May 17, 2013
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 film The Third Man. Welles added those lines himself to a script based on Graham Greene’s original story. And though he may have been a genius, Welles was wrong about the history of the Cuckoo clock. “When the film came out,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks!” Indeed, although often associated with Switzerland, the cuckoo clock was more likely invented in Germany sometime in the 17th century. I use the word “likely” because the origins of the cuckoo clock are unclear and its invention is still a topic of debate among horologists.
For a long time, the cuckoo clock was attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clockmaker of some repute from the Black Forest village of Schönwald. It was believed that Ketterer created the cuckoo in the 1730s, inspired by the bellows of church organs to adapt the technology in lieu of the chimes then typically used in clocks. This oft-cited theory first emerged in a relatively popular 1979 self-published book The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. For such an iconic timepiece, there is surprisingly little written about the cuckoo clock, but, as recently noted by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, modern scholarship does not support the Ketterer theory. While the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, evidence dates similar, though more primitive, objects to at least the mid 17th century – around 100 years before Ketterer’s supposed invention. In any case, the familiar cuckoo clock that we know and love today, the clock that hangs in our grandparents’ houses, was certainly developed and refined by the talented craftsman and clockmakers of the Black Forest.
In traditional cuckoo clocks, the “coo coo” sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo. The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock. One weight, along with the pendulum, is dedicated to keeping the clock gears running while the other weight controls the avian automoton. Clocks that play music in addition to chirping will have a third weight. After a century of development that saw wood replaced with brass and metal, two distinct styles of cuckoo clock emerged from the Black Forest to dominate the market: The ornamented, house-like “Bahnhäusleuhr” or “railroad house” and the Jagdstück” or “Hunt piece” or “traditional style” clock, which features elaborate, decorative hand carved nature scenes adorning a simple encasement.
So why a cuckoo? The common cuckoo, native to Europe, had long served as a natural marker of time, a welcome harbinger of Spring whose familiar calls denoted the coming of the new season and warmer weather. Writing eloquently on the cuckoo in his 1849 book Natural History: Birds, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described the joy felt upon hearing the first coos of the season:
There are few who do not feel a thrill of pleasure when it falls upon their ear. But more especially when, for the first time in the season, it is heard in a lovely Spring morning, mellowed by distance, borne softly from some thick tree, whose tender, and yellow-green leaves, but half-opened, are as yet barely sufficient to afford the welcome stranger the concealment he loves. At such a time it is peculiarly grateful; for it seems to assure us that indeed, winter is past.
Over the centuries since it first emerged from the Black Forest, the cuckoo clock has remained largely unchanged. Traditional clocks can still be bought and are a popular souvenir. But of course, there are now a much wider variety of styles to choose from, including striking modern clocks that look more like abstract sculptures than timepieces. However, my favorite contemporary cuckoos are those that pay homage to traditional hand-carved “hunt piece.” Although all details have been stripped away and the elaborate carvings flattened onto a single surface, these modern cuckoos are instantly recognizable solely by their familiar silhouette.
From “cuckoo” to “tweet tweet,” this next modern cuckoo clock is truly cutting edge. It was created by the London-based BERG design consultancy, who have a knack for integrating physical objects with digital network technology.
Designed especially for Twitter, #Flock is a series of four cuckoo clock objects that each literally “tweet” in response to a unique notification from the social media service. Berg’s method involves stripping an object down to its basic essence while maintaining a user-friendly, humanist design. Ornamentation was dropped in favor of a clean, minimalist design, an almost Bauhaus-like Bahnhäusleuhr. #Flock is a distillation of the cuckoo clock to three characteristics: craft, time, and alerts. #Flock is currently a limited edition exclusive to Twitter, but it alludes to a possible future where our digital lives are made manifest in the form of finely crafted objects and we interact with our invisible networks through real, physical things. But will it catch on? Will the cuckoo transform from the herald of Spring to the herald of retweets, emails, and likes? Only time (and tweets) will tell.
