A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

The Most Metal Thing I Have Ever Heard

According to CityLab, London almost had a “Death Pyramid” — a towering mausoleum that would have interred around 5 million residents.

In the 1820s, the architect [Thomas Wilson] proposed to build a colossal pyramid called the Metropolitan Sepulchre. Sited for Primrose Hill, today a park area in North London, the necropolis was designed to alleviate the overpopulation of London’s graveyards while adding a looming monument to mortality to the city’s skyline.

With the Metropolitan Sepulchre, Wilson envisioned a honeycomb of catacombs, each one capable of holding up to 24 coffins. The whole structure would have occupied a plot 18 acres in area; at more than 90 stories tall, it would have easily eclipsed St. Paul’s Cathedral.

While it may have been inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza, this necropolis was meant to be a true city of the dead, not just a palace for a pharaoh. The British pyramid would have served as the final resting grounds for some 5 million Londoners had the city gone with Wilson.

As the article notes, such “vertical cemeteries” are catching on throughout the world’s fast-growing cities, from Mexico City and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. As humanity continues to urbanize like never before, perhaps we can expect more audacious necropolises bestriding our modern skyscrapers.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).

The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.

A Great Indie Game For Writer’s Block

Over at Big Think, Teodora Zareva looks at an interesting new game that puts a unique spin on storytelling — by making you tell your own narrative as you go!

Elegy for a Dead World … leaves the players with “no game to play,” but to explore three long-dead civilizations, observe, and make notes… or stories — or poems — or songs.

The three lost worlds feature beautiful scenery, moving music, and are inspired by Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, Lord Byron’s Darkness, and John Keats’ When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be. They create a strong, moody atmosphere that becomes the breeding ground for feelings and ideas.

Talk about a neat way to relate great literature to the average gamer. Of course, you do not have to be a fan of these poets, or be especially literary yourself, to appreciate the strange settings or enjoy the unique power to tell your own story.

The game eases you into the writing process with challenges, prompts, and fill-in-the-blank sentences. It has 27 writing challenges that might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war. In one challenge, you’re an archaeologist uncovering clues; in another, you’re a thief. In the more advanced levels, you’ll sometimes get new information halfway through the story, which casts a new light on things and forces you to explain or justify past actions. Once the game stirs your creativity, you can delete the prompts and use all the creative freedom in your writing you want.

When you’re done with the game, you can share your story with other players, read their works, post comments, and participate in discussions. You can also reproduce your writings in digital and print media.

Here is a trailer of the game, which has only piqued my interest further:

As Zareva notes, Elegy for the Dead presents an excellent way to get around writer’s block, teach people how to write, or to simply cultivate your creative side. As a writer by both trade and personal interest, I can definitely see the potential in this one.


Film of Interest: Taxi

I am very intrigued by the premise of the film, in which director Jafar Panahi poses as a taxi driver in Iran’s capital and largest city, Tehran, candidly recording the conversations his has with various passengers; the entire strata of Iranian society is represented, from the religious to secular, the modernizers and the traditionalists, and so on.

The is the third film to be done by Panahi since the Iranian government banned him from directing, screenwriting, giving interviews, and travelling abroad; his niece collected the Golden Bear Award it recently won at the Berlin International Film Festival. Unlike the previous two films, this one was fearlessly shot out in the open; Panahi has stated that he plans to continue his work despite the ban.

His first film since being placed under house arrest This Is Not a Film, was defiantly shot during his court appeal of the sentence, portraying his struggles and frustrations with expressing his creativity in an oppressive environment. It was smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival through a flash drive hidden in a cake.

The Most Expensive Artwork Ever Sold

When Will You Marry?, an 1892 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, was recently sold for an estimated $300 million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork.

When Will You Marry (Paul Gaugin)

On loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland for nearly five decades, the painting was sold privately by the family of Rudolf Staechelin to an unknown buyer, possibly Qatar Museums, the Qatari government’s main cultural body (and the buyer of the previous record-holder, Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players”, which was purchased in 2011 for around $260 million).

The sale is all the more remarkable considering that Gauguin, like van Gogh, received little attention or acclaim for his artwork during his lifetime. His talent remained unrecognized until after his death, which came in 1903 at the age of 54 from a morphine overdose.

