To the city

After a few weeks, the accumulating debt owed to sleep, the darkness coming to dominate mornings and evenings (and, just ahead, the sharp plunge into commuting night as we leave British Summer Time), the first of the early morning ice … before you know it, you’re commuting in a state that moves with ease between sleep and wake. (I remember that practical criticism exercise from Homage to Catalonia, chapter 3.) Now, some days in to what will be a fairly busy half-term of work, body and mind have started to feel like my own once more.

Matt's right about commuting. And yet ….

… the feeling of sharing a way of life with all those who travel with you, and of recognising yourself as belonging to the large, diverse community thronging the platforms around you is, I believe, a vital part of our everyday lives. The experience of mingling and sharing is the social glue which holds us all together and tells us — there is no need to be afraid. ... Each day the British newspapers are full of alarming stories about the breakdown of society — the chaos and danger outside our front door. But that is not how I feel as I travel to and from work. … Each improvement that is made to public transport, encouraging more of us to use it regularly, sustains and broadens that feeling of community I cherish. Being surrounded by other people focussing on their own lives, brings moments of understanding ... there is no hostile mob or masses ranged against us, undermining our standards and values, roaming the streets, threatening us with their dumbed-down mass culture and mass entertainment. Rather what I see is other people like myself, reading, talking or looking around them. And just as often I feel I see them reflecting, facing surprisingly similar worries to mine — concerned about the speed of change, struggling to keep pace, hoping that we can explain all we are learning to the next generation. We are all, I recognise, "the masses". We are all in this together. — Lisa Jardine

Another, priceless gain: reading. I read a lot on the train and what I read sometimes acts as a significant thread, weaving itself in with the rest of what’s happening, even uniting what could be distinct, almost discrete experiences of city and country. Being on the train proves to be a social, meditative time, given over to thinking and reflection.

Just lately, reading Calvino has been perfect, particularly as I grew tired and found myself drifting in and out of sleep and observation — Calvino’s words and my own thoughts coming together until reading him became something very intimate.

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. …

You walk for days among trees and among stones. … trees and stones are only what they are.

Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things … Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her arts.

However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside, the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent on recognising figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant …

Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes …

The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind. … Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.


… what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveller’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.


 Denham Airfield

Last Thursday, I was very fortunate to have a chance to fly again in a helicopter. Back when I was a teenager, the RAF took some of us up for about five minutes — but last week we flew for an hour in a Twin Squirrel, from Denham into London, then back out along the Thames. An opportunity for Jonathan to take some aerial photos of the school.

Over St Paul's        St Paul's School

Amazing the price of helicopters — and that’s a pre-owned Eurocopter EC155B, the old version, I presume, of one of these. But what reduced me to pretty well speechless wonder was the experience of sustained helicopter flight, flying through and over London, hovering for several minutes at a time 700 feet up, the world below us … a map. The all-at-once and almost shocking change of scale and perspective, so different from what I'm used to when flying by plane: it's close to the human, but we're difficult to pick out — our larger artefacts and their patterns fill our vision. It's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, alluring and alien.

The day was hazier than we might have expected from the ground (you could see the haze over London as we approached) and my photos were all shot across the cabin and through the perspex of the windows. Some of the quality was affected and I’m pretty inexperienced at handling processing software, but I was surprised at how good the results were nonetheless.

Wonderful, too, to fly a few minutes East and come to St Paul’s Cathedral. The school began at St Paul’s, 500 years ago this year, and Barnes is as far West as the school’s ever been — or likely ever to get.

St Paul's School 

St Paul's School

St Paul's Cathedral

Once it was done, I told my 92 year-old mother about the flight. I needn’t have worried — she wasn’t. Just excited and thrilled.

Of course, this makes me think of that clip of Louis CK on YouTube, Everything is amazing right now — and nobody's happy. I’ve shown that to 13 year-olds this term, very early on in their ICT course, and I’m pleased to report that they love it. ‘Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?’

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Notes (for next time) …

It won my affection very early on: cosmopolitan, easy-going, alive with street life and cafés, art and music. It felt simultaneously safe and louche — and very, very European. History was obvious in nearly every street we walked. The area we were living in and exploring, Kreuzberg and its neighbourhood, is relatively poor and lacks pretension. It was easy to unwind there — and this despite that always present sense of the past and its burdens. A worldly city, urbane, accommodating, with a thin crust between the day-to-day and the life underground that is the past or the lot of the marginal. (The lobby area to our local U-Bahn always had one, sometimes two, much-the-worse-for-wear guys making little attempt to hide their role as drug peddlers: taking written and spoken messages hurriedly passed to them by people coming off a train or based in or near the station, like someone out of The Wire they would read or listen, rush off — or nod and carry on mumbling to the U-Bahn passengers as they flowed out of the station.)

