Reading notes (2021, week 8) — On nurturing architecture, worlds beyond ours, and Earthshots

Kuopio Museum in Kuopio, Finland, by Architects Davidsson Tarkela — The extension “rises between the lavish architecture of the early 20th century and the disciplined, structured architecture of the 1960s in this new cultural quarter.” (Photograph by Marko Huttunen)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: The only possible way to construct genuinely sustainable homes is by placing them in a constant conversation with their surroundings; extending human habitability to outer space requires learning to live more carefully and sensitively as a species interlocked with others; the pandemic has highlighted the cost of neglecting public investment, both in the welfare state and value creation; the social construction of reality; the future of liberalism; the recent revival of Stoic philosophy; Toni Morrison on the lessons about work, and life, that she learned from her father; the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers’ final work; and, finally, Frank Gehry on creativity and having learned to trust his intuition.

Nurturing architecture

The 21st century presents the architecture of our built environment with many challenges. But it also represents a playing field for new opportunities. Rachel Armstrong, a professor of architecture at Newcastle University and pioneer of Black Sky Thinking, believes that there is only one possible way for us to construct genuinely sustainable homes: by placing them in a constant conversation with their surroundings. But to do this, we need to find the right language, she says.

Armstrong “radically re-envisions our approach to co-inhabiting space, and offers a new framework for building practices able to deal with the wicked nature of centuries’ fundamental challenges through Experimental Architecture. It shifts away from the principles of the industrial age towards conditions and a set of tools for an ecologically engaged human development. This enables a new collaborative interplay of various disciplines, agents, material flows, processes and entanglements that together form a ‘choreography of space’ — one that allows the exploration of a more sustainable way of co-inhabitation,” Next Nature Network (NNN) writes in Nurturing Architecture.

“Armstrong encourages us to think even further than ‘just’ outside-the-box and stimulates a dialogue and new narratives among human and non-human agents on co-inhabitation — to leave behind our dying buildings. As such, experimental architecture does not lay down a fixed road map for the future of our built environment, but builds upon continuous experiments and prototypes that are previously assessed and collectively endorsed. Ultimately it provides the basis for creating new meaning and solutions to suit the needs of the 21st century.”

Here are Amstrong’s answers to some of the questions posed by NNN.

After having established the notion of living architecture, Armstrong talks about the research into the conditions of living architecture through Experimental Architecture. What is it? How exactly did experimental architecture come to be? How did your take on the concept evolve from its original roots?

“Experimental architecture is the tradition in which the conditions of livability are challenged. It started out as a practice to disrupt existing power structures. Peter Cook and Archigram — a famous group of architects experimenting with radical approaches towards architecture — were thinking of using technology to re-empower the public against the top-down processes of urbanization including land ownership and housing development. In the 1960s’ technotopia, they were raising people’s individual needs. Experimental architecture was shaped by very techno-optimistic elements. With Lebbious Woods, experimental architecture became much more critical. He used drawing as an experiment, a way of interrogating ideas since you do not have to actually build it. They are the course concepts. The continuation of experimental architecture, the one that I do, focuses on the process of bringing from the paper into the laboratory. Everything I do and I am going to do, is a prototype — a manifestation of the ideas of possibility — that invites further questions.

The practice becoming more popular is actually what it is about. For example, Innsbruck and Bartlett School of Architecture have an experimental architecture department. As architecture and design gain validity, both in academia and in industry, we also observe more people with practical projects approaching experimental architecture. In response to a pitch on a building, experimental architecture asks: What is the status of its design in terms of the cutting edge sustainability? What can we actually make? Where are the questions? Where can we actually position our commercial project within a landscape of technological — but also ecological advances? I would say in some ways, the vast experimental architecture started out as the paper architecture through the laboratory, and building ambitious experimental relationships from engineering and science, as well as the arts and design.”

