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Monthly Archives: January 2014

A bridge too far…

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories.”—Carson, in “Downton Abbey”

New Year’s resolutions aren’t my thing. Does anyone do them any more?

The resolutions themselves would be forgotten in a fortnight. The reflection, though, on a year (or some other period while the memories are fresh) is worth its weight in—I don’t know. What precious commodity would you suggest?

What does a memory weigh, do you suppose?

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This “year-end review” did result in something that looks remarkably like a resolution. During my four-plus years with Dr Bob, there have been three, maybe four, of what I might call watershed moments; graduations of a sort. Looking back, I’d say they were moments when I was in a room, metaphorically, and suddenly recognized a door, open and inviting me to pass through. I would enter that new room and find the door had closed behind me and, in fact, the door, its hardware and trim faded from sight. These were bridges crossed, moments of personal change from which I could not turn back. The semester break held one of those transitions. So my New Year’s Resolution (NYR) will seem so fundamental to some of my friends and most of my acquaintances as to be unworthy of comment. To them, I apologize for bringing it up.

There is now one small voice in my head that asks a simple question: What is my goal? In the beginning, it was Dr Bob’s voice, but two weeks ago it was my own. That basic question has helped me through three recent situations: 1) It enabled me to heal a wound I’d caused someone else; 2) It helped me understand and deal with a friendship that had gone awry; to accept the consequences of its deterioration and not look back with (too much) regret; and 3) It prevented me from expressing an opinion that would only have done harm and hurt someone I care for very much. If testing my actions with “What is my goal?” is, indeed, an NYR, then I’ve made one for the first time in my life—and it’s working.

Leaving one room for another; crossing bridges. Both good metaphors for me at this moment. Which brings me, of course (you knew it would), to a small town in Iowa.

And to a story “ripped from today’s headlines” and begun in the least happy period of my life: high school.

“Summer Music”

On blustery blizzardy days like today, there can be comfort in the CD player. Put Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music” in and hit the repeat button. I guarantee it will do wonders for your outlook, somewhat like these two images recently become part of the collection.ImageImage

They are both turn-of-the-century views in idyllic New England, a simpler time without gadgets and paraphernalia, when architecture was similarly stripped of footnoted, bibliographed, theoretical underpinnings. Either of these structures might as easily have been “designed” by its owner, by a carpenter-builder or even an architect. “Form Follows Function” as our friend LHS might have said, but that sentiment oozes from other more practical writings of post-Civil-War America. Consider the following wordy paragraph from Palliser’s Model Homes, published in 1878, some years before Sullivan articulated his iconic alliterative phrase.

Writing about the problem of Catholic church design—and bemoaning the large number of rural parish churches of poor quality—the authors admonish:

…[I]t is no reason why the problem cannot be solved by the architect, and all the traditions of the great days of the church still be preserved without turning to his books, and copying something to resemble its predecessors of years ago; but he must work with the materials at his command, combining them so as to form a harmonious whole, and suited to the requirements of the form of worship; and to do this, and obtain real progress, it is necessary to work out new ideas to suit each separate case, and the various materials employed should be treated without any show of deceit, but let wood be wood, brick, brick, and plaster, plaster. Let the construction be visible and sound, and the decoration employed be guided by the simple desire of avoiding all shams, which will increase the beauty and effect of the edifice, and fill the souls worshipping [sic] therein with religious emotion. [boldface emphasis is mine]

OK, so Sullivan boiled it down to three words. The message is the same.

One or both of these images will find their way into the story of Agincourt, perhaps along the banks of the mighty Muskrat River or on the shores of Sturm und Drang. Give me a little time; I’ll work it out.

Cultcha

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The majority of those migrating westward during the 19th century brought the trappings of culture with them. If they had come from eastern communities of even moderate size, there would have been a wide variety of entertainments available—from opera to vaudeville—and those cultural expectations traveled Westward with settlement.

Regardless of the community’s size or situation—whether agricultural or mountain mining outpost—its cultural aspirations mandated a venue for troupes of entertainers “on the circuit”, moving from town to town along the expanding rail network, the same show in a different hall each night, living from a trunk, and very likely oblivious to where they were along the route. In each settlement, the “opera house” was formulaic: two or three stories; central entry flanked by commercial rental space; other rental space along the street for offices and professionals; and a one- or two-story auditorium hidden within, often marked by the fly loft for scenery and curtains. Fire escapes let patrons safely to the ground—if you were lucky. Consider these three—Grand Forks, North Dakota; Superior, Wisconsin; and Aurora, Illinois—as typical of the type:

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Agincourt’s first setting for mass culture was Harney’s Orpheum, a fire-prone building on the south side of the square, facing the Civil War monument. I’ve never designed it, but some day I’ll have to, just so it can burn and be replaced by The Auditorium of the mid-1890s, Agincourt’s valiant attempt to keep up with the Joneses, or in this case Chicago. That building is designed and, in fact, now nicely restored from its ’50s deterioration, one of the city’s earliest preservation efforts.

