Duck Duck Book

64 – tools of the imagination
12.11.2009, 11:47 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Tools of the imagination : drawing tools and technologies from the eighteenth century to the present / Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino, editor.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 720.28 T671 2007; two copies, no holds]

It can be said that tools are simply mundane — they are a means to an end and nothing more.  But it’s also true that a dedicated practitioner of a particular craft is likely to develop a preference for particular types of tools, and eventually to come to rely on a beloved individual ruler or chisel or level or brush or what have you.  Why do artists become so passionate about their preferences for one sort of tool over another, so devoted to their own beloved instruments?  Habit, tradition, the preferences of one’s teachers, and other factors all surely have a role.  But another reason is that people who create know their work.  They are specialists in the fabrication of their own craft, and therefore they understand why one pencil is good for line sketching, while another is best reserved for lettering, and a third for shading. 

Many people who regularly use tools also find themselves building tools, devising new variations on old tools, and sharing their tool-making skills with other craftspeople.  In a sense, these artists have two media: the medium in which they engage their artistic energy (painting, sculpture, music, carpentry, or whatever), and the medium of tool-making.  An appreciation of this latter art is the inspiration for Tools of the Imagination — essentially it is an historical and thematic exhibition of architects’ and draftsmen’s tools.  Tools for inscribing circles, arcs, and spirals make up the first chapter, tools for creating straight lines the next, and so on. Many of the tools included are outdated, but ingenious — like the graceful volutor (on pages 16-17), which draws spirals, or the pantograph (pages 82-83), a mechanical device that looks like a large, frightening insect, which assists the artist with hand-drawn enlargements and reductions.  All in all, the tool portraits are lovely and fascinating.

Unfortunately, though the book presents an elegant array of antique tools and does a decent job showcasing contemporary tools, there seems to be a bit of a gap between tools used before about 1900, and those used after the beginning of the computer revolution in the early 1960s.  While reading I often found myself wondering what lay in that gap.   Would a compass manufactured in 1930 or 1970 or 2000 look significantly different than the compasses from 1850 (on page 8) and 1890 (page 10)?  I might find out elsewhere, but there is very little in Tools of the Imagination to enlighten me.

Tools of the Imagination also suffers a bit from its own high design.  The text is printed in silver ink, which is beautiful but can be hard to read when the light conditions aren’t entirely perfect.  This isn’t really a severe handicap, but it does highlight how endless the pursuit of good design can be — a book is a physical object, part of its strength is its portability; yet this book has been made so that it is hard to read under low light or in bright sun, thus decreasing the strength of portability in this particular book.  I found this rather ironic, considering the topic at hand. 

64 – simple shelters
12.11.2009, 11:42 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Simple shelters : tents, tipis, yurts, domes and other ancient homes / written and illustrated by Jonathan Horning ; with additional material by Brock Horning.
New York : Walker & Co., 2009.
[MCL call number: 728 H8163s 2009; six copies, no holds]

Sound housing is one of humanity’s most basic needs, and yet city people here in the developed world often have very little notion of how even the most traditional and well-tested simple structures are actually constructed.  If you find this troublesome, begin your own self-education with Simple Shelters.  Jonathan Horning describes twenty or so traditional structures, geodesic and other domes, straw bale houses, provides a brief explanation of a variety of cladding types, and a short discussion of house orientation.  The text is useful, but Horning’s drawings of each structure are the real lure of the book.  His illustrations are lucid; particularly the detailed diagrams of the joints, ties, braces, and other component parts of each different shelter.  Simple Shelters is itself quite simple — short, quick, and earnest — but it is well worth your attention.

54 – cities from the sky
12.11.2009, 11:33 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Cities from the sky : an aerial portrait of America / by Thomas J. Campanella ; foreword by Witold Rybczynski.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2001.
[MCL call number: 779.36 C186c 2001; one copy, no holds]

There is something magical about the way the earth appears as you look out from an airplane.  If you’ve flown before, you know what I mean, even if your only experiences have been in commercial jets with teensy little windows. Flying home to Portland, I nearly always find myself taken aback at the familiar but fairly awesome vista when the plane comes through the last layer of clouds and I can see the Willamette River stretched out along the valley, and the clutch of downtown skyscrapers snug between the river and the West Hills; or, approaching from the east, the incredible view of mountains all around as the plane descends over the Columbia.  Flying over your hometown in a small plane is often even better — little planes are able to dart about a bit, and they fly low, so you might be able to pick out the apple tree in your front yard, a familiar church steeple, or the playground in a local park.

Aerial photographs can give you a taste of this feeling of flying without ever leaving the ground.  Before Mapquest, before Google Earth and Multimap and all the other amazing mapping services on the world wide web, aerial surveys were special, restricted resources that most folks had very little chance to enjoy.  You might have gone to a library to look up a United States Geological Survey orthophotoquad, or you might have seen the occasional aerial survey photograph illustrating a news article or in a historical museum; but comprehensive aerial surveys used to be the provenance of specialists.  Engineers, city planners, military officials, land developers; people with a clear practical need for the information aerial photographs could provide, and with the money to fund them.

When specialists needed aerial photographs in decades past, often as not they hired Fairchild Aerial Surveys to provide them.  Cities From the Sky begins with an introductory essay explaining Fairchild’s history — and it was a pretty interesting company.  Its founder, Sherman Fairchild, spent his youth tinkering, building things, and inventing small devices of one sort or another.  After developing a new and greatly improved aerial camera for the U.S. Army Air Service, he founded the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920, which made cameras, accepted commissions for aerial images, and took aerial photographs on speculation for use in newspaper stories.  The spec photos were preserved in the company’s picture library whether or not they sold, and this vast collection of images (more than 200,000 by 1935) are the pool from which most of the content of Cities From the Sky is drawn.

The book includes about 100 giant pages of reproductions of aerial photographs, most of them angled views showing a panorama rather than the map-like earth-from-space kind.  They capture cities and towns across the United States, though about 40% are of communities in the Northeast.  The photographs would be interesting to look at just for their vantage points, but in fact they are fascinating for their historic value as well.  The great majority were taken between 1930 and 1955 or so, and so they often include geographical, urban, and societal elements that are no longer present, or that have been irrevocably changed by later developments: the San Francisco Bay has no bridges; Monterey, California’s harbor is full of fishing boats resting from their labors in the still-active sardine industry (page 108); a U.S. Navy dirigible floats above the Hudson River in New York (page 35); downtown St. Louis is missing its Gateway Arch (page 84); Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway is actively under construction (page 115); and the trains leaving Boston’s North Station are sending out enormous, picturesque plumes of steam (page 21).

* * *

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. left a considerable record of its activities, and several libraries and archives have digitized part or all of their collections of Fairchild photographs, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Collections of the New York State Archives, Museum, and Library, Whittier College, and the Santa Monica Public Library.

* * *

Those of you who’d like to see more pictures of cities from high up in the sky should be sure to take a look at Bird’s Eye Views, by John W. Reps, (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998, reviewed in number 53), which reproduces 19th and early 20th century lithographs showing American cities and towns.