I do always enjoy lists of the books people recently read and usually discover one or more interesting titles that I’d like to read myself. Maybe you will too? If you do, or have a recommendation yourself, let me know! This is an ongoing list of what I read (and liked).
Books I read in 2023 §
American Political History §
I did not plan on reading this book, but found it left behind in our Airbnb in Medellín by a previous visitor. As a big fan of the “Very Short Introduction” series, I could help but read it.
It was an interesting chronology, essentialy going through every American president, detailing how they were elected and what their main achievements were (or highlighting the lack thereof). This of course made for a bit of a dry reading experience. I had hoped for a broader look at the American political system, rather than just its presidents, and a bit more of an interpretive approach.
The Philosophy of Design Currently Reading §
I first read this book in 2019 and remember that I always regretted not taking more notes from it. This time around I’ll try to do it.
Why a Philosophy of Design?
[A philosophy of design] would examine design, and its speciﬁc aims and problems, in light of the fundamental questions that philosophy examines: questions about knowledge, ethics, aesthetics and the nature of reality. […] What philosophy does offer to the student or practitioner is a broader perspective on their practice and its relation to the other important dimensions of human life. The ability to see one’s daily practice in this way, and to think through its place in the grander scheme of things, is one mark of an educated person, and this is what philoso-phy can help us to cultivate.Parsons, 2016: “The Philosophy of Design”, pp. 21 – 22
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 22 §
Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form §
Degrowth is an economic and social theory that challenges the notion of continuous economic growth as a necessary and desirable goal. It proposes a different approach to societal well-being and sustainability by advocating for a reduction in material and energy consumption, production, and overall economic activity. Instead of aiming for economic expansion, degrowth advocates for a deliberate reduction in production and consumption, with the goal of achieving a sustainable and equitable society. This involves redefining well-being beyond the accumulation of material possessions and focusing on improving quality of life, social relationships, and environmental sustainability. Thanks for the concise definition, ChatGPT!
Wachstum ist weit mehr als der Anstieg des Bruttoinlandsprodukts (BIP), wie es normalerweise definiert wird. Denn das BIP ist nur die Spitze des Eisbergs, das Oberflächenphänomen viel umfassenderer materieller Flüsse sowie interdependenter Steigerungs- und Expansionsprozesse. Diese schließen die beschleunigte Nutzung menschlicher Arbeit und nicht-menschlicher Energie ebenso mit ein wie kontinuierliche Investitionen in Maschinen und eine immer komplexere Technik, die sich auswertende Verwandlung von Materie und Energie in Güter, Dienstleistungen und Abfall sowie kulturelle, soziale und politische Prozesse […]. Forschungsarbeiten zeigen auch, wie moderne Gesellschaften sich über einen kontinuierlichen Prozess der Ausweitung und Intensivierung ökonomischer Prozesse in Bezug auf Raum, Zeit und Energie dynamisch stabilisieren […]. Das heißt, moderne Gesellschaften brauchen Wachstum, um ihre Institutionen zu stabilisieren – angefangen von der Akkumulationsdynamik kapitalistischer Wettbewerbsökonomie bis hin zu staatlichen Versorgungsstrukturen […].
Wirtschaftswachstum beschreibt also nicht nur die Zunahme und Beschleunigung wirtschaftlicher Produktion, sondern einen umfassenden materiellen, sozialen und kulturellen Prozess sich selbst verstärkender Steigerungsdynamiken. Dieser Prozess der Expansion und Beschleunigung hat in den letzten fünf Jahrhunderten das Leben und den gesamten Planeten transformiert. Für einen Teil der Menschheit, vor allem im globalen Norden, haben sich dadurch die materiellen Lebensbedingungen drastisch verbessert, und es wurden erfolgreiche gesellschaftliche Kämpfe um Teilhabe ermöglicht. Für andere Teile der Menschheit jedoch ging dieser Prozess mit Ausbeutung und der Zerstörung ihrer Lebensgrundlagen einher. Diese verselbständigten Expansionsdynamiken stoßen Anfang des 21. Jahrhunderts immer deutlicher an Grenzen, da sie die ökologischen, sozialen und politischen Grundlagen, auf denen sie basieren, untergraben […].Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, pp. 44 – 45
Seit höchstens 10000 Jahren existiert der Ackerbau als regional dominante Produktionsweise, seither wechseln sich in verschiedenen Weltregionen immer wieder Phasen des Wirtschaftswachstums mit Phasen ökonomischen Zerfalls ab. Aber Wirtschaftswachstum, wie wir es heute verstehen, gab es – soweit sich das überhaupt retrospektiv messen lässt – bis Anfang des 19. Jahrhunderts nur minimal: um ungefähr 0,05 Prozent pro Jahr oder sechs Prozent pro Jahrhundert […]. Dieses Wachstum spiegelte im Wesentlichen die langsame, aber stetige Zunahme der Bevölkerung wider – es war also kein Wirtschaftswachstum pro Kopf. […]
