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“Shall we gather by the river?”

Original Sin

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too? — Douglas Adams


The distant mill and iron bridge caught my eye. I was ready to bid on this card — until I saw the asking price! — and photoshop it into compliance with the Mighty Muskrat and Agincourt Avenue bridge; to make it “fit” the context along the western edge of the Original Townsite. And then I saw what was going on in the foreground: the cleansing of Original Sin.

An older entry on Gnostic Grove includes our first mention of Original Sin. The Grove has, during its long and colorful history,  hosted much that has been considered illicit, but also more wholesome activities such as total immersion baptism in the 1920s — shades of “Inherit the Wind.” But when Howard wrote about that, he never realized it might have taken place with three inches of snow on the ground! So, somehow I feel there must be a story here far more important than creating an image to coincide with a place in Agincourt.



Alone, in the front seat of a roller coaster, the mechanism steadily ratcheting the cars to the pinnacle — the fog thins and I’m briefly in hazy sun as the clicking slows. Briefly horizontal, the car teeters over the top and gravity assumes control, pulling me downward with increasing speed as I hurtle back into the mist. The track disappears and gives no hint of a bottom.

That was a metaphor for my periodic descent into depression. I have no idea how long the downward plunge will last nor when the sun might shine on me again.

I cannot recall a time without depression as my fellow traveler. In fact, so much familiarity breeds a comfort level where my malady and I are on intimate terms. There are days I’m actually grateful for the company.

My diagnosis in the old DSM-IV was 300.4 or Dysthymic Disorder. In the revised DSM it’s been combined with another condition and rechristened Persistent Depressive Disorder, not nearly so satisfying as labels go. We dysthymics wear the diagnosis proudly, though, so I’m unlikely to give it up. I sometimes compare notes with another dysthymic of my acquaintance.


Simply put, this is a general low-level depression that has persisted for at least two years though most of us can trace it back to childhood; mine has been with me since I was about eight. It’s treated with medication (anti-depressants) and talk therapy — in my cases, seven years with Dr Bob, during which I learned more about the condition and myself than I had in the previous sixty years, plus or minus. The list of medications is long but familiar: Prozac™ (which will also take care of those loose bowels), Zoloft™ (“There’s someone else in here with me!”), Imipramine™ (“When was my brain removed and replaced with a wet and swollen roll of toilet paper?”), and now Wellbutrin™, which seems, for me, to be the best of the lot.

Another issue for dysthymics is called Double Depression, because a bout of run-of-the-mill depression can pile on top of the low-grade type and yank whatever rug might have been beneath your feet, simulating traction. That’s where I am today, though the DSM doesn’t distinguish it beyond my normal 300.4. All I can describe from experience is what I call shadows in the dark, a paralyzing inability to direct my attention anywhere but inward, downward; a dread of isolation and yet a simultaneous desire to be away from public contact for fear of a) rejection and b) contagion. So if I avoid you, please take no offense: at the moment I cannot see the end of this, yet I also understand that it will eventually pass — until (I sometimes wonder) the day that it doesn’t.

As a postscript, let me add that posting blog entries about the Akron-Auditorium Plan or the Agincourt Project seems to accompany these dysthymic incidents, which may be my own peculiar way of coping. Thanks for your patience.


“You be careful out there among them English.”

Barn raising 1

Each and every student of architecture (actual or metaphorical) ought to see two films as part of their introduction and orientation.

The first is “Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House,” a 1948 dramatization of the Eric Hodges novel. The film starred Myrna Loy and Cary Grant as harried apartment dwellers in Manhattan who flee the city for life in rural Connecticut. Their architect, played by Melvin Douglas, shepherds them through design and construction, during which client Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) commits every conceivable blunder — a some that are inconceivable.

