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Cecil (on design)

Learning about architecture in North Dakota is like studying medicine without cadavers —Cecil Elliott (through Prof Steve Martens)

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Approaching its centennial year, the Department of Architecture & Landscape Architecture must have had several occasions to question the logic of being where it is, and how the hell it has managed to survive ninety-nine of them. What could Elliott have been thinking when he came to be its chair in the winter of 1975-6? I’d never heard the Cecil-ism above, so special thanks are due Steve Martens for bringing it to our attention. But I would counter it here, however—or at least offer another of his observations for balance—with his admonition about tourism.

On another eve—preparations for the first Foreign Study excursion in the Spring of 1977—he spoke to the sixteen or seventeen students (and me) about the value of visiting foreign shores: “If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new, or something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to leave the country.” Perhaps not even to leave the campus!

What I believe he meant was that design, in a universal sense, and its lessons are everywhere. The unprepared, unwilling, jaundiced eye—whether American in Britain or British in America—was a waste of valuable time and good money. I was privileged to be with those students, several of whom constitute my friends even today, for three weeks. Yes, we were innocents abroad and huddled for safety and security at #8, Vicarage Gate, W8 for those four-day weeks, with three-day weekend excursions on our own or in smaller numbers. But we were fucking Pioneers, and I’ve been able to relive the experience and extend the learning curve by pushing farther with each new trip: to Scandinavia, to very foreign France where I had no language skill whatsoever and little tolerance for snooty Parisians, to Bohemia where we were abandoned by Czech rail at Kutna Hora, and eventually to Istanbul, where my Elliott-inspired observational skills enabled me to experience the Çemberlitaş Hamamı (a Turkish bath opened in 1584!) without serious consequence for international relations. Let me tell you that story another time. In the meantime, ask Lisa Jorgenson or Dan Salyards or Justin Miedema about the encounter.

Design problems are ubiquitous and their solutions manifest in the least likely places and the most inopportune times. And, again, I can tell you from personal observation of CDE in the design studio that learning is a two-way street. His example (and those of you who may have had Cecil in a studio/laboratory can chime in any time) was poetry in motion. He was Yoda with better grammar long before “Star Wars” had been written. He knew which buttons to push and how many times were required before the point was made. And that was true for students, faculty and even administrators like our dean Joe Stanislao, who came to a better understanding of the department that grew each year and constituted an ever larger portion of his domain. Joe eventually had the good sense to make CDE the Associate Dean. [When asked how an associate dean differed from an assistant dean, Cecil replied that he had merely to associate.]

In faculty meetings—especially the earlier, more colorful ones where Larry Loh and Edgar Smith lept across the conference table toward one another’s throat—I enjoyed watching him doodle on lined pads, creating exotic alphabets like Sequoyah’s for the Cherokee or Brigham Young’s for the Salt Lake Valley, but with a Cyrillic twist. Or is that a Cecil-ic twist?

Sequoyah_Arranged_Syllabary_ Deseret_second_book

His letter-forms were elegance incarnate with their serifs and swashes and ligatures, as finely crafted, I think, as the mind behind the felt-tip pen which drew them. Listening to Elliott was instructive; to discretely watch was privilege itself.


2 Comments

  1. I have any number of remarkable, even legendary, friends. CDE and Richard Kenyon are among them. You have all seen the M&Ms commercial where Santa Klaus and the M&M characters meet on Christmas Eve and each reacts to the other by passing out, with the exclamation “They DO exist!” Such was the case the first time CDE and Crazy Richard met.

  2. And who the hell do we know in Singapore?

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