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Object, window, mirror, lens

Whatever I may be these days, whatever my deficiencies, I am not without perspective.

One of the underlying ideas of “The Agincourt Project” has been the notion that we look at a building—any thing, really—in a multi-layered, many-faceted way. I haven’t written about this before and I’m hesitant to bring it up today. But I do now largely because it provides some insight to the way my mind works; I can’t speak for yours. I call this “Object, Window, Mirror, Lens”. This nifty graphic was part of my presentation in Bozeman last week.

object etc

Here’s how it works.

Let’s consider, as an example, a building many of you will recognize: The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona by Antoni Gaudí. Conjure up an image from your storage banks; Gaudí’s is such a powerful conception that I don’t need to put a picture here. Whether you’ve chosen an exterior or interior, overall view or detail, the Sagrada Familia is an architectural object. It has three dimensions (which my photo here certainly would not!) and your experience of it in real time would add the fourth dimension. It has a sense of structure; it has proportion; it has surface ornamentation and detail. It can be described as an entity in the history of art and architecture with sophisticated, PhD-approved terminology. This is actually much the same sort of physical description used in the preparation of a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Sagrada Familia is an OBJECT and it can be described objectively.

Now take a step back from Gaudí’s masterpiece, the focus of his intuitive powers from 1885 until death in 1926 (the fault of a tram or taxi driver, as I recall). The building exists in a physical, socio-economic and cultural context. Therefore we can use the Sagrada as a WINDOW, a blinkered, framed, partial view into Catalunya at the turn of the 20th century. Gaudí was part of that context, influenced by and influencing it in myriad ways. His friend and client Eusebio Güell was there. As was his colleague/collaborator Josep Puig i Cadafalch. As was the Eixample neighborhood that surrounds it. So we use the Sagrada as a tool to understand the close working relationship of designers, clients and craftspeople in the collaborative creative process in 1900 Barcelona.

Whatever you think of Gaudí and the Sagrada Familia—though this part works better if you happen to like it—the church is a MIRROR reflecting each of us who observes it; that is, I see reflected in it some of the things that have interested me over the decades. In Bozeman I spoke of its structural system of branching columns (which were, significantly, not in place when I was in Barcelona more than twenty years ago). Lift your hand and hold an imaginary waiter’s tray and immediately understand how intuition and analogy can work to our advantage as designers. I also happen to be fascinated by fractals, and while I see the physics principle of fractals operative in Gaudí, I do not for a moment believe that Gaudí himself even knew of fractals—or for that matter whether the domain of physics had even conceived them at that time. I doubt it, which suggests that the fractals principle I perceive in the Sagrada is a reflection of my own personal agenda, my defaults. You will see/ be attracted by/ project onto it other ideas that interest you.

Ultimately, Gaudí and his Sagrada Familia are a LENS which enables us to sense the fiber, the entire continental phenomenon that we call Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Stile Floreale/Liberte, Secession, or whatever other nationalistic variant you might prefer. Gaudí becomes a figure comparable with Louis Sullivan (born in the same year, by the way) and is in the same bailiwick as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Koloman Moser, Reginald Knox, Eliel Saarinen and a bunch of other folks whose work characterizes an entire era and nearly a quarter of the Earth’s surface.

This was the point I tried to make to an audience of architects in Montana. This is the point I’m trying to make in Agincourt, Iowa.

Please tell me if it makes any sense.

I’m just trying to help.

To engineer is human.

During the first Agincourt seminar, I introduced the community as having been founded circa 1853 (shortly after a treaty with the Sac & Fox people opened a large portion of northwestern Iowa to settlement) and incorporated as a municipality in 1857, to conveniently anticipate a purported 150th anniversary in the fall of 2007.

In 19th century America, however, any town-platting scheme without hope for rail connections to the rest of the World was doomed to failure. The history of westward migration and settlement is founded on real estate speculation: the get-rich-quick intention to acquire a section of cheap agricultural land, anticipating the imminent arrival of a railroad, which itself was yet a stock company whose route was highly speculative and fully capable of being lured in your direction with sufficient incentive (read “cash”). So whoever the as yet unnamed Founders of Agincourt may have been, it is clear that they either knew something and waited for the railroad’s arrival or that they actively incentivised it in their direction.

