I was planning on doing a nice big reveal of this gorgeous set of Nitsche designed history books but AceJet beat me to it. Having been too busy (and possibly too intimidated by it's awesomeness) they've been sitting there, staring at me, taunting me with the breadth of seriously high quality design contained within. I'm working on it, I promise, but until then, point your clicker at his lovely (yet incomplete) collection here and here.
I have no idea how this came about. Kinda throws out any reasonable discourse on how this many layers can exist on one brick wall. At least with the previous one we could vaguely decide on some sort of a reasoned explanation on how it came about, but not this. It's near impossible to follow the trail of history as well. As soon as I think I've figured out which layer was painted over the next I lose my train of thought and forget where I was. Trying to guess from the style of lettering doesn't really work out either. I'd be guessing that City Hall came last, but anything else becomes an exercise in commercial typographic styles that would most likely end in tears. Dad snapped this up for me while he was in LA a few years ago, which makes placing the lettering in context just that little bit harder.
I remember reading about historians who were trying to place some scrolls from a few thousand years ago. There were some arguments about when it was written and a few scholars placed it later than what was previously thought. They reasoned that trained scribes would try and imitate the hand of their teachers, and thus would continue the traditional script, instead of using more contemporary styles of writing (remember, we're talking about papyrus here). Reinforces the notion that typography is always going to maintain the most conservative of crafts. It's good to know that the engines of commerce can work faster than lettering, otherwise this wouldn't exist.
Update: Considering I just found out the these things are called Palimpsests, and refer to a parchment that has been written on a few times, I think my anecdotal relation to scribes and their handwriting is nicely coincidental.
I came across this house in a real estate brochure a few years back, of all places. Big sexy close up of the lettering. Took me quite some time to track it down. The more I stare at this, the more dumbfounded I get in trying to figure out how the hell the layers of history survive the way they do. Does the original somehow fall away, leaving just the ghost of the previous owners? Or maybe different paints during different historical periods cause chemical reactions in the newer signage? There is a name for this; no idea what it is though.
Update:Sean knew the answer to this and gave me the name in the comments. It's much more useful if I post it here:
Do you mean 'Palimpsest'? "A parchment, tablet, etc. that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times, the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still partly visible."
Let me make no bones about this: Steven Johnson is my favourite non-fiction author. His books are awesome, his talks are awesome, his blog is awesome, his business is awesome, his articles are awesome and the way he chuckles is awesome. Despite my literary crush, I stubbornly chose not to pick up The Ghost Map for a year or so. As soon as I finished reading it, I realised what a fool I had been, and promptly decided that it was his best yet. Not because it's the most visceral description of Victorian England I've come across (having never read Dickens) but it allows the main point of the book - the long zoom - to be revealed to you in ways that a typical piece of non-fiction would not have been able to do. I figure that seeing as though his new book The Invention of Air has just come out, I may as well discuss this one.
But first, a little bit of prefacing needs to be done. A previous book of his, Emergence, blew my mind. I picked it up at the airport a few years ago and it almost ruined my holidays by being so good. It's subtitle 'The connected lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software" neatly sums up the major points of the book as it springs from subject to subject looking at how decentralisation and bottom-up networks allow for complexity, adaptation and intelligence. It also happens to be the future of how we look at everything (if I say so myself). It also allows The Ghost Map to act as a sequel of sorts to Emergence, except instead of hopping from subject to subject, The Ghost Map looks the cholera outbreak of 1854 as the impetus for the book.
While the book revolves around the four central characters, the real star of the story is the way in which Johnson allows us to travel through multiple scales of experience. The two human characters give the book narrative grounding, providing us with an account of the outbreak at ground level; the different backgrounds and beliefs of these men give us differing perspectives of the neighbourhood and how they came to the solution. The doctor, a trained anaesthetist, was able to recognise that the disease wasn't a cause of miasma but of dirty water. Whitehead, being a man of the community, was able to traverse the social networks of the neighbourhood and find the initial cause of the outbreak - a bucket of soiled water from an infant tossed into the cesspool at the base of their house which would later make its way to the water system. The intertwining tales of these two, detective work and scientific enquiry, provide the foundation for the account, which allows Johnson to get into the meat of the book, germs and cities.
The disease, Vibrio Cholerae, is particularly nasty. If I ever feel the need to spend the last day of my life lying in agony shitting out rice water as I excrete every last bit of liquid from my system as my dry skin stretches itself over my weakened body while allowing my brain to be active of my fate, I know who to call. It doesn't help that Victorian London wasn't exactly a bastion of cleanliness; neither does Johnson's particularly colourful prose, making up for long stretches of fairly disgusting reading. Given the conditions of day, it comes as no surprise that the disease was able to spread the way it did. Nor does it surprise that the developing world is facing the same problems, but we'll get to that at the end, as does the book. The horrible irony of the outbreak was that while the cure for cholera is to re-hydrate the body as quickly as possible, the Broad street pump which was the cause for the disease, provided the cleanest looking and freshest tasting water of the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the conditions for Cholera to survive perfectly suited the largest city in the world at the time.
The squalid living and working conditions were able to reinforce social conventions through the outbreaks that the lower classes were lesser peoples due to the concentration of the outbreaks in specific neighbourhoods. The issue of density comes into play here and was one of the shocks to the system that one encountered in 1850s London. He also discusses the issue of density in Emergence, and how its power and creative potential is a good thing. Coincidentally, the release date for Emergence was on 9/11; not exactly the best time to be espousing the virtues of urban density. The hopelessly inadequate public infrastructure was in no way capable of preventing something like this from happening. The sheer stench of the place would be enough too convince anyone that this experiment in Urbanism was not suited to human living. Thankfully, the outbreak forced the authorities to invest in modern infrastructure that would allow it to expand.
I'm of the firm belief that urban development is a mixture of collective action and individual choice. That any bottom-up emergent behaviour as a result of individual choice should interface with responsible top down decisions to shape the direction towards a positive outcome. Call it a Keynesian approach to urban design I suppose. This is especially relevant in shantytowns, which are soon set to house one billion people in the near future. We all know that the human race just tipped over the threshold of 50% of us living in urban areas, but a lesser known fact is just how many of us will be living in shantytowns. While they are breathtaking in terms of ingenuity, adaptability and all of that delicious emergent behaviour, they're sorely lacking in terms of official infrastructure that will allow them to continue to grow without crumbling in on themselves. Johnson brings up the issues of urbanism in the closing chapter; how we are to deal with it and what problems will arise. It becomes clear at this point that urbanism, like feminism or environmentalism, is a principle worth advocating.
But back to the map. As a piece of graphic design, it's a stunner and is a great part of the history in the design of information. The sparse lines and grim marks illustrating the deaths also make for a great piece of Victorian aesthetics. It perfectly displays that the disease is in the water, but also allows us to move across perspective in one quick glance. Snow believed that the disease existed and knew that it was ingested instead of inhaled; he was thinking on the level of microbes but didn't have the technology of the day to see it. With Whitehead, he was able to access the local knowledge to find out who had died and where. Furthermore, he was able to scale back out to the level of the neighbourhood to see all the deaths. It's through this map that they were able to conceptually move between the very small up to the very large and capture the scales in between and use them in a productive way.