The Rabbit-Hole World of Water Towers and Blast Furances – Hilla Becher


The photographers world didnt like our photography
They thought it would be either boring, old-fashioned
and documentary only [chuckles]
We knew that and we accepted that and it wasnt a problem
The first, ah, major subject was industrial plants
in the Siegerland
because this area was the first, in Germany at least,
to be abandoned
That was a good reason to photograph it before its gone
And Bernd grew up in this area
It was about losing his childhood
or preserving his childhood
I was very fascinated by industrial buildings as well
Slowly we developed this idea to photograph them
with a larger camera and it was very static
And since I had learned photography
in a very old-fashioned way in the east of Germany,
it was very satisfying to have this quality, you know,
to have this fine grain and the beautiful gray
There was all kinds of things like coal mines, blast
furnaces, gas tanks,
everything that had to do with steel industry,
and the big subjects of water towers and that
was the most fun
They were not built by famous architects
They just adapted to the situation
Typology was my idea [chuckles]
I was collecting book illustrations that
had to do with biology and typologies
That was really an influence
We looked at some photos of cooling towers
and we saw a certain pattern
that repeats over and over again but has
little differences
By subject, by function, by time sometimes,
and by other criterias that
have to with static architecture, engineering and so on
And we put them together and then it turned out
It was almost like making a movie
It really felt like a flip book
and it was also good way to get some order
The best photo typologies, the best structures
are the ones that are symmetrical
and they have a certain pattern but we had to learn all
It wasnt there from the beginning
We preferred very soft light
If the light was too harsh we had to wait for a cloud
or we had to wait for the winter
or we had to wait for dawn
and the object has to be separated from the sky
We tried to get it as clear as possible
It was all about understanding the subject
I think that was very satisfying in a way
and we both had the same opinion about that
We didnt want to change things around
We didnt want to romanticize it
We tried to be as close as possible to what the subject
wants to be
If somebody is interested in cockroaches or in whatever
strange things and you get deepdeeper and deeper
and it gets more and more interesting,
its about your own understanding and your own pleasure
If you start something, you dont know how far you get
And there are neverthere always are times
that you almost give up but we had two, two people,
and there was always one who said, Come on

English Conveniences

And with regard to English conveniences, they are also an unknown luxury in the United States, where there are only “little houses” five hundred paces from the house whenever possible. That is very disagreeable in winter with the snow, and in summer when summer complaint, diarrhea, is quite a common ailment. Irénée has done an extraordinary thing for me with a “little house” twenty-five paces away in a little thicket; and when it rains I should like it better even closer. In Washington, Madam Barlow placed hers at the end of the piazza; that is a great improvement. But that lady has French manners. At Monticello, Mr. Jefferson’s home, one has the choice of three hundred paces in the garden and on the terraces or through an underground tunnel, level with the cellars and built for that purpose.
– Pierre S. du Pont de Nemours to his wife, September 28, 1816

The Monticello Site




Tocqueville and Descartes

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book Two, Chapter One

America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied.

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own; and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them. Nevertheless it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States conduct their understanding in the same manner, and govern it by the same rules; that is to say, that without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules of a philosophical method, they are in possession of one, common to the whole people. To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson used in doing otherwise, and doing better; to seek the reason of things for one’s self, and in one’s self alone; to tend to results without being bound to means, and to aim at the substance through the form; – such are the principal characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans. But if I go further, and if I seek amongst these characteristics that which predominates over and includes almost all the rest, I discover that in most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals to the individual exercise of his own understanding alone. America is therefore one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied, and where the precepts of Descartes are best applied. Nor is this surprising. The Americans do not read the works of Descartes, because their social condition deters them from speculative studies; but they follow his maxims because this very social condition naturally disposes their understanding to adopt them. In the midst of the continual movement which agitates a democratic community, the tie which unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken; every man readily loses the trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no care about them. Nor can men living in this state of society derive their belief from the opinions of the class to which they belong, for, so to speak, there are no longer any classes, or those which still exist are composed of such mobile elements, that their body can never exercise a real control over its members. As to the influence which the intelligence of one man has on that of another, it must necessarily be very limited in a country where the citizens, placed on the footing of a general similitude, are all closely seen by each other; and where, as no signs of incontestable greatness or superiority are perceived in any one of them, they are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is then destroyed, but the taste for trusting the ipse dixit of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up in his own breast, and affects from that point to judge the world.

Russia and America, Tocqueville

Russia and America

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time. All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all the others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, conclusion to volume 1, 1835

Charles Darwin On Earthworms (Conclusion From His Last Published Book)

Charles Darwin said of the earthworm

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.

Charles Darwin. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through The Action Of Worms With Observations On Their Habits (reprint of 1881 Edition). London: John Murray, 1904. Via Guttenberg Project



Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose.  In almost all humid countries they are extraordinarily numerous, and for their size possess great muscular power.  In many parts of England a weight of more than ten tons (10,516 kilogrammes) of dry earth annually passes through their bodies and is brought to the surface on each acre of land; so that the whole superficial bed of vegetable mould passes through their bodies in the course of every few years.  From the collapsing of the old burrows the mould is in constant though slow movement, and the particles composing it are thus rubbed together.  By these means fresh surfaces are continually exposed to the action of the carbonic acid in the soil, and of the humus-acids which appear to be still more efficient in the decomposition of rocks.  The generation of the humus-acids is probably hastened during the digestion of the many half-decayed leaves which worms consume.  Thus the particles of earth, forming the superficial mould, are subjected to conditions eminently favourable for their decomposition and disintegration.  Moreover, the particles of the softer rocks suffer some amount of mechanical trituration in the muscular gizzards of worms, in which small stones serve as mill-stones.

