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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Embankment House

December 16, 2015 | by

Lessons from a building in Shanghai.

Shanghai’s Embankment House.

Among Shanghai’s many architectural gems is a sprawling, curved edifice that was once the largest apartment building in Asia, a building that more than half a century ago played a role in saving many thousands of lives. It’s set just on the north side of Suzhou Creek, a small river whose course has been hemmed in by concrete, and whose polluted contents are still routinely netted by illegal fishermen—mostly, to judge by their catch, in search of the famous Shanghai hairy crab. On the southern bank, there’s a small section of a walking path, which in the fall is hung with the heavy sweet fragrance of osmanthus blossoms, and which attracts elderly taiji practitioners, smoking office workers out for their lunch break, young couples, and a lone tenor saxophonist, who shows up every morning before eight and doesn’t leave until just before dark. Behind them is the heavy stone architecture of the Bund and a pair of neon gods, the Oriental Pearl Tower and the gigantic trapezoidal Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s eighth tallest skyscraper.

All this I can observe from a window overlooking the creek, the only window in my tenth-floor studio. The unrenovated apartments are stacked up next to one another, so only the apartments on the ends and around the curved courtyard have more than one window. The building draws breezes through central airshafts that have cleverly been left open, providing essential ventilation in the muggy Shanghai summers. People stack plants on the sills there and hang their laundry to dry in the spiraling wafts from below. Read More »

The Continuing Adventures of Helvetica Man, and Other News

December 15, 2015 | by

Go, Helvetica Man, go!

  • What happens when the author of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold has a cold? Pretty much nothing. He asks for a lozenge, drinks some water, drinks some Coke, drinks a martini, talks shop. “Even when you write about a celebrity you don’t learn anything new about them,” Gay Talese told Rebecca Bengal at the 21 Club: “They’re so interviewed out, they’re so spent in their explanations. Their fear—which is quite a legitimate fear—of being quoted, especially on tape, inhibits them. I don’t use tape because I don’t want direct quotations either. The way I do it, no matter who it is, I go over and over the quote with that person several times. I’m not getting the first take. I’m not interested in what they said. I’m interested in what they think.”
  • Part of the reason it’s easy to hate megachurches—ideology aside—is that they’re architecturally aloof: that is, they’re big, ugly, graceless buildings in which utility trumps beauty. That’s changing at Grace Farms, in New Canaan, Connecticut, an ambiguously evangelical community center that boasts a Japanese minimalist design that “exhibits far better taste and loftier cultural aspirations,” Martin Filler writes, “than the big-box spiritual supermarkets of the Sun Belt.” It’s founded by a hedge-fund manager, which helps. “It is not yet clear how much these efforts will contribute as a force for good. The extent to which religion gives shape to Grace Farms’ overall ethos may or may not be of overriding significance. But for all the thoughtfulness that has gone into its creation, one wonders—especially during the pontificate of Pope Francis I, present-day apostle of the poor—whether the expenditure of such immense sums, in the midst of almost unimaginably concentrated wealth, is the true path to a state of grace for those who would alleviate the sufferings of mankind.”
  • The universal symbols for restrooms, transport, currency exchange, and various other travelers’ necessities are so ubiquitous that they seem to have existed forever—in fact, they date only to the 1970s, when Roger Cook and Don Shanosky designed them for U.S. Department of Transportation. Their creation provides a robust lesson in semiotics: “Simplicity began with the male figure. The character built upon previous stylized figures from earlier symbol sets, but Cook and Shanosky’s own sleek, no-details figure set the tone for the other symbols in the DOT set. The figure has since been dubbed Helvetica Man … The discussions at the meetings covered the minutiae of Helvetica Man’s many escapades as the designers placed him in the various situations needed to convey messages to travelers. His posture as he sits in a waiting room chair was of concern, and the notes on the Waiting Room symbol are filled with maternal chiding: ‘Make person sit up straight’ and ‘Figure should not be too slouched.’ Waiting rooms, it turns out, are not happy places. Helvetica Man shouldn’t be too comfortable, or people might get confused.”
  • Michael Wood is watching The Hunger Games, and he is pleased: “Perhaps because it’s based on a lively trilogy of novels for supposed teenagers, more probably because its writers and directors knew how to have a good time with stereotypes, The Hunger Games movie series is attractive because it is so eclectic, because it raids whatever cultural bank or shopping mall is handy … [Suzanne] Collins has said she got her idea for certain aspects of the series from watching footage of the Iraq War alternately with game shows. But how the movies manage so successfully to do the campy stuff along with troubled teenage romance and the desolation of bombed cities, is a question we would have to put to the directors, Gary Ross (Hunger Games) and Francis Lawrence (the other three films). It certainly works, because the comedy and romance and terror are vividly there.”
  • Many of us are familiar with memory palaces—you know, mnemonic fortresses, vast spatial repositories of knowledge, what have you—but few of us have ever applied the concept on a scale as vast as The Chronographer of Ancient History, which Emma Willard made in 1851. It’s huge, and it’s only one part of her even larger Temples of Time series, which helped students memorize the names and eras of great philosophers, emperors, and poets, plus the rough history of Babylon, the Assyrian Empire, the Empire of David and Solomon, and much else in antiquity.


December 9, 2015 | by

For centuries, the lights of the Hanukkah menorah have inspired hope and courage. They may have also been responsible for inspiring then–General George Washington to forge on when everything looked bleak when his cold and hungry Continental Army camped at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777/8. The story is told that Washington was walking among his troops when he saw one soldier sitting apart from the others, huddled over what looked like two tiny flames. Washington approached the soldier and asked him what he was doing. The soldier explained that he was a Jew and he had lit the candles to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival commemorating the miraculous victory of his people so many centuries ago over the tyranny of a much better equipped and more powerful enemy who had sought to deny them their freedom. The soldier then expressed his confidence that just as, with the help of God, the Jews of ancient times were ultimately victorious, so too would they be victorious in their just cause for freedom. Washington thanked the soldier and walked back to where the rest of the troops camped, warmed by the inspiration of those little flames and the knowledge that miracles are possible.

Whether or not Rabbi Susan Grossman’s account is true, it took the presidency a while to acknowledge the Jewish Festival of Lights. Sure, Jimmy Carter may have lit the National Menorah, but the White House has only hosted an official annual Hanukkah party since 2001. Read More »

Do Not Mock Our Walk

December 2, 2015 | by

Tangier Island, Virginia.

There have been many theories advanced about the accents of Alaskan Bush People’s Brown children. These theories often involve chicanery and sometimes speech impediments. Personally, when I first watched an episode of the controversial Discovery reality show, which chronicles the escapades of a family allegedly raised away from civilization, I was struck by the similarity to the accent of Tangier Island.

Tangier Island (as well as Smith Island—they’re both in the Chesapeake Bay) is famous for its local dialect, thought by linguists to be an example of Restoration-era English. While the brogue-ish accent is probably far more diluted than it was when the island was truly isolated in the Chesapeake, to an outsider, it’s still hard to understand—and the residents still have trouble understanding outsiders, too. You can get a sense of it in this video; here, for comparison, are the Browns. Read More »

Black History

November 24, 2015 | by

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloudRead More »

Old Maps

November 17, 2015 | by

Islandia, a map by Abraham Ortelius, ca. 1590.

Many years ago, on a family vacation in another country, we took an English-language tour of a medieval university. The group saw the antique telescopes and charts used by famous astronomers, and the stone-floored laboratories where philosophers had tried to turn lead into gold. And there was a room filled with maps—sixteenth-century maps, we were told. These were objects of beauty, filled with colors and sea monsters, fanciful by modern standards. Read More »