Friday, May 13, 2016


If we are condemned/blessed to see always double with our two, separated eyes, this biological fact may point to a philosophical assumption: we cannot know the one, unquestionable truth about anything. What we know should be built on a foundation of uncertainty, but that does not mean we can build in a shoddy manner.
Wright's Imperial Hotel in the 1930's (Wikipedia)

On September 1, 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright's new Imperial Hotel opened in Tokyo. That same day a 7.9 scale earthquake struck Tokyo causing widespread destruction. Wright received a telegram from Tokyo: "Hotel stands undamaged as a monument of your genius hundreds of homeless provided by perfectly maintained service congratulations[.] Congratulations[.]" The building was designed to sit on alluvial mud so it was not anchored to the heaving and twisting earth but built to ride on that uncertain foundation.

The story of the hotel’s response to the earthquake, an episode in the legend of Frank Lloyd Wright, has a heroic ring to it, and we depend on such heroes who stand as shining mountains among the lowly hills and valleys to give us a sense of security about our value as a species.
A photo taken shortly after the 1923 earthquake. The hotel is 
on the left, and a burning bank is on the right. (Wikipedia)
However, not all accounts of the events are so unambiguous. Robert Reitherman, speaking at a world conference on earthquake engineering in 1980, concluded that while Wright’s Imperial Hotel was an impressive building, the success of its response to the 1923 earthquake has been overstated. The building did suffer some damage, while other large buildings in areas as or more severely affected by the earthquake suffered less or no damage. The “floating” foundation was probably of dubious value in the earthquake, and in 1968, when the building was torn down, it had been and was continuing to sink into the mud. What did help, however, were the separation joints between sections of the building, which allowed the building to flex with the undulations of the earth. The story of its unique and exceptional success persists, however, because we love such stories.

The best heroes, of course are fictional, with no existence outside their heroic stories, because no troublesome facts will emerge later like impurities in metal to pollute and weaken the hero’s stature. We climb into the willing suspension of disbelief, and we are swept along with those heroes on their great adventures. We feel as if the events happened, and when they conclude, the afterglow of triumph persists in the memory. No reality will undercut the heroics, because supported by our experiencing of them, they need no reality to support them.

Sometimes, some of us who hear the stories, want them to be real so badly, want so much to recreate that feeling of triumph in the real world, that we create organizations and gather with other Trekkies or Jedi Knights. Even though the believers know the stories did not actually happen, for them the stories embody truths that can be applied to real life, when the Force is with them. The worlds created by such untrue, true stories and floating on foundations of belief will remain intact only if they flex with the pushback from the forces outside their enclaves, for if they remain rigid those beliefs will collapse into a formless and fiery heap.

But even the most reasonable conclusions of the most reasonable of us float on a thin layer we construct atop reality. When we think our knowledge is firmly anchored in the material world, we must remember that earthquakes shake the ground, and some separation joints, allowing flexibility in our thinking, might help our ideas survive.

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