The Way David Macaulay Works: Finding Ideas, Making Books and Visualizing Our World

author: David Macaulay, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
published: July 23, 2013,   recorded: April 2008,   views: 2925

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This presentation feels akin to a new Disney ride: During your tour inside David Macaulay’s imagination, prepare to soar over Rome’s great monuments, raft within the human body’s circulatory system, and dismantle and rebuild the Empire State Building.

Don’t expect much in the way of explanation or background, but simply sit back and enjoy as this master illustrator rolls out sketches and storylines from some of his greatest published and unpublished hits. Macaulay delves into the structure beneath the built and the biological. But as detailed and accurate as his examinations may be, he embraces the whimsical and fantastic. He admits to loving ruins, so creates his own – “It makes one almost nostalgic.” He imagines an archaeologist 2000 years hence exploring the ruins of a motel, exhuming a pair of skeletons on a bed watching a dead TV, described by Macaulay as “deceased on a platform facing the sacred altar.”

These flights of fancy come whizzing at us so fast, it’s hard to keep up. Macaulay takes us on a tour of an alphabet book constructed of landscapes-- cows in a field and railway tracks, shadows and reflections. Ducks flying are arrayed as a melody from Handel’s Water Music. The book “died at F…More than anything, the world needs another alphabet book!” Asked to do drawings for a book on the brain, Macaulay decided to build a giant brain that would be fun “to wander through.” He recounts, “Hippocampuses are nice and shiny and smooth, it would be fun to slide down a few times, enlivening the brain experience.”

Macaulay never loses sight of his goals, though. “Making things big seemed an ideal way of reacquainting people with the mundane and familiar.” His drawings help him, and his readers, understand the structure, properties, and forces underlying organic and inorganic things in the world, whether zippers or can openers, ancient sailing vessels, digestive systems, or entire cities. His ongoing fascination with Rome has led to multiple attempts to unpeel its historic and architectural layers. A pigeon swoops through the city, revealing perspectives of the Pantheon and Rome’s treasures only a bird could see. Macaulay likes “twisting and distorting to reinforce a sense of movement.” Another approach employs a man on a scooter, providing a street-level view, fragmentary, and yet another uses a television repair man, who shows us details in buildings, “the way stones are cut, old and new.”

Next stop for Macaulay: a book on the Earth and how it works.

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