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Almost there


There are as many solutions to any problem as there are seekers. Indeed, any designer is likely to imagine multiple solutions to the same problem; it all depends, doesn’t it. Time. Place. Circumstance. I can help students along that path, but I cannot take the first step for them. Nor do I want to. But it’s as painful to watch that hesitancy in others as it is in me.

From where I stand, the most difficult task is, indeed, articulating the problem itself. Many years ago we had a lecturer from the American Society of Landscape Architects Foundation—I think his name was Gary Robinette—who enabled me to learn at least one very important thing. “The true professsional,” he said “understands that the solution to a problem may not be possible with the skills you have to offer.”

Consider, for example, the couple who approach an architect for the design of a new home. The perceptive designer will do his client an enormous favor by suggesting that a new house will not save their marriage; that psychological counseling just might. Likewise, a new factory will not improve production, but eliminating one vice president and replacing another would be a significant step toward increased efficiency. The problem with problems is that we often pursue their solution within the wrong skill set.

The Agincourt Public Library and Tennant Memorial Gallery has been my exploration into the mind of architect Louis Sullivan. His death in 1924 and my birth in 1945 have complicated our communication. And, frankly, one recent scholar hasn’t helped. To a certified INSP, it is the work itself that speaks. The code is there for the conscientious intuitive observer. Would that were me.

Though the impetus for this project was the cluster of Sullivan’s smalltown banks—Owatonna, Grinnell, Sidney, Cedar Rapids are my favorites—I realized that they weren’t the most likely source for inspiration. It was Sullivan’s houses (most of them are too early and the late ones are failures of domesticity) that have offered a wealth of ideas. Four of his late houses date from the period of the banks: the Henry Babson house in Riverside, Illinois; the Bradley house in Madison, Wisconsin; and unbuilt projects for Carl Bennett at Owatonna—especially interesting because Bennett also commissioned the most famous of Sullivan’s banks—and a summer house on Lake Geneva for a client named Goodrich. It has been their scale, their materiality, their sequencing of space that have helped me along my own path toward a solution to the library.


Inevitably, the process of design is also Freudian. During nearly fifty years, I’ve encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of designers and wannabees (I was one of the latter). And my own therapy has seasoned those same years. So it’s clear that the Agincourt Library says far more about me than it does any honor to Louis Sullivan.

Carnegie Libraries

Andrew Carnegie—the Bill Gates of his age—underwrote the construction of 1,800 college and community libraries in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the English-speaking world. And as you might suspect, such a substantial body of work in roughly twenty years has generated a “type” so widely recognized that it’s assumed all Carnegie libraries look alike; that they came from a common source, rather than having evolved into a family of solutions to the relatively new problem of the public library. I chose consciously to avoid those formulas (which I think Sullivan would have as well) in two ways: 1) the Agincourt library would be locally financed, rather than Carnegie funded, and 2) the program would be hybrid, including a memorial gallery and commercial rental space. I wanted a tougher row to hoe; something to push against that might actually push back.


I wasn’t sure that was even a word, so I had to look it up. Pasticheur: one who mimics the literary or artistic style of another. Like a poseur, only worse. Is that what I am? Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

So, the 50×140-foot ground floor serves three functions: a building association and insurance agency; an entry to the library and the gallery. The library reading room and stacks sit above the rental space and, in a split level scheme, a women’s club and community space are situated above the gallery. The distinction between formal and service stairs takes its cue from Sullivan’s Charnley house. And my reliance on tartan grids is a “default” I share with Sullivan.

Though much remains to be done, somehow, I think the scheme is almost there. What say you?

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