You knew it had to happen: Agincourt, the board game.
Board games have survived from multiple ancient cultures—Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, among others—often, unfortunately, without their instructions. Their field of play is, more often than not, a grid of squares, which my designs for Agincourt prove to have been my favorite shape (in two dimensions, that is). So it was simply a matter of time before the idea of Agincourt as an example of “gaming” and my recollection of the ancient Egyptian game senet would meld with recent experience handcrafting building blocks from exotic woods. Is this what they mean by trifecta?
At Zandbroz (our favorite local bookseller) I lucked onto a history of board games. A handful of the examples collected there are ludicrously complex; some defy logic; others are less complicated than checkers. It’s remarkable, however, how few have survived into modern time and achieved any degree of popularity: chess, for example, for which I have no facility whatsoever. What I’ve learned thus far—still not very far into the process of creating a game—is that “rules” may be overrated. “Agincourt, the Board Game” is likely to be a work of art and craft intended to look good on a tabletop. Make up your own rules.
A website called BlankSpace sponsors an annual competition. Last year we were challenged to write an architectural fairy tale or fable but I forgot to register and missed the opportunity. This year, however, another exercise resonates with me: write a letter to Architecture, the personification of a field that has been my life’s focus. Wish me luck entering this year.
It’s a stretch to say that Architecture and I are old friends: he/she is unlikely to know of my existence, let alone be on speaking terms. But I love architecture, in my way, and there are several questions I’d like to ask. My letter is apt to be more verbal “intervention” than anything else.
But who am I to address? Is it the muse of architecture, one of the seven arts personified in the Greek pantheon? Is it the profession, the cadre of real licensed human beings authorized by the state to create buildings in the framework of “public health and safety”? Is it, perhaps, the academic discipline (of which I have been part for forty-four years) which prepares students for the Mediaeval process of internship and examination necessary to join that profession? If it is the profession I should attend: the successful, highly-published architect who dresses the part and comports him or herself in Hollywood-approved ways? Or the struggling recent graduate who clears away the breakfast dishes, drops the kids at daycare, and hopes the phone will ring in the kitchen-cum-draughting room? “Draughting” should be a clue to my sympathies.
Since my letter is apt to be written to the Muse—the personification of Architecture as a broad cultural intention—I’ll use the feminine pronoun, if you don’t mind.
Consider the possibilities of a point of view drawn from architectural journalism—from neither the folks who teach it nor the ones who create it, but from the tastemakers who shape the public’s perception of Architecture; who tell us what it was, is, and might yet be, if we would but succumb to their analysis. Social media, places like FaceBook, for example, feed me ArchDaily and Architizer and DeZeen and goodness knows how many other daily doses of persuasive “information.” My knee-jerk reaction is to “like” many of them with little exploration, basing a five-second assessment on a three-by-four frame of no more than two or three seductive images. I’m getting intellectually lazy. Perhaps I always was.
The O.E.D. may tell me when “starchitect” was coined. And that date may help me understand the origin of a new echelon in the profession: Anointed Ones whose stars are in the ascendant and can do no wrong; whose market area is The World. Often—at least in my jaundiced view—their careers are houses of cards, built of words not works, and the words are often not their own. The Muse has read, accepted, and embraced her own press releases.
A foundation stone for starchitecture may actually have been laid by British architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner—who I met, by the way, oh so briefly in the summer of 1971—who wrote in the Introduction to An Outline of European Architecture: “A bicycle shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of Architecture.” I read it, uncritically, as an undergraduate in the early 1960s and accepted it as revealed Truth. Since then, almost immediately, in fact, I began to doubt Pevsner and that suspicion has only grown in the following fifty years. Frankly, I’ve seen a gaggle of recent Austrian bus shelters (stand-ins for bicycle sheds) that are admirable exercises in architectural design. And I’ve also seen a major religious building now and then that’s genuine crap. A building’s worth, in my view, is unrelated to size, provenance, or type. Enter the Starchitect.
