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What If

WHAT IF: Historical fiction in the architectural design studio

Ronald H. L. M. Ramsay, Fargo, ND

Is it safe to say that in North America architectural history plays a decreasing role in preparation for an architectural career? Courses treating the architecture of the past are still integral parts of professional curricula, but two other considerations speak to its marginalization: 1) history is now hyphenated with theory, the latter having become the dominant twin; and 2) history-based knowledge has almost entirely disappeared from the professional licensing examination, typically administered two to three years after receipt of the first professional degree. As someone educated and apprenticed for that next step, but teaching architectural history and design instead of pursuing licensure, I’ve sought other ways to both reinforce the utility of architectural history, integrating it more fully with the process of design, and to situate that body of knowledge more centrally within professional education. During the last dozen years, what we call the Agincourt Project has become one of those mechanisms.

In the anatomy of most architectural curricula, the sequence of design studios form the spine, an armature for technical and socio-historical courses as ribs, tendons and musculature. Depending on the program, the studio (or more accurately the laboratory) sequence extends from three to five years; these are the petri dish for wholistic design, where structure and mechanical systems, history, theory, legal and economic considerations are fused into the design of actual structures for real, simulated or generic clients. The constraints of site, program (or brief, in the U.K.), codes and regulations, and even budgetary considerations often contribute to the scenario. The Agincourt Project has become a way to weave architectural history into this narrative.

As someone educated [notice I did not say “trained”] in architecture but not licensed to practice, I’m rarely asked to design something which might be built. That reality often encourages me to generate design problems for mental exercise. Twelve years ago a random thought developed well beyond its immediate context, and birthed the Agincourt Project.

AGINCOURT, not just a battle

Thinking about American architecture Louis Sullivan [1856-1924; an almost exact contemporary of Catalan designer Antoni Gaudi, whose aesthetic may be as far from the Art Nouveau as Sullivan’s!], his late career, 1900-1920, was clouded with personal demons but blossomed briefly in a series of exquisite small-town banks he called his “jewel boxes.” Bracketed between 1908 and 1919, they coincide (I noted with curious interest) with the era of public library construction underwritten by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who funded 1,800 libraries during more or less the same years that Sullivan designed bannks. One fascinating question arose: Sullivan was engaged in the right place and time with the proper clientele to have sought a Carnegie library commission—yet he apparently did not. That question alone is worth consideration, but as a designer and teacher of architectural history, there was an unavoidable follow-up: What would a Sullivan-designed public library look like? How would he have approached a problem that, by the time of his possible involvement, had already become formulaic—Sullivan’s own work being anything but that, if the bank series is any evidence.

What began as a personal quest transitioned into a design studio, and that into an exhibit, and those in turn became the basis for seminars and subsequent studios. A direct result of that evolution is the framework presented here, which defines a process that has been productive. More important, perhaps, is its potential to partner with traditional architectural history courses toward a common goal: an enhanced, more meaningful and integrated role for history in architectural education.


HISTORICALLY BASED: Arthur Beresford-Pite (2); Sir Edwin Lutyens (12); Bernard Maybeck (15); McKim Mead & White (16)

PROGRESSIVE: Peter Behrens (1); Louis Singleton Curtiss (4); William Richard Lethaby (10); George Washington Maher (14); Purcell & Elmslie (18); Louis Sullivan (20); Frank Lloyd Wright (23)

ARTS & CRAFTS: Wilson Eyre (5); Greene & Greene (7); Sir Edwin Lutyens (12); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (13); Bernard Maybeck (15); Eliel Saarinen (19); C.F.A. Voysey (22)

MODERNIST: Irving Gill (6); Adolf Loos (11); Auguste Perret (17)

ART NOUVEAU: Victor Horta (9), Hector Guimard (8); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (13); Louis Sullivan (20); Henry van de Velde (21)

BUILDING TYPES and their rationale:

“A”— A Market Hall in a Small Town: Before refrigeration, weekly or even daily farmer’s markets were common in towns of large and moderate size, anywhere access to meat and produce was restricted by distance.

“B”— A Parish Church or Mission Chapel: The small parish church or mission chapel in more urban areas was a common building type.

“C”— A Small Library (Private, Public, or Institutional): Between 1900 and the 1920, the public library was essentially codified through the influence of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, becoming almost formulaic in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain. Less common on the continent, an institutional or private library would have been more common.

“D”— A House for a University Professor: Professorship connoted a different social standing a hundred years ago. Aside from the number of family members, it is assumed that graduate students and other professors will be regular visitors.

“E”— A Public Bath House and Comfort Station: Prior to the advent of municipal services for water and sewer, public baths were as common as they were in ancient Rome—and for the same reason.

“F”— A Small or Branch Bank: The nature of banking and its role in any community changed dramatically between the First and Second World Wars. Prior to 1920, there were many more independent banks, home-owned, with boards of directors made up of people from the community they served. Before suffrage, special accommodations were often made for women.

“G”— A Transit Station or Hub: The trolley and interurban were a common means of transport before the automobile.

“H”— A World War Memorial: After 1919, an astounding number of war memorials were constructed in Europe, Britain, the U.S. and Canada, at a time when Classicism was interpreted more loosely. Yet that style was often preferred, due to its dignified formality and composure.