I had looked at 19th century rail maps of Iowa and the larger Midwest and announced (with little more than opinion) that the Chicago & Northwestern would have arrived at the southern edge of Agincourt’s townsite soon after incorporation. At which point Justin Nelsen raised a confident hand and told us all that “No, this is Milwaukee Road country.” Until that moment, I had no idea that Justin’s other passion was, in fact, railroading. Not the HO-gauge scale modelling sort, but real-time, full-scale trains of the classic era of steam traction, with all its attendant puffing, belching and wheezing. How could I have been so foolish to not know this (about the Milwaukee Road, not Justin’s interest in it)? Suddenly the trajectory of a large portion of community history had been set: a significant component of its infrastructure now had direction.

It’s good to know things and especially valuable to learn what you don’t know or what you thought you knew but were incorrect.

collard nevers

Justin’s knowledge and design ability provided the community with a passenger and baggage-handling facility at the south end of Broad Street, probably a replacement in masonry for an earlier wood station of the 19th century. His design (now, tragically lost) may even have been a third-generation facility. But we also knew that there would have to be a significant development along the railroad’s right-of-way devoted to heavy, clunky, noisy, stinky, volatile things like lumberyards and light industry, not to mention the potential for actual rail facilities, such as roundhouses, repair shops, etc.

With the exception of the early 20th century addition of an interurban line—using the CMStP&P right-of-way, and then diverting to its own station nearer downtown—much of that urban/industrial strip has yet to be considered, let alone designed.

Does anyone want to step up to the plate?

Incidentally, the image above is a photograph of the roundhouse at Nevers, France, taken by Hippolyte-Auguste Collard circa the early 1860s. Isn’t it amazing! Would that Agincourt warranted such a thing.

What’s a meta for?

This has been a curious week; filled, overfilled, crammed even, with feelings—and the desire to not feel at all. The notion of tsunami is clearer than it has ever been.

A situation—a simple question, really—rose early in the week, and the search for an answer revealed a metaphor for my very existence. So, while I cope with it, Agincourt may in fact be my refuge.

Dr Bob warned me about this.

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens vove!

With a little help from my friends…

Among the growing number of works in the Community Collection housed in the gallery once part of the old Agincourt Public Library, there is an intriguing oil painting signed “Ekholm 1916”, about which we’ll probably never know very much. I hope you can understand why it became part of the community’s history.


Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a bonfire at twilight attended by a small group intent on feeding the flames and warming from its light. I have wondered what story might: a) be inherent in the painting itself, or b) find its way into the painting as part of Agincourt’s evolving narrative. I’m happy either way, especially if Option B does violence to a strong internal story line. Happily, there is a considerable amount of text written on the panel’s reverse—in pencil, of course, and smudged during the last ninety-seven years—which appears to be in a Scandinavian language. Our friend Molly Yergens speaks fluent Ny Norsk, but she was unavailable for the moment. Ekholm sounds more Swedish or Danish, so I reached out to my colleague Regin Schwaen, native Dane and only a few doors down the lobby.

Why do I crave a diaeresis floating above Eckholm’s “o”?

From personal experience, I can tell you that even fine 19th century penmanship can induce migraine to the aging 21st century eye. And, though this stuff is relatively clear, I could make little of it because European cursive is so different from written language here in the States, especially now that few people actually write. Regin scanned it, enlarged it multiple times and still had little luck. But then he sent it to his family in Denmark (Europe’s happiest country, confirmed by some recent survey) and the results are in. Part of it is a poem.


