Wasted Space

Looking at architecture of any size or species, I often hear the wee small voice of my grandmother Clara Markiewicz Ramsey speaking about what I see. “Dust catchers!” she would exclaim about extraneous doodads, gewgaws, gimcracks, and thingamabobs likely to accumulate crud and require her attention. Wasted space was another comparable irritant. In fact, I’ve come to think of Clara as a proto-minimalist.

So you can imagine my discomfort designing the second Fennimore County Courthouse at Agincourt: more that one-third of its volume consisted of attic beneath a massive hipped roof and cupola. Sure, I placed several secondary county functions up in that cavernous space: miscellaneous dormered meeting rooms; portions of the county law library; even a meteorological station to monitor weather conditions and keep records. Was that the act of a desperate man? Imagine my relief when examples have shown up to justify my initial design instincts.

The former Christian Church in Marion, Iowa has a massive octagonal roof, but it is likely to be open to the sanctuary below (even if it seems not to be skylit. Then, yesterday, the city hall in La Salle, Illinois helped even more: it sports one of the simplest and most massive roofs I’ve seen on a public building—that is, not designed by Imhotep the Wise for his pharaoh client.

Christian Church, Marion, IA

City Hall, La Salle, IL (1907)/ Victor Andre Matteson, architect

Neither of these gets me completely off the hook, but I thought you might find them interesting.


The weighing of the heart


It was a normal Sunday at Asbury UMC, yesterday. By which I mean Pastor Varenhorst challenged her congregation to think. Her sermon was drawn from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Hollywood films of the 1930s have not only colored our understanding of ancient Egyptian religion; they’ve prejudiced us to imagine the Egyptians preoccupied with death. But Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the avenging mummy, kept alive by the distillation of three tana leaves, has as much to do with Egyptian salvation as fruitcake does with the meaning of Christmas.

At the British Museum, there is a copy of the Book of the Dead prepared especially for Hunefer, a scribe of the 19th Dynasty (ca 1275 BCE). In addition to spells and incantations meant to evoke the favor of the gods, it also includes the list of forty-two questions that will be asked of the deceased in his or her pursuit of the afterlife. Hunefer lived knowing the questions he would eventually be asked. And he knew the consequences for providing replies that were either unsatisfactory or untruthful. Frankly, they make the Ten Commandments look like a CliffsNotes study guide. Try your hand at them today—but its O.K. to keep the answers to yourself. My current score is well below fifty percent.

  1. I have not committed sin.
  2. I have not committed robbery with violence.
  3. I have not stolen.
  4. I have not slain men or women.
  5. I have not stolen food.
  6. I have not swindled offerings.
  7. I have not stolen from God/Goddess.
  8. I have not told lies.
  9. I have not carried away food.
  10. I have not cursed.
  11. I have not closed my ears to truth.
  12. I have not committed adultery.
  13. I have not made anyone cry.
  14. I have not felt sorrow without reason.
  15. I have not assaulted anyone.
  16. I am not deceitful.
  17. I have not stolen anyone’s land.
  18. I have not been an eavesdropper.
  19. I have not falsely accused anyone.
  20. I have not been angry without reason.
  21. I have not seduced anyone’s wife.
  22. I have not polluted myself.
  23. I have not terrorized anyone.
  24. I have not disobeyed the Law.
  25. I have not been exclusively angry.
  26. I have not cursed God/Goddess.
  27. I have not behaved with violence.
  28. I have not caused disruption of peace.
  29. I have not acted hastily or without thought.
  30. I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern.
  31. I have not exaggerated my words when speaking.
  32. I have not worked evil.
  33. I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds.
  34. I have not polluted the water.
  35. I have not spoken angrily or arrogantly.
  36. I have not cursed anyone in thought, word or deeds.
  37. I have not placed myself on a pedestal.
  38. I have not stolen what belongs to God/Goddess.
  39. I have not stolen from or disrespected the deceased.
  40. I have not taken food from a child.
  41. I have not acted with insolence.
  42. I have not destroyed property belonging to God/Goddess

In some translations of the Forty-two Principles there is one I particularly like: Is there one upon the Earth who is glad thou hast lived?