My favorite scene has Blandings wandering through the rough framing of his new home, when a carpenter asks if the lallies should be rabbeted. “The plans don’t say nothin’ ’bout no rabbets.” The client is an advertising executive; he knows nothing about carpentry but can’t admit that to a tradesman. So he gives a definitive “No” because it sounds thrifty, at which point the carpenter passes the word along to his fellows high in the rafters: “Guys, ya know all them rabbeted lallies? RIP ‘EM OUT,” as a shower of kindling falls about Jim Blandings, still sucking authoritatively on his pipe.

So much for confirming Amos Rapoport’s proposition that general knowledge is diffused throughout a primitive culture but specialized in an advanced one.

Film #2 is “Witness,” a 1985 film with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. McGillis is Amish. As she and and her young son (Lucas Haas) are traveling between colonies, the boy witnesses a murder. To protect him until the trial, Ford’s character police officer John Book takes them into witness protection. When that fails, however, the trio retreats to Amish Country and invisibility within the community. As Book gradually recovers from a bullet wound (and recognizes his feelings for Rachel), he blends into Amish culture.

The scene that contrasts so effectively with Jim Blandings involves a barn raising; the erection in one day of a massive heavy-timber braced frame. And during those twelve hours or so, not only does the shape of a barn appear before our eyes, but we also subtly witness the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next. Admittedly, the gender roles are distinct — blue for boys; pink for girls — but the idea of architecture as both object and process are clearly expressed.

All things considered, I would opt for the Amish world of John Book.

A small point about libraries:

From the beginning, the Agincourt Public Library was unusual. Unlike the vast majority of Carnegie era public libraries — those funded by Carnegie or the many others influenced by them — Anson Tennant’s design deviates significantly from the type.

Not only do Andrew Carnegie’s libraries establish a genuine architectural type, I have seen in print the claim that they were all alike and built from the same set of plans. Statements like that tell me two things: #1) the type actually exists, and #2) a very large portion of our population don’t know how to look at buildings.


I suppose one can claim that their architectural expression is remarkably consistent because their programs were virtually identical. And in given market areas — say, Carnegie libraries in Iowa or in Indiana, which have them in large numbers — specific architects designed many of them in a very short time. Patton & Miller, in Chicago, for example, designed over one hundred. There is only so much variation under conditions like that. So I decided early in the process that Agincourt’s library of 1915 would accommodate something beyond the normal functions of a public library. An art gallery seemed appropriate but I also wondered if income-producing rental space was beyond the pale. I proceeded with that three-part program.

On the 50 foot by 140 foot site, it seemed logical to place the ground-floor rental space at the narrow west end, fronting on Broad Street. The entrance to both gallery and library was placed half way along the side elevation, facing The Commons, with gallery at the east end of the ground floor and the library itself occupying the entire second floor. I was only slightly queasy about such deviance from the norm. Until, that is, I ran across a postcard of the public library that once served Keokuk, Iowa (at the diagonally opposite corner of the state and, therefore, a regional prototype).


Though this building [shown above] has long since been replaced by a 1970s replacement, I wrote to the current reference staff in Keokuk for information. They couldn’t say what retail activity had occupied the from but the librarian confided that, when she was young, her mother discouraged going to the library at certain times of day because the ground floor at the rear corner had been the site of a brothel! I suddenly felt vindicated and free to proceed.

Continuing work on the Akron-Auditorium projects (documenting a bunch of turn-of-the-century Protestant churches), one of them stood out from the rest for a similar reason: part of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, New York, incorporated commercial rental space facing the busier street, exactly as I had done in Agincourt.


This project has taken many turns in its eleven-year history. All of them have been instructive.

Fraternal and Sororital Groups

Spell-checking programs never like the word “sororital.” Like many things in English, the masculine terms have subsumed the feminine.

Fennimore County has had its share of secret societies, social organizations built around mutual support and common interest. Chief among them nationally are the “animal” clubs: Elk, Eagles, Moose, Lion and some lesser mammalia. There are those focused on religious affinity (Knights of Columbus) or ethnicity (Sons of fill-in-the-blank). Even the UCT or United Commercial Travelers was established to provide insurance benefits for the widows and orphans of traveling salesmen. The Ancient Free & Accepted Masons belong in this broad category, too, though they are more problematic to classify (not to mention the KKK). What is important here is that these groups often built substantial headquarters for their activities and the prominence of such facilities was a matter of community pride.