In the meantime, enjoy this festive sampling of urban audacity.

In Praise of Goats

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“He grazes much but produces no wool.” —Cecil D. Elliott on academic productivity.

Infamously, Lafayette Ron Hubbard—yes, the “L” stands for Lafayette; would Scientology have caught on if he’d kept it?—once quipped that it would be easy to fabricate a religion. A creepy observation on my part as I prepare to spend eleven weeks in Belgium, which has just criminalized Scientology. Enough said.

I blogged here some months ago about our friend Cecil Dean Elliott, chair and faculty-colleague at the Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Cecil was supportive of all my research activities and rarely expressed concern over the discrepancy in my work habits between productivity and product: I can and do investigate a topic to death (and very likely until death), yet never seem to bring the disparate, divergent threads of each project to any degree of fulfillment. The frayed edges of the fabric are always more interesting than the density and uniformity of its weave.

One evening over cocktails at The Northern (a.k.a. Northern Exposure, until they were sued by the T.V. production company of the same name) Cecil spoke of a former colleague from his years in North Carolina: “He grazed much but produced no wool” was Cecil’s one-line cautionary tale, a whop up the side of my nearby head, there being only some gin and tonic between us. I’ve embraced that analogy—perhaps too enthusiastically—and written about it here before. Shortly thereafter, a friend (who, for the time, being shall remain unnamed because I haven’t asked permission to quote him) messaged me on FaceBook® and, as friends sometimes do, shifted the trajectory of my life. Here’s what he wrote:

You mentioned a less than complementary appraisal of your professional output … foraging widely and producing little wool? This metaphor is predicated on the assumption that you ought to be a sheep … you are not a sheep, you are a goat. Goats are independent by nature and curious, thus less inclined to herd behavior. Goats are able to survive and thrive in the wild … to my knowledge, there are no sheep outside of domestication. Some goats offer wool, others milk and cheese. Be proud of your goatliness. This random, delayed response was brought to you by an afternoon of driving around town, and sanding the trim and casement in my porch for painting.

Too bad this person never met that person.

To write in praise of goats will appear self-serving, since I will seem to be claiming for myself those admirable behavioral traits. What the sheep-versus-goat observation did, however, was stimulate my ongoing fascination with religion. How (I inquired rhetorically) would Christianity have developed if Jesus had tended goats as a young man, rather than sheep? Shepherds can be “good”, but so can herders of goats. It is my intention during the next few months to re-write portions of the New Testament from the perspective of goat-ishness and to imagine the trajectory of a very different dispensation.

Happily—for the time being, at least, until the Tea Party makes heresy a punishable crime—I can do this in America. Is it worth noting that there are only two letters separating “heresy” from “hearsay”?

PS: Look at the goats in the pic up top! Sheep are disinclined to do anything like that, while goats seem forever “on point”.

Adolf Loos [1870-1933]

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Despite some of his character flaws—he was a product of his times—Adolf Loos has been in my Top Ten list for decades. I’ve been privileged to see several of his buildings in Vienna and Prague and hope to see others before it’s over. One footnote in Loos’s biography continues to fascinate: the fact that he made a trip to the United States in 1893, saw the World’s Columbian Exposition, and remained in the U.S. for three years, returning to Austria in 1896. Without access to his own personal papers (which I couldn’t read anyway), all the English language sources say is that he visited St Louis. Is that close enough to Iowa to warrant a purported visit by the architect who famously wrote Ornament and Crime?

Pop Quiz #7

While I’m on the topic of church architecture, consider this charmer:

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All is not what it seems here, though, so take care in your ruminations.

Character

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The line between inspiration and imitation may not be a fine one. I can’t speak for you; it is for me. So when the opportunity arose to design Agincourt’s Episcopal (i.e., Anglican) church it was bound to have been influenced by the full range of my exposure to designs for late 19th century Episcopal churches around the world.

As Britons spread the “Pax Britannia” the Anglican church was part and parcel of that process. George Hersey and Phoebe Stanton, for example, each wrote excellent studies of the evolution of “high church” Anglican prototypes as a sort of corporate image for the denomination half a world away from England’s “green and pleasant land.” It was Hersey, I think, who postulated two varieties of the Gothic Revival as it found itself in places disparate from the idyllic countryside of Gloucestershire: when church-builders found themselves in heavily wooded territory, theirs was the “hyperborean” model; in areas where stone predominated, it was “speluncular”. The Gothic Revival was so adaptable that it served well in the forests of New Zealand or the plains of the Punjab. Comparatively speaking, North American was a cakewalk.

Emmanuel Chapel at Manchester-by-the-Sea was built in the 1880s as a parish church but reduced to summer chapel status in recent years. It’s charm is entrancing, a setting for Miss Marple to solve the vicar’s mysterious death from deadly nightshade. The bell cote was a less expensive substitute for a tower, and the “half timbering” may have been real, rather than more typical applique in the 1920s. And of course, no church could be complete without a lych gate defending the sacred from the profane.