At the far left of the scroll shown here, Hunefer is being escorted by Anubis, the god of the dead, to the scale of ma’at [pronounced “may-et”], where the deceased’s heart will be weighed against the single feather of Truth. Whether personified or shown as an ostrich plume, Ma’at refers to the ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. A heavy heart will be eaten by Ammit, “the devourer of the dead”, and the deceased will cease to exist. But a successful weighing will bring Hunefer one step closer to eternity in The Fields of Bullrushes.

For a full treatment of the subject, I heartily recommend:


Lud Heat

Lud Heat is a 1975 book by Iain Sinclair, a work I encountered thirty-three years ago and with which I have never quite come to grips.

The format is unusual and episodic but it is essentially a psycho-geographic exploration of the spatial relationship between and among the churches of English Renaissance architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. For me, as a fanatic of anything Hawksmoor, its most notable spawn has been Peter Ackroyd’s historical novel Hawksmoor, which I also highly recommend for some dark and stormy night when you’re unable to sleep. It won’t help, but you’ll thank me.

“Lud” is a curious word, with biblical intimations— “And Lud languished in the belly of the sturgeon” —as well as with English slang. One might wish it to have a connection with Luddites—much on my mind these days for obvious reasons—but that rebellious retrograde movement is named for Ned Ludd, though the temptation to connect them is strong. Sinclair’s Land of Lud consists of the eastern or Tower Hamlets, an economically disadvantaged set of inner boroughs (formerly Stepney, Poplar, and Bethnal Green) merged in 1965. Many of you will know it from the BBC series “EastEnders”. The contention is that Hawksmoor’s churches form a psycho-geographic pattern rich with arcane and forgotten meaning. the term itself was coined in 1955 by Guy Debord to focus “on our psychological experiences of the city, and reveals or illuminates forgotten, discarded, or marginalised aspects of the urban environment.” Iain Sinclair accomplishes this in a more or less poetic framework, though “poetry” as you may not recognize it.

If there is anything psycho-geographic going on here, someone else will have to discern it.

And somewhere in the house I have an original copy of Sinclair’s book, which is apparently worth a bloody fortune!

The Syndicate Mill (1.2)

Water is Power

Other than finding Iowa had a substantial number of water-powered mills—for grain production most likely, but also possibly lumber manufacture—its surprising how few photographs or drawings there are distinguishing the three principal types: 1) over-shot, 2) under-shot, and 3) side-shot. I can’t say why I chose the side-shot variety for Agincourt’s Syndicate Mill, but it’s what I designed back in 2008 when the project was young.

Side-shot wheels, as you might suspect, lie on their side and the water passes them on the left or the right—does being in the Northern Hemisphere make any difference?—and then transfers the power directly up into the mill, where various cogs and belts transfer it to as many places as practicable. I can’t say what proportion of 19th century wheels operated this way; clearly, if photographs are to be believed, the other two types were more popular. Then, again, side-shot wheels aren’t especially photogenic. This image comes from an article at waterhistory.org.

Though I’m hardly an authority on 19th century industrial technology (where’s Elliott when you need him?), the general idea was that water from the mill pond would be diverted as high as possible on the contours and then split, passing in two raceways beneath the building’s first phase on its way back to the river. Phase Two mirrored the first, with an administrative “hyphen” between them; imagine a similar element reflected off the right side of the plan below. But would a river like the Muskrat have produced enough power for such a large facility? Until someone tells me otherwise (and even if they do) I’m sticking with this first gut reaction.