Safe and louche, then, but with a whiff of something more just off-stage, somewhere over there …

Volkspark Hasenheide

We came home to tales of systematic car burning: Berlin's luxury car arsonists - Boing Boing. More here. And here.

So what have I taken away this first time round? Far, far less fraught than London (I could probably live in Berlin, but London would exhaust me) and with none of Paris’ self-satisfaction, it’s still re-creating itself after so many decades of the most traumatic history. Cranes are everywhere, buildings are going up, coming down, being re-purposed or awaiting their time. There’s a wealth of cultural life and diversity and much evident (relative) poverty. It’s a strikingly student-centric city and a place where ideas still matter and are actually … discussed. (How refreshing.)

We rented a flat a stone’s throw, we discovered, from Blu’s work:


I found a couple of videos of these being created:

(Blu; Blu in Berlin, 2008, here and here; JR.)

The NYT has a 2008 piece about Berlin graffiti, One Wall Down, Thousands to Paint (and they have a video, Graffiti in Berlin, here):

The city’s skyline might be defined by a Sputnik-era TV tower, bombed-out churches and the ghost of a certain wall that once split the German capital. But its streetscape is largely molded by graffiti. … The roots of graffiti culture can be traced back to West Berlin in the early 1980s, when the American-occupied sector was the reluctant melting pot of anarchist punks, Turkish immigrants and West German draft resisters. Kreuzberg, a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, blossomed particularly well, with miles of wall space and little police scrutiny.

We walked a lot. Not because of the S-Bahn drama (my thanks to Chris and Paul, through delicious, for these links, there to greet me when we arrived :) — Economist, The Local, World Socialist Web Site) but because we enjoy that: it lets you get to grips with a city at a level of intimacy that matters. I thought I knew about the wall, but the reality of it (the 43.7-kilometres, the path it took, its utter centrality) is quite staggering. Lots to choose from on the web: “Berlin's official Internet site”, Berlin International, was useful — Where was the Wall?; The Wall inside the city; Aerial views of the Wall from 1989.

1989, Brandenburg Gate

Talking with friends and then placing the divided city in the divided Germanies (‘to a West Berliner, everywhere was East’) took us mentally to the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing:

The Border checkpoint Helmstedt–Marienborn (German: Grenzübergang Helmstedt-Marienborn), called Grenzübergangsstelle Marienborn (GÜSt) (border crossing Marienborn) by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was the largest and most important border crossing on the inner German border during the division of Germany. Due to its geographical location, allowing for the shortest land route between West Germany and West Berlin, most transit traffic to and from West Berlin was handled by the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing. Most travel routes from West Germany to East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia also used this crossing. The border crossing existed from 1945 to 1990 and was situated near the East German village of Marienborn at the edge of the Lappwald. The crossing interrupted the Bundesautobahn 2 between the junctions Helmstedt-Ost and Ostingersleben.

View Larger Map

Back in 2004, we drove to Krakow. One day, I’d like to drive to Berlin, taking the Helmstedt–Marienborn route. Driving these very non-UK distances, crossing land fought over and carved up, again and again, brings home the history.

Amongst other things, we saw the Stasi Museum. The building, numbingly dull, drained the joy from that particular afternoon. If it had been fiction, it could have been laughed off (I heard someone else say, ‘This is all like James Bond’), and it took us a while to fathom the reality behind this:

Yes, the Stasi Had a Giant Smell Register of Dissidents.

I was 10 when George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, an event which made enough impact on me then for this to pull me up short:

At the Stasi Museum 

Back home, I was delighted to hear again Tom Bower’s 1980s documentary about Blake:

For 18 years, Blake served as a trusted and senior MI6 officer. But secretly, in 1952, he became a double agent, betraying MI6 operations and personnel to the KGB. Over the course of nine years, at a critical period of the Cold War, he destroyed most of MI6's activities in Eastern Europe. 'I don't know what I handed over', he admitted, 'because it was so much'.

More, and more links, at Stasimuseum Berlin - Stasi headquarters.

We didn’t go to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the main remand prison for those detained by the Stasi. I think we should go to these places but, although it didn’t reduce me to tears (unlike the information centre at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), the Stasi Museum was life-sapping enough for this brief stay.

We did go to the Soviet War Memorial, about which I’ve made various notes on Flickr. Immense, and immensely moving (7,000 men). Much to learn here.

Memo to self: dig out a copy of Deyan Sudjic's book The Edifice Complex and read the chapter Geoff Manaugh rates, ‘The Long March to the Leader's Desk’. (And is that red marble story true?)