As our world becomes increasingly complex and our challenges more ‘wicked,’ collaborative efforts of actors with diverse backgrounds to design far-reaching and inclusive solutions, have gained in importance. Can you say something about the multidisciplinarity of experimental architecture?

“The practice is fundamentally multi-disciplinary integrating cutting-edge science, technology, arts and design. Essentially, it is creating an innovation process with the 21st century. It is not just up to scientists to create something while artists and designers find out how to make it socially relevant. I must say the arts and design are absolutely fundamental if you want something ethical, socially appropriate and nuanced. Artists and designers have to be involved from the onsets. All disciplines are engaged right from the onset of the concept. It is a collective practice. There is a time when the collectives gather around a particular project and a set of funds. Yet, we need to figure how to nurture the continuation of the ideas from the collaboration. We need to figure out how to keep on asking the questions without any funding. A really important part of experimental architecture is to be able to think with nothing. We are not always in an environment where you can get a few million dollars to explore cutting edge technology. Particularly when you are working with scientists because running a lab is expensive.”

Your work is informed by theory and practice but with the notion of science-fiction, the artistic component is added to the equation. You have also written science fiction books. Can you say something about the role of fiction in experimental architecture?

“I have written three fiction books: Origamy, Invisible Ecologies and [Soul Chasers]. Each of these books take an idea for a stroll and start to reimagine the world. To me, that is the role of fiction. The 21st century experimental architecture needs to be not a practice, neither an extension of the 20th century architecture but a practice of worlding. How do we make our worlds? It is not enough to make a building and place it within the existing infrastructures and utilities. We have to imagine the other worlds like the work of film director and ‘speculative architect’ Liam Young that moves between critica design and fiction to imagine a radical futuristic city. We have to actually conjure forth these worlds, inhabit them, be a character within them. Figuring out how this works is really essential for design. In contrast, if you cannot fall into that world, you are left with gaps in your design approach. This is where fiction has been in place. It is a way of getting a critical audience; a way of bringing people together around an idea to not come up with a simple answer but engage with a complex set of ideas. The good thing of fiction writing is that there is always something at stake. What are the disadvantages? What are the advantages? What happens to those characters that fall in between? It is not about a happy-ever after.”

What does that mean for the role of designer in working with non-human agents? Where does the design begin and where does it end? Where does the agent come in and where does it end?

“As a designer you do not lose your integrity, instead, you expand your imaginary spheres and the ‘relatings’ (the categories and groups you form to make sense of the world) that you do in order to bring forth your design. You consider many more factors. You understand why you discriminate. You understand why you exclude certain things and include others. It expands your ethics from an industrial designer to an ecological designer who has at least considered the impact beyond the human life span or the human use of the object. It has considered the participants or co-constituted agents within the design processes and giving them a politics.

If we are using these agents in everyday life how do we care for them? How do we make sure their conditions are allowed on board? How do we make this more of a dialogue? A co-inhabitation exercise? The outcome of the design is not to consume and transform but to actually establish new cycles of exchange. The designer is exposed to unconventional influences within their sphere of imagination. The imaginary sphere and the narratives that they tell become more epic and more engaging because of that.”

Armstrong believes “[w]e need a shared framework through which we not only advance as individual designers but actually unite as a force of change. We do not all have to agree but we can be like biology itself. This means managing critical questions in a biodiverse way within the spaces that we are practicing through cross-informing and cross-pollinating. In a way, it goes against the industrial course of a designer to a practice of virtuosity that it is unique. It requires a more humble, more integrated but reciprocal form of design, for example, through practices of open source and crowdsourcing. It does not undermine the design process but gives designers a different toolset and a different set of challenges. The best designers really respond to that. The strongest outcome from this process are the narratives that enable the continuation of the projects into new forms. It is this momentum that brings about change in which biodesign is positioned in. We could get fractured into different pockets of practice, focusing on either biological shapes or on processes, but it is much more significant than that.”