Gauguin’s legacy lives on not only through this valuable piece, but through his influence on great 20th century artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse.

The Making of a Japanese Kokeshi Doll

This is one of the most interesting and relaxing videos I have seen in some time: an artisan named Yasuo Okazak creates a wooden kokeshi doll by hand, using tools and methods that have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

The amount of precision and skill required is captivating — he makes the wood look as malleable as clay, and the whole process looks so easy (the result of literally a lifetime of apprenticeship in the art). You can visit his official website here.

Hat tip to InspireMore.com.

A Comic Series Taking Place in Mughal India? Yes Please!

If you like your stories full of magic, mythology, and intrigue — all beautifully drawn and set in an exotic and vibrant locale — then consider joining me in supporting this fascinating new Kickstarter project: Zindan Comic Series. It combines my love of comic books with my even greater passion for history, world culture, and fresh new settings.

But you do not have to share such preferences to appreciate the uniqueness and artistry of this project.

Written and created by Omar Mirza and Khurram Mehtabdin, Zindan draws on the extravagance, mythology and beauty of the Mughal Empire. By combining a historically accurate time period with a fictionalized story involving magic and mysticism, the creators hope to propel the audience into an entirely new dimension of comic excellence. The story takes place in the 17th century, through the eyes of orphan brothers Zain and Timur, who belong to a secret order known as The Ansaars. The Ansaars are the protectors of world’s worst prison known as ZindanWith the Mughal Empire crumbling in the background as an emperor is betrayed by his own son, Zindan falls and Issue #0 begins.

Apparently, Issue #0 debuted this past October at New York Comic Con to considerable praise. Although I have yet to read it, the sample work and narrative details seem pretty interesting, with a lot of neat concepts drawing from the rich but largely untapped (in the West at least) history and mythos of India.

Zain and Timur are the protagonist orphan brothers of this story. Like many orphans of this time, they grew up as captives within various bandit tribes. By sheer chance, they are rescued and taken in by the Ansaars, an ancient secret order, who have sworn an oath of stewardship over Zindan. Zindan is the continent’s most majestic and secretive prison, which holds some of the worst criminals, as well as the land’s most sought after riches. Zain and Timur spend much of their lives knowing Zindan as their home.

The Ansaars and Zindan were originally created in response to a powerful threat to humanity posed by Wayl. Also known as The Immortal, Wayl serves as a central villain in the series. In his quest to release his evil ancestors from their mountain tombs, he finds a way to utilize the power of Jinns. By tapping into the great magical power of Jinns, Wayl has caused a significant imbalance in the fabric of mankind. Compelled by the threat of Wayl’s evil obsession, three empires rise up to defeat and imprison him within Zindan.

The series begins as Zindan falls to a greedy king after a battle between his army and The Ansaars. This event releases The Immortal, along with countless other villains who have accumulated in Zindan’s cells over the years. With everything lost once again, Zain and Timur are thrust back into a big world. This time, however, they are driven by vengeance and a special purpose to recapture the evils that the fall of Zindan has unleashed. The series captures their journey across empires and exotic locations throughout the Middle East, Persia and India as they attempt to recapture and defeat the world’s worst villains that had escaped Zindan. Through their odyssey, Zain and Timur will make allies, even more enemies, all whilst learning about their own past, while they carry on as The Last Ansaars of Zindan.

The team’s makeup is as appropriately multicultural as its series, with seven members across three continents.

Creative start-ups of any kind are tough, especially in a market as competitive and difficult to break into as comics. I imagine it will be all the more challenging for a series like Zindan, given its rather unique premises and settings (to my knowledge, few prominent comic series published in America take place in such foreign settings).

This may explain why such an otherwise interesting project has gained so little funding so far: as of this post, it has only a little over a week to raise around $6,400. Thankfully, I have seen a lot of Kickstarter projects remain docile until the last few days before getting a rush of donations to get fully funded. But I am not going to leave it to chance, hence why I ask you to give what you can or at least spread the word (if you are interested of course).

Best of like to the creative minds behind Zindan. I hope you find success.