Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Two recent encounters with owls made me reach for this particular book. One early morning, after heavy snowfall, I was making my way to the station when a tawny owl swooped silently over my shoulder leaving me staring in wonder in its wake.

The second encounter was more up close and personal thanks to a raptor rescue centre who were showing off some of their birds in town. I always feel slightly uneasy about such displays  of  what I understand to be shy birds, and resisted the offer to stroke them (tempting tho' that was). I did however take some photos with my phone. The faces are so captivating, as Desmond Morris says, there is something special about the flat-faced owl and those huge forward-facing eyes which make us believe we are looking into the face of almost humanoid intelligence. 

Owls are everywhere in art and literature from the 30,000 year-old cave engraving at Chauvet to Harry Potter's Hedwig - we know them so well and yet hardly ever encounter them. It's probably this paradox which has resulted in the ambivalent attitude we humans have shown these mysterious birds over the years. The owl's (mostly) nocturnal habit has given rise to contradictary feelings about it. They have been viewed as bringers of luck and on the other hand, evil omens of death. The kindly wise bird or witches' familar; vehicle for a goddess; symbol of obstinacy, symbol of calm.

Morris takes us on a whistlestop tour through owl mythology, symbolism, owls in art and literature, and then finishes with some natural history of the owl.  He tells us that owls mate for life, that despite folklore to the contrary they can see in bright light. They have the best stereoscopic vision of all birds and their hearing is about 10 x better than a human's and they are adapted to live in almost every climate. Although we like to think of the owl as a wise old bird, infact as a specialist it is not nearly as intelligent as the opportunist parrot or crow. But wise old parrot doesn't quite have the same ring does it? My favourite picture in the book is of an elf owl nesting inside a cactus. Elf owl

The nice thing about today's technology is that you can be sat reading a book and think, 'I want to see that', and in seconds you can be watching a video. The same applies for this blog, so here's a link to footage of some gorgeous Snowy Owls that have adapted to daytime hunting.  

The BBC currently have an ad for their HD services which is simply stunning. I was delighted to find it on YouTube to share with you. It shows high definition slow motion footage of a majestic Great Grey Owl flying towards the camera. This was taken from David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series and just underlines how adaptable the owl is. The following link explains how the owl uses its flat face and feathers as a kind of sonar dish to find its prey. A warning for the faint-hearted amongst you, it doesn't end well for the rodent but hey, an owl's gotta eat too!  Great grey owl footage

This is so my kind of book. It straddles art, folklore and natural history, is generously illustrated throughout and left me knowing just a little bit more than I did before about these beautiful birds.

Owl by Desmond Morris (2009) Owl
Owl, is just one in this series of books. Others in the series that are already sitting on my wishlist are:  Wolf and Fox but if you go to the link, you will see there are many others in the series to suit all tastes.. hare, chicken, sparrow... And they've now added trees to the list! Dangerous....


Other books on my bookshelf 

The tale of one woman's associations with the real smart birds. Corvus: A life with birds by Esther Woolfson  Corvus 

And for a tour round all things feathery from prehistoric fossils to Las Vegas show girls, you can't do better than Feathers: The evolution of a natural miracle (2011) by Thor Hanson Feathers


Books bought 0 : Books read 8

Thursday, 7 March 2013


It's World Book Day  so I felt I really ought to blog, today of all days. Over the last week I have been reading Making by Thomas Heatherwick. Not one I have read from cover to cover but then this is a huuuuge tome of a book! It's certainly not one to pop in your bag to read on the bus. No, I think it falls squarely into the category of coffee table books, one to dip in and out of.  I can promise you that almost at whatever page you open, you will be in for a treat.

I have long been a fan of Thomas Heatherwick's work, the B of the Bang; the Rolling Bridge of Paddington Basin, so when this book was published it was simply a matter of when I would be buying it rather than if.  Luckily a birthday book token took the guilt out of the expensive purchase and I wasn't disappointed. (Look here for a video of the Rolling Bridge in action)

Heatherwick came to worldwide attention at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony with his Olympic cauldron (apparently known as Betty). It was a characteristically, clever and beautiful design.

 Sadly the edition of the book I bought doesn't include the Olympic projects as they were TOP SECRET and this book was published to coincide with an exhibition at the V&A which took place before the cauldron was unveiled.  There are so many other things to gaze at and admire here that I hardly feel the absence.

File:Olympics Closing Ceremony - Extinguishing of the Cauldron (2).jpg

The Heatherwick Studio produces work ranging from huge architectural designs through to furniture, electricity pylons and lately the new design for the much loved and missed old Routemaster buses in London.  You name it really, they pretty much turn their hands to anything that is asked of them.

The book is arranged chronologically with a few pages given over to each project, each in response to a question.
  • How can an electron microscope help to design a building?
  •  Can you flat-pack a ten-metre-high sculpture? 
  • Can a bridge borrow its structure from nearby buildings? 
  • Can a tower touch the sky gently? 
  • Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?  

Each one describes the design brief and the sources of inspiration and gives a real insight into the imaginative workings of the Heatherwick studio.

My favourite of all - How can a building represent a nation? - resulted in the UK Pavilion at the World Expo in Shanghai, China in 2007. The studio were charged with making a building that would be in the top five. Of course it came top.

The theme of the Expo was "Better City, Better Life".  Heatherwick decided to consider the relationship of cities and nature. London being the home of the world's first major botanical institution, Kew Gardens it seemed appropriate to create a magnificent seed cathedral.  This quite spectacular building  graces the front of the book, (see top of the post!) and is simply sublime. How frustrating that it had such a limited existence!   

The Seed Cathedral illustrates perfectly how complete their thinking is. From inspiration - the opening sequence of  the 1985 film Witness in which the camera pans across fields of grass buffeted by the wind; to choice of materials - 60,000 acrylic rods, holding the seeds; how it sat in the landscape - on grey astroturf - arranged to look like a crumpled sheet of paper opened up like wrapping paper to sugggest that the Pavilion was a gift from the UK to the China; how it looked during the day and night;  how people would interact with it - not a single aspect was overlooked.  The building was an absolute triumph.  Follow the link to see Heatherwick talk about the making of the Seed Cathedral on TEDTV (and if you haven't come across the TED talks before, then you're in for a treat).

I could go on about this book all day, suffice to say the extraordinary range of ideas and materials and the impressive thoughtfulness and attention to detail shown here makes me a firm believer that Thomas Heatherwick qualifies as a bone fide National Treasure! You may not like all the designs, but I challenge you to spend just 5 minutes with this book and not come away seized by the urge to go create something yourself.

One of the Heatherwick Studios Christmas card designs. Source: Making.
 I for one, would give an awful lot to be on their Christmas card list! So go on, beg, borrow or st.. no, don't do that, save up and buy this beautiful source of  class A imaginative genius.

Making : Thomas Heatherwick. Thames & Hudson.  Making
A new edition is to be published in May 2013 which will include the Olympic projects.

Some more design books you might like 

 The Genius of Design   - a BBC tie-in which traces the history of design and this one which I borrowed from our local library
Twentieth Century Design which illustrates 200 of the most popular and groundbreaking "future classics" of design, from architecture, urban planning and interiors through lighting, furniture and homeware to products and visual communication.

Books Bought 0 : Books read 9 (if flicking through counts!)