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What if…

Periodically, I like to revisit one of the assumptions of this project: that architects are at their most interesting, their most intriguing, in either of two conditions: 1) when they have designed a series of buildings of similar size and type; and 2) when they have design a unique example of any given type. Louis Sullivan, for example—the Founder of the Feast hereabouts—designed a series of small banks in small Midwestern towns during the years 1908-1919. Three are in Iowa; two in Ohio; and one each is in Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Individually, each is a highly personalized variant of a familiar theme for banking institutions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Collectively, however, they afford us tremendous insight to the designer’s mind as he/she engages what might, under ordinary circumstances, become just one more iteration of the formula at hand; they let us glimpse Sullivan’s mind, his nested pattern of choice in making design decisions. The tea was refreshing, and the leaves tell a nuanced story.

Carnegie libraries are such a familiar type; architectural counterpart to the literary idea of trope. In that same period, they were also more likely to receive formulaic treatment than most other building types. Conventional wisdom has it that Andrew Carnegie provided a basic set of plans for all libraries he funded; that Carnegie libraries are, in fact, identical. Nothing of course could be farther from the truth.

But what of the second condition mentioned above: the architect who designs only one of something. How might Louis Sullivan have dealt with the quintessential formula of his time—the Carnegie-era public library—and avoided the cliches we find so prevalent? Indeed.

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It was especially curious to me that he hadn’t been asked to design one. Sullivan had been, after all, working in communities of the right size and disposition to have sought a Carnegie-funded library. His banking clientele were precisely the sort to be on committees, boards and agencies planning such a civic undertaking. The more I’ve pondered this, the more intriguing the question becomes: How would Louis Sullivan have approached the problem of the small public library? I have grappled with this question for many years, but only in graphic non-verbal ways. And as a teacher of architecture for more years than that, I also know that words can obstruct design thinking. So the “essay” I have in mind may be counterproductive; an excuse to not design. Let’s hope otherwise.

PS: Next Fall semester I’ll have a third-year design studio. Would it be cruel to put this question to them?


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