December 4, 2012
Diana Zlatanovski is meta. As an anthropologist, a museologist, and a curatorial research associate at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she spends her days going through collections of art and artifacts, and with her extra time, she takes photos of those collections and many others she finds outside the museum as part of an ongoing project she calls The Typology.
By assembling and examining a grouping of objects with shared attributes, Zlatanovski aims to reveal patterns and information that wouldn’t be visible if looking at each individual piece in isolation. She has gone hunting for these revelations in photos of tools, vegetables, shells, landscapes, portraits, old coins, and much more. We talked with Zlatanovski about how she came to collect collections, what The Typology says about design, and how one gets into her line of work without becoming a hoarder.
At their most fundamental level, collections are accumulations of objects. But they are distinguished by their intentional grouping—a coin collection is different than a handful of change.
Objects are wrapped in meaning, collections are a way for them to tell their common story. A collection makes links and connections between things evident, giving a greater understanding of the story. Only through studying groupings are we able to see a spectrum of variation—information not apparent in isolation can become visible in context.
Was there a particular collection or a particular moment that inspired you to start doing your typology work?
The first object typology I photographed was a collection of wrenches. I didn’t necessarily have a plan for the wrenches when I was collecting them but found myself compelled to acquire them. The varied shapes and sizes, the range of colors in the metal, the texture of the patina, they all conveyed something to me. I began to realize I also had an emotional connection to the wrenches-my father was a builder and tools are objects of memory for me.
As I looked closely at the wrenches they brought to mind archaeological typologies of prehistoric stone tools with their different forms and sizes of grinding and chipping stones. I saw the comparison as an example of the continuity of human ingenuity over time.
Plenty of people collect rocks or stamps or bottles, but you have amazing access to museum archives where you can see assemblages ancient pottery shards, extinct currencies, and primitive tools. Did you have to get permission to start photographing them for your own project? Do you just go into work every day with your camera and shoot the objects you’re sorting through?
Collection storage areas are an endless source of inspiration for me, and I so wish I could spend all of my days roaming through them with my camera! At any given time only a very small percentage of a museum’s holdings are on display so you can imagine the treasure trove of objects waiting in the wings for their day in the spotlight. I am incredibly grateful to get in depth views of museum holdings, it allows me chances for serendipitous discovery.
Different museums have different collection policies, but I do always need to obtain the appropriate permissions to handle and photograph museum artifacts.
Has your method of assembling things ever given you insight into a historical moment or culture that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen? Have any revelations come out of placing objects together and looking at the pattern or the whole?
Working with the shell collections at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology teaches me something new every time. What I love about working on the shell typologies is how strikingly similar each shell can seem until I compile all of the specimens into one image and realize how many details are vastly different.
One of the many remarkable things about Harvard’s collections is that they were collected for scientific study, so their documentation adds a whole other layer of interest. I can work with a group of shells that were all collected in a singular moment in time at one specific place, sometimes over a hundred years ago in waters I will likely never visit. Those objects existed together at that place in time and they remain together to this day. These are the connections that make this work so fascinating to me. Objects are what remain behind as a link between their time and ours.
Living in small spaces with a slightly minimalist husband definitely helps keeps my collecting in check. So far, I’ve mostly worked with smaller objects, which can be easily stored or displayed, though I fear the day I’m compelled to do a typology of 19th century sofas. And I suppose one of the benefits of working with museum collections could be that they most definitely won’t let me bring those home!
Does The Typology have an ultimate destination or goal? Is there a point at which you’d feel complete with this project, or a particular assemblage of things that you aspire to capture?
I intend to continue growing Typology and am excited to watch it evolve. New ideas are coming to mind constantly and I’m regularly building on my earlier work. Ultimately my goal is for these collections and their biographies to foster a larger appreciation and interest in the preservation of both cultural as well as natural artifacts. And that will always be an ongoing project.
Since this is a design blog, can you comment on how this is a design project, or what connection you see between Typology and design?
Typology uses logic to convey meaning and influence how we interact with things, which is essentially a design process. A typology creates order within a set of objects much like design distills and simplifies. Both tell stories and create intrigue in a visual medium.
