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Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1825), a French architect of fabulously distanced sight, produced this breathtaking image in 1792. The Tomb of Lars Porsena, King of Etruria (the great Etruscan king, d. ca. 500 BCE ), is just one of hundreds of works by Lequeu, a re-discovered architectural genius who worked during the same era as other visionary architects such as Etienne Boullee (1728-1799), Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1803), Francois Barbier (1768-1826), Charles Bernard (1765-1818), Francois-Joseph Belanger (1747-1818), and others, though these guys are the most famous. As a matter of fact, I think, almost all of these architects were re-discovered—Boullee, perhaps the most famous of the lot, was found again not in his buildings but in his visionary drawings that he deposited with the National Library. But Lequeu—found again in the same way–it seems had to be rescued from an even greater obscurity than the others. He tried to expose a unity that he saw in the world, some secret sort of unity, that he saw all around him, and which was unseen by everyone else in creation—at least until the 20th century.

Lequeu started out in a staid and brilliant way, a successful architect in his own right, and student of Scoufflot, designing ancient-inspiration buildings for the super rich. But along came the Revolution and away went his career—he wound up a surveyor and a cartographer until his retirement in 1815, after which he enters social and historical oblivion, until he finally dies in total obscurity ten years later (or so, the date is unclear). His post-revolutionary vision was as phenomenal as his success in selling his ideas were dismal. Well, this is really a cheap shot—his imagination was shockingly large, enormous, his designs fantastic and beautiful, and completely unexpected, and they seemed to grow larger/loftier and more interesting as time wore away at him.

I think that as Lequeu was cleaved away, cell by cell falling through the floorboards of his single rented room, he reached further into time and deeper into space than almost any architect of that hundred-year period. I also think that he was very well aware of his genius being seen as pure eccentricity—his dozen or so self portraits are among the most bizarre that I’ve ever seen (before 1900).


The odd thing in all of this is that in this brilliance there is still a reluctance to leave the Baroque, and this at a time when just about everyone else—beginning around 1750—was abandoning it. So much of the work of the other visionaries mentioned earlier freed themselves of the Baroque—not entirely true, not true at all, for the unique creations of Lequeu, who (as in the Tomb of Lars Porsena) included more than a few bits of the practice even in his most incredible works.

Somehow Lequeu saw the Lars Porsena tomb as a 650-foot tall (!!) structure, with impossible insight and filigree. Extraordinary. (In the upper corners of the drawing of the tomb Lequeu included a design for a coin and also the plan of the structure. The original tomb of Lars Porsena, according to Pliny the elder in his Natural History, XXXVI, 19, 91ff, was a 15 meter high rectangular base with 90 meter sides–completely destroyed in the wars in the first century.

Perhaps his most sensational creation (and one which was devoid of all Baroque influence, as it turns out) was his Meeting Place at Bellevue. It is almost impossible to believe that it is am 18th century creation—it is as harmonious ( armonia) as it is asymmetrical. It looks deeply 20th century, and looked as far into the future as it was deeply unknown.

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1960

I was shocked to investigate this seemingly magically-produced engraving under magnification–it was a small piece of inset work used to illustrate an idea within a much larger overall engraving. The detail is about a 5% cropping of the full image:

Square detail982

It is a subset of this detail:

Square detail981
Which in turn is a detail from this beautiful work which is itself a four-by-four inch detail in a larger engraving, the footprint of an elevation of the Sepolcro di Caio Cestio, which was printed in 1840.

Square 983

The craftsman who produced this engraving incised 250 lines on one side of this 4-inch-square, then proceeded to incise another 250 lines on the other–or so. This means that there are something on the order of 62,000 (or thereabouts) squares produced by the draftsman in order to make a mostly-black background for the image.

The plan is for the pyramidal tomb of Caius Cestius who was a monied Roman who demanded that for the disbursement of his will to be complete had to have this tombstone built to himself in a prescribed period of time–mostly very quickly. The result has been captured by Piranessi and others–a very sharp-pointed pyramid about 130′ at its base and 145′ tall. When finished the builders incised their victory and documented it on the side of the pyramid so:

Opus absolutum ex testamento diebus CCCXXX, arbitratu (L.) Ponti P. f. Cla (udia tribu), Melae heredis et Pothi l(iberti). (“The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by
the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman”.)

