Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

algorithm 1.2


Puzzles are, I suppose, games that you play by yourself. As an only child — you’d think by now I’d have beaten that horse to death — puzzles kept me out of trouble and I’ve continued to love them well into my old age. Sudoku are among my favorites but word games, crosswords, and the now disappeared double-crostic that was a mainstay of the old Saturday Review are favorites as well. Though it’s the abstraction of numbers and shapes which fascinate even more. It may well be that I chose architecture as a career because I see design — the manipulation of numbers and shapes; doing my own and appreciating those of others — essentially as a game.

Our department I.T. specialist and I had a long conversation yesterday afternoon (with requisite social distancing) about algorithms, which are games of a sort. Understanding their rules of behavior is essential for solving the puzzle at hand. [What I especially like about puzzles is that you solve them, rather than “win“; winning has never been particularly important for me, which may account for my indifference to academic promotion.] And so our discussion, Ben’s and mine, turned to games.

He told me of one that I should have known, “Cathedral”, which seems to be a lot like Tetris but without a computer. I like it, of course, because its wooden — like me.

Design as Game

Our students, any students of design for that matter, ought to understand the nature of the design process is fundamentally a game, an exercise in strategy (or should I say strategies), a game in James Carse’s sense of collaborative coöperation rather than combative competition. [If you don’t know Carse, you should.]

For most of us, the process of designing involves a nested series of decisions, choices which may, at the moment, be unranked, but whose prioritization will soon become clear. And as we assess our opportunities, weigh the plusses and minuses of each choice, we tend to move from the large to the small; from gross (large-scale) decisions to progressively more and more intimate ones. And with each choice from an array of possibilities, we make an educated “guess” which of those arrayed before us will yield an optimal result. Choices and consequences.

The merit of each choice — each strategic move — can and often is guided by the input of others. It’s a game and we all win when each of us “wins”, understands that we, too, have a stake in the result. That, I suppose, is the nature of the workplace; even academe counts in that regard.

Essentially, our process is deductive in nature: it moves from the general to the specific, the large to the small, the overall concept to the detail. There is an opposite sort of reasoning which doesn’t come into play: induction, which moves from the special case to the general principle. In design, I liken it to the Köhler faucet commercial, where the client pulls from her purse a faucet and proposes to the architect that he “design a house around this!” I’ve often wanted to issue a studio project of this sort: present each student with a residence, for example (perhaps a bad one), as the ultimate goal. But then challenge them to design the building outward from an object chosen at random; a door knob, for example, or a hinge, or a light switch. Two semesters from “retirement” doesn’t give me much time to try this strategy. But it might be worth investing my last semester in such an enterprise.

So, if design in general is a series of nested decisions, how might such a studio operate? And, by extension or implication, what in hell does this have to do with algorithms?

algorithm 1.1

Further on the matter of creating algorithms…

Among the books by my bedside is the Kanji Learners Dictionary by Jack Halpern. Don’t ask why I bought it.

Halpern and a large consulting group both here and in Japan have developed a system called SKIP or “System of Kanji Indexing Patterns” which enables the learner of this writing system to locate them in a dictionary format. Basically, it classifies also Kanji characters in one of four broad pattern types: Left-Right, Up-Down, Peripheral, or Solid. With that determination made, the learner then does a “stroke count”, that is, the number of brush strokes in the character. The SKIP system is more complex than that but at its core is the basis, it seems to me, of an algorithm, in my sense of finding patterns in complex systems. [There 2,000 Kanji characters in common use, with thousands more that even native Japanese wouldn’t recognize.]

This diagram (not from the actual book) shows the rudiments of the system. I hadn’t thought of it this way before. But now I wonder about its application to the problem of “categorizing” several thousand plan forms of Akron-Auditorium churches.

Indeed, my matrix already goes part way toward this goal of creating an algorithm which might be able to generate A-A churches. Imagine, if you will, a matrix similar to this with sanctuary-auditorium types along the side and Sunday school configurations across the top and you see the application of this idea in a very different context. With six auditoria (based on the location of the pulpit) and three Sunday school shapes (180°, 90°, and what I call “saddle bags”), there are eighteen possible combinations and permutations, and a few subsets.

If Halpern & Co. can make sense of a complex writing system, allowing dictionary access to something that defies our alphabetical order, I can somehow make sense of a bunch of churches.

FOOTNOTE: Casually reviewing the book late last night I noticed what may be a side benefit of the SKIP system. There are, for example, only two strokes difference between the kanji for “water” and for “eternal”. Though that connection may not have been an intent of the dictionary writers, it does allow someone like me, grazing through the book with idle interest, to understand how the Japanese may have related two not dissimilar concepts in a poetic sense.




