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Father Farber


The way things work:

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” says the Queen of Hearts in Through the Looking Glass. As a designer, I am required to remember the future. It is my definition of design.


So when images like this appear on the radar, I simply can’t ignore them.

This vignette of a Roman Catholic priest on the steps of (presumably) his parish church is sufficiently generic to be almost anywhere. The writing on the back (in French, but not very readable) says it is in St. Johnsbury, Vermont; there is a church of Notre Dame des Victoires that is a likely candidate (the French name would seem to go with the French inscription, except there are more steps), but that’s beside my purpose. It’s enough to have a priest standing in the doorway of a 19th century Roman Catholic church.

I’ve written about this process before—moving from the specific to the general—but it’s not an exact parallel with the Deductive-Inductive pairing. Remember the Kohler faucet commercial, where the snooty upscale house-spouse whips a faucet from her purse and challenges the architect: “Design a home around this!” Generally, in architectural practice and the academic laboratory-studio, the specific design emerges from a decision tree that begins with large issues and progresses gradually to smaller and more intimate questions. But the Kohler challenge is a worthy one.

Suppose in ARCH 371 this fall I were to arrive with several sealed cartons, one for each student (and, perhaps, one for me, too) and issue the challenge: “Design a house or school or church or clinic or mortuary around whatever you find in the box. The hinge, floor lamp, door knob, paint chip, or sound recording of Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love again” must be the seed of your design solution.” Tell me I should throw this idea away.

So, for my part, the priest in photo above has become Fr Emile Farber (he was either “Emile” or “Emil”, depending on the moment) and the door leads to the sanctuary of Saint Ahab’s, the Roman Catholic parish of Agincourt, Iowa. Neither exist, which is reason enough that they should.

Curiously, the present Catholic church in Agincourt—Christ the King, constructed in 1951—is the third church to serve the parish. I have an idea what the first church looked like; indeed I described it more than five years ago, though never put pencil to paper. But the second church, the one glimpsed in this picture, has never been clear to me until now.

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