About the images

The images come from DRIFTERS (2018), a short film by studio DRIFT and Sil van der Woerd. “This concrete monolith represents a basic building unit, the primary element by which human built environment is constructed. On its own the concrete block is nothing, lost in space and time without reference to anything; it is always searching to be part of something bigger,” studio DRIFT writes on its website.

Worlds beyond ours

“Extending human habitability to outer space requires learning to live more carefully and sensitively as a species interlocked with others,” Claire Webb, who is a historian and anthropologist of science, and a 2020–21 Berggruen Fellow, writes in Worlds Beyond Ours.

Webb considers a trio of moments of entangled spacetime: the Covid-19 pandemic, the environmental movement and the Cold War. “Lifted from three interspaced epochs of the ongoing Space Age [these] moments reveal how terrestrial troubles are entwined with hopes of discovering life, and of living, beyond Earth. As dreams to explore the cosmos curl skyward, fears and anxieties particular to each moment raise doubts not only about humans’ longevity on our home planet, but also about how we might inhabit and sustain life on other worlds as space-faring explorers,” Webb writes.

“[F]ears of terrestrial apocalypse animate pursuits for life and living beyond Earth. But conversely, imagining how life (including human life) might exist in an extraterrestrial context, and seeing the planet from outer space, has driven imaginations of Earth’s possible futures — hopeful, course-correcting pathways, but also escapist fantasies of extraplanetary colonization.

Anticipations of worlds beyond Earth — places that might be (or might be made to be) habitable — are made possible by conceiving of Earth as both threatened and interconnected: The coronavirus’s march across the world reveals the viruses’ disregard for political borders, the environmental movement highlighted the fragility of the planet’s entangled life and the Cold War ushered in the concept of global nuclear disaster.

These threats have, in different ways, revealed how actions are never self-contained in global, networked systems. Each moment’s particular planetary anxieties — pathogenic, climate, nuclear — have animated and informed scientists’ pursuit of extraterrestrial life.”

“Apollo 17’s Blue Marble photograph especially embodied the environmental movement’s push to consider the Earth as an entangled system whose longevity should supersede politics and profit. […] For biologists exploring the conditions and contexts of life beyond Earth, the planetary whole constructed by these images was fertile ground for theory and experiment. Take James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia theory, which articulated the idea of Earth as a self-regulating organism,” Claire Webb writes in Worlds Beyond Ours. (Photograph: The Blue Marble, 7 December 1972, NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans)

Throughout the late 1950s and the 60s, “exobiologists began to imagine interconnected, but distinct, planetary wholes. Linking Earth to planets beyond, two exobiologists wrote in a 1961 eport, ‘The planets of the solar system are part of a whole — in their origins, in their present states and in their futures.’ […]

Amid the persistent threat of nuclear apocalypse that defined the Cold War era, exobiologists began to call for planetary protection protocols for both Earth and extraterrestrial sites — concerns that became increasingly aligned with a burgeoning consciousness about humans’ harmful activities on Earth,” Webb notes.

“The Earth as a self-regulating organism was a blueprint not only for how to imagine spacecraft, but for how to imagine (extra)terrestrial worlds as well. The concept of Spaceship Earth — a term popularized by American author and inventor [Richard] Buckminster Fuller — described the planet as a confined and sensitive biological system, bearing passengers from humans to microbes who depended on its continuity as they braved the sea of space. Could Spaceship Mars soon join this planetary fleet of life?”

Since then, however, Elon Musk’s “SpaceX has reshuffled hierarchies and priorities of space exploration: individualism over nationalism, money power over patriotism, adventure or even salvation of the few over the dreams of the many. Late capitalism’s increasing privatization and commercialization of space promises off-world living to the uber-rich. SpaceX, which bills itself as building ‘the road to making humanity multiplanetary,’ is testing and perfecting the Starship spacecraft to take private passengers to Mars by 2026. Commercial flights that would flirt with the lunar orbit might cost tens of millions of dollars. SpaceX and its ilk — Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin — could provide vehicles to leave a troubled or toxic planet to colonize Mars or, later, some Earth-like planet beyond the solar system.