The Syndicate Mill (1.1)


Ever ready to find things I wasn’t seeking, the on-line auction source offered up a postcard (beyond my means) of a three-story manufacturing building on Long Island. From the early 19th century, I thought the point of view and general proportions seemed very much like the Syndicate Mill. The central bay is too narrow—insufficient to drive a wagon through—and the building is half the necessary length. But I found it nicely reassuring.

Full Circle

Full Circle, or long way round the barn

Opinions on the Cult of the Saints—especially among Protestants—range from the quaint and curious to idolatry. According to Alan Jacobs, historian of early Christianity Peter Brown offers an explanation for the rise of the cult of the saints in the late Roman world:

[Brown] explains that the emphasis of early Christian preaching on judgment, on the human need for redemption from sin, brought to the minds of common people — among whom Christianity was early successful — their social and political condition. Having strictly limited powers to remedy any injustice they might suffer, or to clear themselves of any charges of wrongdoing, they turned, when they could, to their social betters in hope of aid. If a local patrician could befriend them — could be, at least for a time, their patron — then they had a chance, at least, of receiving justice or at least escaping punishment. “It is this hope of amnesty,” Brown writes, “that pushed the saint to the foreground as patronus. For patronage and friendship derived their appeal from a proven ability to render malleable seemingly inexorable processes, and to bridge with the warm breath of personal acquaintance the great distances of the late-Roman social world. In a world so sternly organized around sin and justice, patrocimium [patronage] and amicitia [friendship] provided a much-needed language of amnesty.

As this cult became more and more deeply entrenched in the Christian life, it made sense for there to be, not just feast days for individual saints, but a day on which everyone’s indebtedness to the whole company of saints — gathered around the throne of God, pleading on our behalf — could be properly acknowledged. After all, we do not know who all the saints are: no doubt men and women of great holiness escaped the notice of their peers, but are known to God. They deserve our thanks, even if we cannot thank them by name. So the logic went: and a general celebration of the saints seems to have begun as early as the fourth century, though it would only be four hundred years later that Pope Gregory III would designate the first day of November as the Feast of All Saints.”  ― Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History

But the acknowledgment of “saints” isn’t peculiar to the Roman Catholic church; it exists in other branches of Christianity and can be found in other religious traditions like Buddhism and Islam. In practically all faith traditions, a few are acknowledged for lives well lived and gruesome deaths endured in pursuit of redemption. In the case of Antoni Gaudí, a Catalan architect of Barcelona, whose works have been associated with miraculous cures, he has already been beatified—a first step toward acknowledgment of his faith—and soon there will be churches bearing his dedication. Wouldn’t you want to design the first church named for an architect-saint? It has the allure of the sign that warns of “wet paint”—you have to touch it. Agincourt’s Roman Catholics want to remind us of the saint originally associated with their parish, a name rarely invoked since the consecration of Christ the King in 1951.

When Rev Francis Manning came in the mid-1860s to establish the church here, he struggled to find a dedicationy saint who could unite a motley congregation representing multiple ethnic traditions; to settle on one name is effectively taking sides. “Catholic” means universal, but it is a universe of solar systems circling their favorite star. A legendary storm offered Manning—an Irish immigrant, by the way, and inclined to saints like Padraig and Columba—a storm that, it is claimed by reputable sources, rained fish and a curious bit of nautical flotsam. Or is it jetsam?

Several miles northwest of town, the deluge deposited a ship’s mast through the roof of Herman Schutz’s Barn—barely missing his prized holstein. Manning took the hint, searching church literature for saints associated with the sea. For reasons unspecified, he settled on Ahab, obscure 3rd-4th century saint barely noted in ecclesiastical sources, and the original church—a design by Rev Manning—was duly consecrated in the fall of 1867. Both priest and church aged in tandem, and it was an open question which would retire first. [A brief history of Saint Ahab’s can be found elsewhere in four parts.]

Saint Ahab’s sailed about the parish like the ships that were its inspiration. When outgrown in the mid-1880s, it was recycled as a chapel at Grou and then returned as the cemetery chapel here. Finally, priest and chapel were reunited in 1950 when Rev Manning’s bones were discovered during excavations for the current building. All of which brings us to the present—by the long way round the barn.

