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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Ghosts of Christmas Past #13

robina lisle001

Agincourt’s Nightingale

Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is a film you’ve never seen. It stars Edward G. Robinson in a different role than his characteristic gangster; he portrays instead a doctor seeking a cure for syphilis. When public funding for his research is withdrawn, a wealthy member of the nobility steps in (also played uncharacteristically by Maria Ouspenskaya, whom you’ll recall as the wizened gypsy woman cradling the head of Lon Cheney as the dying werewolf: “At last you have found rest, my son,” she intones with a thick eastern European accent). Ehrlich’s work is successful and an effective treatment for syphilis became available.

Just when we imagine a particular disease may be under control, others reemerge that were thought to have been eliminated. Headlines this morning, for example, hint at a strain of gonorrhea resistant to antibiotics. All of this brought to mind the school nurse I had known in grades three through six: Miss Robina Lyle. If public health is an under-represented topic in Agincourt, Miss Lyle might offer a solution.

When i was nine or ten — shortly after Marge departed — I recall an especially pesky bout of stomach flu. Miss Lyle, ever compassionate, suggested that I be sent home, and one of the teachers was enlisted midday to drive me the mile and a half.

Curious whether any biographical information could be found, her memory lives on, even if her former charges are rapidly dying off: an elementary school in District #217 bears her name. Yet biographical material is still very thin. And ancestry.com reveals only one exciting  fact: she was Canadian born in 1894 and emigrated to Chicago early in her career.

Sadly, I cannot recall her appearance; yet the starched white sterility of her uniform is a vivid recollection. And her glasses on a chain draped across an ample bosom.

PS: This postcard shows a your nurse identified only as Ada. In honor of my Robina Lyle, I think our character will become Ada Lisle. Is that O.K. with you?

Terror and Magnificence

It’s no secret that Nicholas Hawksmoor is and has been on my Top Ten list of architects—for decades; probably since I was an undergraduate. His six churches for the 1710 Commission for Building Fifty New Churches may be the finest examples of Protestant British Baroque and worthy counterparts to Messrs Bernini and Borromini in the Catholic south. All six of the London churches were on the list for my first visit to London in 1971, and I have returned to many of them again and again—especially Christ Church, Spitalfields and St Mary Woolnoth.

Through the vigor of those buildings, Hawksmoor has entered contemporary British literature in works by novelist Peter Ackroyd and poet Iain Sinclair. Thirty years ago Ackroyd published a novel titled Hawksmoor about the occult activities of fictional 18th century architect named Dyer and the investigations of 20th century Scotland Yard detective Hawksmoor. Dyer commits crimes at each of the six construction sites (connected with the real Hawksmoor), while detective Hawksmoor investigates contemporary crimes at those same locations. In an alternating-chapter format popularized by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, et al.), Ackroyd shifts between the English of the early 17th century and that of our own time. A sample of his dialogue invokes a heightened sense of time and place:

And so let us beginne; and, as the Fabrick takes its Shape in front of you, alwaies keep the Structure intirely in Mind as you inscribe it. First, you must measure out or cast the Area in as exact a Manner as can be, and then you must draw the Plot and make the Scale. I have imparted to you the Principles of Terrour and Magnificence, for these you must represent in the due placing of Parts and Ornaments as well as in the Proportion of the several Orders: you see, Walter, how I take my Pen? Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 1985

For a scholarly architectural treatment of those six buildings, look for a copy of Nicholas Hawksmoor: London Churches by Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design.


The qualities of six Protestant churches from the years 1712-1731 have engaged historians, poets, and writers since my undergraduate years, when Kerry Downes may have initiated the juggernaut in 1970. Extricating the work of Hawksmoor from his close contemporaries and  associates Sir Christopher Wren (for whom Mr H was Clerk of the Works) and Sir John Vanbrugh (with whom H worked on Blenheim) has been the task of these past forty-five years, and that reassessment may not yet be complete. My love for these works—whether or not they were designed by Hawksmoor—confirms something about my own architectural inclinations: I am at heart a Mannerist.