Hatched in the Anthropocene to ‘solve’ apocalypses, such survival projects are what anthropologist David Valentine calls exit strategies: neoliberal, capitalist-driven projects that seek to make space profitable and to establish off-world colonies — havens from the perils of Earth. Yet they raise the question: Will humans transport terrestrial troubles to outer space?

Plans to privatize space are becoming a reality as a third new specter of peril, the novel coronavirus, rips through global health systems, disproportionately sickening and killing those already more vulnerable. More than 2.4 million people have died so far, and recent mutations are further complicating global efforts to control its spread. Thwarting national borders, the virus is a leaky and fluctuating problem that demands planetary cooperation,” Webb writes.

“For biologists exploring the conditions and contexts of life beyond Earth, the planetary whole constructed by these images was fertile ground for theory and experiment. Take James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia theory, which articulated the idea of Earth as a self-regulating organism,” Claire Webb writes in Worlds Beyond Ours. (Photograph by Alice Zoo for Noema Magazine)

“Strange resonances continue to animate the concepts of annihilation, interconnection and escape here on Earth. The coronavirus moves from host to host, shadowing human plans to create enclosed biospheres (spacecraft, glass domes) to sustain life as we travel through space. Russia named its Covid vaccine Sputnik V, pointing like its namesake to power gained through science and technology. The conception of Gaia, a self-regulating biosphere, propels a sense of interdependence between Earth and the greater cosmos. Now, billionaire kings of our techno-capitalist society reimagine terrestrial assets, both monetary and organic, to aid their fantasies of escape off-world.

Hopes for human futures — both on Earth and off — represent not only an enduring projection of space, but a projection of time. Extending human habitability to outer space requires learning to live more carefully and sensitively as a species whose longevity is interlocked with others. The planetary and the extraplanetary remain in ongoing conversation and negotiation as they continue to redefine what life is on Earth, and what it could be in worlds beyond ours.”

From Moonshots to Earthshots

“The pandemic has highlighted the cost of neglecting public investment, both in the welfare state and value creation. But the crisis has also created a huge opportunity to pursue industrial policies beyond traditional sectoral and technological silos, and to restore mission-driven governance in the public interest,” Mariana Mazzucato, the economist who, according to Pope Francis, “forces us to confront long-held beliefs about how economies work,” writes in From Moonshots to Earthshots.

“Instead of acting as investors of first resort, far too many governments have become passive lenders of last resort, addressing problems only after they arise. But as we should have learned during the post-2008 Great Recession, it costs far more to bail out national economies during a crisis than it does to maintain a proactive approach to public investment.

Too many governments failed to heed that lesson. Faced with another society-wide challenge, it is now clear that they have relinquished their proper role in shaping markets, allowing public institutions to be hollowed out through outsourcing and other false efficiencies. The retreat of the public sector has given way to the idea that entrepreneurship and wealth creation are the exclusive preserve of business — a perspective endorsed even by those who advocate ‘stakeholder value.’

In fact, the more we subscribe to the myth of private-sector superiority, the worse off we will be in the face of future crises,” Mazzucato argues.

“To ‘build back better’ from the current one, as US President Joe Biden’s administration and many other governments have committed to do, will require renewing the public sector, not just by redesigning policy and expanding the state’s organizational capabilities, but by reviving the narrative of government as a source of value creation,” Mariana Mazzucato writes in From Moonshots to Earthshots. (Photograph by John Locher/AP Photo)

“The original moonshot model [required both an extremely capable public sector and a purpose-driven partnership with the private sector, as Mazzucato explains in her new book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism] offers insights and inspiration for pursuing ‘earthshots’ today. For example, to achieve the 17 SDGs, we should transform each into several clearly defined missions that would lay the groundwork for more multi-sectoral, bottom-up innovation. A plastic-free ocean, for example, will require investment and innovation in areas as different as marine transport, biotech, chemicals, waste management, and design. That is what the Apollo program did by sparking innovation in aeronautics, nutrition, materials science, electronics, software, and other areas,” Mazzucato writes.