The Agincourt parish celebrates it’s sesquicentennial this year and honors its founding as Sant Ahab’s. Architects have been invited to propose designs for a new chapel, attached west of the chancel, where it will serve as crying room, wedding and funeral chapel, and a place for quiet meditation. The peripatetic saint himself will take up residence in the form of an Orthodox religious icon, authentically painted by artist Jonathan Taylor Rutter.

In praise of paper and its gathering into folios

“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

An educational institution of my acquaintance had until recently a head of libraries who was actively and openly hostile to paper. And the discrepancy on that (and probably other matters) between her and her staff was represented by a 110% staff turnover in a twelve month period—you may disagree but that speaks volumes to me about both management skills and the dedication of those people to the historic principles of librarianship. I’m happy to report a change of administration and the arrival of someone with a far broader understanding of an academic library—and a better way with people.

The book’s demise has been foretold since arrival of the computer—which, by the way, was supposed to reduce our consumption of paper by 75% or some such number, but has actually multiplied it—though rumors of the book’s projected disappearance may predate even that. [The demise of book publishers, on the other hand, remains an open question, as does the existence of independent booksellers.]

Then there is the matter of handwriting.

Have you read the Common Core standards currently in place for elementary education? Don’t. Their simplistic single-mindedness is frightening. Physicality—which many scientists say is crucial to brain development in pre-adolescents; the real physical interaction of someone with both books and writing implements—has all but disappeared from the K-12 educational system in public schools. Words appear on a computer, put there in one of two ways: 1) scanning a physical book or print periodical as a PDF file, or 2) keyboard production through word-processing software. One of the witnesses in the Treyvon Martin case could not read a letter she had dictated to someone else, not because she was illiterate, but because she could neither write nor read cursive. She was made to seem ignorant, when the fault lay with the educational system that had ill-prepared her for life.

Toward the other end of the spectrum, a graduate level academic supervising the dissertations of PhD candidates has found that graduate students doing archival work—that is, reading actual 19th century documents as original source material for their theses—also cannot read cursive.

I recall a day at the Wisconsin Historical Society library and archive in Madison, investigating the lives of Joseph and Julia Jackson, early residents of Williston, North Dakota about 1910. Mrs Jackson wrote her mother in Madison every day, sometimes twice, in both the morning and afternoon. I was curious about the construction of their home but more than enjoyed Mrs Jackson’s droll correspondence about the baby’s progress and Joe’s cough. What made the process grueling was twofold: Julia Jackson wrote in cursive (not a problem once you get attuned to someone’s handwriting conventions) and she economized on paper by using both sides and writing twice on each—two texts at right angles to one another. This was common throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. By the late afternoon, however, there was a metaphorical ax in the middle of my forehead. I craved aspirin, with an alcohol chaser, but I had also answered my question about the Jackson home.

But what, you may well ask, does this have to do with Agincourt?

The Agincourt Project has inevitably become a reflection of my own defaults and prejudices. And that has just as inevitably been manifest in some of the community’s documentation: handwritten letters, posters and advertising, signatures on documents. One component of the October exhibit will be a vignette from the living room of retired school principal Rose Kavana: a grouping of oriental carpet, handcrafted table a chairs (for letter-writing and card-playing), a woven linen runner across its surface, perhaps a partially written letter beside Ms Kavana’s pen set, a reading lamp for her failing eyesight, a favorite painting hanging on the wall, and a group of books, one of which will be opened on a book stand. I wonder how many will notice: the book is Charles Ricketts’ 1902 Vale Press edition of Shakespeare’s Henry V, opened to page seventy-one where you will find Henry’s speech on the eve of battle:

WESTMORLAND: O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

And if their eyes should wash across that letterpress texture on hand-made paper, will their encounter have been enhanced?