All I really wanted to comment on here though is the craftsmanship of producing this finely-lined and remarkable detail

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post in the History of Holes series

While looking through D. Guilmard's La Connaissance des Styles de l'Ornementation (published around 1860)–a work that is a sort of early clip-art assembly of aspects of bits and details of historical ornamentation from the Gothic to Louis XVI– I found several engravings of mirrors with some unusual detail. For some reason the Renaissance mirrors nearly all had a small white dot–a hole–in the center of their jet-black mirror surface. I imagine that this was a simple printing error, but I liked the idea of this spec of a mistake right in the middle of a dark field, in effect making a hole in the mirror, looking something like a light leak. It makes for an intriguing series of images.

Mirror a

Mirror b

Mirror c


Which is a detail (about 2×2 inches in life) from the full sheet, below

Mirror e938

JF Ptak Science Books Extending Post 1470
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A while ago I wrote a post on Herman Soergel's plan for extending the landmass of the countries around the Mediterranean Sea by damming the straits of Gibraltar, lowering the sea and irrigating the Sahara–an original, interesting but not very good idea, filled with briney cultivation and racial politics. In the past on this blog I've written about other city plans–and in particular, for New York City–that have involved floating Manhattan into the harbor, or filling up large chunks of the Narrows, or floating the city on an enormous anti-gravity platform, and so on. Some of those plans were real, some science fiction, and some were plainly beyond both. The plan presented above is another monster, but at least this one could work, if not for the doing of it, and the expense. And the will.

NYC Really Big
But the bottom line, according to the engineer doing the thinking on this project, Kennard Thomson, would supposedly net the city a cool billion dollars after everything was said and done, and that would be 1916 dollars–that was equal to about 5% of the American GDP (!) in 1916, which would be about $400 billion in terms of 2010 GDP. I'm not sure how Thomson came up with this very big/very round number, though it must have been done for effect–I can just imagine him standing before a smokey room filled with civil engineers talking about his massive plan for enlarging NYC and throwing out the billion-dollar figure, watching the cigars glow red in exhaled disbelief.

NYC really big
[Source: Popular Science, 1916.]

Thomson did know what he was talking about–he was a busy (and "leading" according to the NYT) Manhattan civil engineer of stature, working on the Canal Barge and being the principal engineer for the Municipal and Singer buildings, for example–and his project seems to be well within the scope of possibility. Their sensical aspects however are, well, questionable.

Here's the story–around 1911, while examining proposals to repair and extend New York's wharves, Thomson came upon the idea–a magnificent, fabulous idea–of adding new wharves by adding new lands to the city. In short, the overall plan was to fill in the East River (!!) and reclaim the new land for city living, dam Hell Gate, construct a New East River (from Flushing to Jamaica Bay), extend the tip of Manhattan Island from the Battery to within a quarter-mile of Staten Island (!), create a new 40-square-mile island between Sandy Hook and Staten Island, extend the Jersey shoreline, add two new Manhattan-sized appendages to the east shore of Staten Island, and more. All of this would be connected by various new bridges and roads and tunnels, as well as a 6-track elevated railway that would circumnavigate the city. The purpose of all of this would be to add 100 miles of new docks, an enormous amount ("50 square miles of reclaimed land") of new land and the capacity for NYC to house 20+ million people, all of which would be worth a billion dollars.

Thomson really meant "really" in the title for the proposal. There have been reclamation projects undertaken in New York Bay since then of course, and I think that virtually all of what Thomson talked about could be done. I think it would be a very interesting project for a class of some sort to undertake an estimation of what such a thing would cost today (and I would guess to duplicate the idea in real terms now would take up a sizable chunk of the GDP). Maybe all of this will make sense at some more future point.

And along this line of thinking I include a very interesting drawing made by architect Lebbeus Woods, showing the bedrock part of Manhattan. He empties the East River and damns (?) the Hudson, and also builds some new port extending from Staten Island or out from Jersey…but the effect of the dry river bed between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Andthen some–he empties the river, and then deepens/excavates, heightening the depths (?!) of Manhattan Canyon. The depth of the river where we can see it in the drawing is maybe 100 feet, and certainly (judging the depth against the heights of the structures in the lower island) the canyon is deeper than that–maybe an order of magnitude deeper.

NYC woods
[Source: Lebbeus Woods, here.]


–A good read on Thomson and Woods can be found here, at Telemachus Untitled.

–A contemporary NY Times article on the Plan can be seen here and another (with illustrations) from 1913 here ("Plan to Fill in East River to Solve Port Problems").

–Another treatment of the whole idea can be seen at Frank Jacob's great Strange Maps blog, here.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
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The following example of Great Obviousness comes from one of the great masters of perspective on the Continent, Jan Vredeman de Vries, (architect, engineer and man with a vision), and appear in his work Variae Architecturae Formae, and published in 1601. (The whole of the book is available at the Internet Archive, here.)