While shopping on eBay this morning, I ran across the former Elks Club in San Antonio, Texas, as an example:

TXsanantonioElks3 TXsanantonioElks2

It shouldn’t surprise us that Spanish Colonial elements contribute heavily to this wonderfully picturesque building. Though it has been photoshopped out in each of these views, the Elks Club stood next to the U.S. Post Office & Courthouse on the northeast side of Alamo Plaza, which puts it on present-day “E” Street, beneath the current Federal Building. Buildings like this housed a wide range of activities beyond actual meetings: playing cards and pool; dining and dancing; drinking and smoking. It would be difficult to estimate the quantity of Cuban cigars consumed in these premises and the equivalent number of business transactions consummated in those smoke-filled rooms.

To date, Agincourt has some of the nationwide organizations like Masons¹; it also has a strictly local organization, the Ancient Order of Archers, though I haven’t given much thought to the architecture of this power structure.

¹Actually the A.F.&A.M. does play into the foundational story of the Agincourt Project, because I needed a prominent site for the public library. A convenient fire on New Year’s Day in 1912 cleared the northeast corner of Agincourt Avenue and Broad Street for just that purpose.


ARCH 771

“Be careful what you ask for, ’cause you just might get it.”


Relief time for one of my faculty colleagues has shifted me from Second Year architectural studio [I prefer to think of them as laboratories] to Fifth Year, a class that sometimes gets lost in the simultaneous preparation for Thesis. I hope that won’t be the case.

I has already asked for a section of ARCH 771 and might have got a handful of students “on the side,” but this new assignment means a full section of twelve. The original intention (conceived for a smaller number of students; perhaps five or six) was to be history-based. Here is some of what would have been involved, updated for the larger group:


You have recently left the employ of one of several architects well-known in the period 1900-1915 and opened your own independent architectural practice. Your former employer—for whom you feel a strong kinship—has been unable to accept a new commission and has suggested you as their architect. Your approach to the new client’s needs will necessarily be framed in terms of your former mentor’s approach. For each architect, I have chosen a building type that either 1) they never undertook (so there can be little chance of imitation) or 2) they may have designed multiple examples of that type (so there is considerable, even too much, precedent as source material). Each architect’s name is followed by a suggested building type:

  • Peter BEHRENS [German; 1868-1940] — A public bathhouse for an urban neighborhood (Berlin)
  • H. P. BERLAGE [Dutch; 1856-1934] — A private banking house
  • Ralph Adams CRAM [American; 1863-1942] — Single-family residence for a university faculty member
  • Adolf LOOS [Austrian; [1870-1933] — A private banking house
  • Sir Edwin LUTYENS [English; 1869-1944] — Single-family residence for a university faculty member
  • Marion MAHONY [American; 1871-1961] — A rare book library and archive (Chicago)
  • Bernard MAYBECK [American; 1862-1957] — Single-family residence for a university faculty member
  • Ludwig MIES VAN DER ROHE [German; 1886-1968] — A rare book library and archive
  • Auguste PERRET [French; 1874-1954] — A public bathhouse for an urban neighborhood (Paris)
  • Louis SULLIVAN [American; 1856-1924] — Single-family residence for a university faculty member
  • Henry VAN de VELDE [Belgian; 1863-1957] — A rare book library and archive
  • Otto WAGNER [Austrian; 1841-1918] — A private banking house (Vienna)

The original Mentor list included just six names — architects admittedly on my “Top Ten” —  so I rounded it up to eleven, a reasonable slice of movers and shakers whose careers, thankfully, have decent library and on-line coverage.