“Technology alone will never solve social and economic problems. In applying the moonshot principle to complex challenges here on earth, policymakers must pay attention to myriad other social, political, technological, and behavioral factors, and capture a common vision across civil society, business, and public institutions.

Thus, earthshots must also involve extensive citizen engagement. Carbon neutrality, for example, must be designed with citizens where they live, such as social housing. By truly adopting an inclusive stakeholder approach, a mission can develop into a powerful civic platform and an engine of sustainable growth, as envisioned in calls for a Green New Deal, Health for All, and plans to bridge the digital divide.

[…]

There is now a huge opportunity to pursue industrial policies beyond traditional sectoral and technological silos, and to restore mission-driven governance in the public interest. A modern industrial strategy aimed at a Green Renaissance, for example, would require all sectors — from artificial intelligence and transportation to agriculture and nutrition — to innovate and pivot in a new direction. President John F. Kennedy had his moonshot. Biden’s mission is to bring it home.”

And also this…

“We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both.” Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Coup We Are Not Talking About.

“In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a short book of seminal importance, The Social Construction of Reality. Its central observation is that the ‘everyday life’ we experience as ‘reality’ is actively and perpetually constructed by us. This ongoing miracle of social order rests on ‘common sense knowledge,’ which is ‘the knowledge we share with others in the normal self-evident routines of everyday life.’

Think about traffic: There are not enough police officers in the world to ensure that every car stops at every red light, yet not every intersection triggers a negotiation or a fight. That’s because in orderly societies we all know that red lights have the authority to make us stop and green lights are authorized to let us go. This common sense means that we each act on what we all know, while trusting that others will too. We’re not just obeying laws; we are creating order together. Our reward is to live in a world where we mostly get where we are going and home again safely because we can trust one another’s common sense. No society is viable without it.

All societies are constructions in the face of chaos,’ Berger and Luckmann write. Because norms are summaries of our common sense, norm violation is the essence of terrorism — terrifying because it repudiates the most taken-for-granted social certainties. ‘Norm violation creates an attentive audience beyond the target of terror,’ write Alex P. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman in Political Terrorism, a widely cited text on the subject. Everyone experiences the shock, disorientation, and fear. The legitimacy and continuity of our institutions are essential because they buffer us from chaos by formalizing our common sense.”

“We live in the digital century during the formative years of information civilization. Our time is comparable to the early era of industrialization, when owners had all the power, their property rights privileged above all other considerations. The intolerable truth of our current condition is that America and most other liberal democracies have, so far, ceded the ownership and operation of all things digital to the political economics of private surveillance capital, which now vies with democracy over the fundamental rights and principles that will define our social order in this century,” Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Coup We Are Not Talking About. (Illustration by Robert Beatty for The New York Times)

“Deaths of kings and peaceful transfers of power in democracies are critical moments that heighten society’s vulnerability. The norms and laws that guide these junctures are rightly treated with maximum gravity. Mr. Trump and his allies prosecuted an election-fraud disinformation campaign that ultimately translated into violence. It took direct aim at American democracy’s point of maximum institutional vulnerability and its most fundamental norms. As such, it qualifies as a form of epistemic terrorism, an extreme expression of epistemic chaos. Mr. Zuckerberg’s determination to lend his economic machine to the cause makes him an accessory to this assault.

