Part of Agincourt’s organic nature has been the occasional interdependence of its contributors, which is a fancy way to say my next project could be shaped by someone else. Time to contact Mark Roelofs who’s created the Dutch presence in the Muskrat Valley. His timeline and at least a few of his characters are likely to influence the sequence of site acquisition and renovation I had in mind eight to ten years ago.
See those three parallel rectangles in the upper right corner of the block. The three Victorian storefronts were independent 25-foot structures, probably two story, built during the 1880s. Commercial buildings of that type and vintage employed various materials — brick and stone, wood, cast iron and pressed galvanized metal — in characteristic Victorian exuberance. And very often they came as “kits” from a few regional suppliers such as Mesker Brothers Iron Works (St. Louis, MO) and George L. Mesker Co. (Evansville, IN). The Arcola, Illinois News-Gazette reported the recent restoration of a Mesker facade:
These prefabricated, ornamental facades – designed to look like expensive stonework but at about a fifth the cost – were made of interchangeable galvanized steel panels with cast iron decorative components. Store owners could buy an entire facade, or individual architectural embellishments. These were installed over a wooden framework.
The Mesker Brothers Iron Works of St. Louis and the George L. Mesker Co. of Evansville, Ind. – owned by brothers but operating independently – cornered the Midwest galvanized storefront market, and the durable facades they produced grace downtown buildings in every part of Illinois.
Here are two models from a Mesker catalogue:
The corner building — facing east on South Broad Street, with a long side elevation on Agincourt Avenue facing The Square — probably deviated from the Mesker norm, but those to its left occupied standard 25 x 140 urban commercial lots. At this point, Mr Roelofs and I need to collaborate.
There is an old Polish aphorism — Nie mój cyrk. Nie moje małpy. — which I heartily recommend to you. It means, “not my circus; not my monkeys” and while it’s not universal, you may find the distance it affords beneficial to your mental health.
Repeat after me: nyeh moy sirk; nyeh moy-eh mau-pee.
The last of these three interrelated groups is SCALE + ORIENTATION + MEDIUM + DISTANCE, simple straightforward strategies for the mental blocks we all encounter as designers At what used to be the drawing board, these work for me because I still use the Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil with the pink “delete” switch on the end — the one that isn’t pointed. [If you require more information than that, we probably have nothing left to discuss.]
I cannot tell you how I design because, for me, it is an introspective intuitive process. But I can tell you how I deal with mental blocks: those inevitable and all-too-often occasions when I pursue unproductive directions and reach what seem to be dead ends. I’m going to assume these situations occur in your life as well. When they do, I have four simple strategies to offer.
The first of these is SCALE. If you’ve been working very small — 1/4 inch to the foot or smaller — shifting to one in to the foot will allow you to see opportunities lost at the smaller scale. [Try standing on your fraughting stool.] The converse is also true: getting lost in details, minutia, diverts us from the big picture. I may understand what I’m doing, but not why. Related to this is the notion of dimension: get out of two dimensions and into three or possibly four (that is, add the dimension of time to your repertoire).
ORIENTATION is the quickest of these tricks. Looking at the same drawing for too long can be mind-numbing and the easiest solution is to rotate that drawing ninety degrees: upside-down or backwards (left for right), disoriented, divorced from patterns that have become too comfortable, we see new relationships and opportunities previously unapparent.
For those who work solely on the computer in CADD or some newer software, this third strategy will be impractical: changing the MEDIUM will open your imagination to the limitations of those that are too familiar, too comfortable. Switch from your computer screen to pencil on tracing paper. Switch from media that allow you to be precise — the Dixon Ticonderoga #2, for example — to one that won’t; charcoal, for example, or even a wet medium like watercolor. Miesian precision with a brush is next to impossible. If your default medium is black-and-white, try color; the complexity of a detail may make more sense when its components are color-coded.
Finally, when all else fails — and it often will, despite your best efforts — it’s time to DISTANCE yourself from the task at hand. Mental fatigue sometimes requires putting down your pencil, pen, or brush and immersing yourself in anything totally different. Go to lunch. Go the the gym. Swim or run. Go to a movie. Walk the dog. Write a letter. Engage your mind and body in an activity that has little or nothing to do with architecture. And when all else fails, call me and we’ll have a drink.
OBJECT + WINDOW + MIRROR + LENS also presents a spectrum and, again, it spans conveniently from objectivity to subjectivity. I wrote about this back in 2013 when a friend (on whom I tried it out and whose judgment has proven to be sound on most matters) thought the meme might be useful. As a case study, consider the example of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house of 1908-1909 for Frederick and Lora Robie:
As an OBJECT, the house can be described with several pieces of objective information on which there is general agreement.
- It is a single-family residence at the northeast corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue [#5757] in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois.
- Construction began in the spring of 1909 and the house was occupied the following year.
- It is an iconic example of Wright’s “Prairie Style” developed during the preceding decade.
- The client Frederick C. Robie was a Chicago industrialist.
