There’s an ancient story about three entrepreneurial lads who come into possession of a cloak one evening and decide to sell it at the market. Perhaps they came into possession of it at the market. Best not to ask. It’s a not the finest of garments, but it’s eye-catching, and at dusk that might be enough to win a sale. They set up their stall at the far edge of the market, to avoid running into its previous owner.
What does it mean to be perfectly proportioned? Is it possible? The biologist JBS Haldane wrote about species “being the right size.” What he meant was that in nature, the size and shape of an organism is always a trade-off: between speed and strength, for instance. And the way that organisms work imposes some absolute rules: there’s a minimum viable size for mammals, based on their circulation, and (thankfully) a maximum for spiders.
The machines do not work as intended. They are always on the border of total breakdown, held together more by ingenuity than mechanical integrity. “As time goes by, one begins to have the impression that everything is already broken before it leaves the factory.” Even the handles of doors are chiefly decorative. This is the sketch with which Alfred Sohn-Rethel begins his essay “In Naples.”
Who needs a uniform? What does it mean to adopt one? And what connects people who dress the same? These questions were on the minds of entrants to the Swedish Royal Patriotic Society 1773 essay competition, which asked whether Swedes might benefit from sharing a costume, as well as a language and a territory.
I speak today of a secret vice. Rarely admitted, but relentlessly practiced. “The sin that everybody commits.”* No, not that one. A distinctly modern sin, made for (and perhaps made by) a modern consumer economy: envy.
How do buildings resist gravity? Or, for that matter, strong winds, weathering, tectonic shudders, and the seasonal heat and ice? The modern answer has two parts: a science of architecture and a craft of building. On one side, years studying drafting, structural theory, conservation science, and computer-aided design. On the other, years learning and refining the techniques of masonry or carpentry, plumbing or fitting.