History

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Design History Illustration

An Illustrated Cross Section of Hong Kong’s Infamous Kowloon Walled City

November 4, 2014

Johnny Waldman

The Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong was built gradually—building on top of building—over time. Without a single architect, the ungoverned and most densely populated district became a haven for drugs, crime and prostitution until it was demolished in 1993. Photo documentation of the site exists but for the most part much of the inner-workings of the city remained a mystery.

Perhaps due to its proximity, Japan, in particular, developed a keen interest towards Kowloon. Its demolition in 1993 was broadcast on national television. But watching the footage, what most spectators didn’t realize was that up until the night before demolition a team of Japanese researchers were taking precise measurements and documenting the vacated city. Their findings were compiled into a book that, among other things, featured this panoramic cross section of the city depicting what life was like inside. You can read more about the book on Spoon & Tamago, and if you look hard enough, a few rare copies of it are available online.

 

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History Photography

Lost Castle: The Crumbling Ruins of the Castle of Mesen

October 23, 2014

Christopher Jobson

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Located in a park near the center of Lede, Belgium, the Castle of Mesen dates back to the 17th century where it served as a home for various lords before a conversion to an industrial site. Throughout the 1800s the complex was used as a gin distillery, a tobacco factory, and a sugar refinery. In 1897 the castle was then sold to a religious order who constructed an impressive neo-gothic chapel and turned the entire facility into a boarding school.

Although it was still in use up until the 1960s, a tragic storm of abandonment, looting, and a failed attempt to designate the castle as a monument lead to a decision to demolish of the entire castle just a few years ago. Lucky for us, photographer Jan Stel of Past Glory managed to sneak inside and capture a few amazing shots before it disappears forever. The juxtaposition of the stained glass windows and decaying roof and sprawling foliage is especially striking. See more from this series here. (via Arch Atlas)

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Art History

Medieval Book Historian Erik Kwakkel Discovers and Catalogs 800-Year-Old Doodles in Some of the World’s Oldest Books

October 2, 2014

Christopher Jobson

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Doodle by bored medieval school boy. A 15th-century doodle in the lower margin of a manuscript containing Juvenal’s Satires, a popular classical text used to teach young children about morals. Photo: Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368.

For the past few years, medieval book historian Erik Kwakkel has been poring over some of the world’s oldest books and manuscripts at Leiden University, The Netherlands, as part of his ongoing research on pen trials. Pen trials are small sketches, doodles, and practice strokes a medieval scribe would make while testing the ink flow of a pen or quill. They usually involve funny faces, letter strokes, random lines, or geometric shapes and generally appear in the back of the book where a few blank pages could be found. Kwakkel shares via email:

From a book historical perspective pen trials are interesting because a scribe tends to write them in his native hand. Sometimes, when they moved to a different writing culture (another country or religious house) they adapted their writing style accordingly when copying real text—books. The trials, however, are done in the style of the region they were trained in, meaning the individuals give some information about themselves away.

In some sense, these sketches are like fingerprints or signatures, little clues that reveal a bit about these long forgotten scribes who copied texts but who had no real opportunity to express themselves while working. Including additional sketches or even initials in these books was often forbidden.

While many of Kwakkel’s discoveries are standard pen trials, other doodles he finds relate to a human concept as universal as topics discussed in these 13th and 14th century books such as love, morals, or religion. Specifically: boredom. It seems the tedium of reading through a philosophy textbook or law manuscript dates back to the very invention of books. Some of these scribbles were even made hundreds of years after a book’s publication, suggesting no margin is sacred when monotony is concerned.

Lucky for us, Kwakkel has left a trail of ancient doodle discoveries all across the web on his Twitter account, his Tumblr, and on his recently established blog medievalbooks. His obsession with margin minutiae has lead to two scholarly publications and also caught the interest of NPR’s ‘How to Do Everything‘ who interviewed him last week. All images courtesy Erik Kwakkel, respective of noted libraries.

 

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Medieval smiley face. Conches, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 7 (main text 13th century, doodle 14th or 15th century).

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Doodle discovered in a 13th-century law manuscript (Amiens BM 347).

