and the building first appears in his third photo shoot, of 1973. The next year the ever-changing posters on its exterior walls includes Billy Joel’s Piano Man. About a decade later appear the one-hit likes of Loverboy, and in the twilight of the 1990s the street elevation touts the Beastie Boys and Rob Zombie. In 2007, Tower’s signature red and yellow are all that remain, the chain itself having gone under (at least outside Japan) the year before.

12 Sunsets’ interface provides two different methods to get straight from one point to another: you can either type a specific place name into the “location search” box on the upper right, or click the map icon on the middle left to open up the line of the whole street clickable anywhere from downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean. This is a much easier way of making your way along Sunset Boulevard than actually driving it, even in the comparatively nonexistent traffic of 1965. Nevertheless, Ruscha continues to photographically document it and other Los Angeles streets, using the very same method he did 55 years ago. The buildings keep changing, but the city has never stopped exuding its characteristic normality so intensely as to become eccentricity (and vice versa). What artist worthy of the title wouldn’t be fascinated?

Explore the Getty Research Institute’s Ed Ruscha Streets of Los Angeles Project here.

via Austin Kleon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Dorothea Lange Digital Archive: Explore 600+ Photographs by the Influential Photographer (Plus Negatives, Contact Sheets & More)

Shortly before her death in 1965, one of the New Deal’s most famous photographers, Dorothea Lange, spoke at UC Berkeley. “Someone showed me photos of migrant farmworkers they had just taken,” she said. “They look just like what I made in the ‘30s.” We can see the same conditions Lange documented almost 60 years later, from the poverty of the Depression to the internment and demonization of immigrants. Only the clothing and the architecture has changed. “Her work could not be more relevant to what’s happening today,” says Lange biographer Linda Gordon.

As an American, it can feel as if the country is stuck in arrested development, unable to imagine a future that isn’t a retread of the past. Yet activists, historians, and therapists seem to agree: in order to move forward, we have to go back—to an honest accounting of how Americans have suffered and suffered unequally from economic hardship and oppression. These were Lange’s great themes: poverty and inequality, and she “believed in the power of photography to make change,” says Erin O’Toole, associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Among famous Bay Area colleagues like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Lange is unique in that “her archive and all that material,” says O’Toole, “stayed in the Bay Area,” held in the possession of the Oakland Museum of California. Now, more than 600 high-resolution scans are available online at the OMCA’s new Dorothea Lange Digital Archive, which also “contains contact sheets, film negatives and links related to materials as additional resources for the many curators, scholars and general audiences accessing Lange’s body of work,” Emily Mendel writes at The Oaklandside

The digital archive will likely expand in coming years as the digitization process—funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation—continues. The physical archive is vast, including some “40,000 negatives and 6,000 prints, plus other memorabilia.” These were inaccessible to anyone who couldn’t make the “huge trek to OMCA,” Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge—author of Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (2013)—remarks. The project is “the most important thing,” says Partridge, “that has happened to her work since it was given to the museum decades ago” by her second husband Paul Taylor. 

The online archive-slash-exhibit divides Lange’s work in four sections: “The Depression,” “World War II at Home,” “Post-War Projects,” and “Early Work/Personal Work.” The first of these contains some of her most famous photographs, including versions and adaptations of Migrant Mother, the posed portrait of Florence Thompson that “became a famous symbol of white motherhood” (though Thompson was Native American) and “moved many Americans to support relief efforts.” We can see how the iconic photo was taken up and used by the Cuban journal Bohemia, the Black Panther Party newspaper, and The Nation, who imagined Thompson in 2005 as a Walmart employee.

In the second category are Lange’s photographs of Japanese internment camps, unseen until relatively recently. “When she finally gave these photos to the Army who hired her,” Gordon notes, “they fired her and impounded the photos.” Lange’s skilled portraiture, her uncanny ability to humanize and universalize her subjects, could not suit the purposes of the U.S. military. “She used photography,” O’Toole says, “as a tool to uncover injustices, discrimination, to call attention to poverty, the destruction of the environment, immigration…. The protests that are happening today would be something she’d be photographing in the streets.”

Maybe in a digital age, when we are overwhelmed by visual stimuli, photography has lost much of the influence it once had. But Lange’s images still inspire equal amounts of compassion and curiosity. As Americans contend with the very same issues, we could do with a lot more of both. Enter the Dorothea Lange Digital Archive here

via Austin Kleon

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

Explore the Roman Cookbook, De Re Coquinaria, the Oldest Known Cookbook in Existence

Western scholarship has had “a bias against studying sensual experience,” writes Reina Gattuso at Atlas Obscura, “the relic of an Enlightenment-era hierarchy that considered taste, touch, and flavor taboo topics for sober academic inquiry.” This does not mean, however, that cooking has been ignored by historians. Many a scholar has taken European cooking seriously, before recent food scholarship expanded the canon. For example, in a 1926 English translation of an ancient Roman cookbook, Joseph Dommers Vehling makes a strong case for the centrality of food scholarship.