The finely levigated castings, when brought to the surface in a moist condition, flow during rainy weather down any moderate slope; and the smaller particles are washed far down even a gently inclined surface.  Castings when dry often crumble into small pellets and these are apt to roll down any sloping surface.  Where the land is quite level and is covered with herbage, and where the climate is humid so that much dust cannot be blown away, it appears at first sight impossible that there should be any appreciable amount of sub-aerial denudation; but worm-castings are blown, especially whilst moist and viscid, in one uniform direction by the prevalent winds which are accompanied by rain.  By these several means the superficial mould is prevented from accumulating to a great thickness; and a thick bed of mould checks in many ways the disintegration of the underlying rocks and fragments of rock.

The removal of worm-castings by the above means leads to results which are far from insignificant.  It has been shown that a layer of earth, 0.2 of an inch in thickness, is in many places annually brought to the surface; and if a small part of this amount flows, or rolls, or is washed, even for a short distance, down every inclined surface, or is repeatedly blown in one direction, a great effect will be produced in the course of ages.  It was found by measurements and calculations that on a surface with a mean inclination of 9° 26′, 2.4 cubic inches of earth which had been ejected by worms crossed, in the course of a year, a horizontal line one yard in length; so that 240 cubic inches would cross a line 100 yards in length.  This latter amount in a damp state would weigh 11½ pounds.  Thus a considerable weight of earth is continually moving down each side of every valley, and will in time reach its bed.  Finally this earth will be transported by the streams flowing in the valleys into the ocean, the great receptacle for all matter denuded from the land.  It is known from the amount of sediment annually delivered into the sea by the Mississippi, that its enormous drainage-area must on an average be lowered .00263 of an inch each year; and this would suffice in four and half million years to lower the whole drainage-area to the level of the sea-shore.  So that, if a small fraction of the layer of fine earth, 0.2 of an inch in thickness, which is annually brought to the surface by worms, is carried away, a great result cannot fail to be produced within a period which no geologist considers extremely long.

Archæologists ought to be grateful to worms, as they protect and preserve for an indefinitely long period every object, not liable to decay, which is dropped on the surface of the land, by burying it beneath their castings.  Thus, also, many elegant and curious tesselated pavements and other ancient remains have been preserved; though no doubt the worms have in these cases been largely aided by earth washed and blown from the adjoining land, especially when cultivated.  The old tesselated pavements have, however, often suffered by having subsided unequally from being unequally undermined by the worms.  Even old massive walls may be undermined and subside; and no building is in this respect safe, unless the foundations lie 6 or 7 feet beneath the surface, at a depth at which worms cannot work.  It is probable that many monoliths and some old walls have fallen down from having been undermined by worms.

Worms prepare the ground in an excellent manner for the growth of fibrous-rooted plants and for seedlings of all kinds.  They periodically expose the mould to the air, and sift it so that no stones larger than the particles which they can swallow are left in it.  They mingle the whole intimately together, like a gardener who prepares fine soil for his choicest plants.  In this state it is well fitted to retain moisture and to absorb all soluble substances, as well as for the process of nitrification.  The bones of dead animals, the harder parts of insects, the shells of land-molluscs, leaves, twigs, &c., are before long all buried beneath the accumulated castings of worms, and are thus brought in a more or less decayed state within reach of the roots of plants.  Worms likewise drag an infinite number of dead leaves and other parts of plants into their burrows, partly for the sake of plugging them up and partly as food.

The leaves which are dragged into the burrows as food, after being torn into the finest shreds, partially digested, and saturated with the intestinal and urinary secretions, are commingled with much earth.  This earth forms the dark coloured, rich humus which almost everywhere covers the surface of the land with a fairly well-defined layer or mantle.  Hensen placed two worms in a vessel 18 inches in diameter, which was filled with sand, on which fallen leaves were strewed; and these were soon dragged into their burrows to a depth of 3 inches.  After about 6 weeks an almost uniform layer of sand, a centimeter (0.4 inch) in thickness, was converted into humus by having passed through the alimentary canals of these two worms.  It is believed by some persons that worm-burrows, which often penetrate the ground almost perpendicularly to a depth of 5 or 6 feet, materially aid in its drainage; notwithstanding that the viscid castings piled over the mouths of the burrows prevent or check the rain-water directly entering them.  They allow the air to penetrate deeply into the ground.  They also greatly facilitate the downward passage of roots of moderate size; and these will be nourished by the humus with which the burrows are lined.  Many seeds owe their germination to having been covered by castings; and others buried to a considerable depth beneath accumulated castings lie dormant, until at some future time they are accidentally uncovered and germinate.

Worms are poorly provided with sense-organs, for they cannot be said to see, although they can just distinguish between light and darkness; they are completely deaf, and have only a feeble power of smell; the sense of touch alone is well developed.  They can therefore learn but little about the outside world, and it is surprising that they should exhibit some skill in lining their burrows with their castings and with leaves, and in the case of some species in piling up their castings into tower-like constructions.  But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degrees of intelligence instead of a mere blind instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows.  They act in nearly the same manner as would a man, who had to close a cylindrical tube with different kinds of leaves, petioles, triangles of paper, &c., for they commonly seize such objects by their pointed ends.  But with thin objects a certain number are drawn in by their broader ends.  They do not act in the same unvarying manner in all cases, as do most of the lower animals; for instance, they do not drag in leaves by their foot-stalks, unless the basal part of the blade is as narrow as the apex, or narrower than it.

When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms.  It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms.  The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms.  It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.  Some other animals, however, still more lowly organized, namely corals, have done far more conspicuous work in having constructed innumerable reefs and islands in the great oceans; but these are almost confined to the tropical zones.