Dauerhaftes Wachstum in seinen verschiedensten Dimensionen ist ein relativ neues Phänomen. Erst seit dem 19. Jahrhundert nehmen verschiedene messbare zivilisatorische Größen – wie Bevölkerung, Wasserverbrauch, Düngerkonsum, Urbanisierung, der Bau von Staudämmen, Transport etc. – eine deutliche Wachstumsdynamik auf. Diese verläuft dann jedoch, vor allem beschleunigt seit Mitte des 20. Jahrhunderts, sehr rasant und bis heute größtenteils ungebrochen […]. Diese »Große Beschleunigung« hat das menschliche Leben und den Planeten Erde irreversibel verändert.Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, p. 47
Moderne Gesellschaften waren also historisch gesehen dynamische Wachstumsgesellschaften. Das heißt auch, dass die öffentlichen Institutionen der Sozial- und Wohlfahrtsstaaten, die den Kapitalismus befrieden und von denen einige aus den großen emanzipatorischen Kämpfen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts hervorgegangen sind, sich über Wirtschaftswachstum stabilisieren: Rentenversicherung, Krankenversicherung, Pflegeversicherung, öffentliches Erziehungssystem, Universitäten, öffentliche Infrastrukturen (Straßen und Schienen, Wasser- und Abwasserleitungen, Elektrizitäts-, Telekommunikationsnetze) etc. Diese Einrichtungen waren gleichzeitig auf Wirtschaftswachstum angewiesen und bildeten die Grundlage weiteren Wachstums […]. Zunehmende Produktion schuf Überschüsse und erleichterte so Kämpfe um die Verteilung des Reichtums, die Verkürzung der Arbeitszeit und soziale Sicherungssysteme.Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, p. 55
Wirtschaftswachstum – so lassen sich diese sieben Formen der Wachstums- und Gesellschaftskritik zusammenfassen – zerstört (1.) menschliche Lebensgrundlagen und kann nicht nachhaltig gestaltet werden, steht (2.) dem Wohlergehen und der Gleichheit aller entgegen, erzwingt (3.) entfremdete Arbeits- und Lebensweisen, hängt (4.) von kapitalistischer Ausbeutung und Akkumulation ab, basiert (5.) auf vergeschlechtlichter Ausbeutung und ungleichen Geschlechterverhältnissen, gründet (6.) in herrschaftsförmigen Produktionskräften und Techniken und geht (7.) notwendig mit ungerechten, herrschaftsförmigen Beziehungen zwischen globalem Norden und Süden einher.Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, p. 141
Globale Ökologische Gerechtigkeit
Im Kern geht es bei Postwachstum um globale ökologische Gerechtigkeit, also um die Vision einer ökologisch nachhaltigen und sozial gleicheren Welt. Es geht um eine Welt, in der einerseits die ökologische Tragfähigkeit des Planeten nicht überschritten wird und in der sich andererseits sowohl die Lebensstandards als auch der Naturverbrauch angleichen. Das setzt eine Deprivilegierung derjenigen Menschen voraus, die aktuell die Kosten ihrer Lebensweise auf andere Lebewesen anderswo oder in die Zukunft auslagern. Und das heißt […], dass die »überentwickelten« Ökonomien des globalen Nordens und deren nicht verallgemeinerbarer Naturverbrauch »abgewickelt« werden müssen, so dass sie nicht mehr einen überproportionalen Teil der die Lebensgrundlagen aller Menschen ausmachenden Natur verbrauchen […]. Ein zentrales Element einer Postwachstumsgesellschaft ist es also, dass sich der materielle Stoffwechsel mit der Natur, und deswegen auch das Wirtschaftsprodukt in verschiedenen Gesellschaften, auf einem langfristig ökologisch nachhaltigen und global verallgemeinerbaren Niveau angleicht. Postwachstum zielt in diesem Sinne darauf ab, die imperiale Lebensweise durch eine solidarische zu ersetzen und die Externalisierungsgesellschaft zu überwinden […].Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, pp. 159 – 160
Auch wenn es oft so verstanden wird: Wirtschaftliche Schrumpfung ist nicht das Ziel von Postwachstum, und ebenso wenig ist Postwachstum das Gegenteil von Wachstum. Die Reduktion von Produktion und Konsum sind vielmehr eine Konsequenz der Tatsache, dass es unmöglich ist, den Materialdurchsatz und die Emissionen in ausreichendem Maße vom Wachstum zu entkoppeln. Daher sind sie Teil des als notwendig erachteten Transformationsprozesses. […]
[Es] folgt aus der Kapitalismuskritik – unterstützt durch Analysen aus den anderen Formen der Wachstumskritik –, dass die Frage, ob eine Wirtschaft expandiert oder nicht, alles andere als nebensächlich ist. Da sich kapitalistische Gesellschaften dynamisch durch Wachstum stabilisieren und weil Steigerungslogiken tief in die materiellen, sozialen und mentalen Infrastrukturen von Wachstumsgesellschaften eingeschrieben sind, wäre es grob fahrlässig, agnostisch gegenüber der Wachstumsfrage zu bleiben.Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, pp. 162 – 163
Soziale Gerechtigkeit, Selbstbestimmung und ein gutes Leben
Eine Postwachstumsgesellschaft ist eine Gesellschaft, die in einem demokratischen Transformationsprozess soziale Gerechtigkeit und Selbstbestimmung stärkt und ein gutes Leben für alle Menschen anstrebt, ohne auf Kosten anderer oder künftiger Generationen zu leben: Unter welchen Bedingungen können – während der materielle Stoffwechsel deutlich zurückgeht – wirtschaftliche, soziale und kulturelle Rechte, die in den letzten Jahrhunderten erkämpft worden sind, erhalten und ausgebaut werden? Bei der Beantwortung dieser Frage gilt es zu berücksichtigen, dass gerade die sozialstaatlichen Errungenschaften aus der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts vor allem durch ein auf fossilen Brennstoffen basierendes hohes Wirtschaftswachstum gesellschaftlich durchsetzungsfähig werden konnten […]. Vorschläge für eine Postwachstumsgesellschaft kommen daher kaum umhin, sich mit grundlegenden gesellschaftlichen Transformationen zu befassen.Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, p. 164