The text on the right is, in fact, the first verse of a famous poem, known to most literate Danes (and I have to believe their general level of literacy far exceeds ours) as “Flyv fugl! Flyv”, written in 1828 by Rasmus Villads Christian Ferdinand Winther and set to music ten years later by Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann. There’s no confusing either of these guys with your run-of-the-mill Winther or Hartmann. I know your Danish is rusty, as is mine, but here’s the text for enjoyment and edification. FYI: Google Translate does a credible job for the poem’s content, though I’m sure much of its actual poetry is garbled. And for those in need of even greater depth, there is also a YouTube video.

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens vove!
Nu kommer natten så sort,
alt ligger sol bag de dæmrende skove,
dagen den lister sig bort.
Skynd dig nu hjem til din fjedrede mage,
til de gulnæbede små,
men når i morgen du kommer tilbage,
sig mig så alt, hvad du så!

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens bølge,
stræk dine vinger nu vel!
Ser du to elskende, dem skal du følge,
dybt skal du spejde deres sjæl.
Er jeg en sanger, så bør jeg jo vide
kærligheds smigrende lyst,
alt, hvad et hjerte kan rumme og lide,
burde jo tolke min røst.

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens rislen,
kærlighed kalder dig hjem.
Sæt dig nu kønt mellem løvbuskens hvislen,
syng så din kærlighed frem!
Kunne, som du, jeg i æteren svømme,
véd jeg nok, hvor gik min flugt.
Jeg kan i lunden kun sukke og drømme,
det er min kærligheds frugt.

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens vande,
langt, langt bort i det blå!
Ensomt i skoven ved fjerneste strande
ser du min favre at gå.
Gulbrune lokker de flagre i vinden,
let er hun, rank som et aks,
øjet er sort, og roser har kinden,
ak, du kan kende hende straks!

Flyv, fugl! Flyv over Furesøens brusen,
dybt drager natten sit suk!
Træerne hviske med ængstelig susen,
hilse godnat med et buk!
Har du ej lyttet til mangefold smerte,
selv hos den fjedrede flok?
Sig et godnat til mit bævende hjerte,
sig det, du véd det jo nok!

Still, of course, there remains the painting and how this curious penciled note might color the story. Could the 1916 date tell us something? Europe was at war, though Sweden and Denmark remained neutral. Perhaps a further translation of the remaining text will answer that question.

Advice is not only welcome but encouraged.

“And their apricot Weertervlaai is delicious!”

“There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” —Michael Caine’s character Nigel Powers in “Goldmember”



Ethnicity in Agincourt’s story has played a minimal role—to date. In naming its Roman Catholic parish, for example, I had avoided several saints’ names because so many of them have nationalistic overtones, as patrons of specific countries; that’s where Ahab came to my aid (as he will to yours, if you’re a pirate or suffer from OCD).

Native Americans (or the happier “First Nation” umbrella used by Canada) figured in the earliest history of the place, used as it was as a seasonal campground for the Sac & Fox people. A burial mound from pre-European settlement interrupted the path of Third Street SE, near the Martin Richard Elementary school. And, of course, our first fifty years were closely connected with the life of Cissy Beddowes, wife of Indian Agent Amos Beddowes and herself a medicine woman of the Sac & Fox. As the friend of Maud Adams and Belle Miller—it’s difficult to think of those two women even being on speaking terms—their triumvirate changed the lives of many 19th century women in the community.

On the first block of North Broad there is Hansa House, home of the old German-American Insurance Co., now less parochially part of the Farm Bureau. Its pedimented front was intended to evoke the narrow slabs of Hanseatic League cities such as Lübeck or Gdansk. A social hall for the Germanic population in this region once occupied the fourth floor, which has since become an apartment (though the aroma of kraut and bier may still permeate the walls and floors). But by and large, Agincourt has been a Yankee town until after the Second World War, with the arrival of ethnicities and races unimagined by the Founders.

Oh, wait, then there’s Vandervort’s Bakery, delicious tip of the Dutch iceberg in these parts.

