Le Corbusier: A Life

The Corbusier in Nicholas Fox Weber’s Le Corbusier: A Life reminds of the Picasso of the first volume of John Richardson’s biography (A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906); Weber’s picture of the young Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the future Le Corbusier, is a little shocking.

Jeanneret is given to wild fluctuations of mood, proclaiming that his brick factory was on the cusp of making him millions, and then weeks later falling down a dark pit of despair; violently cursing Vienna and all things Viennese on one trip, and praising it to the stars on the next. But he knew this aspect of his character, and he sought to regulate himself, and his life, through his environment. In his youthful travels from his native Switzerland, the burgeoning architect was deeply affected by some unlikely buildings—the Carterhouse in the valley of Ema, outside of Florence, and the churches on Mount Athos, in Greece—and it’s this love that makes many things clear. Why the bare, white walls, the empty spaces dotted with isolated chairs? Why are there no couches? These are his gestures towards those monastic buildings, whose emptiness was therapeutic to him, and sacred. And the very occasional vases of flowers or bold, colourful paintings in Le Corbusier’s environments are the moments when the heights, but not the depths, of his enthusiasms were allowed to peek through.

First appeared on thewalrus.ca. Edited by Emily Keeler.

The Marvelous Clouds

My awesome wife gave me John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds for Christmas, after seeing that a number of her colleagues at school were busy forming reading groups on the listserv to discuss it. Peters takes the tools of media studies (drawing from Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan) and uses them to think about our relationships with three of the four classical elements: water, fire, and air, are compared to our writing, our language, and our gestures. Our bodies serve as “earth.”

By the second chapter, the book becomes a random roll in Smaug’s treasure hoard, more a bag than a string of pearls. What he says of McLuhan—“He had an outstanding library at his disposal and he read it well”—applies to Peters, too: in a single paragraph from his chapter on fire, Peters observes that many inks are produced from burning (hence the Latin encaustum); that “Moses’s burning bush could be a metaphor for the sacred text, kept aflame by reading but never consumed”; that one still has to swear an oath not to “kindle fire or flame” in Oxford’s Bodleian library to get a readers’ card there; and that Amazon’s Kindle and Kindle Fire might imply “mischief towards books as we know them.” This mixture of declarative statements have been composed with care, and the facts sorted carefully. I wonder if this diffuse approach, where the world is revealed by the slow accretion of detail, was the effect that Walter Benjamin was after as he shuffled and reshuffled the cards of his Arcades Project.

Originally published on thewalrus.ca. Edited by Emily Keeler.

Spooky Action at a Distance

Much has been written about the puzzling phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where one particle can influence another instantaneously, an effect present whether they are separated by a few metres or the whole of the universe. Once thought of as a theoretical oddity, it now seems to be used in processes as basic as photosynthesis. Albert Einstein famously referred to entanglement as “spooky action at a distance,” and it, along with a number of other phenomena, violate the supposedly local nature of space. Something that happens here and there at the same instant, and in the same way, implies that those two positions are linked, or indeed are the same.

Although it seems foundational to our existence, George Musser argues in, yes, Spooky Action at a Distance that the idea of space was invented by the Greek philosopher Democritus, the figure who, in the fifth century BCE, presciently proposed the idea of atoms. Space, and specifically locality, or action happening because things bumped into other things, led from this. But if space doesn’t exist, what does? After four chapters of disassembling local action, Musser presents a number of mind-bending ideas, such as the idea that the apparent distance of things is only a matter of scale: the things that we can see are actually within our grasp, but we lack the necessary dexterity to touch or hold them.

A number of interesting hypotheses have been proposed to build space up from first principles, and also explain wormholes, black holes, and entanglement. The late American physicist John Archibald Wheeler proposed that the effects of space could be made from a “bucket of dust,” the motes of which became the string theorists’ D0-branes. The Polish priest Michal Heller proposed a top-down approach where a single algebraic equation determines the cosmos, and it’s imperfections account for singularities. It should be noted that none of these new models, as lovely as they are, have been proven.

Originally published on thewalrus.ca. Edited by Emily Keeler.