Soziale Sicherung, Umverteilung und Maximaleinkommen
In der Transformation zu einer Postwachstumsgesellschaft werden Verteilungsfragen an Brisanz gewinnen. Denn wenn die gesamtgesellschaftliche Wertproduktion stagniert oder zurück-geht, heißt das, dass wer Armut bekämpfen will, auch Reichtum bekämpfen muss. Daher muss in der Frage der sozialen Sicherung über klassische Umverteilungspolitik im Sinne der Aufteilung von Überschüssen hinausgegangen werden. Gerechte Verteilung von Einkommen und Vermögen – sowohl global als auch national – und die Transformation der sozialen Sicherung sind Kernforderungen in der Postwachstumsdiskussion […].Schmelzer & Vetter, 2019: “Degrowth/Postwachstum”, p. 202
The Body §
The World’s Religions §
Jean Prouvé §
The Bilingual Mind Currently Reading §
I am collecting notes and quotes from the book in a separate note.
The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design Currently Reading §
The Trajectory of Artificiality
Rather than reducing design problems to “products”, designers should also look at the increasingly immaterial qualities of “goods, services and identities”, “interfaces”, “multi-user systems”, “projects”, and “discourses”. See my note about the Trajectory of Artificiality.
The Role of the Designer
Designers consider possible futures, worlds that can be imagined and could be created in real time. They are concerned less with what has happened, what already exists, or what can be predicted by extrapolations from the past than with what can be done. Designers’ most outstanding ability is not being afraid to explore new ideas, to challenge theories that claim that something cannot be done, or to question what is commonly taken for granted. Thus conceived, the futures that designers envision are inherently unpredictable from laws of nature, though not necessarily contradicting them.
To choose among them, designers evaluate the desirability of these futures. Desirable worlds must make sense and be of benefit to those who could realize these worlds and might come to live in them. Developing a consensus on the desirability of a possible future calls for deliberations among its stakeholders, using a language that is capable of going beyond data or facts.
Designers search the present for variables, things they are able to vary, move, influence, alter, combine, take apart, reassemble, or change. These variables define a space of possible actions, a design space as Phil Agre (2000) calls it. Designers need to know the efforts required to alter these variables and how likely they are in bringing forth desirable futures (and avoiding undesirable futures).
Designers create and work out realistic paths from the present toward desirable futures and propose them to those who can bring a design to fruition. Successful designs depend on designers’ ability to enroll stakeholders into their projects, even if these stakeholders pursue their own interests as well. The paths that designers invite stakeholders to take must be presented as realistic, affordable, of benefit to those whose effort is required, and, above all, open valuable opportunities to those affected by a design.Krippendorff, 2006: “The Semantic Turn”, p. 28–29
Architektur in Hamburg — Jahrbuch 2021/22 §
Books I read in 2022 §
Fires of Freedom: The Salvation of Philosophy, 1933 – 1943 §
This book traces the lives and philosophy of Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir and Ayn Rand, from 1933 to 1943.
The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War §
Build: An Unorthodox Guide to Making Things Worth Making §
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 21 §
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions §
I wouldn’t have read this book based on its title, but a friend recommended it enthusiastically. A more appropriate title would have been “Computational Models for Everyday Problems” — it’s a nice overview of models and heuristics (typically developed by computer scientists) for computationally hard problems in everyday life.
Shigeru Ban §
How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World §
Psychoanalyst Meets Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi §
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War §
Hyperculture: Culture and Globalisation §
Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Control §
Andrea Palladio §
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference §
Das Patriarchat der Dinge: Warum die Welt Frauen nicht passt §
What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture §
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 20 §
Rudolph M. Schindler §
Critical Theory §
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows §
See my note on “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” website. This is the long-awaited book, containing the existing definitions, as well as many new ones. A very entertaining read!
While very well written, the book tries to capture many different perspectives from ritual studies and because of that overwhelmed me a bit with the number of different definitions and positions. I’ll have to read it again sometime.
