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Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building

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By Eric Furman

Upon seeing the Seagram Building for the first time, you might say it simply looks like a lot of other office buildings. But you'd be wrong; a lot of other office buildings look like it. Located on Manhattan's Park Avenue, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building is the most imitated high-rise of the last 50 years and what The New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp dubbed "the millennium's most important building." Functional, simplistic, and unadorned, the Seagram Building is proof that Mies knew exactly what he was talking about when he famously declared, "God is in the details."

Architectural Heritage

The story of Mies' matriculation to Modernism is an unlikely one. Born in 1886, he grew up, plainly, Ludwig Mies. He lived in Aachen, a provincial city in Germany's Rhineland filled with medieval houses, Gothic cathedrals, and plenty of decorative lions' heads. In other words, as far from the clean lines and austere approach of Modernism as you could get. Still, Aachen was important to the formation of young Ludwig's architectural philosophy because it was there he learned to appreciate the way a structure was built—from the inside out, with careful precision and top-grade materials. Mies didn't attend design school; his stonemason father believed it too pretentious. Instead, he attended a trade school, where he learned drawing and other useful workshop skills. But apparently, that was all the formal training Mies needed. After moving to Berlin at age 19, he found his way into an apprenticeship for Peter Behrens, the most renowned architect in Germany. And just like that, his talent and reputation set him on a rapid trajectory toward success. Shunning his Aachen roots, Mies adopted his mother's maiden name (Rohe) and became Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

A Tale of Two Countries

Mies' career is distinctly halved by World War II—between a European era and an American era. No doubt the capstone of Mies' European years was his German Pavilion, commissioned by the German government for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, otherwise known as the World's Fair. Almost futuristic in style, the German Pavilion looked like no other structure on the fairgrounds, and it was incredibly well received, especially by King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain. In fact, Mies designed a special chair (throne) for the royal couple. Known simply as the Barcelona Chair, it's a furniture classic still manufactured in large quantities today.

Alas, brilliance was not enough to save Mies from Nazi meddling. (It wasn't enough to save his pal Kandinsky and his paintings from the Reich's bonfires, either, but that's another story.) In 1933, the Nazis closed down the famous Bauhaus school, where Mies was serving as director. Then, a few years later, the proud German architect was roughed up by a couple of Gestapo officers in his Berlin home. Mies saw the writing on the wall. He left Germany in 1937, never to live there again.

Once in the United States, Mies landed a spot as the director of architecture at Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology, in addition to more than his share of commissions. Among the more memorable achievements of this period in his career are the Farnsworth House (Mies' residential crowning achievement) and the Lake Shore Drive apartments, which saw the origins of the all-glass-façade skyscraper. But the grandest and most iconic of all Mies' American designs is undoubtedly the Seagram Building.

Seagram Distilled

When Mies accepted the Seagram commission, he had a reputation for not taking the environmental context of his projects into consideration. Rather, he would design buildings that were independent from (read: superior to) their surroundings. With the Seagram project, however, Mies couldn't have strayed farther from his rep. He built a cardboard model of Park Avenue from 46th Street to 57th Street and studied it endlessly, contemplating how his creation could blend, enhance, or even obfuscate the midtown environs.

Mies also knew what he didn't want: a "wedding cake building," known as a ziggurat. The ziggurat was a popular design form in New York City in the late 1950s, mostly because the zoning laws required a building's tower to cover no more than 25 percent of the plot. Most architects, consequently, layered their buildings toward an apex. But not Mies. Thoroughly devoted to simplicity of form (he's been credited with the saying "less is more"), he couldn't bring himself to erect another ziggurat. On the other hand, he didn't want to copy directly off of the square-towered Lever House, located just across the corner.

Mies ultimately settled on a 38-story rectangular tower, with side elevations 30 feet from the street. He also recessed the building 90 feet from Park Avenue, creating a now-famous plaza that allows pedestrians to see the entire façade without ever crossing the street—a wholly unique sensation among the tight quarters of the neighborhood. Actually, it was fairly remarkable that Mies got away with the plaza concept, because that meant he was using only 40 percent of permissible building space, which translated to 40 percent of possible office-space revenue. Luckily for Manhattan aesthetics, the Seagram family valued architectural gain over economic return.

Because of that mindset—and because of his upbringing in the trade school—Mies used the best materials he could find. The plaza is composed of pink granite bordered by Tinian marble, and the building itself houses a gray glass mosaic, pink gray glass windows, and of course, its famous bronze I-beams. The beams are particularly important because they dispel a long-held belief that Mies was a "form follows function" kind of architect. While it's true that it was a precept of the international style, Mies also believed structural elements should be externally visible. Trouble was, New York City building codes wouldn't allow Mies' steel frame to be exposed, requiring it be covered in a more fire-resistant material like concrete. To comply, Mies used a concrete frame, but also ran decorative bronze I-beams all the way up the face of the structure—an ingenious plan that is commonplace today.

The more you study the Seagram Building, the more fitting it seems that Mies is famously linked to the phrase, "God is in the details." (Incidentally, he's often credited with coining the maxim, but his biographer never found anyone who heard him actually say it.) The Seagram Building is filled with details, right down to the meticulous design of the window blinds. See, Mies hated the way a building looked when its tenants drew their blinds in different directions. For his Manhattan masterpiece, he installed blinds that only worked in three positions: fully drawn, half drawn, and fully open. Sure enough, photographs of the Seagram Building tend to show off a classy kind of uniformity.

Building with Red Tape

Mies saw the Seagram Building as his opportunity to make his mark in the world's greatest city. Unfortunately, what he didn't know was that his professionalism would be questioned by the New York Department of Education, which, after construction began, suddenly started reminding the world-renowned architect that he didn't have a license to practice architecture in the state. Essentially, they informed him that he had to pass an exam that basically proved he had the equivalent of a high school education. Insulted, Mies walked away from the project, and architect Philip Johnson continued in his absence. Fortunately, a school Mies had attended in Aachen supplied authorities with the proper records. He returned to the project, but it might be no coincidence that New York City only lays claim to one of his commercial buildings.

Still, Mies did O.K. for himself. When the Seagram Building was completed in 1958, it became the most expensive commercial building in the world, at a cost of about $40 million. Yet its brilliance has remained unquestioned. By the time Mies passed away in 1969, every major city in the Western world bore his imprint. No small feat; but also no surprise for a guy who hailed from Aachen, looked to the future instead of the past, and found God where nobody else thought to look.

For more Masterpiece articles, be sure to check out mental_floss magazine, available for cheap right here!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]