My photographs are visual art so the graphic design and aesthetics of each image is a significant factor. Every typology image is a compilation, I photograph every artifact separately and layout the typology from those separate elements. Visually pleasing patterning has to balance with an arrangement that best conveys the story the objects are telling. Good design is all about that balance.
I would love to include part of the Smithsonian’s collections in Typology in the future. I recently visited an exhibition of art from Kazahkstan at the Freer gallery and I was very intrigued with the collection of ancient daggers on display. The Cooper Hewitt also has a beautiful array of match safes that I would love to photograph. And in homage to Julia Child, it would be great to do a typology of her kitchen tools!
In addition to my own typology photography, I also curate photographic and object typologies that I discover out in the world on my blog, The Typologist. One of my favorite posts was a collection of tags worn by the Smithsonian’s Postal Museum’s mascot Owney, the postal dog.
Photography by Diana Zlatanovski. Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology malacology collection.
© 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College
May 14, 2012
While most people understand climate change in the abstract, few consider the extent to which our existing infrastructure and land use were shaped by—and depend upon—specific climatic conditions that are quickly fading away. “The majority of our water comes from snow,” says architect Peter Arnold, referring to the water supply of the American west, “But that regime is changing. It’s going to come less from snow and more from storms and rain, and we’re not designed as a culture, nor do we have the infrastructure available yet, to fully take advantage of it coming in the form of rain.”
Each year, Arnold and his wife and architectural studio partner, Hadley, take their students away from their homebase at Woodbury University’s Arid Lands Institute in Los Angeles, and travel to northern New Mexico, where they work in a vast outdoor classroom known as the Lower Embudo Valley. In this region, water management technologies and practices are still in use that were developed many centuries ago by the Pueblo Indians, and have roots dating back even further to Moorish culture in Spain.
At the center of the water management tradition here is a ditch, called an acequia—a word that refers not only to the physical trench in the ground, but also to an entire system of community governance that ensures each member of a community has access to adequate water for irrigation and household needs. “You don’t just have a ditch, you belong to an acequia,” explains Hadley Arnold, “which is a small coop of farmers who share the ditch and who govern themselves and their use of water in a collaborative dialogue according to rules that were established about 1000 years ago in Spain. It’s a perfect example of ‘water democracy.’”
The physical feature of the acequia is built by diverting water from a river—in this case the Rio Embudo and the Rio Grande—into a parallel channel that runs with gravity, using no pumps. The acequias slow the flow rate of the water, allowing farmers (and the land) to capture it before it becomes runoff or flood. The ditch can be opened at intermittent points along its length to allow irrigation to reach crops. That distribution process is determined by a commissioner—or mayordomo—who assesses how much water is available on any given day, and permits each farmer a certain period of time during which the acequia can be opened onto their land.
“The acequia is its own entity and it’s a subdivision of local government,” explains Estevan Arellano, a writer, historian, and former mayordomo. Arellano spends much of his time advocating for and teaching about the acequias, working to maintain the ditches themselves and the social structure around them, even as modern life seems to draw people away from land-based livelihoods.
Arellano’s presence in this conversation is impossible to overlook. When I called up landscape architect Kenneth Francis, a former student from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who had researched the acequias in school, he told me Arellano had been his guide several years ago as he walked the ditches and tried to learn how the model could be adapted for urban water management and landscape design.
Having graduated and established a practice, Surroundings Studio, in Santa Fe, Francis is now taking the lessons he learned while studying the acequias into client projects. Currently, his firm is working with the city of Santa Fe to create what Francis calls “stormwater acequias“—a green infrastructure system that provides conduits for heavy rain to flow off city streets and into the ground, hydrating a corridor of trees that line the urban parkway.
“Right now rainwater gets point-sourced right out into the river,” Francis explains, “It creates a strong erosive condition and also concentrates pollutants in one area. We started to create a wider distribution network where water would infiltrate under the sidewalk and into these linear acequias.” Built using scoria rock—a pumice-like stone with micropores throughout—the urban acequias are able to hold water for long periods of time, hydrating and restoring the riparian zone within the city. Francis’s project involves planting fruit trees along the corridor where orchards existed long ago, reintroducing heritage varieties that will thrive on runoff from impermeable surfaces.
But what happens to all the other aspects of the acequia in this case—the social networks and cooperative governance that form around the waterways? Francis says that park maintenance staff will be in charge of maintaining the stormwater acequias, so the design doesn’t require the community’s hands-on, cooperative management to the extent of its rural counterpart. “Acequias are one of our tools,” he says, “It’s more of a contemporary cultural expression of a system that brings water into an area that doesn’t have it. It’s interpreted not just to water an orchard, but also to take water off the street and help clean it.”
Francis’s application of the traditional water management system in an urban context is one example of what Hadley and Peter Arnold’s students may do with the knowledge they gain during their immersion in the Embudo Valley. This is one of the few places, the Arnolds say, where a young landscape architect or urban planner can see a living example of a low-carbon, low-energy-demand innovation that can adapt (and has) to dry and volatile conditions over time. “The students are asking, How do you use land differently if your snowpack is dwindling and your land isn’t supporting things the same? How do you plant differently to harvest some of the rain? How does the settlement pattern change if you recognize that arroyos aren’t just a flood problem but also a possibility for banking water?”
There’s no question the Arnolds’ students learn from the acequias, but Peter points out that they also contribute to the community when they visit, bringing mapping, modeling, GIS and land use planning skills to bear to support and strengthen the existing systems. ”If there’s going to be a technological approach to climate change mitigation in terms of understanding how to budget our water,” says Peter, “it has to be a fusion of design strategies, leveraging policy and scientific analysis into to make spaces more dynamic, infrastructure more visible, and public space more robust.”
May 9, 2012
In this series on design for water scarcity, we’ve been talking primarily about the American West. At the Arid Lands Institute, the southern California design lab that has appeared in most of these stories, focusing on this limited geographic region gives designers a petri dish within which to cultivate solutions that might later be applied elsewhere. “What looks like a kind of localism,” points out ALI founder-director Hadley Arnold, “is a very careful, intentional commitment to deindustrializing water systems in the developed world as a sort of twin separated at birth from how you bring potable water, sanitation and hygeine, and careful water management to the developing world.”
Of course one of the most significant differences between addressing water scarcity in the developed versus the developing world is that in the U.S., scarcity remains somewhat abstract to most people. Clean drinking water still flows from the tap. Agricultural fields still turn green and produce food. Meanwhile in India, the consequences of depleted aquifers are plainly visible.
This week on the public radio show Marketplace, host Kai Ryssdal interviewed Rajendra Singh, an Indian conservationist whose work restoring water supplies to parts of Rajasthan has earned him the nickname “The Waterman.” Singh was educated in medicine, but he discovered that applying his training in the real world would be useless if the water crisis wasn’t addressed first. He spoke of traveling to Rajasthan and encountering severe loss of groundwater, the drying up of wells, and the decline of wildlife and agriculture as a result. He undertook the reestablishment of a traditional method of rainwater harvesting, digging a collection pond that would hold rainwater that fell during the monsoon.
The outcome of his work has been dramatic. Where rainwater can be collected and retained, farms have become productive, animals have come back, and very imporantly, aquifers have been recharged, and groundwater and river levels have risen. Once the first collection pond’s value was proven, others were dug. “Community-driven, decentralized water management is the solution for my country,” Singh said in the interview. It’s also the solution most commonly proposed by designers and conservationists in the U.S. From Singh’s perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean high-tech strategies—traditional rainwater harvesting techniques like the one he implemented have been around for centuries.
Singh’s perspective is echoed in a TED talk on the subject of water in India, delivered by Anupam Mishra, also a conservationist with a long history of water management advocacy. In his presentation, Mishra pointed out that 800 years ago, in what was at the time one of the country’s most dense and important hubs, each house in a village collected its own rainwater. But large-scale, government-sponsored hydroengineering projects changed that, attempting to import piped water across vast distances.
As has been argued about the American West, these megaprojects set citizens up for dependence on infrastructure that might not always deliver. In India, the wide, open canals designed to bring water from the Himalayas were quickly filled with water hyacinths or overtaken by sand and wildlife, eliminating the flow of water to its intended destination.
