What You Can Build, What You Should Build, and Other News


On the Shelf

diplomatic club

Diplomatic Club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 1980. Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

  • Frei Otto, the German architect whose tensile, tent-like constructions were marvels of structural engineering, has died at eighty-nine. He designed his bubbles, webs, and wings to use as few materials as possible; they challenged conventions of durability and permanence. “Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he once asked. “We can build houses which are two or three kilometers high and we can design halls spanning several kilometers and covering a whole city—but we have to ask, What does it really make? What does society really need?”
  • Tim Youd’s project to retype all of Lucky Jim, mentioned here yesterday, is an act of intellectual lunacy lifted straight from the pages of Borges—in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges tells of a man who aspires to rewrite all of Cervantes’s masterpiece line-by-line by inhabiting the depths of its author’s soul: “The initial method that he imagined was relatively simple. Get to know Spanish well, recover his Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or against the Turk, forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure … but dismissed it as too easy.”
  • “A well-traveled branch of futuristic fiction explores worlds in which artificial creatures—the robots—live among us, sometimes even indistinguishable from us … Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. You may think it’s a stretch to call this a ‘world,’ but in many ways it has become a toy universe, populated by millions, most of whom resemble humans and may even, in their day jobs, be. But increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human.” James Gleick on the gradual, mediocre rise of Twitter bots, which have introduced a kind of artificial intelligence that almost no one is in awe of: “this is how the future really happens, so ordinary that we scarcely notice.”
  • On academe’s willful ignorance of African literature: “As long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach. It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.”
  • On December 4, 1891, America had what’s believed to be its first suicide bombing. Its target was Russell Sage, a financier who “reportedly had more ready cash at his disposal than any other person in the U.S. What nobody yet understood—except for the unfortunate occupants of the financier’s wrecked office—was that a crazed man had just targeted Sage for attack. Even though Sage survived it, the assault had an effect that the assailant never intended: a remarkable redistribution of the vast riches of one of the most notorious robber barons of the Gilded Age.”