Like baseball, everyday reality is an adventure that begins and ends at home base, where we are safe. No society can police everything all the time, least of all a democratic society. A healthy society rests on a consensus about what is a deviation and what is normal. We venture out from the norm, but we know the difference between the outfield and home, the reality of everyday life. Without that, as we have now experienced, things fall apart. Democrats drinking blood? Sure, why not? Hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19? Right this way! Storm the Capitol and make Mr. Trump dictator? Yeah, we’ve got that!

Society renews itself as common sense evolves. This requires trustworthy, transparent, respectful institutions of social discourse, especially when we disagree. Instead we are saddled with the opposite, nearly 20 years into a world dominated by a political-economic institution that operates as a chaos machine for hire, in which norm violation is key to revenue.

Social media’s no-longer-young men defend their chaos machines with a twisted rendition of First Amendment rights. Social media is not a public square but a private one governed by machine operations and their economic imperatives, incapable of, and uninterested in, distinguishing truth from lies or renewal from destruction.

For many who hold freedom of speech as a sacred right, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1919 dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States is a touchstone. ‘The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas,’ he wrote. ‘The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.’ The corrupt information that dominates the private square does not rise to the top of a free and fair competition of ideas. It wins in a rigged game. No democracy can survive this game.

Our susceptibility to the destruction of common sense reflects a young information civilization that has not yet found its footing in democracy. Unless we interrupt surveillance economics and revoke the license to steal that legitimates its antisocial operations, the other coup will continue to strengthen and produce fresh crises.”

“Faced with creeping authoritarianism, liberals need to craft a new agenda — learning from their serious mistakes, and shaking shibboleths of both right and left,” Timothy Garton Ash writes in The future of liberalism.

“Like Neptune’s trident, a renewed liberalism will have three prongs. The first is the defence of traditional liberal values and institutions, such as free speech and an independent judiciary, against threats from both populists and outright authoritarians.

The second is to address the major failings of what passed for liberalism over the last 30 years — a one-dimensional economic liberalism, at worst a dogmatic market fundamentalism that had as little purchase on human reality as the dogmas of dialectical materialism or papal infallibility. These failings have driven millions of voters to the populists. We must, then, be tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism.

The third prong requires us to meet, by liberal means, the daunting global challenges of our era, including climate change, pandemics and the rise of China. So our new liberalism has to look both backward and forward, inward and outward.”

“Writers have interpreted the failings of liberalism in different ways; the point, however, is to change it. Self-criticism is a liberal strength. The very fact that there are already so many books diagnosing the death of liberalism proves that liberalism is still alive. But now we must move from analysis to prescription,” Timothy Garton Ash writes in The future of liberalism. (Illustration by Michelle Thompson)

“This new liberalism will be stalwart in the defence of liberal essentials, such as human rights, the rule of law and limited government, and the epistemic freedoms of speech and enquiry that are indispensable for liberalism as method rather than system. It will be experimental, proceeding by trial and error, open to learning from other traditions, such as conservatism and socialism, and equipped with the imaginative sympathy we need to see through the eyes of others. It will prize emotional intelligence as well as the scientific kind. And it will recognise that in many relatively free countries we have something close to a corporate-plutocratic-oligarchic stranglehold on the state. This needs to be broken, by democratic means, or else the electoral procedures of democracy will continue to be exploited to subvert liberalism, as populists (sometimes themselves plutocrats) stir up unhappy majorities against ‘liberalocracy.’

This new liberalism will remain universalist, but with a sober, nuanced universalism, alert to the diversity of perspectives, priorities and experiences of cultures and countries outside the mainstream of the historic west, and cognisant of the shift in world power away from the west. It will remain individualist, dedicated to achieving the greatest liberty of the individual compatible with the liberty of others, but this will be a realistic, contextual individualism. At its best, liberalism has always understood that human beings never are what Jeremy Waldron has called the ‘self-made atoms of liberal fantasy,’ but rather live embedded in multiple kinds of community that speak to deep psychological needs for belonging and recognition. This new liberalism will remain egalitarian, seeking equal life chances, but understanding that the cultural and socio-psychological aspects of inequality are as important as the economic ones. Last but not least, it will remain meliorist, but with a sceptical, historically informed meliorism, recognising that history has cycles as well as lines, reverses as well as advances, and that human progress is, in the very best case, only a gradually upward corkscrew trajectory, with downward turns along the way,” Garton Ash writes.

