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“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.

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