It would be interesting to know the history of this tree and its obvious salvation–it doesn't seem to be older than the street or the buildings, yet, there it is, a tree the diameter of an adult waist in the middle of a very populated street


Below you can see the detail of the man at the middle right–he is absolutely pointing to teh tree, perhaps sharing his amazement with the man and child coming down the street. The pointer had been seated, probably, on the bench behind the bar that was in front of the bar/saloon/draughthouse that he was probably inside of, perhaps enjoying a pint of five, perhaps making the tree even more amusing than it was. (The tilted stein is clearly visible advertising a place for thirsts to stop.) The child is reacting to something, and even so the dogs–the second of which seems to be stopped mid-stride in amazement.

Obviousness detail

Another exzmple of the unexpected tree comes later in the same book, when we see one tree in th emiddle of a plan garden and the other growing on top of what might be an herbarium. (On closer inspection the figure at lower right is a woman collectig some water in a jug; without magnification the seen looks a little more sinister than it is.)Obviousness 2

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1937

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I am hardly an historian of the theatre (and having said that will give me a chance to make some mistakes in what I am about to say) but so many of the stage designs of Giacomo Torelli look to be concentrated at an infinite horizon that I wanted to collect a few of them in one place. Torelli (1608-1678) was an artist and artistic-technician who brought engineering skills to the stage, and was evidently a much-sought-after designer, given his very special

Theatre perspective-Torelli

[Image source: WIki, here.] Set design for Act 5 of Pierre Corneille's Andromède as first performed on 1 February 1650 by the Troupe Royale at the Petit-Bourbon in Paris.]

I do have to say that the Torelli puts me in mind of the perspective king of 17th c Continental architecture, Vriedman de Vries (1527 – c. 1607) , especially with the columns (from his Architectura, 1633):

Vriedman de Vries[Source:]

talents and innovations. He was absolutely interested in one-point perspective and the techniques used to gather the audience's vision and suck it all into the low-center of the back of t he stage, giving the production a fabulous quality of depth and distance. (He also provided the ingenuity and gearwork for quick changes of massive scenery by one stagehand, working under the stage with pulleys and winches, hauling large elements on and off stage during a performance. His work can be seen in the iconic Encyclopedie of Denis Diderot in a section for "Machines du theatre" in 1772.)

The other thing that strikes me immediately with these images is their absolute usefulness in toy paper theatre. By making eight copies of the first image (above) and by cutting out each seven layers of columns (the opening space between the two sides becoming progressively smaller), and then the last and eight level of the mansion in the background and then standing them up and placing them all-in-a-row with an inch between them (accordion style), one could make a lovely 3-dimensional miniature stage. (Scene changes would be an entirely different matter.)

[Source: see note #1, below]

Torelli 2

[Source:, here.]

Torelli 3

[Source:, Operain Seventeenth Century Venice, the Creation of a Genre, by Ellen Rosand.]

Torelli 4

[Francesco Buti/Isaac de Benserade, "Les Noces de Pelée et de Thetis"; Source: Oesterreichisches Theatre Museum, here]


1. Bryan, Michael| (1889). Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical. Volume II : L-Z,
new edition, revised and enlarged, edited by Walter Armstrong &
Robert Edmund Graves. Covent Garden, London: George Bell and Sons

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

There seem to be few designs for Very Tall Buildings in the Renaissance that weren’t churches or towers–I mean, structures with storys, and ninth floors, and small glazes, and so on.

That is why this design for an eleven story building by the architect Jacques Perret de Chambery (in his book Architectura et perspectiva des fortifications et artifices, which was printed in Paris in 1601) bursts into the brain as being so remarkable.

Arch skyscraper880

Describing this building and quoting the bookseller site Martayan Lan, Inc. “One extraordinary pavilion would seem to have its
ultimate source in the fifteenth-century Temple of Virtue and Vice
designed by Filarete. It is eleven stories in height, with huge expanses
of glazed openings. Its site plan, the last plate in the publication,
is a beautiful ornamental geometrical design in the manner of du
Cerceau, composed of such elements as gardens, moats, and fortifications
that frame the square, towering pavilion.”

The “Temple/House of Virtue and Vice” referred to above is the work of Antonio di Pietro Averlino (c. 1400 – c. 1469), and also known as”Averulino”and “Filarete” (Greek for “lover of excellence”), a Florentine architect and designer, who produced real and imagined works, a highly-skilled thinker engineer, and who is also remembered for his contributions to the development of urbanism and ideal communities, seen here in his design for the city of Sforzinda, below:


(It is interesting to note that “sforzinda” is awfully close to “sforzado”, a musical term meaning “sudden” or “sharp”, which this design must have seemed to be, back there in the high Renaissance.) [Text and illustrations: Gallica .] The House of Virtue and Vice was a nine story building to be located in Sforzinda, a structure with the highest floors devoted to learning, and the lowest to a house of prostitution. Perhaps the floor placement was reversed.

JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 1921

This gorgeous, near-pre-Dadist image belongs to Niccola Zabaglia, who published the engraving in his book Castelli, e ponti di maestro Niccola Zabaglia con alcune ingegnose practice, e con la descriziojne del trasporto dell’obelsico Vaticano, e di altri del cav. Domenico Fontana, in Rome, in 1743. This is the literal and absolute height of pre-modern, pre-mechanized building construction in the soaring Roman Baroque, ordained by “maestro”, the master, Zabaglia (1664-1750), a spectacular (and necessary) proponent of practical mechanics as applied to the building trades. Among the “Castles” and churches and bridges alluded to in the title of his book, Zabaglia was responsible for affecting the maintenance and repair of St. Peter’s (more particularly to the basilica and the vault)—specifically, he had to figure out how to get the workmen and materials into place, and into very difficult and very high places, without damaging or destroying any of the existing decoration, artwork, sculpture, frescoes, and so on. This was no easy feat to perform back there in the dim, 265+ years-ago pre-electric pre-power past, with enormous technical and operational difficulties, and Zabaglia accomplished this was superior affect, devising complex and elegant moving and stationary scaffolds, hoisting and holding mechanisms for the ladders, and much else. He did just beautiful work, and he is a patron saint in the history of repair.

Ladders and scaffolds were important of course but were among the least of Zabaglia’s numerous accomplishments and inventions—they were so plentiful and useful that two Pope Benedicts ago (Pope Benedict the 14th) ordered their publication with actual teams of artists and engravers performing specific tasks.

It cannot be left unsaid that Zabaglia's portrait as the frontispiece to his work presents almost without a doubt the most approachable, humane and amused representations of a major engineer/artist/artisan published in almost any work of the 18th century–I mean, the man just looks so happy in his work. There he is, surrounded by the tools of his trade, in work clothing and a scruffy hat, and needing a shave, and just looking as pleased as can be. No?

ZabagliaBut to the ladders: the examples in the engraving above are certainly massive. The ladder in the middle I would say must be 70' tall (judging that it has 60-odd rungs and that there are 5 rungs to the men who are stabilizing it at bottom), and since they're made of a good hardwood (to prevent bowing that must occur in a lesser material), the things must've weighed a good amount. And offhand I'm not exactly sure how they raised them. I can't see the tops of the building, but I would assume that there was a pulley up there. I hope. In any event, the ladders and their found geometries are gorgeous things. Also, I would guess that in the very long histories of ladders (a ladder appears in a cave painting from 10,000 BCE and also appears in one of the very first photographic experiments) that these must've been among the high points in ladder construction.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

Evans polygons

How many polygons can you find?

"Walker Evans climbed to the roof of the Fisk Building on Central Park South to photograph the web of steel struts and electric signs that were rapidly filling the skies over Manhattan. The electric signs in this photograph alternately flashed the company's name and the names of its two principal products. As there were approximately a hundred million wheels rolling over America's roads in 1928, the sale of tires quickly overtook that of rubber galoshes. The image expresses Evans' conviction that modern art could be timeless yet topical when perfectly wrought of vernacular materials."–Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is one in a series of posts made on found geometries–here are a few others:

Found Alphabets and Geometry in Stone.(here)

Magritte-Like Disorienting Geometry in Found-Art Urban Design, 1925 (here)

Sierpinski Triangles & the Empire State Building (here)

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1890

This is an image of an engineered redemption, found in the mist of Placquemines Parish, Louisiana, in 1939. There is no doubt in my mind that the author, Mr. E. Riche, was done with running from whatever it was that was chasing him–printing his truth would no doubt cut it down. "I am wrong arrested" Mr. Riche says, and wants "help from the public eye".

Oh my g_d. If this isn't a Mr. Cash song, I don't know what is.

This is a photograph of fantastic humanity, of a person witnessing for themselves, stating their beleift, defending their honor, exploring the present, and staking a very visual land claim in reality. And then–with all that said, all of this person's dignity and belief displayed for everyone to see–the author lives in the sign he or she created. It is as though someone has engineered a three-dimensional public-philosophical house in which to live, and then actually lives there.

As a testament to a simple call to fairness and justice, this image is an extraordinary and powerful reminder to the power of spirit. For some reason I can feel this person's letter down to the cellular level.

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