“What if it’s too late? What if the influence of liberalism is inexorably declining along with the relative power of the west? What if anti-liberal Deneen is right to gloat over ‘a 500-year-old philosophical experiment that has run its course’? Speaking only for myself, I hope I will then go down with the good ship Liberty, working the pumps in the engine room as we try to keep her afloat. But as I breathe my last mouthful of salty water — glug, glug — I shall find consolation in reflecting on one last, peculiar quality of Liberty. Some time after the ship seems to have sunk to the bottom, it comes back up again. Odder still: it acquires the buoyancy to refloat precisely through sinking. It is no accident that the most passionate voices for freedom come to us, like the prisoners’ chorus in Beethoven’s Fidelio, from among the unfree.

For liberty is like health — you value it most when you have lost it. The better way forward, however, for free societies as for individuals, is to stay healthy.”

“The recent revival of Stoic philosophy has stayed surprisingly true to its ancient roots while gaining popularity among executives and tech-bros,” Gregory Hays argues in Tune Out & Lean In, in which he reviews a series of recent books on Stoicism.

“Committed Stoics could be tiresome people, in real life as well as on the page. The historian Tacitus depicts Gaius Musonius Rufus lecturing Vespasian’s troops on the blessings of peace as they marched on Rome in the civil war of AD 69. (‘Wisdom unsuited to the times,’ Tacitus comments dryly.) Musonius had to be escorted away for his own protection. Under Nero, Thrasea Paetus upheld the Stoic virtue of parrhesia (speaking truth to power) and paid for it with his life; his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus perished similarly under the Flavian dynasty. But like some modern senators, they seem to have been more concerned to defend the prerogatives of their order than to oppose tyranny per se.

Thrasea had written an admiring biography of Cato the Younger, a leading politician and Stoic in the last days of the republic. Cato was prominent in the senatorial opposition to Caesar’s coup. His suicide after the Battle of Thapsus cemented his position as a Stoic saint, abandoning life when he could no longer live in virtue and freedom. Dante put him in charge of Purgatory; in the eighteenth century John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon borrowed his name for their anti-tyrannical Cato’s Letters, which influenced the American Founders (and the founders of the Cato Institute).

As a politician, though, Cato was the spokesman of a rigid and ossified conservatism, wholly inadequate to address Rome’s actual problems. Cicero, who had to work with him as a colleague, complained that he talked ‘as if he lived in Plato’s Republic and not Romulus’s sewer.’ In the mid-first century AD Seneca’s nephew Lucan wrote an epic on the Roman civil war in which Cato marches his troops into the Libyan desert. There they test themselves against thirst and poisonous snakes while Cato, from the sidelines, exhorts them to ever greater feats of virtue. Lucan’s poem depicts a society gone haywire under the stress of civil war. In this looking-glass world, Stoicism has been corrupted too, transformed into a kind of mad martial art, with Cato as its demented sensei,” Hays writes.

“Stoicism was not just a philosophy for men, but for elite men. Indeed, part of its appeal to men like Cato was that it provided them with an intellectual grounding for things they already practiced and believed,” Gregory Hays argues in Tune Out & Lean In. (Illustration: The Stoic philosopher Zeno, by Ellie Foreman-Peck for The New York Review)

“There is much in Stoicism to admire, and it has provided great comfort to many people. When Stockdale tells us that Epictetus helped him survive with dignity in unbearable conditions, it’s hard to argue with him: he was the man, he suffered, he was there. No one is likely to be harmed by [Ryan Holiday’s] injunctions (‘Slow Down, Think Deeply — Look Deeper’; ‘Enter Relationships’; ‘Take a Walk’), and many readers may draw solace from them. The Red Pillers would be misogynistic ghouls with or without Marcus Aurelius.

