When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
—”The Land of Counterpane” by Robert Louis Stevenson
In the beginning…
There was a fifty by one-hundred-forty-foot lot at a street intersection in a typical Midwestern railroad town. That ought to have been enough—but it wasn’t.
I have been a student of architectural history long enough to know the complex interrelated aspects of the “building birth cycle” (articulated for his generation by architect John Portman, but at work in concept from Imhotep the Wise to the present day). Every structure is the product of multiple overlapping spheres of influence—sociological, economic, technological, aesthetic, among others—that shape it. Two thousand years ago, the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius saw buildings at the conjunction of three ideas: “comoditas” (function or accommodation), “utilitas” (structural soundness and economy), and “venustas” (delight or beauty). The Modern Movement has turned the Vitruvian trilogy into a mathematical operation where commodity + utility = delight; the successful recognition of the first two by definition yields the third. Louis Sullivan summarized it as “Form Follows Function”—a building should look like that which it does; the shoe conforms to the foot (and sometimes vice versa). Having been educated in the death throes of Modernism (though many of us didn’t know it at the time), Louie’s maxim, F³, is ingrained in my thinking.
So, while anyone today could have designed a Carnegie Era public library without much difficulty, greater authenticity required an enhanced and expanded context. Which is a nice way of saying I needed a town, not just seven thousand square feet of earth. The project required a client whose agenda might not be my own; a service population with a different need for information and wildly different mechanisms for access to that knowledge. [Having recently reviewed fifth-year thesis projects as part of my work at a local institution of higher learning, I genuinely believe the degree of success is directly related to the student’s understanding of their client—and that it isn’t them.] So Agincourt became a physical entity of growing dimension and a social construct of proportionately increasing complexity.
Underlying such a claim, however, I also have to admit the intuitive organic nature of my own process. There have been seminars and studios based on Agincourt, with varying degrees of success—widely and wildly varying degrees—which leads me to wonder why. And whether it should ever be again.
The invitation to come and play in the sandbox of history is open. All players are welcome to the degree and intensity they wish. But I remain intensely curious about why you would want to.
If Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem resonates with you, as it did with me as a very young reader, my question is answered.
“I have been a student of architectural history long enough….” One day that sentence fragment will stand on its own—period; paragraph—but not today.