The task is fairly straightforward: Analyse the work of the architect you’ve chosen, with special emphasis on buildings like the assigned project type; buildings of similar or analogous function and comparable size and/or complexity. Draw from that some insights on how your mentor approached problem solving (in the context of their time and place; I apologize there is only one woman on this list). How do they conceive space? Does structure play a strong role? What about the more abstract aspects of design, like proportion. If “ornament” is present, how is it deployed? Then apply these principles to your given design problem. And finally, how should your scheme be presented to the client; what medium?



In 1927, eighteen modernist architects participated in the design of a housing exhibition in Stuttgart. Known as the Weißenhofsiedlung, it survived World War II and remains a vital residential neighborhood in the city. Two of its houses — a duplex by LeCorbusier — have been restored as a museum interpreting the projects intentions as well as its history. This is a two-fold exercise. After having familiarized yourself about the project and its underlying intentions, you will 1) play the role of the nineteenth architect participating in the project and add your contribution to the group, working within the tenets and technologies of the period 1927 [a site will be designated], and then 2) interpret the same program as a contemporary (i.e., now) addition; a “late entry” to the mix.



The Agincourt Project [which some of you may know from Third Year studio] is an exercise in historical fiction. Last February I attended a conference on that broad topic and presented Agincourt as a laboratory example. For this option, choose a work of literature, probably a novel, that uses language and plot to establish an imaginary world; a vision so strong in your mind’s eye that it become virtual. In my own case, Hawksmoor, a novel by Peter Ackroyd, did precisely that: in telling a fictionalized version of the life and architectural career of the real Nicholas Hawksmoor, Ackroyd’s fictional architect Nicholas Dyer designs not only the six real Hawksmoor London churches; but he also imagines a seventh church, which became so real in my own imagination that I began to design it — in the style of the real Nicholas Hawksmoor. So choose a literary work (one which hopefully is familiar) and show us what that author has created in your mind’s eye.

While this entire studio experience is intended to be both playful and a true learning experience — one that will expose you to a number of architectural ideas and issues that we kick casually around the studio but rarely discuss or define in any detail — it may very well be one of the more difficult design experiences you will have had at NDSU prior to your Thesis project. I look forward to guiding you through this process and maximizing its impact on your thinking.

Arcade 1.2

Urban shopping arcades came in all shapes, sizes, and architectural styles. Consider these two in Milwaukee and Minneapolis:


Or the Providence Arcade (Providence, RI), one of America’s oldest and recently converted to micro-loft living units.

providence arcade

De Bijenkorf [Arcade 1.1]

de Bijenkorf

During my first trip to Amsterdam, I shopped at de Bijenkorf, the city’s equivalent of Nordstrom’s: understated high end retail.

The Amsterdam store is just off the Damrak and not far from H. P. Berlage’s famous Stock Exchange. The building itself isn’t much, but company stores in some other Dutch cities are more notable. In Den Haag, for example, it’s an “Amsterdam School” design by Piet Kramer [see below] and the store in Rotterdam is post-war, replacing one destroyed by allied bombing, I suppose. Even that store is worth your attention, as a rare commercial design by Marcel Breuer.

de bijenkorf today

Several years ago we had an AFS exchange student living with us for a year — Tjipke Okkema, from the Netherlands — so one day I asked naïvely what “de Bijenkorf” meant, thinking it might be a family name. Chip looked at me with mild disbelief: “It means bee hive [you ninny!]” [He didn’t add that past part.] Not only did that make sense conceptually — a department store is, after all, a hive of individual shops — but it also made sense of Breuer’s relatively windowless box in Rotterdam’s, which is clad in hexagonal precast panels.

[Incidentally, the Breuer building in Rotterdam replaced the earlier building which had been designed by Willem Dudok! A whole seminar could be built around De Bijenkorf’s architectural history.]


Perhaps it was the Dutch colony at Pella, Iowa that encouraged me to imagine the department store in Agincourt [there are Varenhorsts nearby at Storm Lake]; perhaps the beguiling “IJ” ligature in the Dutch language as a substitute for “Y.” I’d already created a men’s haberdashery run by an emigrant Hungarian named Sandor Szolnay. Working with Mark Roelofs, one of the first to play in the sandbox and himself of Dutch ancestry, the course was set.

