The Old Urbanism (1.2)
As an adult, it’s difficult to play seriously.
We once knew how but lost (or, more likely, had taken away) those childish ways as a part of “growing up.” Read Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, a guide for those of us perplexed by adulthood’s disengagement with wonder. I wonder most of every day: how to see what’s hidden by the trapings of sophistication, the veneer of knowing that my way is better than yours. I wonder how to teach. I wonder what tomorrow will bring. I wonder if there will be a tomorrow.
The ARCH 472 studio moves ponderously slow. But now and then, not often enough, but now and then…
Luke is a born story-teller. He writes well, which can’t be said often these days, but saying it does nothing to diminish my admiration for his abilities; the relative rarity of something doesn’t lower the bar. Building on the Millerite movement of the early 19th century (those folks who had calculated the moment of the Rapture, gave their possessions away and waited with stopwatch in hand, then recalculated, and reluctantly got back to living, calling it “The Great Disappointment”), Luke has brought the story to the banks of Crispin Creek, already known in the 19th century as a site of Revival, the creek standing in for the River Jordan. I’m glad for this part of the story being told by another, because I couldn’t do it with the requisite conviction. Luke is creating a character with an inner fire that will inevitably leave its mark on the community. And some of that mark will be architectural.
Megan, in her own way, is also addressing that metaphorical hourglass and considering what happens when that last grain of sand falls to the cone-shaped pile in the bottom half. I’m closer to that moment than she is, so it’s of special interest to me. There’s already a cemetery in Agincourt, just across the eastern edge of the Original Townsite; three cemeteries, in fact, for Protestants (and heretics like me), Catholics, and the much smaller Hebrew Burial Ground. [I once asked someone to actually design the non-denominational cemetery and encountered my own Great Disappointment. But that’s water long gone under the bridge to the Sea of What-might-have-been.] All I know about Agincourt’s begraafplaats (that’s Dutch for cemetery and so much more charged than the English word) is its name—The Shades—and that there is a sign at its entrance, in ancient Greek, that translates “We are dead. Save tears for the living.” Megan is at work on a crematorium and columbarium, a place to reduce the body to ash and to preserve the remainder of what we were physically as a reminder of our passing through. There are certainly religious considerations here (well within my interest and comparably far beyond my ability), but I think it is the spiritual dimension that engages me. Our cemeteries say at least as much about life as they do of its opposite, so I’m anxious to play in that corner of the sandbox for at least a little while.
There are many other explorations underway: a public library (ostensibly from the early 1970s, but not quite yet in the spirit of Modernism); a municipal power plant; an asylum, soon to close and be recycled as the new Normal School; and someone’s fascination with the Brutalist movement in architecture during the 1950s and 1960s. More on those later.
You know, I always wanted to be an architect. Do you suppose the world is better or worse for not having achieved that goal?
Cleaning my office last week, I ran across—almost literally—a pile of drawings I’ve done. And you won’t be surprised to learn that some of them were drawn as long ago as 1968! They’re a motley accumulation of stuff, mostly ink on paper; drawn for academic credit or just for fun. [Actually, they were all drawn for fun, but don’t let my past instructors know that.] The really odd thing about this pile of paper is simply this: I’ve kept them for as many as forty-five years but I have also made no effort whatsoever to preserve them with purpose. If they have survived, it was in spite of me, not because of me.
These drawings represent me in a role that, I suspect, few people see: RHLMR as designer. I spent seven years trying to get through a five-year program that should have led to a career in architecture, but somehow that didn’t happen. Instead, I’ve spent the last forty years talking about the work of other designers, rather than making my own.
So, I decided to finish two of these early projects—both of them from at least thirty years ago—and hope to complete one of them for display during the department accreditation visit in three weeks. I look at this stuff with emotions that are mixed but nonetheless strong. And I prepare them for display with curiosity, wondering how they’ll be received.
For no especially good reason…
One Almost Might
by A.S.J. Tessimond
One might examine eternity’s cross-section
Wouldn’t you say,
Wouldn’t you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment’s hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one’s palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one’s hand . . .
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?
The Old Urbanism (1.1)
I’m old but not beyond learning. So I really wish someone would explain the “New Urbanism” and convince me it may be something other than a colossal case of the emperor’s new clothes.
Until I can afford a copy of The Charter of the New Urbanism, the sources I have are my own limited observation: coverage in the architecture mags for New Urbanist communities that all seem to be in Florida–Seaside, Celebration and Ave Maria (Tom Monaghan’s ghetto for ultra conservative Catholics; no Mass in the vernacular tongue here, thank you very much). Aside from stylistic earmarks (Post-Modernism) and an enlightened view about the role of the automobile in civic life, I see narrow, self-selecting communities of mono-chromatic upper middle class folks who wouldn’t want to hang with anyone outside their income bracket. I would be tolerated in any one of these communities, but only as 1) an architectural tourist, or 2) a migrant worker behind the counter at the $12-a-burger Malt Shoppe who actually lives in a trailer park twenty miles down the road. “The Truman Show” and “Pleasantville” do little to help the New Urbanist cause. If this is cynicism, then guilty as charged.
A view of Rosemary Beach, Florida, from buildingsavvy.com
Has there been a serious double-blind study of a New Urbanist community that shows its demographics? I’d genuinely like to see a map of Seaside that overlays information such as: 1) cost per square foot of both residential and commercial properties; 2) property tax valuations for same; 3) number of square feet per person for residences; 4) income levels of residents (and whether they are permanent residents or seasonal “summer people”); and 5) some assessment of the non-residents employed there–the folks who actually sling burgers, cut the grass and trim the topiary, wash windows and do other domestic chores (The Help), bag and deliver groceries, etc.; what they’re paid per hour and the extent of their health care and retirement programs. I have my suspicions.
Now, it’s very likely that the three Florida examples on my radar are not truly representative of the full program New Urbanism has to offer. Examples in Colorado, Oregon and New Jersey may temper my sense of the movement’s applicability in more temperate zones and across the economic spectrum. Do I see the makings of an ARCH 720 seminar here? Hmmm.
The Old Urbanism (1.0)
Mired in my own imagination, wallowing in what I think I know, Agincourt continues to evolve. Twenty-plus students in the ARCH 472 studio look at me three times a week and I have no idea what they see. I try to lead them through a five-year-long process that I don’t fully understand myself, yet I don’t really know what they hear. Is that what it means to be a teacher?
There are a few things that I do know: Students will talk to me when they’re ready and a few already have begun to let us in to the stories.
Gabriela has imagined a political figure—a mid-century Agincourt mayor—who may not be entirely wholesome. His story involves a botched application for Jonas Salk’s serum to immunize the community’s children against polio (which I can easily understand, having received the vaccination when I was about eight or nine; I even knew one child who had a mild case of the disease).
Architecturally, the mayor and his wife will build the city’s first truly modern house, which will be a challenge for a student for whom Modernism may be only slightly less alien than the Gothic Revival; they’re all fair game to me, but I’m antedeluvian. Gabi has been drawn to the younger generation of Wrightians—Fay Jones, initially, but I’ve also suggested Alfred Browing Parker, another Wrightian whose work appeared in House Beautiful (an editor of the 50s having been a significant supporter of the Organic cause). Chatting with Gabi yesterday afternoon, I thought she might profit from a broader view of the modernist perspective in single-family houses, so I suggested Your Solar House, possibly the first book about architecture that I recall discovering in my local public library.
The Libby-Owens-Ford glass company conceived the idea of an exhibit and book promoting their products in the interest of passive solar. They commissioned architects (48 of them, plus DC; Hawaii and Alaska were still territories) to design a solar house representing their state. Looking back at the book (a have two copies myself) is an astounding slice of mid-century modernism, including really fine examples by Wurster, Cerny, a very young Lou Kahn, and the Keck brothers—some of my favorite Modernists. North Dakota’s modest entry was designed by Harold Bechtel, architect for the original Klai Hall, possibly the best building he ever did (the house is regretable), but Iowa’s entry may be one of the clumsiest houses I’ve ever encountered. I think Gabi is going to have fun with this.
Brad confesses a fascination with Brutalism, also of the 1950s. (Did I do that good a job selling it in ARCH 322?) Iowa would have been pretty advanced to welcome the crusty crudities of late LeCorbusier or the Japanese. So, here too, he’ll need a broader spectrum of sources before committing himself. The vehicle will be a new airport, either an enlargement or a replacement for Milt Yergens’ reinterpretation of Hagia Sophia as a grain bin! It’s at this point that I especially miss the immediate access we had to the full runs of architectural periodicals like Progressive Architecture and Architectural Record; they’re somewhere in the library system but not available for browsing. Dammit.
Amar has staked out the public library as his building type, a project explored by another student four years ago but not carried very far. This will be the natural evolution of Agincourt’s community-based library: Phase 1, a room in the 1889 county court house; Phase 2, the very building that began this project more than five years ago (and still not complete); and Phase 3, Amar’s design circa 1970 for an expanded library service that had probably grown to be a county-wide or even regional system. Modernism here will probably be more SOM-like, an exercise in minimalism.
More about some of the other projects next week, including a Normal School campus that grew from a former institution (possibly an orphanage or poor farm that phased out of existence circa 1900-1910).