And yet. Stoicism teaches its adherents how to accept without complaint their place in a large institution — the universe, a corporation, the Roman Empire. ‘Obeisance is the way forward,’ Holiday has written: ‘be lesser, do more.’ ‘Your job,’ says Epictetus, ‘is to put on a splendid performance of the role you have been given.’ For Seneca, controlling your anger can help you survive in a tyranny: ‘The wrongs done by the powerful should be received not just patiently but with a cheerful expression.’ But should they, always?

‘This is — not right!’ shouts Conrad Hensley [a character in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in Full; a low-level employee in a wholesale food warehouse in California] as the impound lot’s forklift picks up his car. Epictetus will cure him of such outbursts, but he’s entirely correct: he’s in the hands of a corrupt industry that allies itself with politicians and the police to prey on working people. The Occupy Wall Street sign observing that ‘shit is fucked up and bullshit’ may not have been very Stoic, but it wasn’t wrong. In that sense, the current vogue for Stoicism tells us something rather bleak about our own society. ‘Unhappy is the land in need of heroes,’ said Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo; unhappy too, perhaps, the society that produces Stoics.”

In 2017, Toni Morrison wrote a wonderful short essay, entitled The Work You Do, the Person You Are.

“All I had to do for the two dollars was clean Her house for a few hours after school. It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer — things that were common in Her neighborhood, absent in mine. In the middle of the war, She had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings.

I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire.

Part of my pride in working for Her was earning money I could squander: on movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones. But a larger part of my pride was based on the fact that I gave half my wages to my mother, which meant that some of my earnings were used for real things — an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman. The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide — and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.

In those days, the forties, children were not just loved or liked; they were needed. They could earn money; they could care for children younger than themselves; they could work the farm, take care of the herd, run errands, and much more. I suspect that children aren’t needed in that way now. They are loved, doted on, protected, and helped. Fine, and yet . . .”

“[S]since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home,” Toni Morrison wrote in The Work You Do, the Person You Are. (Illustration by Christoph Niemann for The New Yorker)

“Little by little, I got better at cleaning Her house — good enough to be given more to do, much more. I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid She would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me, as well as the standing I had at home — although both were slowly being eroded. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. So I learned to say ‘No, thank you’ to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay.

Still, I had trouble summoning the courage to discuss or object to the increasing demands She made. And I knew that if I told my mother how unhappy I was she would tell me to quit. Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No ‘Oh, you poor little thing.’ Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, ‘Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.’

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

1. Whatever the work is, do it well — not for the boss but for yourself.

2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

3. Your real life is with us, your family.

4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.”

The “Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers has completed his final building — a gallery that cantilevers 27 metres out above the hillside at the Château La Coste vineyard in southern France.

Named The Richard Rogers Drawing Gallery, the project was the last work produced by the architect before his retirement from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) — the studio he founded in 1977.”

“The 120-square-metre art gallery is almost entirely suspended off the ground with only four small footings touching the ground. It is supported within a bright-orange structure that is visible on the outside like many of the seminal buildings designed by the high-tech architecture pioneer including the Centre Pompidou and the Lloyds building.” (Photography by Stéphane Aboudaram / We Are Content(s) and James Reeve.)
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The designs of Frank Gehry — one of the most innovative architects working today — grace numerous metropolitan skylines around the world. Known for their deconstructivist approach and creative use of materials, his buildings incorporate a wealth of textures that lend a sense of movement to his dynamic structures (Photograph by David Lauridsen)

“I’m like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It goes over there, and he jumps over there. It falls on the floor, and he goes there. I’m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesn’t, and then I try again. When it looks like something I’ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition.” — Frank Gehry, Harvard Business Review (November 2011)

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.

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Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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