Museum island, of course, and lots to explore another time. Google Maps for Berlin is not keeping up with the pace of change: the map of the area around the Palast der Republik, that area between Schloßplatz and the Lustgarten, confused me. Thanks again to Chris for the link which explained all — Brokedown Palast, a 2006 film about the Palast der Republik by Clockwise Media:

How best to respect, or remember, the past and move on?

CCTV sign, Frankfurter Allee            View across Frankfurter Allee to Karl-Marx-Allee: "a monumental socialist boulevard built by the young GDR between 1952 and 1960" (Wikipedia)

In a spot which has become subsumed into a rather tawdry, touristy area, the outdoor exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie does a good job of bringing the history to life:

Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986  Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986. Friedrichstraße

The New National Gallery has been given over (until 22 November) to an exhibition, Dream Images, of surrealist and early American abstract expressionist works in the private collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. From the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin site:

The Pietzsch Collection ranks as one of the internationally most significant collections of Surrealist art, with principle works by André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as well as numerous works by other artists more broadly connected to the Surrealist movement. A second important core aspect to the collection lies in works by the Abstract Expressionists in America, whose art movement rose directly from the roots of Surrealism to flourish in the New York of the nineteen-fifties. Works by important figures who have since become legends in their own right, such as Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are all represented in the collection together with works by the great Mexicans Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

FT review is online.

I was particularly taken by the fragments of ‘Capricorn’ (1948), included near casts of the complete piece:

ernst_capricorn  (from

From The Burlington Magazine:

In an interview with Patrick Waldberg he [Ernst] announced with refreshing candour: 'Painting is like chess: you have to give your whole mind to it. You live in a state of concentration that is almost unbearable. But with sculpture I can relax. I enjoy it, the way that I enjoyed making sandcastles on the beach when I was a boy'.

From the LA Times:

His sculptural tableau, "Capricorn," incorporated various ethnographic influences visible in exaggerated body proportions and serenely simplified faces. But the piece also was uniquely an Ernst creation, a paean to impromptu inspiration. Everything was pieced together from cement casts of odds and ends: milk cartons cast and piled on top of each other to make the king's scepter (also reminiscent of Brancusi's undulating "Endless Column"), eggshells for the queen's downcast eyes, a cello (harking back to Cubist still lifes) for her body. Like most of his other sculptures from the '30s and '40s, this piece was seldom seen publicly until it was cast in bronze years later (in this case, in a slightly different form). … The sensibility that informed these large and small three-dimensional works was the same puckish, deliberately irrational and willfully inventive spirit that earlier led Ernst to make collages of bizarre encounters (based on illustrations clipped from magazines), fantasy drawings based on rubbings ( frottages ) from pieces of wood, leaves and other materials, and dreamlike paintings. What we tend to forget is that these sculptures also represented a revolutionary way of viewing the human body, beyond traditional Western representations of ideal or actual human figures. During the first few decades of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Ernst and others dared to raise the curtain that separated polite, normative behavior from secret and "forbidden" thoughts and actions.

The photo of Ernst and Dorothea Tanning with the sculpture (in Sedona, Arizona) is terrific:


One reviewer commented:

This is a truly historic exhibition, not only because it marks a rare example of the activities, against the odds, of two sophisticated post-war German collectors, but mainly because it represents the transition of great modernist art from Europe to the USA and in so doing commemorates the incalculable damage the Nazis managed to effect upon Germany and Europe, and almost on the rest of the world, too, and finally because it represents the triumph of artistic creativity over totalitarian orthodoxy.

I’d like (almost) to end on this note of play and creativity triumphant.


Berlin, a city emergent, the contours of its past so evident, its new form not yet settled. In Berlin, I was very much aware of a living history and of living in history. Leszek Kolakowski died last month and these much cited words of his came back to me many times during our time in Berlin: ‘We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are’.

My photos are online.

leaving Berlin: dawn at the Hauptbahnhof

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Dymaxion cubicle

A week ago today, I was in the Design Museum (enjoying the Zaha Hadid exhibition — a few photos here, though sadly I couldn't do her wonderful project paintings justice). A surprise to me was the Buckminster Fuller cubicle door drawing — in the Gents. I seemed to have the room to myself, so I took a couple of photos of the door (wondering what I'd say if someone came in or, worse by far, if the cubicle turned out not to be empty after all).