Culture is a supplement for the human being’s lack of instinctual determination, a second skin telling us what to think and how to act. For theorists such as Durkheim, Rappaport, Clifford Geertz, and Peter Berger, religion and its secularized equivalents are systems of symbols providing a kind of blueprint or orienting map without which we are lost, unable to order the diverse sensations received from our environment.
We get on with life by gathering information stored not only in our physiological makeup but in the cultural goods that surround us, in the intersubjective space of human signifying practices: maps, clothing, food, sacred objects, music, built environments, conceptions of time, and rites and performances.Stephenson, 2014: “Ritual”, p. 40
Vilém Flusser: An Introduction §
The book does a good job showing how Flusser’s characteristic “nomadic” way of thinking — crisscrossing through a field of study, refusing to settle down on any particular position — is based on the “rootlessness” he experienced throughout his life, after having to flee from the Nazis. It also offers an introduction to his eclectic, but somehow all-connected publications.
Books I read in 2021 §
Without going into too many individual theories, this book offers a nice introduction to how sociologists think about culture and the roles within it: it helps narrow the infinite possibilities of actions humans have to enable us to live our lives without becoming paralyzed by the number of choices we’d have to make.
It also explains the idea of the social construction of reality and rebuts some of the typical objections — I think it is easier to think about this when you take writing as an example: Writing is obviously a human invention (it is constructed) but it none the less real — written language has an enormous effect on all of our lives and pretending it does not exist does not make it go away. Lastly, it is social: because it is constructed it can be changed, but to change it a consensus between a significant part of its users needs to emerge. You alone cannot decide to invent a new letter and start using it, unless you convince others to use the letter too. The same thoughts can be applied to more things than seem obvious “Things that people imagine, provided they are imagined by large enough numbers of people, can have an enduring and even oppressive reality indistinguishable from the objective world.” [p. 26] — which means that most of what we consider to be reality can be changed (“designed”). This realization is at the same time liberating and frightening.
The book also offers a nice overview of how the world became “modern” from a sociological perspective. I enjoy thinking about this topic, because the traces of the social world before it started becoming functionally differentiated are still all around us, something I talked about last year when I thought about the history and shifting social role of porcelain. It is helpful to recognize and question them.
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 19 §
Usually, I enjoy the shorter articles a bit more than the longer essays in “Pop”, but this time it was the two essays that were the most interesting reads. One was about the 20th-century conductor Herbert von Karajan and the way his style relates to post-war Germany. It included a particularly insightful review of current literature on the role of classical music in Nazi Germany, which I knew little about. The second essay discussed the complex practice of quotation in Lana del Rey’s Œuvre.
Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World §
I have always been fascinated by the “built world” — that’s the reason I became a designer in the first place. I wanted to understand how things that are seemingly consummate and neat are created. Things that don’t even seem to have been “made”, that have nothing of the unevenness or slight deformities that anything hand-made has. (I don’t just mean that in the sense of physical things, but also metaphorically. For example, I became fascinated with the processes of professional movie-making as a teenager for this reason.) A question I often thought about was: How does precision get started? How do you make the first step on which all others are built, when you find yourself in this irregular world? That’s why I enjoyed the first few chapters of this book the most, which seek to answer this question.
It turns out there are two things that are most important to get started with precision: A perfectly flat surface plate, from which all things are measured, and the most consistent screws you can make, which are used for measuring.
To create a perfectly flat surface plate you take three approximately flat surfaces, and rub them together in pairs, with engineer’s blue in between them, which shows you the high points, that you can then correct. By continuously comparing three plates, instead of just two, to each other, you can make sure that no two of them seem perfectly flat but aren’t because they just cancel out each other’s high points. Surprisingly, the most precise tool to correct the high points is a hand scraper.
To create a consistent screw, you need a screw-cutting lathe. The more precise the lead screw of the lathe, the more precise screws you can cut. So you start by manually creating the best screw you can, then measure it and correct is as best as is possible. You then take the most precise turns that this screw has and use them again and again, to create a new screw (which is now as precise in its entire length as the most precise part of your first screw was). You then repeat this process over and over, each screw becoming more precise than the one before.
The chapters of the book that describe the breakthroughs that enabled the industrial revolution follow the lives of John Wilkinson, Joseph Bramah, Henry Maudslay and Joseph Whitworth, who all made significant contributions to these innovations. They all had a great impact on the development of machine tools. The book also drives home the point of how revolutionary the idea of interchangeable parts really was. It feels so obvious and even natural today, but it was anything but that, and extremely hard to achieve.
Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy (1919 – 1929) My favorite book of the year §
Part shared biography, part introduction to their major works and ways of thinking this book is able to capture the Zeitgeist of the decade after the First World War (and the lead-up to the accession to power of the Nazis) by closely following the lives of these four German-language philosophers: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger. Each wrote breakthrough works in continental philosophy. Eilenberger is an amazing writer and is able to work out the unities and parallels in their respective approaches as well as the differences between their stances. I particularly enjoyed learning their differing perspectives regarding the role that language and symbols play in human cognition and culture.