The Dutch in Iowa

The largest number of Dutch settlers in 19th century Iowa came to Pella in central Iowa and Orange City not far from Agincourt in the northwest. Both were founded by Dutch Protestants seeking religious freedom, which they apparently could not enjoy in The Netherlands. Strange, since I had always thought of the Dutch as among the most tolerant of Europeans: socially conservative, but accepting of other beliefs and behaviors. But the Low Countries in the 19th century were in turmoil. Both Belgium and The Netherlands were culturally bifurcated by religion and politics—Catholic and Protestant, urban and rural, Socialist and its socio-economic antithesis. So it was enticing to imagine some of these folks within the confines of Fennimore county. Which brings us to evidence of Nederlanders hereabouts.

Most recently, of course, Howard has written about Dr Henry Cuijpers, but he came in the early 20th century and there were arrivals long before then.

Vandervort’s Bakery has been at 114 North Broad Street since the 1880s. Family-owned for two or three generations, it operates today under different management, but the recipes are original and still treasured by generations of patrons. I’m told by my friend Howard that the apricot Weertervlaai* is delicious. I’ll ask him to write something up for us and perhaps identify the family’s arrival and from whence they had come. I have a postcard view of the building somewhere.

Several miles northeast of Agincourt, near the county’s northeast corner, in fact, is the village of Grou, a name with connections to Friesland in the Dutch north. That province has its own language, Frisian, which I am told is the European language closest to English in grammar and vocabulary. [Not sure whether that would make it easier or harder to learn. Our son Tjipke Okkema was a Frieslander.] The history of an entire community is more complex and may take more time (and mental gymnastics) to flesh out, given some of the things I’ve said about Grou already (and may have to retract or rationalize).

I enjoy having my cage rattled now and then and being nudged to expand the story in new directions.

*Vlaai is a generic Dutch reference to pie; Weertervlaai, by extension, is a regional variant connected with the town of Weert in Limburg, most Catholic of the Dutch provinces. How that comes to play with the Vandervorts is unexplored territory.

An unsolicited testimonial

Howard’s last column brought several unsolicited testimonials to his in-box, including this from one of Dr Cuijpers’ earliest cancer patients.


“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Unsolicited Testimonial

There are times when writing this column is akin to pulling teeth: awkward and painful. [Perhaps reading it evokes a similar response.] Then there those occasions, on the another hand (and not often enough) when it writes itself. Such is the case this week when, on Wednesday, I received this letter from a reader in another part of the state. Though the writer didn’t ask for anonymity, I’ve extended her a courtesy by altering her name. Here is what she wrote:

“A friend in Agincourt sent me a copy of your recent column on Dr Cuijpers, who I recall as our family physician when I was a young girl. Though I was only twelve or thirteen at the time, and some of my memories so long ago are fading, it seems proper to share a story with you and your readers. Feel free to publish it.


“I had been playing volley ball during recess and fallen, with uncharacteristic weakness and pain in my left leg. They notified my mother and we went immediately to the doctor. X-rays were both cumbersome and dangerous then, and my parents were cautious about exposing me to high levels of radiation. Doctor Cuijpers took only one or two, as I recall, but based on those pictures of my thigh bone he took my parents aside and had a quiet conversation out of earshot that caused me to think the worst. Then he arranged for us to return later that afternoon, just when the office hours would be over.

“So at five o-clock we returned. Only Doctor Hank and his nurse (whose name I cannot now recall) were there. Mother and I went into the examining room where I put on a hospital gown and laid down on a low table. Through another door, Doctor returned with what I guessed to be his dog. Her name (he introduced me to her) was Poppy, and he explained that Poppy would like to get acquainted with me; that she would enjoy being my friend and that I shouldn’t be wary of her wet nose. 

“Poppy spent some time beside me and in my lap while Mother chatted with Doctor. Her tail wagged and she licked my face. Then she became quite serious about my left hip, which struck me as very odd. Doctor placed some colored salve on her nose, which left marks on my skin wherever she took a special interest. Soon there was a concentration of wet dots from her curiosity and Doctor took pictures of those marks. I had little appreciation for what was going on but Mother explained long after my operation that it was Poppy’s keen sense of smell that had found the tumor pressing on my nerves, pressure that had caused the pain and weakness.

