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Cecil (on nostalgia)



noun: 1. A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past; 2. A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; 3. The condition of being homesick; homesickness.

People may confuse an interest in history for an unhealthy preoccupation with the past. But just because Cecil (and I) taught architectural history, don’t conflate that with nostalgia. Indeed, Cecil may have been the least nostalgic person I’ve known. In my case, anything of that sort might more legitimately be a certain wistfulness: my fascination with a personal long-ago is not so much about what was as with what might have been. I hope that’s a difference. Perhaps not.

For Elliott the past was a series of failed and incomplete experiments. As with James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games (a favorite book that’s given me considerable insight), the past presents us opportunities to finish what’s been undertaken by others; we can finish it, fix it, without being fettered by it.

As an architect in North Carolina, while he taught at N.C. State, he produced houses for faculty and other member of a progressive university community, designed as clean Modernist flat-roofed statements in concrete block and lap siding. Once he told me of a minister who asked for a church design. Elliott inquired about symbols and signs, to which his client replied “Give me something that works for the money we’ve got and I’ll invent the iconography.” In fact, iconoclast—a breaker of sacred images—far more accurately describes Elliott’s position on the whole question of precedent.

He was a Modernist in every sense of the word. Solutions came from the nature of the problem and the range of available resources. He approached our curriculum that way. Likewise teaching assignments. And when it came to budgets and other administrative matters, Cecil played that game better than “his betters”.

Some administrators are trickle down; others grassroots. The former impose the will of upper administrators on faculty and students alike; the latter represent student and faculty interests and lobby or leverage for their support (the font from whom all blessings flow). We were fortunate to get one of those.

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