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 18 §
Once again I fell a bit behind with reading “Pop”, as this issue of the magazine came out in spring. I was taken by surprise when several of the articles discussed the attack on the Capitol as a current event — was it really January 6th this year? It feels like it was ages ago, which can be either a good sign (restitution of decency in American politics) or a bad one (hush-up of a failed coup). Other than that most of the articles were nice to read, but didn’t stay in my mind for long. One made me reconsider how I think about the use of Autotune as a stylistic device: After more than two decades it might be time to stop thinking about it as a fad and consider that it may establish itself as a separate entity in music, much like distorted electric guitars are more than an effect. They didn’t replace acoustic guitars but became a separate, new instrument that is just as legitimate.
I enjoyed the longer essay that analyzed how the much-discussed documentary “The Social Dilemma” makes use of the same methods it critiques: liberally blending scientifically proven facts, “common-sense”, whistleblower testimonials (where the whistleblowers only stand to profit from speaking out), lone-hero narratives and fictional storylines, and thereby stretching the definition of “documentary”. Don’t get me wrong — seriously analyzing and critiquing the impact social media has on our behavior and society is incredibly important, but manipulating people into believing your point may not be the best way to do it.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat §
As might be obvious from this list of books I read, one of my favorite genres of non-fiction is books is “journalist does deep dive on a topic and writes book filled with fun facts about it”. “Consider the Fork” is such a book, filled with very interesting facts and stories about the technology of cooking and eating. Wilson looks at the historical development of pots and pans, knives, eating instruments, heating devices, measuring, food preservation, and so on. I enjoyed the book because sits right in the middle between food and design — two of my passions!
This is the most mind-blowing fun fact I learned: It was long thought that the human overbite (having your top teeth in front of your bottom teeth) developed around the widespread adoption of agriculture and the change of the human died towards grains thousands of years ago. But when Charles Loring Brace created a database of human teeth throughout history he noticed that the overbite only began to appear in Europe only in the late 18th century, starting with ‘high-status individuals’, then spreading to common people. Around this time there was no significant change in diet — but in table manners: This is the time when table knives became common, and people started using knives and forks to eat, rather than just biting off large chunks of food. Isn’t it incredible to think that this aspect of our anatomy which we take for granted changed so significantly only around 200 years ago? The theory has its critics of course, but it became much more likely when Brace started to add teeth marks from skeletons from China to his database and noticed that there, the change happened about 1000 years earlier — around the time when eating with chopsticks became common! Wilson writes:
We generally think that our bodies are fundamental and unchanging, whereas such things as table manners are superficial: we might change our manners from time to time, but we can’t be changed by them. Brace turned this on its head. Our supposedly normal and natural overbite — this seemingly basic aspect of modern human anatomy — is actually a product of how we behave at the table.Wilson, 2012: “Consider the Fork”, p. 67
What Artists Wear §
“What Artists Wear” is a fun and light read and it was the perfect book for my vacation! Charlie Porter explores the role of clothing as a signifier and dives into its aesthetic, cultural and social meaning. I especially enjoyed the more general sections on tailoring, workwear, and denim, which dive into their historic development and how they got their contemporary roles. Porter has a particularly keen eye for the power structures represented by clothing and how artists try to break them. On the downside there are some sections where this bool feels a bit like a listicle, where Porter searched for “Artists wearing Denim” and just goes through each example he could find, writing a couple of sentences about each one and maybe adding an artist’s commentary sent in via email. But overall it is a nice read with an interesting perspective on artists from the past century and contemporary ones.
Measure and Construction of the Japanese House §
“Measure and Construction of the Japanese House” is an excerpt from Heino Engel’s much more extensive book “The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture”, which is out of print and only available at outrageous prices. “Measure and Construction” — which was just republished and is widely available — contains the two most interesting chapters on the design methods and structural construction of traditional Japanese houses. It is a fascinating read and I wrote about my favorite facts in this article. I published it a while ago after reading some parts of the book, but have now completed it after finishing the book.
Having read a few books by David Graeber, his 2015 publication “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy” has remained my favorite, particularly because it is a quick and easy read — it consists of three essays of medium length and it is written in a very colloquial style. I have written a note with my favorite observations from the first essay: Book Report: David Graeber — The Utopia of Rules.
Walter Gropius §
I’m most familiar with Gropius as an educator and with his role in the Bauhaus, and of course with a few often-cited examples of his work — the great Bauhaus building obviously, the Fagus Factory, the Masters’ Houses in Dessau. I really wanted to learn more about his work as an architect and this book was a great introduction. My favorite house of his was actually a very special one: it’s the residence he built for himself in Massachusetts in 1938. It is a break from his otherwise so formalistic and rigid buildings and seems much more human. He switched the building material and used wood-frame construction and redwood boards (painted white), typical for the region.