“An algorithm is a step by step procedure to solve logical and mathematical problems. A recipe is a good example of an algorithm because it says what must be done, step by step. … Informally, an algorithm can be called a “list of steps”. Algorithms can be written in ordinary language, and that may be all a person needs.”

For at least a dozen years I’ve been fascinated by the potential of algorithms as they might  be applied to the architectural design process. A major stumbling block has been my antipathy to computers—or perhaps I mean toward computer science and, by extension, to the people in that field who I’ve encountered. Once (just once, I’ll admit) I actually went to our Computer Science department offices in search of a faculty member or grad student who might enjoy stepping beyond their academic cloister and engaging someone from another discipline. It didn’t happen.

In our architecture library there is—or at least there was—a book about the villas of Andrea Palladio. There is also a much newer book by Peter Eisenman, et al., about that significant volume of work from the Italian Renaissance, which is worthwhile for its analytic approach…

…but the earlier book is more applicable to what I’m after because it included a computer disk enabling you to design a Palladian villa of your very own. And it was able to do that because someone had written an algorithm. The problem? The program is so antiquated that no computer exists today which can read it. And yet, the craving in my very being for a similar architectural algorithm won’t go away.

The building type I want to study is the Akron-Auditorium church, a phenomenon of Protestant religious architecture unique to North America (the English-speaking part) and no other place I can find. My database of examples—many of them unverified—now numbers a handful shy of 8,200. I’d call that a phenomenon by anyone’s definition. The question for me is simple: is it possible to abstract from those examples some insight to the design process which created them?

Generating a computer application from the A-A planning process requires us to get inside the minds of architects from the years 1880-1920, asking them to prioritize the chain of decisions, from large to small, they may have used to design an A-A church. It would be sufficiently difficult to ask living architects about this, let alone a bunch of guys dead for at least a century. So why do I imagine this might be possible, let alone desirable? I can suggest a response to the first part of that question. But for the time being, I’ll ponder that in my heart as I seek the algorithm itself.

This presumes, of course, accepting the definition at the head of this entry: that architectural design might be a logical process.

It is my great good fortune to speak “ordinary language”.


“Night Nurse”

“Noctec (chloral hydrate) is a hypnotic used to treat insomnia and to calm patients before surgery or other procedures. Common side effects of Noctec include drowsiness, trouble waking up in the morning, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, and headache.”

Not illegal today, chloral hydrate was still removed from the market in 2012. It was a popular drug during the late 19th century, however, and both widely used and abused. Working families, where both parents were employed, often during the same work period, used it to calm children during their absence from home; in this use it was in a category of over-the-counter- drugs called “Night Nurse”, a cheap though sometimes tragic substitute for child care. I ran across a reference to chloral hydrate recently in the connection, yes, of 19th century architectural history.

Harvey Ellis was among a cadre of 19th century  draughtsmen known for the delineation style (skill at making presentation drawings). Ellis’s colorful yet vaguely documented life invited “invention”, filling in the gaps with, more often than not, over-romanticized bullshit which put purpose to the hazy record we have of his actions and movements. The perpetrator of this was a sometime-banker from the Twin Cities who developed the fiction that Ellis had created a false identity named Albert Levering — about which I wrote a paper titled “Who was Albert Levering and why are they saying all those terrible things about him?” As it has recently been revealed, Harvey Ellis was an abuser of chloral hydrate, which provides an alternate reason for the thin historical record.

I’ll have a bit more to say about drugs of this sort as they were used more generally during the 19th century.

M. Cooper-Brown [active 1900-1925]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

COOPER-BROWN, M. (active 1900-1925)

Return of the Fishing Boats

ca 1925

color woodcut / 6 5/8 inches by 6 3/8 inches (image) / no edition

M. Cooper Brown is listed in three annual exhibition catalogues of the Royal Academy of Arts (1904, 1905, and 1907), each entry bearing an atmospheric title: “Sunset”, “Evening, “Sunrise”; each of them a watercolor, though none were illustrated. The artist’s address is given as 98, South Hill Park, Hampstead. Beyond those few facts, we know nothing else.

Karl Julius Yens [1868-1945]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

YENS, Karl Julius (1868-1945)


cliché-verre with hand coloring / 7 7/8 inches by 9 7/8 inches


Born in Altona, Germany on Jan. 11, 1868, Karl Julius Yens (originally “Jens”) studied with Max Koch in Berlin and with Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens in Paris. He was active as a muralist in Germany and Edinburgh, Scotland before coming to the U.S. in 1901.  During the first decade in his adopted country he fulfilled mural commissions in NYC and Washington, DC.

