Monday June 8, 2015

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When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors.
No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.

“Pastoral” by William Carlos Williams from The Collected Poems of W.C. Williams © New Directions, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, born in Richland Center, Wisconsin (1867). His life spanned an era full of dramatic changes: he was born two years after the Civil War ended, and died in 1959, a year and a half after the first Sputnik launch.

His first professional mentor was architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan coined the saying “form follows function,” and he believed that American architecture should have its own unique qualities and not simply try to replicate old European standards. Sullivan’s philosophy greatly influenced Wright, who took it one step further with his own theory that form and function should be one. His simple, clean designs inspired the Prairie School architects, and “Taliesin,” his Wisconsin home, was the perfect example of the Prairie Style. When it came to designing homes on commission, he always claimed that the clients’ wishes came first — but was plainly of the opinion that his clients didn’t really know what they wanted. “It’s their duty to understand, to appreciate, and conform insofar as possible to the idea of the house,” he once said.

Wright would often tell his students: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” His aim was to design buildings that complemented — even seemed part of — nature. He used building materials like wood and stone, and never painted them. His designs were horizontal, with low rooflines, so that the buildings blended in with the landscape as much as possible. He incorporated walls made almost entirely of windows, to blur the line between the outdoors and the indoors. The glass walls were also functional, using winter sunlight to help heat the house. “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything,” he said. “It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Even when he designed skyscrapers and other urban buildings, he always tried to incorporate elements inspired by natural structures. One of the most famous of these is New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which resembles a giant white snail shell.

It’s the birthday of biophysicist Francis Crick, born in Northampton, England (1916). On February 28, 1953, Crick walked into the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England, and, according to James Watson, announced that “we had found the secret of life.” That morning, Watson and Crick had figured out the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the chemical substance that carries our genes.

Mark Twain took a famous ride on this day in 1867. He boarded the side-wheel steamer “The Quaker City” and set off on a five-month trip to Europe and the Mediterranean. This had never been done before — a transatlantic pleasure cruise on a steamship — and when Twain heard about the idea, he asked the San Francisco newspaper the Alta-California if they wanted to send him as their correspondent. They did, for $1,200 passage money and $20 for each letter he sent home. Those letters made him famous, and in 1868, he published them in a book called Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, the most popular travel book of his time.

In Innocents Abroad, he wrote: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.”

And: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”

It’s the birthday of the world’s first professor of agricultural physics, Franklin Hiram King, born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin (1848). In 1888, King was hired by the University of Wisconsin in Madison to start a department of agricultural physics.

His most famous legacy from his years at Madison was the invention of the cylindrical silo. He was always looking for ways to reduce waste in farming, and he was struck by how much silage rotted in the corners of traditional rectangular silos. So he invented a cylindrical silo, which quickly became the standard for farmers across the country, transforming the rural landscape. Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have based his design for the Guggenheim Museum on King’s idea.

It’s the birthday of crime novelist Sara Paretsky (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa (1947) and raised in rural Kansas. As a kid, she loved reading books about “girls doing active things — biographies of women like the astronomer Maria Mitchell, or Harriet Tubman or Marie Curie.” When she was 10, her unhappily married parents gave her a book about Joan of Arc. “They wanted me to see what happened to girls who were too intense and took the world around them too seriously.” Though her highly educated parents borrowed money to send her brothers to college, they refused to do the same for her. She was expected to cook for the family, clean the rambling but run-down house, and care for her younger siblings. When she was 19, Paretsky left Kansas for Chicago, where she still lives, 10 minutes’ walk from Lake Michigan.

Paretsky is the creator of V.I. Warshawski, a female detective who is smart and good with a gun and also likes nice clothes and cappuccino and enjoys her sex life. Paretsky came up with the character as a rebuttal to the femme fatale character that she first noticed in Raymond Chandler’s work. She said, “In six out of seven of his novels, the woman presented herself sexually, and it galvanized me into thinking, surely there are better ways of representing women, who are more believable and had to solve their own problems?” So she created a character who is partly modeled after Paretsky’s own alcoholic mother. It took eight years for her to work up the nerve to put the character on the page; since then, V.I. Warshawski has been featured in 17 novels, including Bitter Medicine (1987), Burn Marks (1990), Blacklist (2003), and Critical Mass (2013). The 18th Warshawski novel, Brush Back, is due out this summer (2015).

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