“I saw Dr Cuijpers and Poppy a few more times, but she took no interest whatsoever (as I remember it now) in my leg. Mother explained that the smell of the tumor had helped Doctor locate and remove it so thoroughly that I’d been cured. We moved to Dubuque a year or so later and I never had a recurrence of the problem. I also never saw Poppy again but wondered if she had helped others with her special talent. So thank you for the article about her grave at ‘The Shades’ and the story I had almost forgotten.”

There isn’t much more that needs to be said.

Youth and the other thing

Freshly returned from the Montana AIA Fall Conference (and trapped each way for four hours in cans of diseased air that we call “flying”), I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the experience and conclude that growing old is inherently no bad thing. If Oscar Wilde is right—that youth is wasted on the young—though, I wonder which quality of life might be wasted at the other end of the aging spectrum—the place where I find myself. Happily the good ship HMS Youthful Naïveté has sailed on, abandoning me here to await the rescue ship captained by Charon and his crew.

Beach-bound and binocular-ed, I find myself scanning the horizon, whence cometh help.


And, so, this fragment of a poem by Philip Larkin came to mind:

And so it stays just on the edge of vision, / A small unfocused blur, a standing chill / That slows each impulse down to indecision. / Most things may never happen: this one will, / And realization of it rages out / In furnace fear when we are caught without / People or drink. Courage is no good: / It means not scaring others. Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood.

[ From “Not to be here; not to be anywhere”, written in 1977]

Good will (hunting)


It is utterly astounding what can be accomplished with a little good will and google.translate.

From the relative comfort of an aeron chair…

From the relative comfort of an aeron© chair in the womb-like safety of an NDSU computer lab, it never ceases to amaze how much field work can be accomplished. This past week has been reassuring on that score.


The question of Gabriel Spat’s identity—to the world and to himself as well—continues to engage me. Aside from some required but depressing readings on the Chișinău pogroms of 1903 and 1905, there are only a few outstanding questions as I prepare to sit down and outline an article about Spat, who was not nearly as elusive as his on-line presence might suggest. I’m relatively confident that Spat and Numa Patlagean were, in fact, brothers two years apart in age. Internet sources on Patlagean offer tidbits of background from the Moldovan years, prior to his emigration to Paris. [Here, by the way, the pogroms of 1903 and 1905 would appear to almost literally be “the smoking gun” that drove him and Gabriel from their homeland.] Numa’s (or Naum or Nahum, take your pick) family are rumored to have owned a cement factory in Moldova’s capital city, which at that time supported about 125,000 residents, half of whom were Jewish. In the ’05 pogrom, Gersh (also Hersh) Patlazhan was blinded but survived, and the boys soon afterward lit out for greater security, acceptance and creative outlet in western Europe.

Attempting to answer a few last questions [Did Gabriel attend the local art academy as his brother had done? Can I confirm the family’s trials and tribulations during the pogrom?], I sent two emails last week to library/archival sources in Moldova. With apologies for addressing them in English, it seemed wisest to keep the questions brief, uncomplicated. And by the weekend I knew that at least one of those inquiries had hit its mark: the stats page on this blog recorded three hits from Moldova! Two days later came a reply (equally apologetic for the language barrier, the artifice that gets in the way so often) accompanied by several attachments—including, of all things, my own blog pages on the Patlajan/Spat saga. And the following day, another hit from the Ukraine. What must these people think?

So today, on the third anniversary of its founding, I humbly add blog entry #380.


“Creativity is intelligence having fun”—Alfred Einstein

We’ve all heard of “runner’s high” and some of us may even have experienced it. Twenty years ago, I used to run at the “Y” and achieved that sort of semi-euphoric state more than once. It was as astounding as it was rare. But I wonder how many of us have had a similar experience with design. If you know what I mean, then a Hungarian psychologist has written a book that will help you understand “designer’s high” and perhaps help you reach it more often.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi isn’t a name that rolls lightly off the tongue. Then, again, perhaps it does if you’re Hungarian.