After settling in southern California in 1910, he was active in Los Angeles and Pasadena before moving to Laguna Beach in 1918. His studio still stands there on South Coast Highway near Ruby Street. Yens exhibited and won a medal in the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Diego, CA. He continued to show widely in Southern California: at the California Art Club in 1919, the Laguna Beach Art Association throughout the 1920s, and again in 1935, at the Los Angeles Painters and Sculptors Club in 1922 and 1928, as well as through many other venues.

As an illustrator, engraver, fresco, portrait and still life painter, Karl Yens became a member of the American Federation of the Arts and made a notable contribution to Southern California’s art community.

In the late 1910s and early ’20s Yens did a number of experiments with the technique of cliché-verre, a method that utilized a glass plate, photo sensitized paper and the sun to create a photographic image on the paper which he then hand colored. The technique had been developed in France in the 19th century and was used by a number of the Barbizon painters/printmakers.

“…the better angels of our nature.”

In the American Conservative (an unfamiliar periodical), senior editor Rod Dreher writes about the White House response to the current pandemic. Herein he quotes Jonah Goldberg with specific reference to Donald Trump’s recent press conference — forgive me if even yet I cannot bring myself to use the title of the office he now occupies:

Here’s why that made me strangely sad, more than angry [about Trump’s denial that the buck had made its way to his desk, and even if it had…]. I thought: This man is a symbol of America’s shadow side: bloated, vain, rich, incompetent, and impotent. In a word, decadent.

But that is not all that we are. Somewhere out there in this country, there are men and women who are not this. These are men and women who will show themselves as heroes in this hour, in cities and small towns and rural regions of this country. Some of them are no doubt in senior levels of government right now, working hard to keep things from falling apart despite the vacuum, moral and otherwise, in Oval Office leadership. They’re the ones we have to count on now. One day, we will know their names.

If Goldberg is right, we will eventually know their names; some we already do. Dr Anthony Fauci, for example. Or Governor Andrew Cuomo. Or former Baltimore health commission Dr Leana Wen. Why do I instinctively believe their assessment of our predicament and of its course?

With twenty-two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in seven counties, as reported on 16 March (including Carroll county, one county south of Fennimore), it’s closer than we might wish. I wonder what my friends and erstwhile neighbors in Agincourt and vicinity are up to. Are they listening to the voices of the better angels?

The Carousel (1.1)

Agincourt’s carousel in The Commons (the original design by David Rock) was an Arts & Crafts affair, braced frame with mortice and tenon connections. It was quite lovely and also quite a bit different from all of these examples — I chose just nine from the 850+ currently on eBay. By far the plurality were polygonal-on-the-verge-of-circular, with conical roofs and cupolas. Mr Rock probably has too much on his plate to give this another try, so I’m trolling for designers who’d like to fill this niche in the project.



Grace Arbogast was more than a qualified success by any standard. Her story hasn’t been told completely yet, but its outline is simple enough: unassuming high school student, dismissed by her classmates, relocates to New York City where she enters the garment industry and rises to its upper ranks; returns to her hometown and extracts a modicum of revenge.

Her shop on East James became a training ground for other young women from our part of Iowa, taking them seriously, building confidence and skills for success, and raising the general level of women’s fashion hereabouts as a fringe benefit. A recent discovery in the local history files at the Fennimore county library brought two of Ms Arbogast’s fashion sketches to light

The shoulders of others…

We stand on the shoulders of others, sometimes pygmies, often giants. My feet are precariously planted, always have been, on the accomplishments of people well above average height, intelligence, and achievement.

Great teachers not only touched my life, they enabled, inspired, enriched it. Not because I was special; because they were. These names will mean nothing to you, but saying them aloud just one more time keeps their memory alive a little while longer — though my debt to them can never be repaid:

  • Mary Hletko¹
  • Edna Rapp
  • Veronica Piper
  • Virginia Lawton
  • Rose Spellman
  • James Francis Baker
  • Morton Newman (librarian)
  • Dean Bryant Vollendorf
  • William “Bill” Burgett
  • Fred D. Shellabarger
  • Agnes Miller (librarian)
  • Mendel Glickman
  • J. Palmer Boggs
  • James Marston Fitch
  • Adolf K. Placzek (librarian/archivist)
  • Blake Alexander (archivist)
  • M. Wayne Bell

¹ Grade School / High School / University of Oklahoma / Columbia University / University of Texas at Austin

What I know is my responsibility. How I came to know it and recognize its worth is attributable to them. You’ve never met these people, nor are you likely to encounter their names anywhere but here, though a few have been incorporated into this project. I will forever see a bit farther because they were teachers in the truest sense of the word.

Actually, it’s my fervent hope that what I owe them is paid forward each time I enter a classroom and follow their example to the best of my ability. Who can say?