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Just Desserts

Since 2007 I’ve run at least four design studios wholly or partially set in Agincourt, i.e., the sandbox of history. They’ve been at the third-, fourth-, and fifth-year levels. I can tell you that they have been a very mixed bag. The first of them, in 2007—simply because we had no idea what we were doing—was, in my mind, an unqualified success. Subsequent studios, not so much. I’ve fretted a great deal about these discrepancies and drawn some tentative conclusions—which I ought to keep to myself.

The first studio in 2007 had practically no guidelines; any building type in any appropriate time period was fair game, so long as the design is consistent with the style, building technology, and socio-economic conditions of that decade, and the building had to tell a story. Did we always meet those criteria? Frankly, I wasn’t keeping score, because the level of student enthusiasm exceeded my expectations and that counted for a lot. Project types ranged from a barn to a business college but a few still stand out in my fading memory: a carousel pavilion by David Rock; a ’50s burger-pizza joint by Mitch Dressler; a “Prairie School” transit depot that made me weep and whose designer I cannot recall. There was a barn—too simple, you say?—that not only narrated the barn as a type, but also its evolution through time, and, most important, it also told the story of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

Subsequent studios stumbled, I think, not so much from the work itself, nor the stories it told. The problem is largely mine, because I have not fought sufficiently for the presence of actual design principles in our curriculum. We simply don’t talk often enough about abstractions like composition, proportion, balance. They were a part of my education but have passed into the scrap heap of history, as indeed I shall soon enough. Consider the lengthy title of John Beverley Robinson’s 1899 treatise Principles of Architectural Composition and its extension, an attempt to order and phrase ideas which have hitherto been only felt by the instinctive taste of designers.

Am I the only person with a copy of this on my desktop?

There was a comparable series of articles in The Architectural Record in its earliest issues [photocopies exist somewhere in my mismanaged files], perhaps by Russell Sturgis, I forget. The issue seems to be that students have a difficult time coping with 19th and early 20th century styles that depend more heavily on abstractions such as these.

Then there is the even more basic topic of space planning, particularly of the single-family house—not a major building type for architects today or in the likely future careers of current students, but one which is, in my mind, a litmus test for planning and anthropometrics in larger, more complex building types.

Realizing the antiquity that I have myself become, and understanding that under the best scenario I have at most three more years as a teacher, I should file these ideas under “Q” for quaint.

 


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