My last encounter with Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow was at least twenty years ago; I need to read it again. About the same time I also ran across Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play, which may be a slightly more accessible text about the creative process. Today my memory has melded them. I recommend both.

The message I carried away concerns optimizing creativity. Children have it in spades; it’s our educational system that beats it out of them and then asks us in “higher ed” to remind out students that they once had the ability to approach problems they’d never seen before with enthusiasm and alacrity. Those of you with young children know exactly what I mean: tell the kids it’s time for lunch or church or school or bed and they seem hearing impaired. Little, short of actual physical contact, distracts them from whatever task dominates the moment: crayolas©, blocks, tinker toys©. They are so focused that the line between work and play has ceased to exist. Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram suggests that high levels of both skill and challenge can put us in the zone he calls “flow”. I have been there a handful of times, perhaps fewer than a dozen. But I want to go again as often as my remaining years will permit. Maybe I’ll run into you there!


Let me tell you about two of my “flow” experiences before I begin to dissolve into senility. One of them was in the summer of 1968 while I was working in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger, someone I claim as a mentor. Fred and Gladys had taken a cruise around the Mediterranean, with ports of call from Marseilles to Istanbul as I recall; we got postcards at the office. That summer I had become infatuated with the work of H. H. Richardson, especially his “Shingle Style” houses from the last years of his all-to-brief life—Richardson died in 1886 at the age of forty-eight. HHR may not have invented the Shingle Style but he certainly carried it to some of its greatest heights. Vincent Scully’s book on the subject can’t have entered my small library because it wasn’t published until 1974, so it might have been Jim Fitch’s book on American architecture that introduced me to it.

The library at OU was very good, exceptionally good for an undergraduate program. We had hard copy editions of many early periodicals, which enabled me to sit cross-legged in the stacks, block the aisles and wallow in dozens, if not hundreds, of examples. One night (while Fred and Gladys were still in Europe) I had a dream: I was living in a Shingle Style house and, like all dreams, I took for granted the family who shared the house and the rest of the dream with me. I woke early that morning—probably about six—with the image of that house so fresh that I threw on some clothes (pretty much the way I do even today, fashion plate that I am not) and ran to the office, strapped down a sheet of tracing paper and drew for the next hour or so, until others came in for the day’s work. But by that time, say ninety minutes tops, I had an eighth-scale ground floor plan and sixteenth-scale for the second. Oddly, the elevations of that house remained in my head until the Agincourt Project about six years ago, when I decided to complete the design and give it to one of the characters in the evolving story: James and Martha Tennant and their brood of four children, including young Anson, the would-be architect.

I still have that original drawing from 1968, as you can see.


Case study #2 happened some time in the mid-1980s, when Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor was published. This was probably my first encounter with Ackroyd, the first of many happy reads, but this was special because its subject was an architect and one of my favorites at that: Nicholas Hawksmoor. The plot is devious, with alternate chapters set in the 18th century and the 20th. [Few authors write period dialogue as well as Ackroyd. Pick up one of his titles some time.] The 18th century character is Nicholas Dyer, an architect who resembles the actual Nicholas Hawksmoor in many ways. Dyer designs five London churches, each of which is the site of two ritual murders, one in the 18th century and another in the 20th. The 20th century crimes are investigated by Scotland Yard detective Nicholas Hawksmoor. Convoluted? That’s a large part of what grabbed my attention.

All of the actual London churches created by Hawksmoor are described in Ackroyd’s text but, here’s the catch, there is also an additional church not designed by Hawksmoor, or anyone else for that matter. Yet, Ackroyd’s description of it—leading us through the streets of post-fire London, block by block, turn by turn—is so vivid that I commandeered an unused desk in the Quonset [remember that treasure?], taped some tracing paper down and draughted the unkown Hawksmoor church in a couple of days. These antiques are also somewhere in my office, awaiting completion. Some day…and it had better be soon.

Keep an eye out here for the church of Little St Hugh.