I’ve been privileged to hear many excellent lectures in my own student years and since. One of the most vivid was Victor Christ-Janer, a New York architect of unfortunate secondary reputation. Christ-Janer (a favorite of my friend Mark Barnhouse) spoke at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-60s. In fact, I can pinpoint the date, because it was the evening of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination: Thursday, April 4th, 1968. We gathered at 7:00 or 7:30 for one of the most memorable presentations of my experience.
“I can make your reputation.”
Christ-Janer spoke that night of many things—of his Freudian psychoanalysis and a method of client interaction drawn from that model—and told the story of a visit to the editorial office of a major NYC-based architectural journal, an interview really, during which the unspecified editor took a phone call and said to his unidentified architect-caller “Well, we really wish you’d come with us. We can make your reputation, you know.” At which point, well before the phone even returned to its cradle, Christ-Janer told us of gathering his work and withdrawing, resolved never again to allow its publication. Perhaps that’s why you don’t recognize the name.
I was thinking tonight of several buildings of relatively recent experience, all of them in the Twin Cities, and each of them by a Starchitect. I think of Gehry’s Weisman Museum at the UofM; of Herzog & De Meuron’s addition to the Walker Art Center; of the New Guthrie by Jean Nouvel. Examples of the fetish American cities have developed for iconic buildings that sometimes outshine their institution’s stated purpose. Is it the late Tyrone Guthrie or the latent Jean Nouvel that draws us in? I have my suspicions.
Friends took me to a recent Guthrie production, long preceded by the institution’s reputation and rumors of the new building’s elegance. What I experienced, though, was hype and hyperbole. A parking ramp connected to the theater across the street by a skyway scene shop, but no climate controlled link for patrons. [Readers from more moderate climes, take note: we live in a place of rugged winters that can kill, something of which Monsieur Nouvel could be blissfully unaware or, perhaps, dismissive. What member of a building committee or Chamber of Commerce would confess such local climatic rigor?]
Once across the street and in the lobby, I encountered not elegance but a linear procession akin to the movement of cattle through the Chicago Stock Yards. Guthrie staff were positioned along the way but I never saw their prods. It’s difficult to say if the lobbies were adequate; there was too little light to tell. And the trip up one of the world’s longest escalatoires—reminiscent of happier encounters with the London Underground and the Barcelona Metro—only reinforced the stockyard analogy. There was a moment when I regretted not leaving a trail of crumbs to trace my way home.
The play itself was fine; the auditorium itself acoustically good and visually uncompetitive with the theatrical encounter. But the intermission was only acceptable, the spaces (for our ticket price, at least) were inadequate; toilets were available, even if refreshments weren’t. Ultimately we retraced our steps and the Guthrie’s legendary lighting levels—reading a program there is impossible without a miner’s hat—worked less well than on the inward journey: lights hidden on the way in blinded on the way out. Is it rocket science to realize that many buildings’ spatial experiences are yo-yos of in-and-out? And that what works one way may not in the other?
Am I the unappreciative Provincial, the Fargo rube unsophisticated in the ways of The World and incapable of understanding Nouvel’s vision? I suspect he came to town and gave the Minneapolyps what they craved (and paid for handsomely): starchitectural attention. My perception is mine alone and easily dismissed. But the other examples—the Weisman and the Walker—are equally flawed and comparably disdainful of the simple kindnesses that Architecture can bestow on its users: spaces that fit and flow, satisfy and refresh. Call me old-fashioned.
Those who know me understand that I would not regret watching the Weisman slip the rest of the way into the Mississippi.
William Morris, father figure of the Arts & Crafts movement, founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891—in his fifty-seventh year and with only five years before his death. His intent was to publish limited edition illustrated books fusing the spirits of Art and Craft. In his last year, 1896, Morris published Laudes Beatae Mariae Virginis in an edition of two hundred and fifty.