The de Bijenkorf enterprise would serve several purposes: #1) It’s arrival and evolution made more sense on the “wrong” side of town, south of The Square on Broad Street, where two or perhaps three pre-existing late Victorian stores could be acquired and adapted; #2) the adjacent Blenheim Hotel created the opportunity for a link across Adams Alley, a link that could reinforce the notion of alley culture; and #3) the disparate exteriors of de Bijenkorf’s multiple buildings might generate a 1920s remodeling to unify their jumbled styles into a cohesive corporate image. Oh, and #4) I could also use it to simulate the character of an arcade.

If the topic hasn’t already been beaten to death, this is the way the Agincourt Project works.

One-point Perspective [Arcade 1.0]



Arcades were relatively common in American cities of every size. There might have been one in your town.

The Cleveland Arcade runs between Superior and Euclid, taking advantage of a change in level, effectively giving it two “ground floors.” Above those are three more levels of small shops and professional offices. Wauseon, at the other side of the state, built a smaller but equally effective arcade that survived for ninety years, only to be destroyed by fire. I had hoped Agincourt might develop its own through-the-block climate-controlled pedestrian-friendly shopping experience, but the occasion never occurred.

De Bijenkorf, Agincourt’s department store, might have some of Wauseon’s qualities. It runs only from street to alley, just 140 feet, but the alley is covered with its own 140 feet of glazed roof [an excuse to imagine the community’s own iron foundry]. It’s the closest I’ve been able to get to these two beautiful examples.

River Rats

The River Rats

Aspects of Agincourt history are often based on my own experience. The connection is usually positive but on occasion it’s a negative reaction to what I’ve seen. The relationship between Fargo-Moorhead and the Red River of the North, for example, has a checkered history: initially the river was a source of food and the focus of recreation but by mid-century we had essentially turned our backs on the Red. Private interests took advantage for residential sites but, as a public resource, it was ignored. I’ve kept that in mind while imagining the Mighty Muskrat.

river rats

Like Moorhead and Fargo, I thought Agincourt’s earliest settlers sought fish and other wildlife from and along its banks. But as the city’s character shifted from frontier to urban, I hoped the Muskrat could remain, as they say, “a place of resort.”

Shanties of rough wood and canvas, built as weekend retreats, shifted gradually to more sophisticated construction. The squatters who seasonally occupied the river’s west bank — known in the community as “River Rats” — eventually found themselves at odds with the law. “Authority” looked the other way because the land was unsuitable for crops or any other productive use. But creation of the Fennimore County Agricultural & Mechanical Association and acquisition of land opposite the city’s northwest quadrant brought the conflict to a head. It would be nice to believe it could all have been resolved with a gentlemen’s agreement, rather than protracted, ugly and divisive confrontation in the county courts.

Recently the postcard above came to my attention. Though it shows a site in Maine (and nitpickers may claim that the plant material shown in the image couldn’t possible have been in Iowa) I hope that photoshop can eliminate the offending label. The handwritten “Here’s our cabin” isn’t a problem; in fact, it’s a charming personal touch that can be woven into the backstory.

A year ago I performed a marriage at a small private-access lake in northern Minnesota. The cabin there is, to my mind, the “poster child” for rustic, lakeside living: a building that grew like topsy over the decades; where everything seems to have settled into its proper place; and each framed black-and-white snapshot of a zoftig lady in a one-piece bathing suit and cap is somebody’s second cousin’s great aunt. This cluster of cabins in the Maine woods, even at a distance, radiates that sort of character and makes me think another minor story is afoot.

NB: On the eve of two divisive political conventions, and as news from Nice, France continues to shock our sensibilities, it may be that I need to think about these bucolic early 20th century buildings and the peaceful time they represent.