There are several visual characteristics that define Wright’s “Prairie Style” including predominant horizontal lines, window openings in clusters or bands, exaggerated roof overhangs.
It’s possible to continue, using the house as a WINDOW into the clients (Frederick Robie, wife Laura née Hieronymous , son Frederick Jr., and daughter Lorraine), the source of their wealth (automobile manufacturing), and their reasons for choosing the site (to be near Mrs Robie’s alma mater the University of Chicago and her social connections there). WE can legitimately ask what role the house played in their business, social and family life.
- What construction challenges did the house present its builders H. B. Barnard & Co.?
- Did Robie entertain business associates here or prefer to do that in the more neutral territory of a downtown social club?
- How often did Mrs Robie invite university friends and faculty into her home—and how did they react to a design so different from its neighbors in both style and furnishings?
- Who occupied the service wing (two servant’s rooms and an attached three-car garage)?
- Why did the Robie family occupy the house for a mere fourteen months?
MIRROR is a category of meaning that will vary with the viewer: What I see and why I see it, i.e., what interests me particularly about the house, may not coincide with your observations or the perspectives they represent. [Think of the Mirror of Erised in “Harry Potter.”] I, for example, am curious about access to the house—the long front on 57th Street presents a level of openness, of visual access, which is both illusory and contradictory: Wright has contrived the planters, roof overhangs and faceted leaded glass doors for light to enter but also to keep out prying eyes. And the entry is anything but obvious and the front door itself so concealed that it conjures the citadel at Mycenae. Was this requested by the Robies or does it represent Wright’s own ambivalence about the institution of marriage? The architect was unable to supervise construction because he had run off to Europe with the wife of a client and the Robie marriage itself would dissolve by divorce in 1912. It reads too much like “The Forsyte Saga.” When I saw the building as a teenager was influential in my choice of architecture as a career. Clearly I see the house for what it can tell us regarding Edwardian social propriety and a personal talisman for fifty-seven years.
Which brings us to LENS, precisely the “big picture” view that any piece of architecture invites; the LENS permits us to see around corners and in greater detail what the WINDOW does not. A survey of architects several years ago identified Robie House as one of the ten most important buildings in the United States. It appears prominently in the Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (a.k.a. the Wasmuth Monograph) whose 1909 publication brought Wright to Europe before the building was even complete. And threats to its existence in 1957 led to the worldwide preservation that has resulted in its restoration as a house museum.
HISTORY + THEORY + CRITICISM + IMPLEMENTATION
There is a difference between a course titled “The History of Architecture” and another called “Architectural History.” The first is fundamentally a sequence of styles and their characteristics, the details that help us differentiate one style from another. The other is holistic — including social-economic, political, technological and æsthetic perspectives — and uses architecture as a window into the past. This is the course I’d prefer to take and the one I try to teach.
Examining the history of any field or discipline involves four points of view on a spectrum from objective to subjective. And each of those vantage points consists of a series of questions. History, for example, is at the extreme objective end of that spectrum and entails the questions What? Where? When? and Who? Consider the Sagrada Familia as an example:
- Its full official title is Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família—the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family—usually shortened to Sagrada Familia.
- It is located in the Eixample neighborhood of Barcelona, capital of the Spanish Autonomous Region of Catalunya.
- It was begun in 1882 and remains incomplete today, with a goal of completion by 2026.
- The original architect was Francisco Paula de Villar who resigned in 1883 and was replaced by Antoni Gaudí, who remained its architect until his death in 1926.
Most of these statements are factual and unlikely to find disagreement. They are objectively true.
Theory is centered on the question Why? Why, as a late 19th century foundation, does its plan so closely resemble the ground plans of so many French Gothic cathedrals of the years 1150-1350? Why, then, do its columns lean so precariously from the perpendicular, unlike its French Gothic precedents? Why do its decorative elements range so widely in style, from Gothic Revival to Art Nouveau and even Cubism? To answer those questions, given that Gaudí is long dead, we might consult several sources that yield conflicting ideas and interpretations. There are certainly “answers” I prefer, but I’m also open to new perspectives and willing to change my mind. Suffice to say, Theory is measurably less objective than History.
Criticism takes us one more step toward the subjective and asks a single question: How well did Gaudí satisfy his client’s needs? How successful is the Sagrada Familia as an expression of Roman Catholic theology? Then (1885) or now (2016)? The critical evaluation of Gaudí’s design will differ with each of our individual perspectives. To what extent can the Sagrada Familia be used to understand its time and place?
Implementation brings us to complete subjectivity: Based on your evaluation of the Sagrada Familia and all its fame and flaws, How would you have done it? What would you as a designer do to improve upon Gaudí’s evolving solution to the problem presented to him? How would you “complete” a building left unfinished at his death in 1926, for which Gaudí’s intentions may be insufficiently documented? What compromises, if any, would you accept to complete the building by the 2026 centennial of the architect’s death?
A course that raises at least some of these questions and offers strategies for answering them is my goal. One of these years, I might actually succeed.