What stuck in my mind were the ubiquitous descriptions of functional deficiencies in many of Gropius’ buildings: Leaky roofs, bad insulation, insufficient heating, and mold. This is by no means exceptional for the buildings of a modernist architect: The most infamous example is Le Corbusier’s renowned “Villa Savoy”, which was so uncomfortable, leaky and damp that its owners didn’t want to spend their time there. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” is also moldy and crumbling The owner called it “a seven-bucket building” due to its leaks, and nicknamed it “Rising Mildew”.. And I have quoted criticism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s “Farnsworth House” before — the owner even sued him. I would love to better understand how much of this was just due to the general standards of building at the time, how much was due to budget constraints, and how much was actually to problems in their designs — it is a heated debate and both defenders and critics of modernist architecture seem to jump to conclusions rather quickly.
Louis I. Kahn §
First of all, I have to reiterate my love for Taschen’s Basic Art Series. I doubt there are any other books in this price range (about 12€ right now) with these production values. Not only is the typography of the highest quality, but there is also a considerable amount of amazing details carried throughout the entire series: the architect’s signature on the half-title, a sketch above the imprint, and in the back of the book a tabular timeline of the architect’s life and a map showing the location of all the project’s mentioned in the book. All this frames the core of the book, which always consists of a general introduction to the architect’s life, which is a couple of pages long, followed by about 15 projects discussed in more detail. For each project, there are photographs, plans, and sketches, along with a well-writer text discussing the project’s specifics and its role in the architect’s œuvre.
No architect can rebuild a cathedral of another epoch embodying the desires, the aspirations, the love and hate of the people whose heritage it became. Therefore the images we have before us of monumental structures of the past cannot live again with the same intensity and meaning. Their faithful duplication is unreconcilable. But we dare not discard the lessons these buildings teach for they have the common characteristics of greatness upon which the buildings of our future must, in one sense or another, rely.Louis I. Kahn on Monumentality
Before reading the book the only thing I knew about Kahn, other than having seen pictures of a few of his buildings, was that he was one of the few modern architects that came away favorably in Robert Venturi’s “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”. What I found particularly interesting about him is that it wasn’t until he was in his fifties that he started to produce work of great impact. While I am somewhat indifferent about his practice of cutting out geometrical shapes to give rhythm to facades and can not quite get myself excited by his love for repetition, it is his masterful use of materials that amazes me the most. The way the textures of brick, Béton brut, and wood are put either into the sole focus or combined in a careful manner is astonishing. This sensitivity is what gives him the ability to move beyond the International Style and transcend classic modernism without falling into the frivolity of Venturi’s postmodernism.
His monumental buildings in India and Pakistan also speak to me much more than Le Corbusier’s work in India and show how he was better adept at solving problems of scale.
I first remember reading about Roland Barthes in the Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism I read a few years back. Since then, I stumbled upon his name a lot in various books and magazines I read, so I wanted to take a closer look at his work. Barthes is a man of fragments, both in his philosophy and in his interests. Culler succeeds in giving a general overview of his ideas by dedicating a chapter to each of his many preoccupations. I was particularly interested in Barthes’ more accessible work as a mythologist For Barthes, a myth is a delusion to be exposed. That which “goes without saying”, the ideological implications of what seems, or is supposed to seem, natural should be deconstructed and analyzed., semiologist, and structuralist, but his work as a literary historian, critic, and writer did not fully open up for me.
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary §
If you have ever been asked to write a concise definition for, well, anything really, you know what a marvelously tricky task that is. Now imagine having to do it hundreds of thousands of times. Simon Winchester chronicles in vivid detail the 70-year process of creating the Oxford English Dictionary and the achievements of the many people who spent plenty of their lives working on it.
Two thoughts stuck with me in particular: First, the incredible magnitude of the task, particularly when looking at the lack of communication technology at the time. With volunteers sending in what must have been millions of paper slips with quotations, the mere task of organizing them and finding duplicates is mindblowing. And that would have been only the beginning of a long process. The people who worked on it did it despite what must have seemed like Sisyphean tasks and painfully slow progress because they truly believed in the greater value of what they were doing. I previously linked to James Somers’ article in which he praises an old edition of Webster’s dictionary for its vivid and idiosyncratic definitions. The strict methodology of the OED is the reason why modern dictionaries aren’t like that. Its rigor and sobriety, grounded in the sense of duty felt by the editors, have changed what we expect from a dictionary. Their determination is admirable.
Second, the obviousness with which we consult dictionaries nowadays. It’s one of these “technologies” whose value seems so self-evident in hindsight that it’s hard to imagine how long it took for someone to consider writing one. It’s overawing to look around once in a while and consider how many things of this kind are around us every day, to consider the intellectual breakthroughs we take for granted. It’s almost scary how quickly humans get used to novelties and adjust to a new environment.
Dinge und Undinge: Phänomenologische Skizzen §
I always enjoy reading Vilém Flusser’s essays because you can feel how much fun he had writing them. He plays with language and etymology, taking common words and giving them a new meaning, either by using them in a different context or by relating them to words with the same root word. This is reminiscent of Heidegger’s terminology, and I feel like this probably makes it very difficult to read his writing in a language other than German.