“Anyone who would know something worth while about the private and public lives of the ancients,” writes Vehling, “should be well acquainted with their table.” Published as Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (and available here at Project Gutenberg), it is, he says, the oldest known cookbook in existence.

The book, originally titled De Re Coquinaria, is attributed to Apicius and may date to the 1st century A.C.E., though the oldest surviving copy comes from the end of the Empire, sometime in the 5th century. As with most ancient texts, copied over centuries, redacted, amended, and edited, the original cookbook is shrouded in mystery.

The cookbook’s author, Apicius, could have been one of several “renowned gastronomers of old Rome” who bore the surname. But whichever “famous eater” was responsible, over 2000 years later the book has quite a lot to tell us about the Roman diet. (All of the illustrations here are by Vehling, who includes over two dozen examples of ancient practices and artifacts.)

Meat played an important role, and “cruel methods of slaughter were common.” But the kind of meat available seems to have changed during Apicius’s time:

With the increasing shortage of beef, with the increasing facilities for raising chicken and pork, a reversion to Apician methods of cookery and diet is not only probably but actually seems inevitable. The ancient bill of fare and the ancient methods of cookery were entirely guided by the supply of raw materials—precisely like ours. They had no great food stores nor very efficient marketing and transportation systems, food cold storage. They knew, however, to take care of what there was. They were good managers.

But vegetarians were also well-served. “Apicius certainly excels in the preparation of vegetable dishes (cf. his cabbage and asparagus) and in the utilization of parts of food materials that are today considered inferior.” This apparent need to use everything, and to sometimes heavily spice food to cover spoilage, may have led to an unusual Roman custom. As How Stuff Works puts it, “cooks then were revered if they could disguise a common food item so that diners had no idea what they were eating.”

As for the recipes themselves, well, any attempt to duplicate them will be at best a broad interpretation—a translation from ancient methods of cooking by smell, feel, and custom to the modern way of weights and measures. Consider the following recipe:




I foresee much frustrating trial and error (and many hopeful substitutions for things like lovage or rue or “satury”) for the cook who attempts this. Some foods that were plentifully available could cost hundreds now to prepare for a dinner party.


Vehling’s footnotes mostly deal with etymology and define unfamiliar terms (“laser root” is wild fennel), but they provide little practical insight for the cook. “Most of the Apician directions are vague, hastily jotted down, carelessly edited,” much of the terminology is obscure: “with the advent of the dark ages, it ceased to be a practical cookery book.” We learn, instead, about Roman ingredients and home economic practices, inseparable from Roman economics more generally, according to Vehling.

He makes a judgment of his own time even more relevant to ours: “Such atrocities as the willful destruction of huge quantities of food of every description on the one side and the starving multitudes on the other as seen today never occurred in antiquity.” Perhaps more current historians of antiquity would beg to differ, I wouldn’t know.

But if you’re just looking for a Roman recipe that you can make at home, might I suggest the Rose Wine?



You could probably go with red or white, though I’d hazard Apicius went with a fine vinum rubrum. This concoction, Vehling tells us in a helpful footnote, doubles as a laxative. Clever, those Romans. Read the full English translation of the ancient Roman cookbook here.

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

A Creepy 19th Century Re-Creation of the Famous Ancient Roman Statue, Laocoön and His Sons

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. We’ve all heard that proverb, but few of us could name its source: the Trojan priest Laocoön, a historical character in the Aeneid. “Do not trust the Horse, Trojans,” Virgil has him say. “Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.” He was right to do so, as we all know, though his death came not at the hands of the Greek army let into Troy by the soldiers hidden inside the Horse, but those of the gods. As Virgil has it, an enraged Laocoön threw a spear at the Horse when his compatriots disregarded words of caution, and in response the goddess Minerva sent forth a couple of sea serpents to do him in.

The Aeneid, of course, offers only one account of Laocoön’s fate. Sophocles, for instance, had him spared and only his sons killed, and his ostensible crime — being a priest yet marrying — had nothing to do with the Trojan Horse. But whatever drew the serpents Laocoön’s way, the moment they set upon him and his sons was immortalized by Rhodian sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus in Laocoön and His Sons, among the most famous ancient sculptures in existence since its excavation in 1506. (The sculpture was originally created somewhere between 200 BC and 70 AD.) Various tributes have been paid to it over the centuries, most notably by an Austrian anatomist named Josef Hyrtl, whose built his highly Halloween-suitable recreation out of skeletons — both human and snake.