1. a habitual gesture or way of speaking or behaving; an idiosyncrasy
“learning the great man’s speeches and studying his mannerisms”
2. excessive or self-conscious use of a distinctive style in art, literature, or music.
“he seemed deliberately to be stripping his art of mannerism”
Technically, Mannerism describes a brief period in architectural history between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. Though primarily seen in art, there are architectural examples by both Michelangelo, Romano, and Peruzzi. But its characteristics can be seen at various other moments in European and American architectural history. The mannerisms of Frank Furness, for example, [viz. the Pennsylvania Academy of Art] inspired fellow Philadelphian Robert Venturi. Likewise, Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik fits a pattern that drew me to his work in Ljubljana in 2006. But, while I confess a fascination with Mannerism’s idiosyncrasies, I cannot claim them in my own efforts.
All of which encourages me to re-explore what this might mean to Agincourt.

Casual and Causal

“Agincourt’s stories have many sources.” I like the sound of that, the way the successive “z” and “s” sounds slither and loop across the page. My words are set in motion by circumstance; some of them from direct experience; others indirectly, chance remarks from friends, social media, news. It’s remarkable (so, I’ll remark on it) that our words often have more power than we intend; that something said in jest, words lobbed into conversation to simply occupy the void, can become the keystone to dissembled thoughts in another mind; unintended consequence. The casual becomes causal.chance


The Company of Cats

When James O’Rourke died in the spring of 2011, I was asked to say a few words at his memorial service. With no idea what to say, I put off preparing something until the night before. Desperate for a framework that might add some objectivity, I settled on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” based on a fragment from archaic Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing”). That binary view seemed the best way to discuss someone who defies easy explanation.

“I have known James O’Rourke for forty years. We were friends during part of that time.” That opening gambit drew a wave of knowing laughter from Jim’s friends and acquaintances in the Concordia Centrum. We’ve all be there one time or another: Those in agreement with James could do no wrong; those out of step with his agenda, on the other hand, were banished to the seventh level of invisibility. Redemption was possible, but an admission of wrongdoing was never his to make. In Berlin’s understanding of Archilochus’ two diametric types, Jim was a classic hedgehog. Without that hedgehog-ness, I should add, this community would be significantly less blessed with art.

Wikipedia’s entry for the hedgehog-fox phrase says this about Isaiah Berlin’s spin: “Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea,… and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.” If asked to define James T. O’Rourke succinctly, “…single defining idea..” would be my nomination; art in general and the gallery-museum in particular were the driving force of his life. Herein lies the reason for the occasional lapse in our friendship: as endearing as the hedgehog may be, I am a fox.

My ten or twelve minutes elicited a little more laughter and one incident of actual applause. Having, I thought, made my case for James’s hedgehog-ness — and acknowledging my unworthiness to be linked, even remotely, with Isaiah Berlin — I concluded with my own diametric duality: “Ultimately, I’m a dog person, while James preferred the company of cats.”

Given my circumstances of the last few weeks, culminating in the passing of our cat Bob this morning, I must re-evaluate that last statement.

bob cat

There have been two cats in my life, just two; both have been strays living in our backyard, and both of them moved in to what I had assumed was a “dog” household. I’m pleased to report that Miss Kit and Mr Bob have shaken my imagined canine commitment.

The Total Perspective Vortex


“The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

“The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

“Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake. ‘Have some sense of proportion!’ she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day. And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.

“And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it. To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

If you have to ask…

If you have to ask, explanation won’t help. It’s that simple.

I’m not trying to dodge the question of why we value the four-legged members of our family so highly. We just do, and no one who thinks otherwise can be made to understand the lengths we will go to afford them aid and comfort. Our commitment these last few days to Bob, our cat—even though he has a long way to go in the healing process—reminds me that Agincourt lacks a veterinarian. I’ve tried to entice a Fargo-Moorhead architect (who shall not be named) to tackle the design of a contemporary animal hospital and have thusfar been unsuccessful. Recent experience with at least three DVMs in Fargo, however, tells me to further the story of veterinary medicine in Fennimore county.

Our cat Bob has been very sick for the last five weeks with Feline Triad Disease. Several visits to the vet and a weekend in the emergency animal hospital have only strengthened my resolve to weave veterinary threads into Agincourt’s fabric and build on the stories of Finlay Dun and “The night of the albino calf” and of Martha Tennant’s role in founding the community’s first animal welfare society.