The printing was an iconic example of that fusion: specially designed “Kelmscott” type composed gracefully on handmade paper. What you may not know is that Kelmscott productions were not often bound in the exquisite materials we often associate with “fine press” editions; that aspect was reserved for the buyer, who would select a binder and allow that artisan to marry the binding with the artistry of Morris’s printing—a natural extension of the A&C collaborative ideal. My copy (yes, I have one) is in the original paper-covered boards and slipcase, butI have often thought to have it bound. The trick is finding a binder.
Yesterday, while sleuthing another topic, I happened upon the work of an English artist of the Pre-Raphaelite wing of the A&C: May Louise Greville Cooksey [1878-1943]. I missed her by two years. She was certainly late among Pre-Raphaelites, most of whom had peaked at least a generation earlier—about the time she was born. As someone who has never been comfortable with the time into which I was born, I can almost understand being born into the wrong gender. With compassion and commonplace medical miracles, the latter can be “fixed.” My problem requires time travel.
The Anglo-Catholicism that goes hand in hand with both the Arts & Crafts and Pre-Raphaelitism has been characterized as limp, emasculated, syrupy and saccharine. Many participants in the Ecclesiological phenomenon of mid-century—which spawned both the A&C and P-R—took the ultimate step in their exploration of liturgy and its appropriate space: they abandoned the Anglican/Episcopal denomination for a spiritual home in the Romish church. Read Cardinal Newman’s biography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, some time.
You might be surprised to learn that Dakota Territory was touched by Ecclesiology in the 1880s when Rev B. F. Cooley, a “High Churchman” from Massachusetts, came here—escaped is more accurate—and transplanted his own understanding of design and religiosity in the eastern third of what was about to become North Dakota. One hundred and thirty years after the fact, you can still see some of Cooley’s notions scattered in the landscape: churches of his creation in Pembina, Casselton, Lisbon, Jamestown, Devils Lake. Don’t bring them up if I’m within earshot, because I simply can’t shut up about them and the others gone to become parking lots and worse. So you might imagine that this Anglo-Catholic phenomenon found its way to Agincourt, Iowa as well. It did and its residue is the Episcopal church of Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter, my opportunity to engage the movement directly and test my knowledge. [Technically, that what all of Agincourt has been.]
There’s an impending addition to the mix that I probably shouldn’t mention. But there are rumors of a religious icon whose painting is in progress; an Arts & Crafts (rather than Orthodox) image of Saint Ahab that will hang across the street from Saint Joe’s at the Romish church of Christ the King. It still seems appropriate.
OK. There’s a huge question in my mind today about the difference between sheep and goats. Much of my curiosity comes from all the social media memes about goats: dancing goats, singing goats, fainting goats, mountain goats. Sheep may have had their day—I’m thinking particularly of those black-and-white Swiss sheep that resemble piñatas—but goats in general get my vote.
Sheep made a brief appearance here some months ago when I mentioned Cecil Elliott’s observation about a colleague in North Carolina who, not unlike myself, researched extensively but rarely generated approved academic product. “He grazes much but produces no wool,” was Elliott’s assessment. I nodded in agreement about the parallel with my own academic habits.
Our friend Jonathan Taylor Rutter responded to that installment of “The World According to Elliott” with a summary observation about goatish behavior and I immediately saw what he meant: I am far more goatish and, indeed, may be a testament to my own zodiacal sign, Capricorn.
Then I began to think about biblical dependence on the imagery of sheep: the Good Shepherd; lost sheep; “Feed my sheep.” You get it. So, given the differences in sheep and goat behavior, one wonders how Christianity might have evolved in a more goat-like frame of reference? Efforts to understand sheep-versus-goats in the Bible led me to an article on the website of the Church of the Great God—don’t you want to know more about them!*—in Charlotte, North Carolina, and an article titled “Goats on the Left,” a political reference, perhaps, that I found immediately to my liking.