“According to Christopher Polt, an assistant professor in the classical studies department at Boston College who tweeted a side-by-side comparison of the two versions, Hyrtl created his take on the sculpture at the University of Vienna around 1850,” writes Hyperallergic’s Valentina Di Liscia. In response, a historian named Gregory Stringer tweeted that Hyrtl must have been able to intuit the “proper pose” of Laocoön’s right arm, since in the mid-19th century the sculpture’s original arm was still missing, yet to be rediscovered and reattached, and since 1510 had been replaced in copies with an incorrectly outstretched substitute. Laocoön and His Sons now resides at the Vatican (learn more about it in the Smarthistory video below), but Hyrtl’s skeletal Laocoön and His Sons was destroyed in the 1945 Allied bombing of Vienna.

In 2018, a similar project was attempted again for an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The new all-skeleton version of Laocoön and His Sons was created, as the Houston Press‘ Jef Rouner reports, by taxidermist Lawyer Douglas, taxidermy collector Tyler Zottarelle, and artist Joshua Hammond. “It looks a lot like interpretative dance,” Rouner quotes Douglas as saying of Hyrtl’s work. “It’s a beautiful piece, but I was concerned it wasn’t able to capture the original struggle of animal versus human.” Though Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus’ original is known as a “prototypical icon of human agony,” it turns out that “getting perpetually grinning skulls to seem in agony is harder than you might think.” But if any time of the year is right for grinning skulls to express the human experience, surely this is it.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Story of the SynthAxe, the Astonishing 1980s Guitar Synthesizer: Only 100 Were Ever Made

What is the musical instrument most thoroughly of the 1980s? Many would say the “keytar,” a class of synthesizer keyboards shaped and worn like a guitar. Their relatively light weights and affordable prices, even when first brought to market, put keytars within the reach of musicians who wanted to possess both the wide sonic palette of digital synthesis and the inherent cool of the guitarist. This arrangement wasn’t without its compromises: few keytar players enjoyed the full range of that sonic palette, to say nothing of that cool. But in 1985, a new hope appeared for the synthesizer-envying guitarist and guitar-envying synthesist alike: the SynthAxe.

Created by English inventors Bill Aitken, Mike Dixon, and Tony Sedivy (and funded in part by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group), the SynthAxe made a quantum leap in the development of synthesizer-guitars, or guitar-synthesizers. Unlike a keytar, it used actual strings — not just one but two independent sets of them — that when played could control any synthesizer compatible with the recently introduced Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) standard.

As Guitarist magazine editor Neville Marten demonstrates in the contemporary promotional video at the top of the post, this granted anyone who could play the guitar command of all the sounds cutting-edge synthesizers could make.

Not that mastery of the guitar translated immediately into mastery of the SynthAxe: even the most proficient guitarist had to get used to the unusually sharp angle of its neck, its evenly spaced frets, and the set of keys embedded in its body. (“That is the point, it’s not a guitar,” as Aitken took pains to explain.) You can see Lee Ritenour make use of both the SynthAxe’s strings and keys in the 1985 concert clip above. Nicknamed “Captain Fingers” due to his sheer dexterity, Ritenour had been in search of ways to expand his sound, experimenting with guitar-synthesizer hybrid systems even in the 70s. When the SynthAxe came along, not only did he record a whole album with it, that album’s cover is a painting of him with the striking new instrument in hand.

So is the cover of Atavachron, the first album Allan Holdsworth recorded after meeting the SynthAxe’s creators at a trade show. No guitarist would take up the SynthAxe with the same fervor: Holdsworth, seen playing it with a breath controller (!) in the clip above, would continue to use it on his recordings up until his death in 2017. “People used to write notes on my amp, asking me to stop playing the SynthAxe and play the guitar instead,” he told Guitar World in his final interview that year. “But now people often ask me, ‘We’d love to hear you play the SynthAxe — did you bring it?’ I rarely play it onstage anymore because it’s too costly to take on the road and it requires a lot of equipment.”

The amount of associated gear no doubt put many an aspiring synthesizer-guitarist off the SynthAxe. (“It’s about as portable as a drum kit isn’t,” writes early adopter John Hollis.) So must the price tag, a cool £10,000 back in 1985. This didn’t put off guitarist Alec Stansfield, whose enthusiasm for the SynthAxe as was such that he joined the company, having “knocked long and hard on their door until they gave me a job as a production engineer.” Alas, he writes, “the instrument was never a commercial success and eventually the company ceased trading. Fewer than 100 instruments had been produced in total. In the final months I was paid with a SynthAxe system since cash was tight” — a system he shows off in the video above

Stansfield sold off his SynthAxe in 2013, but what has become of the others? One of Ritenour’s SynthAxes eventually found its way into the possession of Roy Wilfred Wooten, better known as Future Man of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. “Over a period of time, he began modifying it into an almost entirely new instrument: the SynthAxe Drumitar,” writes Computer History Museum curator Chris Garcia. “This system, which replaced the strings as the primary triggering mechanism, allowed Wooten to play the ‘drums’ using the guitar-like device.” In the concert clip just above, you can behold Future Man playing and explaining this “SynthAxeDrumitar,” sounds like a drum kit but looks like a guitar — though rather vaguely, at this point. Call it SynthAxe-meets-Mad Max.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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