In this collection of essays, Flusser starts each one by observing a mundane object (wine bottles, streetlights, carpets, etc.) and then develops a far-reaching theory about the nature of perception, culture, and the human condition in general. He follows a train of thought, implying but ignoring side paths, sometimes jumping over a couple of argumentative steps as if he wants to probe what you let him get away with, often ending with a somewhat outrageous thesis. While reading his essays, I can’t help but imagine him sitting at his desk with a mischievous smile. In the afterword to a different book of his, he is quoted as reacting to critics accusing him of trying to provoke with audacious theories by saying: “Everything that I say sounds like a philosophical thesis, but like one that is not too well supported. That’s because people never detect the irony behind the statements. I don’t take myself completely seriously, and I also don’t take the problems completely seriously. I intend to provoke, in the true sense of the word — to call forth.”
This is my favorite section in the book, taken from the essay on (empty) wine bottles An English version can be found here, page 113. But, as typical for Flusser, it is not really a translation but a similar essay in another language.:
Kultur ist ein Prozeß, welcher, ganz wie im Metabolismusmodell, negativ entropisch Natur informiert und verwertet, also durch Erzeugung in Produkt verwandelt. Ein Teil dieses Produktes wird, ganz wie im Metabolismusmodell, verbraucht, desinformiert, entwertet und der Natur zurückgegeben. _Ein anderer Teil aber wird, im Gegensatz zum Metabolismusmodell, nicht verbraucht, sondern zerbrochen, und dieser zerbrochene Teil wird verdrängt und in den Müll geworfen. So daß die Kultur ein Prozeß ist, der kumulativ Natur in Müll verwandelt. “Culture is a process which changes nature into garbage.” […] Manche Produkte bilden Müll, weil sie übermenschlich sind, im Sinn von: für uns unverdaulich, und bleiben im Müll als Zeugnisse davon, daß der Mensch im Erzeugen weniger begrenzt ist als im Verbrauchen. Andere wieder bilden Müll, weil sie antinatürlich sind, im Sinn von: für die Natur unverdaulich, und bleiben im Müll als Zeugnisse davon, daß der Mensch fähig ist, Antinatur zu schaffen. […] Das eben charakterisiert den Müll, daß er weder Wert noch Form hat, wie die Kultur, noch auch wertlos und formlos ist, wie die Natur, welche mindestens in der Tendenz zum Formlosen hinzielt, sondern daß er entwertet und deformiert ist. […] Diese Entwertung und Deformation der Flaschen als Scherben zeigt deutlich, was ‘Verbrauchen’ bedeutet: nämlich den Kulturaspekt am Produkt abnützen, ohne dabei das Produkt als Produkt vernichtet zu haben. […] Natur ist nicht, wie sie sein soll, Kultur ist, wie sie sein soll, Müll ist, wie er nicht sein soll. “Nature is not as it ought to be, culture is as it ought to be, and garbage is as it ought not to be.”Flusser, 1993: “Dinge und Undinge”, p. 22 – 23
032c #38 §
032c is a contemporary culture magazine that covers art, fashion, and politics. Even though I’d heard a lot about it, this was the first issue of the magazine I read. It was a good one to start because it’s the 20-year-anniversary issue, with an interesting recap of the magazine’s history, written by New Models, my favorite aggregator and one of my favorite podcasts.
My other favorite article in the issue was an interview with David Hockney about the number of cigarettes he smokes (many), how much his artworks are worth, and how little he cares. I was also fascinated by an interview with Urs Kienberger, hotelier of “Waldhaus Sils”, a family-owned Swiss hotel, which is famous for having counted Theodor Adorno, Albert Einstein, Joseph Beuys, Max Liebermann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Richter, and other famous artists and writers amongst its regulars.
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 17 §
“Pop: Kultur und Kritik” is one of my favorite magazines. It is published twice a year and, unfortunately, is German-language only. It is a cultural studies journal, publishing shorter comments, reflections, and analyses, and a few more extended essays on current matters of popular culture. I enjoy it because it is an earnest and academic look at topics that are not often treated with such intellectual rigor, such as TikTok, the latest TV shows, Instagram trends, and emerging micro-genres of music.
I was a bit behind reading this issue — it was published in October 2020, and all texts were written in May and July 2020. In this issue, my favorite notes and essays were Thomas Reinhardt’s “Max Weber und der Thermomix”, about the relationship between step-by-step fail-safe cooking instructions and protestant work ethics; Wolfgang Ullrich’s “Kunst für alle – die Vermittlerrolle des Museums” about the conflicting and ever-shifting role of art museums as a mediator (of what to whom?); and Thomas Hecken’s “Pandemie und Exekutive im Fernsehen”, where the author recaps the coverage on Covid-19 in German talk shows throughout the first half of 2020 (based on notes taken through the months). Having read about Covid-19 everywhere for about a year now, I expected to be bored by this last essay. Instead, it was rather interesting to reflect on how this pandemic unfolded because it seems so ubiquitous and self-evident now.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities §
Jane Jacobs’ 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a heartfelt but outstandingly rational defense of cities — written by someone who sincerely loves them — against megalomaniac designers clinging to utopian visions of cities that are aesthetically clean, yet bear no resemblance to what actually makes cities attractive in real life. She urges the urban planners of her time to acknowledge cities as complex systems and abuses them of the notion that their simplistic, patronizing schemes have any chance at improving urban life.
apartamento: an everyday life interiors magazine. issue #25 §
apartamento is an interiors magazine focused on depicting the homes of interesting people as they are, rather than the clean, impersonal pictures we are used to seeing on design blogs, Pinterest and Instagram.