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Students with pointy noses. Leiden, University Library, MS BPL 6 C (13th century).

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Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, BPL MS 111 I, 14th-century doodle.

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Medieval scribes tested their pens by writing short sentences and drawing doodles. The pen trials above are from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Lat. misc. c. 66 (15th century).

 

 



Animation History

Artist Kevin Weir Creates Ghostly Animated GIFs Using Archival Photos from the Library of Congress (Sponsor)

September 9, 2014

Christopher Jobson

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Art director and designer Kevin Weir uses historical black and white photographs forgotten to time as the basis for his quirky—and slightly disturbing—animated GIFs. His path to online GIF superstardom began when he was in high school. He tells us that “my parents’ boss bought me a copy of Photoshop and I decided I wanted to be some kind of designer.” Having mastered the software, he found himself five years later “making black and white GIFs as a way to occupy myself during the downtime of an internship I had during grad school.” He shared the images on his Tumblr, Flux Machine where they quickly went viral.

Weir makes use of photographs he finds in the Library of Congress online archive, and is deeply drawn to what he calls “unknowable places and persons,” images with little connection to present day that he can use as blank canvas for his weird ideas. Perhaps it’s the nature of his imagination, or maybe a result of the medium’s limited frames of animation to communicate anything too serious, but despite the creepiness factor, it’s hard to not to smile at the absurdity of his ideas.

Weir is now an art director at Droga5 in NYC, he also also animates music videos and sassy birds.

 

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Design History

A 19th Century Telephone Network Covered Stockholm in Thousands of Phone Lines

September 2, 2014

Christopher Jobson

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In the late 19th century, shortly after the patent of the telephone, the race was on to connect everyone to the phone grid. However, due to technical limitations of the earliest phone lines, every telephone required its own physical line strung between a house or business to a phone exchange where the call was manually connected by a live operator. The somewhat quixotic result of so many individual lines was the construction of elaborate and unsightly towers that carried hundreds to thousands of phone lines through the air.

In Stockholm, Sweden, the central telephone exchange was the Telefontornet, a giant tower designed around 1890 that connected some 5,000 lines which sprawled in every direction across the city. Just by looking at historical photos it’s easy to recognize the absurdity and danger of the whole endeavor, especially during the winter months. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. From high winds to ice storms and fires, the network was extremely vulnerable to the elements. Luckily, phone networks evolved so rapidly that by 1913 the Telefontornet was completely decommissioned in favor of much simpler technology. The remaining shell stood as a landmark until it too caught fire in 1953 and was torn down.

If you want to see more, the Tekniska Museet (the Museum of Technology) in Stochkholm has hundreds of photos from this strange period over on Flickr organized into three main galleries: Linjeras och eldsvådor (accidents), Telefonstationer Stockholm, and the Telefontornet.

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(via Retronaut, Twisted Sifter, thnx Johnny!)

 

 



History Photography

By the Silent Line: Photographer Pierre Folk Spent Years Documenting a Vanishing 160-Year-Old Parisian Railway

August 21, 2014

Christopher Jobson

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The Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture (French for “little belt railway”) was a 32 km railway that encircled Paris, connecting all the major railway stations within fortified walls during the Industrial Revolution. In service from 1852 to 1934, the line has now been partially abandoned for 80 years.

Several developers and local officials have recently set their sights on the vast swath of unused land, tunnels, and stations as an opportunity for new development. However, some railway enthusiasts and related organizations want the tracks and stations to be preserved indefinitely as part of the cities’ heritage. Others want to turn areas of de Petite Ceinture into parkways similar to the nearby Promenade plantée, a 4.7 km park built on an elevated train track in 1988 that later inspired New York’s famous High Line.

As part of his project “By the Silent Line,” photographer Pierre Folk has been working since 2011 to photograph the 160-year-old railway’s last remnants before any final decisions are made. He stalks the tracks at all times of the year, often returning to the same locations to document nature’s slow reclamation as rusted tracks and crumbling tunnels are swallowed by trees, vines, and grass. This is just a small selection of Folk’s work, you can see many more photos right here.

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