So that was that, and then Stowe noticed that Dopplr had used Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Map in their Dopplr 100 launch. From Wikipedia:

Wikipedia: Unfolded Dymaxion map with nearly-contiguous land masses

The Dymaxion map of the Earth is a projection of a global map onto the surface of a polyhedron, which can then be unfolded to a net in many different ways and flattened to form a two-dimensional map which retains most of the relative proportional integrity of the globe map. It was created by Buckminster Fuller, and patented by him in 1946, the patent application showing a projection onto a cuboctahedron. The 1954 version published by Fuller under the title The AirOcean World Map used a slightly modified but mostly regular icosahedron as the base for the projection, and this is the version most commonly referred to today. The name Dymaxion was applied by Fuller to several of his inventions.

Unlike most other projections, the Dymaxion is intended purely for representations of the entire globe. Each face of the polyhedron is a gnomonic projection, so zooming in on one such face renders the Dymaxion equivalent to such a projection.

Dymaxion map folded into an icosahedron
Dymaxion map folded into an icosahedron

Fuller claimed his map had several advantages over other projections for world maps. It has less distortion of relative size of areas, most notably when compared to the Mercator projection; and less distortion of shapes of areas, notably when compared to the Gall-Peters projection. Other compromise projections attempt a similar trade-off.

More unusually, the Dymaxion map has no 'right way up'. Fuller frequently argued that in the universe there is no 'up' and 'down', or 'north' and 'south': only 'in' and 'out'. Gravitational forces of the stars and planets created 'in', meaning 'towards the gravitational center', and 'out', meaning 'away from the gravitational center'. He linked the north-up-superior/south-down-inferior presentation of most other world maps to cultural bias. Note that there are some other maps without north at the top.

There is no one 'correct' view of the Dymaxion map. Peeling the triangular faces of the icosahedron apart in one way results in an icosahedral net that shows an almost contiguous land mass comprising all of earth's continents - not groups of continents divided by oceans. Peeling the solid apart in a different way presents a view of the world dominated by connected oceans surrounded by land.

Which set me thinking: that Buckminster Fuller is someone we ought to be teaching in schools, of course (and I can see how we might start doing that easily enough — and soon), and about Dopplr and good design. For another very cool Dopplr ... er ... effect, if you've not seen their sparkline stack and read Matt's post about it, you really should.

Looking forward to London

I'm really looking forward to living in London. Some time ago, I looked at this page on Edward Tufte's site about Harry Beck's London Underground Map. Tufte praises Harry Beck's map, but adds:

The Underground Map and Minard's famous Carte Figurative of the French Army's disaster in Russia in the war of 1812 are alike in important respects: both are brilliant, and neither travels well. The Underground Map and Napoleon's March are perfectly attuned to their particular data, so focused on their data sets. They do not serve, then, as good practical generic architectures for design; indeed, revisions and knock-offs have usually been corruptions or parodies of the originals. Both, however, exemplify the deep principles of information design in operation, as well as the craft and passion behind great information displays.

Tufte also praises Mr Beck's Underground Map by Ken Garland:

Looking that up on Amazon (UK) linked me to:

The Way Out Tube Map, Roger Collings


What's in a Name?: Origins of Station Names on the London Underground, Cyril M Harris


London's Disused Underground Stations, J E Connor


The London Underground: a diagrammatic history, Douglas Rose


One Stop Short of Barking: Uncovering the London Underground, Mecca Ibrahim


Underground Maps After Beck, Maxwell J Roberts


London's Lost Tube Schemes, Antony Badsey-Ellis


Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, Antony Clayton


The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How It Changed the City Forever, Christian Wolmar



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Having some fun today with the tiny Holux SiRF Star III chip-set receiver, the GPSlim 236. The size of a matchbox, it is breathtakingly smart. PocketGPSWorld has a glowing review (the photo comes from there):

'… if you are considering a GPS purchase then you should not consider any other chipset. The performance improvement is massive and makes a GPS system very much more usable as a result. The time to first fix (TTFF) and high sensitivity of this chipset makes use practical in areas such as inner cities, when worn around your neck on a lanyard with a smart phone solution and any other use where marginal reception conditions make it difficult for other lesser chipset's to function. … This has become my Bluetooth GPS of choice ever since I first began using it. I thought I could never again be amazed at the places a SiRFStarIII receiver would work in yet the GPSlim 236 once again sets new boundaries in terms of performance. It is a well designed unit, small and light and sits nicely on the dashboard thanks to its rubber feet although I have taken to throwing mine in the glove box or even leaving it in my briefcase where it works just as well! I've given it 99% because nothing can genuinely be 100% perfect and it would be nice to have the Mouse USB cable included but that really is nit picking in the extreme.'

Nav4All has an excellent offer on: you can buy the GPSlim 236 for €69.50 and enjoy free Nav4All until 15 August.

This post by Charlie Schick led me to Nav4All and the receiver. Nokia are about to produce a new GPS device, but can't we have them built into the phone?

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