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The fine line defining Chautauqua from religious revival is probably not worth making. The same is true for the 19th and early 20th century buildings that housed them. And while I am an unlikely participant in revival or camp meetings, their architecture holds a special place in my spectrum of favored types.

Neither the Chautauqua building at the Fennimore county fairgrounds nor any of what might have been temporary structures to house religious revivals have been designed for Agincourt. It may be that their time has come, perhaps because I have been thinking vernacular-ly these days, admiring the minimalist aesthetic of such structures and learning from them about an adage taught by Bill Burgett, one of my instructors at the University of Oklahoma during the 1960s: “You earn your effects,” Bill told me once in a third-year studio as I labored on a scheme for a city hall for Norman, Oklahoma (where the university is located).

I understood Bill then, as I do now ten times over, to mean there is an inverse relationship between the appearance of something and the time-effort-cost required to achieve it. It is easy to make something complex but excruciatingly time consuming to reach the simplicity and illusory effortlessness of a Zen-like design. In today’s Minimalism — of the sort so well represented by David Chipperfield and John Pawson — I am convinced more than ever that Bill Burgett was right.


Central stair in the Pergamon Museum, showing Chipperfield’s minimalist insertions and all the damage wrought by war.

Some years ago (while collecting images for a seminar on Minimalism) I stumbled on an interior view of a hotel lobby in Spain —  the architectural equivalent of the overpriced (and perhaps overrated) meal consisting of three pork medallions on a drizzle of lemony sauce, accompanied by five fava beans and a carrot imagined by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, all on a white plate the size of a hub cap. The understated elegance of the presentation is inversely proportional to the unstated over-price, the theory being “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

The hotel lobby had no more than three materials: wood-veneered walls and reception desk, frosted-glass partition and white marble-clad floor, all with knife-edge joints of meeting. Yes, as a guest, I would delight in registering at that desk by the clerk in subtle median grey — if I could afford it. But I would not want to be the maintenance staff who polished that floor nightly, having to be oh so careful not to scuff the expensive wood veneer on either wall or desk or to splatter cleaning solution on the frosted glass. Architecture journals deceive us when they fail to reveal the detail where wall meets floor and deny us the actual cost per square foot, meter, etc. The life-cycle cost of maintaining those surfaces will guarantee that staff wages are kept well below minimum, in the interest of corporate profit. I expect the construction cost of some minimalist works nearly reach the expense of an extravagant Donald Trump Byzantine whore house. All of which brings me back to God.

Tabernacles from the years between the Civil and First World wars have much to teach us, if we would but look seriously at their integrity: what you see is what you get. Wood is wood; joints are elegant; functional economy is achieved. “Ford’s in his flivver, (…) All’s well with the world” Aldous Huxley assures us and I’m inclined to agree.

Here for your edification are four tabernacles found in a recent sweep of the on-line auction site that shall not be named:

From upper left, in clockwise order: Lorima, WI; Riverdale, IN; Gull Lake, Augusta, MI; the aptly named Asbury Grove, MA; and a second view of Gull Lake with the walls flipped up. Enjoy.


Technically, the tabernacle at Platteville, Wisconsin was a Chautauqua facility.

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