Mishra’s presentation emphasized that some of the most effective models of water management in India are also some of the oldest and most beautiful. He showed how architecture and sculpture were integrated into the water infrastructure, melding public art with utility, as has also been seen in Europe. The stepwells (or stepped ponds) of western India are monumental examples of precise, pre-industrial design, with symmetrical, geometric patterns of stairs leading down into deep water storage vaults. When the water supplies were abundant, the stairs would be submerged, and as the water went back down, the steps became visible and usable. Likewise, stone animal heads were installed at various heights inside rainwater collection tanks to indicate the volume of water inside and the length of time that stock would last.
Today, young Indian engineers are designing mass-produced, modular versions of these tanks made with precast concrete and other industrial materials. A company called Furaat popped up in 2008 with a design that echoed the old stepwells. Their concept promised to recharge groundwater as well as purify collected rainwater for safe drinking. From their presentation materials it’s clear that the engineers saw a business opportunity in addressing the water crisis, but it’s unclear whether the entity has flourished.
Anupam Mishra’s attitude seems to be that commercializing the approach to water management doesn’t lead to success, as it overlooks what’s appropriate to individual locations and climates. “We had full-page advertisements some thirty or twenty-five years ago when these canals came,” Mishra recounts, “They said, ‘Throw away your traditional systems, these new cement tanks will supply you piped water.’ It’s the dream, and it became a dream also, because soon the water was not able to reach these areas, and people started renovating their own structures.”
This doesn’t mean that today’s designers and engineers have no role in improving Indian citizens’ access to water. Many of the examples from the Indian desert still begin with rainwater harvesting, but implement more modern technology between collection and consumption. A partnership between global design firm IDEO and social entrepreneurship engine Acumen Fund introduced collection tanks in Rajasthan that also provided filtration, putting clean drinking water within a short distance of all members of a village. The tanks can’t hold an aesthetic candle to the stepwells of the 11th century, but they represent a useful bridge between traditional practices and modern capabilities.
If you have 18 minutes to spare, Anupam Mishra’s TED talk is worth watching (also embedded above). The next and final post in this series will return to the U.S. to look at some of this country’s oldest water management and land use practices, and how design could improve conditions on the reservation.
May 2, 2012
Information design and data visualization form a key bridge for conveying academic research into accessible (visual) language. Over the last month, that link took the form of a 19,000-square-foot screen on the Reuters building in the middle of Times Square, where ten years of research collected by NASA and university scientists appeared as a towering, technicolor display.
The 30-second animation was the winning entry from a competition hosted by HeadsUp! Times Square and visualizing.org, an online community of graphic designers specializing in data. Dutch designer Richard Vijgen created the visualization using data collected through NASA satellites as part of ongoing research at University of California’s Center for Hydrologic Modeling, spearheaded by Dr. James Famiglietti. Watch the video here.
Famiglietti’s research centers around year-round readings from two satellites known as GRACE, which orbit the earth taking gravitational measurements based on the mass of water on the earth’s surface. The distance between the two spacecraft changes slightly in relation to the hydrology below them. As journalist Felicity Barringer explained in a New York Times article last year, “If the mass below the path of the leading satellite increases — because, say, the lower Mississippi basin is waterlogged — that satellite speeds up, and the distance between the two grows. Then the mass tugs on both, and the distance shortens…The measurements of the distance between the craft translate to a measurement of surface mass in any given region.”
By looking at these numbers over the course of ten years, the researchers can see patterns emerging that demonstrate that the earth’s groundwater stores are depleting. In a National Geographic article on his work, Famiglietti states that population growth and poor resource management are to blame for the impending crisis. “The picture that is emerging is one of a profound fingerprint of human water management on global groundwater storage. Groundwater is disappearing on 6 of the 7 continents as we continue to pump it from greater and greater depths to irrigate crops for our ever-growing population.”