My favorite interviews in this issue were with Carlos Matos and Lucas Cantú, founders of Mexican art and architecture studio “Tezontle”, artist and sculptor Thaddeus Mosley and Gabrio Bini, pioneer of natural wine.
Books I read in 2020 §
Richard Neutra §
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 16 §
Computers as Theatre §
Facebook: The Inside Story §
Le Corbusier §
Constructing the User Interface with Statecharts §
The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids §
Future Ethics My favorite book of the year §
Bowles talks about several “moral frameworks”:
Folk ethics (P. 48)
- “Everyone does it” — known as “is-ought-fallacy” (by David Hume): trying to derive what we ought to do from the ways the world currently is is a theoretical error.
- Golden rule: “Do as you would like to be done by” — Is egocentric, ignores context.
- Platinum rule: “Treat others how they would like to be treated” — We can’t know that.
Deontological ethics (p. 52)
- Deontologists believe ethics is governed by rules and principles and that we have a moral duty to adhere to these rules: Focus on duty.
- Kant: Universalize – Would the behavior be acceptable as a universal law of behavior?
- Does it treat people as ends or as means?
- The Veil of Ignorance (John Rawls): Society is best structured if the architects don’t know the place they will have in it (p. 56).
Utilitarianism (p. 74)
- Which option created the greater good: Focus on the outcome.
- Greater good is often seen as meaning “more happiness”.
- Preference utilitarianism holds that the best action is the one that leads to the most overall preference satisfaction.
Virtue Ethics (p. 125)
- Demonstrate positive virtues in all our choices: Focus on overall moral character.
- “Front-page test”: Would I be happy for my decision to appear on the front page news?
- Are the virtues the decision represents virtues that I want to represent?
- What would someone infer about our character, when hearing about the decision?
Magic as a Metaphor for Technology
Magic is a seductive metaphor for technology: designers are so eager to delight the customer and minimize user effort, it’s tempting to conclude technology should work almost super-naturally. But magic is about withholding information, concealing the mechanisms of a trick. The idea that technology should be magical dissuades people from investigating how it works; in the information vacuum that results, people can’t make informed decisions.Bowles, 2021: “Future Ethics”, P. 81
Gestaltung denken: Grundlagentexte zu Design und Architektur §
A phenomenal collection of the most important essays on design, by authors such as Otl Aicher, Peter Behrens, Max Bill, Gui Bonsiepe, Adrian Frutiger, Walter Gropius, Raymond Loewy, Adolf Loos, Thomas Maldonado, Dieter Rams, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Theodor W. Adorno, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Vilém Flusser, Jürgen Habermas, Bruno Latour, Marshall McLuhan, Horst H. W. Rittel, Peter Sloterdijk, Martin Warnke, and others. As you might have noticed with this list, my biggest criticism is that among 40 authors there is only one woman: Denise Scott Brown, credited in second place after Robert Venturi.
Marcel Breuer §
Pierre Koenig §
Muster: Theorie der digitalen Gesellschaft §
apartamento: an everyday life interiors magazine. issue #24 §
In bester Gesellschaft: Geschichten über den Rausch §
A collection of short stories, including ones by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Roth, Roald Dahl, Amélie Nothomb and others.
Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy §
But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Was the Past §
[Reread, first read in 2016] I do have to admit that I like the premise of the book much more than the book itself, which is a bit digressive and doesn’t have the philosophical depth that would be appropriate for the subject.
Ways of Curating §
Written in Bone §
Jeder Hier Nennt Mich Frau Bauhaus: Das Leben der Ise Frank §
A fictionalized biography of Ise Gropius, née Frank.
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth §
Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything §
Josef Hoffmann §
David Chipperfield §
The Chemistry of Death §
Charles Rennie Mackintosh §
Books I read in 2019 §
Military Strategy §
I read this book in an attempt to fulfill what Alan Kay calls a learning tax: “a decent percentage of one’s learning should be in areas other than the ones you are most interested in.”
Pop: Kultur und Kritik. Heft 15 §
Hello, My Name is Awesome: How to Create Brand Names that Stick §
Notes on the Synthesis of Form §
Talking to Strangers §
Ruined by Design §
The Philosophy of Design §
The Dream Machine My favorite book of the year §
Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet §
I read this side-by-side with “The Dream Machine” — at times, the books describe the same events, but from vastly different perspectives.