Sheep, it seems, exhibit certain characteristics that I found frankly contrary to many things that my education has encouraged: sheep are easily led and uncritical in their thinking, while goats are independent, inclined to “follow a road of [its] own choosing, on a whim or out of stubbornness or independence.” Jonathan may be right about me and I’m comfortable with the comparison.
Somehow—in ways I have yet to divine—the role of both sheep and goats in Agincourt will evolve.
*PS: The Church of the Great God appears to be one of many splinter groups established on the death of Herbert W. Armstrong, founder and television face of the Worldwide Church of God, one of my Sunday-morning staples in the 1980s. Herb, like many founders of “new religions,” was a loon, albeit an inspired and charismatic one. He also had a son—like so many televangelists did, the heir apparent groomed to wear the founders shoes—but on the elder’s death, a schism developed between Garner Ted Armstrong (stunning profile, the glint of expensively-capped teeth and a voice like Robert Goulet) and another senior member of the church’s administration. Turf wars ensued and the WCG disappeared from the Sunday morning spectacle. Until tonight, I had no idea that fragments had survived. The Church of the Great God, according to Wikipedia, has a total membership of 400, all of whom are very likely convinced of their inevitable celestial inheritance, while the rest of us do the backstroke in a Lake of Fire.
And you wonder why I’m suspicious of Organized Religion.
Makes me doubly grateful to be a goat.
In the Community Collection there is a wonderful portrait of two sheep in the opening of a darkened barn. Both are staring at the artist, whose name we only know as Kowalski. The painting has never been shown here because it’s simply too large to fit on the scanner and my hand-held photography is too shaky. That’s odd—that it has never been pictured here—because it was that work which gave a name to the October exhibit: “Landscapes and Livestock.”
The rhythms of Agincourt are set by many activities: the standard calendar and the academic; the church year and the agricultural (sowing and harvest); the rhythms of human gestation. So I feel a story coming on concerning the sheering of sheep and its carding and spinning into wool; the weaving of thread into fabric; the sewing of fabric into garments reflecting both our modishness and our modesty.
During the first Agincourt seminar in 2006, I challenged us to imagine what artifacts from the community had appeared on eBay. Think of all the detritus of popular culture that we leave behind—common penny postcards not the least of them.
- high school yearbooks, pennants, letterman’s jackets, sweaters, and other paraphernalia from our formative years
- church cookbooks
- unidentified photographs, images that should be treasured family mementos but often find their way into garage and estate sales
- programs from fairs and festivals, community theatre productions, recitals, weddings and funerals
- diaries and letters
- newspaper clippings of births, marriages, deaths, and other rites of passage
- court records and police blotters
I wonder often what I will have left behind as evidence that I was here.
One of those many objects that could have told Agincourt’s story was the common Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map, one of the most basic tools for interpreting the patterns of land ownership, the marks we make on the land as characteristic as fingerprints. Just look, for example, at the conflicting geometries of Central City, Nebraska.
I want to make one of these.
In the ongoing spirit of synecdoche, I happened to lunch Friday with David Crutchfield. We decided to try “No Bull,” the new place on N.P. and enjoyed our meal and one another’s company. While we lingered over some conversation, Dave Sauvageau, a recent art graduate, came in with someone I didn’t know. And as we chatted about what he’s doing and who he was with, it emerged that Dave is currently working in wrought and welded metal! I need no more stimulation than that.
A half block east of Broad Street on James, Grace Arbogast once operated a dress shop. But it was no ordinary establishment. Grace had been an ungainly child, much abused during her school years in Agincourt. Her story is one I relish. The headline would read: duckling transforms into swan; enjoys resulting karma.
In the fall exhibit, Grace will be represented by a cluster of objects: 1) an artist’s rendition of her shop; 2) an example of her work as couturier; 3) a portrait purported to be the woman herself; and now, possibly, 4) the actual sign that once hung above her shop doorway.