What does an architect do?
That question should cross my mind at least twice a year — at the start of each semester I play my part in architectural education. I wonder, in fact, if there is any consistency among my colleagues on the point. Perhaps the education/training process (and there is a huge difference between those two intentions in any field) ranges from the practical and legalistic to the philosophical and poetic. I think about the subject today, just three days before our Spring semester, because an accidental on-line research query yesterday afternoon raised it, but the issue goes back at least twenty years to a Summer afternoon in Wichita, Kansas with my friend Richard Kenyon.
Richard and I were driving through Kansas and had stopped to photograph the Allen-Lambe house, a Frank Lloyd Wright design of 1917, among the last exercises in the Prairie style of his early career. We parked on Roosevelt Street, in front of the house, and were compensating for bad late afternoon light. I had taken a few shots and turned to the left, looking beyond a shelter belt that edges the property on the south, and was surprised to see a familiar house. [You can see it on the extreme left of the photograph above.] The Allen’s neighbor was a near duplicate, as far as I could tell at that moment, of the Charles Reeves house in Oak Park, Illinois.
I knew the Reeves house from an eerily similar set of circumstances: I was in Oak Park with a student field trip to see the world’s largest concentration of Wright houses, and there, across the street from an early Wright house — once again, as I turned left — there was a house, the duplicate of one I had seen several months earlier on a reconnaissance trip to (of all places) Williston, North Dakota. That first pairing (Oak Park and Williston) led to my exploration of an unfamiliar architect, Lawrence Buck [1865-1929].
As it subsequently developed, the Williston house had been built by the city’s mayor Joseph Jackson and his wife Julia, based on a house they had seen in the May 1909 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, the aforementioned Reeves house of just a few years earlier. So, based on the Wichita encounter, I wrote to learn more about this second iteration of the Reeves design.
The house at 255 North Roosevelt was built in 1909 by Hugh Roberts, owner of a local lumber yard. [The house is impossible to see on google street view.] I wrote the current owners and shared with them several years of research on Lawrence Buck and his career, one of many I suppose that have been unjustly eclipsed by the larger-than-life Frank Lloyd Wright. This was a special case, however, since the two architects were near contemporaries — just two years separate their births — they were both Chicagoans at the time (ca 1910); both had used the so-called women’s magazines like the Ladies Home Journal to promote their careers; and, coincidentally, they both officed in Chicago’s Steinway Hall and without question shared elevator rides several times a week. By the way and in case you’re wondering, these things happen to me all the time. But what does any of this have to do with last Thursday afternoon?
By a not necessarily happy accident, I stumbled yesterday on that completed National Register nomination and read with considerable interest (because I had, in the meantime, located two other Reeves house duplicates, in Norwich, NY¹ and Rockford, IL) but found two things curious: 1) the Hugh Roberts home had been attributed by the consultants to local architect U. G. Charles [a name unknown to me and, yes, the initials stand for Ulysses Grant] and 2) my correspondence with the owner regarding Lawrence Buck was quoted in the nomination. The circumstantial link with Buck, however, had been rejected in favor of an undocumented attribution to architect Charles. I must admit my feelings were a combination of astonishment and chagrin. I had been generous with my research — the nomination’s writers were being compensated; I was not — and had provided what I still believe to be the “smoking gun.” The chagrin is in retreat, but the astonishment has raised the rhetorical question, “What does an architect do?” Clearly there are some people in Wichita who represent a different point of view.
Like Murder on the Orient Express, there is the simple, easy, expedient answer, and then there is another far more complex, nuanced, and circuitous. And, as you might imagine, I see an article coming out of all this which will, I hope, provide another perspective, if not actually set the record straight, and clarify in my own mind why the general public has such a devilish time understanding the design process, now or in the recent past.
The architectural profession has undergone three periods of development (the topic of my MArch Thesis): The first began in 1853 with organization of the American Institute of Architects and the intention to see architecture set apart as a distinct profession. The second phase begins nearly fifty years later, in 1897, when Illinois became the first state to recognize by licensure the existence of that profession. The third begins in 1951, when Wyoming became the last state to establish a licensing law. And now, more than fifty years after that — and perhaps at the beginning of a fourth stage of professionalization — South Dakota has questioned the value of granting professional licenses whatsoever, suggesting that the public health and safety are no longer goals worthy of the state’s interest. So I am glad to be thinking about the issue today.
There, now I’ve got that off my chest.
For those of you who have answers to the question “What does an architect do?”, I’ll enjoy having your replies.
PS: Thanks to Wayne Bell for mentoring my thesis all those years ago at U.T.–Austin.
¹ The Bonney house in Norwich had been attributed to Gustav Stickley by Mary Ann Smith in her 1983 book Gustav Stickly, the Craftsman, where she was kind enough to acknowledge my correction, though her conclusion is equally curious: “The connection between the Bonney and Reeves houses, so obviously alike, remains unclear.” Unclear? The bloody magazine is the connection?
² The Reeves, Jackson, Roberts, and as yet unidentified Rockford house are all “right hand” versions of the plan; the Bonney house is a “left hand” version.