Now architecture—if you think of it in terms of school—…began with a man under a tree who didn’t know he was a teacher, talking to a few who didn’t know they were pupils. —Louis I. Kahn, lecture delivered at International Design Conference, Aspen, Colorado (1962)
Somewhere between quotation and paraphrase [I’m writing this from memory], Kahn’s observation is damned close to my own views on education. It seems very likely that the majority of our education happens someplace other than the classroom; possibly even other than the studio-laboratory; very likely outside the building itself. Which is not to deny the value of our transactions in those settings; I simply hope to put them in perspective.
In fact, everything I know about architecture could be put on one side of a three-by-five index card, because the essence of architecture, like the meaning of life, is much less complicated than we expect. Number seventeen among the “25 Random Things About Me” in FaceBook is one of those simple ideas: A really great question is worth 10,000 facile replies pretending to be answers.
A problem with efforts to become educated, to be less ignorant, to be informed, is our fetish for answers. And there are plenty of people out there more than willing to give you access to their repertoire of answers. For six easy payments of $29.95, but if you call in the next thirty minutes, we’ll knock off one of those payments. Donald Trump has a mother lode of answers for us; we just have to wait until November 9th to find out what they are. But in the meantime, trust him, because they’re great answers; some of the best answers really; just answers like you’ve never encountered before. And therein lies the problem of our age: the search for answers is far less significant than phrasing the question itself.
I have a meeting this afternoon—with someone whose judgment I implicitly trust—because, in one of my very long-term research projects, I’ve misplaced the original question. In the mass of information accumulated during this last thirty years—four file drawers crammed with photocopies and correspondence; at least ten thick ring binders with 3,000-4,000 postcard images—I’ve lost my way. Now I need help recovering the question that set it all in motion.
The remainder of that three-by-five card would be filled with three frameworks for thinking about architecture; certainly talking about it; possibly even the actual making of architecture:
- HISTORY + THEORY + CRITICISM + IMPLEMENTATION
- OBJECT + WINDOW + MIRROR + LENS
- SCALE + ORIENTATION + MEDIUM + DISTANCE
I’ll say more about each of these in the next few entries. In the meantime, I’ll close with some even simpler advice on the Meaning of Life:
Well, that’s the End of the Film, now here’s the Meaning of Life. [An envelope is handed to the Lady Presenter. She opens it in a business-like way.] Thank you Brigitte. [She reads.]… Well, it’s nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. And finally, here are some completely gratuitous pictures of penises to annoy the censors and to hopefully spark some sort of controversy which it seems is the only way these days to get the jaded video-sated public off their fucking arses and back in the sodding cinema. Family entertainment bollocks! What they want is filth, people doing things to each other with chainsaws during tupperware parties, babysitters being stabbed with knitting needles by gay presidential candidates, vigilante groups strangling chickens, armed bands of theatre critics exterminating mutant goats – where’s the fun in pictures? Oh well, there we are – here’s the theme music. Goodnight.
The two or three decades before my birth have always been troubling to me regarding Agincourt. These represent stylistic phases of the Pre-Modern and Modern Movements that are difficult to put on, so to speak, as design idioms for Agincourt. This postcard of the Stanislaus County Hall of Records in Modesto, California, caught my eye today and inspired me to reconsider the six-story Medical Arts building I began two or three years ago.
Built in 1938-1939 from plans by architect Russell Guerne deLappe [1897-1955], I suppose technically this is a Moderne [moh-durn] building, and it may do double duty as a WPA/PWA project, as well. So I may be killing two of those birds with just one stone.
Photographs of the building today — stuccoed and painted an “eye rest” beige and sporting louvered window canopies — drain all that raw energy from the concrete formwork. And the rhythm of window mullions and muntins that had previously coördinated with the residual form marks has been lost in a re-windowing. Sure it was probably an energy conservation effort but something visceral was sacrificed in the process. And now that I look more closely and make these observations, I’m not so hesitant to plunge back into the Medical Arts challenge.
PS: My scheme for Medical Arts is a forty-five degree rotation at First Street SW and Louisa—a site previously occupied by single-family homes, I suspect. The rotation may have come from some sort of equanimity: that the sun should shine on as many of the building’s faces as possible throughout the year. But now that I think that through again, it’s clear that wings pointing to the cardinal points of the compass would do a better job of that. Ah, well, the best-laid schemes and all that.
What also occurred to me well after the scheme was “set” was the similarity with the original Southwest School [later renamed for Nicolaus Copernicus], a plan that I divined from a postcard view of a 19th century school in southern Illinois. You can see it at the far left of this segment of the city map. And that may also account for the rotation of the plan itself. Design is, for me at least, a highly intuitive process.
As a non-profit corporation, the Medical Arts building would have been ineligible for a WPA/PWA connection; those agencies were available to only government entities. Still, the client—the Corporation of Luke the Physician—would have been mindful of the spirit of the times and maintenance of a properly discreet corporate presence. No gratuitous marble cladding here, thank you very much.
PS[28OCT2017]: Another view of the Modesto courthouse: