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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).

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