One significant question for scientists now, Famiglietti says, is not how dire the situation is—they’re certain it’s dire—but how to get the general public to understand the nature of the problem. This is why the UC team made their data available to designers whose job (and passion) it is to translate obscure findings into beautiful visuals. “A large percentage of the population are visual learners,” explains Famiglietti’s research partner, JT Reager, “They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a really well made scientific graph is worth much more. Great graphics, like a cool map, can bridge the gap and help to make understanding really intuitive.”
We asked designer Richard Vijgen how he approached this task:
1) Can you describe the initial steps you took once you had all the data in hand, to start thinking about how to translate that material into something visual and understandable?
For this project, two datasets were provided, a 10-year month-by-month groundwater level anomaly chart by James Famiglietti, and a longterm chart by the USGS. The first one (the GRACE dataset) is very spectacular in its detail—both temporal and spatial—and allows you to “see” a phenomenon that was previously unseeable. The overwhelming complexity of nature, the wonder of science’s ability to measure it and the alarming message that groundwater levels are dwindling in several areas were all contained in this one dataset. It just needed to be visualized.
On the other hand, the obvious complexity of natural phenomena that manifests itself in the data made me question my ability to interpret it. The measurements of the GRACE satellite data only span 10 years. That’s why I felt that the longterm data from USGS would allow me to put the GRACE data into context in terms of data gathering but also as a new tool in a 100-year tradition of gathering groundwater data.
2) From a design perpective, how did the features of the site (Times Square) lend themselves to the data you were working with?
Although the two screens of the Nasdaq and the Reuters building are used in tandem, it is difficult to “read” them both at the same time, since they are on opposite side of the square. Therefore I decided to show the relation between seasonal and longterm changes in groundwater levels on both screens. However, both screens have their own hierarchy in the way they are arranged and shaped. In both cases I show a visualization of the seasonal data, a complex spectacle of color and movement, and subsequently try to contextualize it by adding longterm data and explanatory text.
Taking into account perspective and reading direction, I tried to make a different element stand out on each building and capture the audience’s attention. In the case of the Reuters building, this is the tall “gauging rod” showing longterm groundwater levels, that can be seen from far away. The Nasdaq screen, being more rectangular, allowed me to emphasize more on the seasonal world map. Once people notice the visualization, I’m using the parts of the screen that are lower and closer to the street to contextualize. In case of the Nasdaq screen the lower part of the screen shows longterm statistics for key areas. In case of the Reuters screen the lower part consists of nine screens showing seasonal visualizations focusing on individual continents as well as a dynamic “ticker tape” that shows statistics for cities added to the screen by the audience (via a mobile website).
3) How did you select the colors?
The colors (magenta and cyan) represent areas of negative and positive fluctuations in groundwater levels. Magenta for areas where water levels continuously decline over several years and Cyan for areas that experience short bursts of surplus groundwater (mainly rainy seasons around the equator). I wanted to restrict the use of color to these two elementary (CMYK) colors to avoid turning the data into a spectacle just by adding ornament, but try and let the data speak for itself as much as possible and just indicate surplus and shortage.
4) Did you work in static design and then animate, or was the motion always central to the design concept?
When visualizing this kind of data I believe time (motion) should be central to the design concept, because it is central to the data itself. For me, design is more about handling the information than it is about “decorating” it. In order to understand the data and to get a grip on it, I have to use programming code and evaluate animated sketches right from the beginning. The first thing I do when I look at a dataset is apply algorithms to it in order to manipulate it and get a feel of it, pretty much like a sculptor manipulates his clay.
5) If a passerby looked up and saw the animation as they traversed Times Square last month, what do you hope they took away from it? What knowledge might they have gained in 30 seconds of looking at this work?
Just by putting the visualization up on the screens of times square I hope to provide a short contrast with the usual programming that you see in Times Square that is mostly about consumption, about extraction. Times Square is sometimes described as the “crossroads of the world” Putting a data visualization on a screen this large gives you the idea of being in the control room of the world. For the first time you are able to see the complex dynamics of longterm and seasonal groundwater levels. Putting it up on the screen I hope to provide the public with both the spectacle and beauty of these dynamics as well as the realization that now that you know it, you also have a responsibility for it.