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Yesterday, in reaction to the many follies in the world news, I decided to write a post about architectural follies–remarkable ornamental buildings commissioned by nobles to add beauty and interest to their estates.
Many follies were towers, fake ruins, or ersatz foreign structures (pagodas, minarets, wigwams and so forth) however some follies were heavy-handed allegories about the nature of life. Nick Ford, an architectural blogger describes two famous allegorical follies in England writing, “The temple of philosophy at Ermenonville was not completed–to symbolize that knowledge would never be complete, while the temple of modern virtues at Stowe was deliberately ruined, to show the decay of contemporary morals.”
Other follies actually had a practical purpose. Connolly’s Folly in Ireland was created to provide gainful employment for the vast numbers of unemployed workers during the Famine of 1740-1741 (unlike the potato famine a century later, the famine of 1740-1741 was caused by a dreadfully cold two year period in Ireland—one of the last severe cold snaps which marked the end of the Little Ice Age). Other philanthropists in 18th century Ireland commissioned similar projects such as roads to nowhere and great piers built in swamps. In a way follies were the economic stimulus package of the 18th century. After the workers were paid, the lordly benefactor at least had a pretty building to show for their charity.
It will be obvious to the practical reader that I have somehow come full circle. Yesterday to escape the grim news of economic mismanagement and greedy grandstanding elites, I escaped into the fantasy world of eighteenth century gardens. Today I am writing about how the opulent structures within those pleasure gardens were the attempts of eighteenth century leaders to aggrandize their status while ensuring an economic “trickle-down” would benefit the struggling workers at the bottom of society (who were starting to feel the first pinches from globalism and industrialization—while simultaneously groaning beneath of the ancient regime). The little historical digression leads to an uncomfortable truth about the economy of the rich world–much of what we do and strive for is really only status ornamentation.
Walk around today and you will start seeing garden follies a thousand feet tall built of steel (especially if you in Dubai or Shanghai or Manhattan) but with purposes as murky as those of the temple of modern virtues. You might be reading this as you pretend to work in one!
I have been working hard on a children’s book about how to construct toy vehicles out of items from the rubbish bin. Since I am getting close to finishing the 75 items required for the book, I thought I would share a few of my creations with you. I have been using things I found in the garbage can, plus wooden hobby wheels, dowels, and paint from the craft store (although I think the wheels could be cut out of cardboard, and, in a pinch, straws or chopsticks could stand in for dowels). Any feedback would be appreciated!
The book is part of the “Green and Groovy Crafts” series from Downtown Bookworks, which has already featured titles such as The Lonely Sock Club: One Sock, Tons of Cool Projects! and Boy-Made: Green & Groovy which are available at those online links and at finer bookstores around the nation. The theme of my book will be “Things that Go.” If the publishers like it, I am slated to make another one about how to create toy robots out of garbage!
The real shock of the project (other than realizing that 75 is a large number) is coming to terms with how much rubbish a household really produces. I regard myself as an environmentalist in the sense that I care deeply for the earth, its ecosystems, and the organisms that dwell there (although I feel that a great deal of the contemporary green movement is misguided in its philosophy and its ends). I don’t buy a lot of consumer goods (because they’re expensive and because many seem unnecessary). I cook rather than ordering take-out. I don’t even drive an automobile: when I go somewhere I take the train or walk. So, aside from the mixed-up-animal toys I design and produce (which are referenced in this post) I have always thought I have a fairly small ecological footprint.
Looking at all of the plastic bins, anchovy cans, milk cartons, syrup bottles, ointment jars, cups, rolls, bags, cans, bottles, and so on ad nauseum, that have showed up in my garbage certainly calls that view into question.
Anyway on to the rest of the pictures…. It has been fun to build a little society in miniature and my cat enjoyed stalking around the tiny vehicles and associated playscapes like she was Godzilla (you can see her there in a couple of the pictures). I’ll try to post some more images closer to when the book is due to come out and, naturally, I’ll tell you when that happens.
Last week, I wrote about the great builders of the animal world, the beavers. But of course all sorts of other creatures build things. The Eel tailed catfish (Tandanus tandanus) lives in the Murray-Darling river basin of Eastern Australia where the creatures’ nest-building habits are costing them dearly.
The eel-tailed catfish is from the family Plotosidae (in fact it is a close relative of the striped eel catfish) and like other family members its most distinctive feature is a continuous fin margin surrounding the posterior half of their bodies—aka an eel tail! These catfish prefer to live on the gravel or sand at the bottom of lakes or slow-moving rivers. They eat crayfish, yabbies’, worms, mollusks, insect larva, and other smaller fish.
A week or two before spawning, pairs of eel-tailed catfish build nests for their eggs. The fish construct these torus-shaped structures out of sand and pebbles and, once the female lays the eggs, one or both parents stay with the nest to guard it and to aerate the eggs until they hatch. Unfortunately, because of drought and agriculture, the Murray basin is rapidly drying out and silting up. As the pebbles and coarse sands which the fish use for nests are smothered with slimy silt, the species has been declining. Additionally, eel-tailed catfish are being out-competed by invasive carp which were introduced in a hare-brained aquiculture scheme.
I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers. One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city. It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.
So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future? What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now? When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city. I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me). The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.
Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds. I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers. I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert. The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance. The community is currently run on fossil fuel. The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.
All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean). The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats. The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age). I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing. Imagine the structure that you wish to see most. Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus? Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want. Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone. Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!