At the “Gold Rush” flea market held at the Olmstead County fairgrounds each year, our friend Karen and I happened on the same item almost simultaneously: it was a worn book by W. P. Pycraft titled The Animal Why Book, illustrated by Edwin Noble (actually, John Edwin Noble) in an Arts & Crafts-like style reminiscent of Sir William Nicholson. We have several Nicholson prints on the dining room plate rail, but Noble’s work—similar yet not derivative—was unfamiliar. Karen and I tossed a coin to see who the lucky buyer would be. I won.

The internet yielded considerable information on Noble (less on Pycraft) and a growing list of books he had both illustrated and written. Along with the Animal Why Book, there were two others in a series with similar treatments of animal-related topics: Helpers Without Hands about humankind’s dependence on domesticated stock, and Pads, Paws & Claws on wilder species around the world. I found pretty good copies of these two and several other marginally less attractive volumes illustrated by Noble, a few of which were written by him as well.


Beyond his beautiful images of species ordinary and familiar, rare and exotic, Messrs Noble and Pycraft may have given us a name for Agincourt’s current veterinary practice: Pads, Paws & Claws. Hooves probably belong in there as well — this is a rural community, after all — but the Pycraft-Noble book is too beautiful to pass by without mining it for ideas.

Apropos of nothing…


Self-awareness has never been my strong suit. So half way through my forty-fifth year of teaching, a critical look at my skill set seems long overdue. It’s a damn good thing I have a job—and one with a modicum of security*—because, frankly, I couldn’t get one today (especially in teaching) if my very existence were at risk.

The clock hands move exceedingly slow, but moved they have, in several respects. First, architecture itself is no longer what it was when my academic career began—both what architecture is and the way that it’s done. This is no bad thing. Then there’s the “academy,” the ivory tower that has been my sheltered employment, with these sorts of change afoot:

  • subtle pressures from Bismarck that would effectively transform the university into a trade school;
  • a proposal from DC which would license new architects simultaneous with their graduation.

Not to mention the arrival of a generation whose values and motivations I plainly do not comprehend. You’ll appreciate this story from Memory Lane:

Until his death in 1965, Burr Shafer contributed a weekly cartoon to The Saturday Review, a literary magazine that may have been a geeky affectation during my high school years. Burr’s was a one-frame cartoon titled “Through History with J. Wesley Smith.” Of the three Shafer images that have stayed with me for more than fifty years, this was my favorite: One brontosaurus turns to another in a sub-tropical setting and wonders aloud: “I don’t know about you but this cold snap has got me worried.” Which begs the question, am I too a dinosaur in a new Ice Age? [There are no quotes because the story is mine.]

The thought occurs to me more often than good mental health should comfortably bear that I’m that dinosaur and there’s a decided chill in the air. Without straying into unnecessary and very personal detail (and an uncomfortable naming of names), eight years of therapy with Dr Bob have helped.

With the fall semester almost behind me (grades are due in about seventy-two hours), the biggest change afoot is my switch from Third Year in our curriculum to Second Year, a level I haven’t taught in about thirty-five years. And makes this self-assessment all the more important: What could I possibly have to offer a group of Sophomores roughly the age of my grandchildren, if I had any?

Among those items thrown on the scrap heap of history is the rolodex™, now so antique that I doubt it would register at all with those nineteen-year-olds I’m about to meet. Yet that is, indeed, what I am: a rolodex of so many mental images of building I’ve seen in magazines, on student draughting tables (though no one draughts anymore either; spellcheck doesn’t even like the word), through personal encounter in my travels, and now on the internet.

I teach by example. Now and then, that example is myself; putting pencil or felt tip to yellow tracing paper. But more often it devolves to a trip down memory lane and the suggestion that a student’s current mental block might be loosened by looking at Sidney Robinson College, Cambridge, or an obscure Prairie Style house in Billings or a candy factory at Noisiel-sur-Marne, east of Paris or David Chipperfield’s latest as yet unbuilt design. What seventy years have taught me is the value of a keen eye — if I only had a pair — and a good memory. I know how to see; I believe what I see; I record that I’ve seen. In philosophical terms I am a Naïve Realist and have to resist the temptation to apologize.

* “Tenure just means they have to find a longer flight of steps to push you down.” — C.D. Elliott