NAME  Historical Progressive Arts & Crafts Modernist Art Nouveau
“A” 16 1,4,10 7,12,13,15,19,22 6,13 7,9,15,21
“B” 15 14 5,12,15,22  6 21
“C” 2,12,15,16 1,4,10 5,7,12,15.19,22 6,11 9,15,21
“D” 2,12,15 1,10,14,18  5,12,13,15,22 6,11 7,9,15,20,21
“E” 12 1,4,10 13,15,19 6,13 7,9,15,21
“F” 2,12,16 1,4,14  7,12,13,15,22  11 15,21
“G” 15 1,4,14,18 19 6,13 7.9.20
“H” 2 10,14,18 13,19 13 15,20,21

The most recent iteration of Agincourt has been a third-year design studio set in a five-year M.Arch curriculum. It offers one project set in an historical context, a matrix of three conditions: 1) building types, 2) stylistic categories or clusters, and 3) specific architects of the period chosen. Geography is an aspect of the last set, since each architect is associated with a particular place or market area. Project types are all typical, if not frequent, during the period 1900-1920, and examples can be found in all market areas represented by the array of individual architects. The link between stylistic clusters and individual designers is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: I can’t tell you which came first. The three-dimensional matrix of style, name and building type establishes a framework that both minimizes duplication and increases opportunities for comparison and contrast between and among students. I’ll expand each of these in reverse order.

STYLE CLUSTERS: The years between 1900 and 1920 are a vibrant period in the architecture of both Europe and North America°. The era of 19th century eclecticism had begun to give way—or at minimum to make room for—the beginning of Modernism. And the industrialization of materials never completely replaced craft traditions. I have suggested five clusters of styles: those that are Historically Based, Progressive, Arts & Crafts, Modernist, and Art Nouveau. Of these the Progressive may be the most American, connected with both a political party and the socio-economic programs it espoused, though there are parallel European reflections of that movement.

ARCHITECTS: Within those clusters, not all architects fit comfortably in a single compartment. There is an obvious break in the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens, for example, between the Arts & Crafts character of his country houses and the later Classicism of his World War memorials. Likewise, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work exhibits qualities of the continental Art Nouveau, which had limited acceptance in the U.K., and the Arts & Crafts which was native to Britain. In the case of Modernism, the net has been cast wide enough to include Austrian Adolf Loos, the Belgian-born French architect Auguste Perret, and Californian Irving Gill; all of their work seems to share an tendency toward clean lines, simple massing, and crisp non- or minimally historical detail.

Several names may be unfamiliar outside the United States: brothers Greene & Greene (Southern California), Bernard Maybeck (San Francisco Bay), Louis Singleton Curtiss (Kansas City), Purcell & Elmslie (Minneapolis), George W. Maher (Chicago contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright), and Wilson Eyre (Philadelphia). American readers, on the other hand, may need an introduction to Lars Sonck (Finland), Arthur Beresford-Pite (England), and Eliel Saarinen (Finnish father of mid-century Modernist Eero Saarinen). Others in the matrix are mainstays of the canon, prominent in history survey courses for students in Europe and North America. Each, however, requires investigation and analysis by the student as part of an in-class presentation—another opportunity to learn through discussion of similarities and differences and, indeed, what those two concepts themselves may mean.

BUILDING TYPES: The distribution of building types among the architects mentioned above adds further richness to the matrix. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, for example—one of the Big Three in the emergence of a truly American architecture distinct from and no longer dependent upon European precedent (but not immune from it), is difficult to classify: an ornamental style linked with the Art Nouveau, but whose plans were Beaux Arts, rational, even progressive (as many of his clients might be described). Assigning him the “D” option, the single-family house for a university professor, is an interesting choice for two reasons: Sullivan is known primarily as a designer of commercial and institutional buildings, and his houses, especially the late ones, stiff and formal—more country club than house. Matching Sullivan with the bank type (“F”) establishes the opposite condition: he did many small banks during his late career—they date from 1908 to 1919—and are uniformly good and informative of his design method. So, Sullivan offers only peripheral or analogous guidance for designers of houses, but considerable direct information useful in the design of a bank.

Sullivan may be the most egregious example of the too-much-too-little phenomenon. Many of the remaining building types were typical of their time but infrequently given the attention of an architect. Some have gone the way of the dodo; others have been recurrent or experienced revival. Several of these architects had extensive careers with considerable output, whereas other produced little or very specialized or focused work: Loos (apartments and detached houses), Saarinen (homes and apartment buildings), Lutyens (Arts & Crafts=country houses; Neo-Classical=war memorials and buildings for government). Three types are nearly absent from the literature: the market hall, public bath, and transit depot, though common enough in vernacular design or the oeuvres of other architects not included here.


Consider the case of architect Louis Sullivan and the commission for the home of a university professor. Let’s choose 1910 and the University of Chicago as parts of the context. Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood had been a separate municipality until annexed in 1889. The World’s Fair of 1893 was staged there and John D. Rockefeller established the University of Chicago simultaneous with the fair.

Hyde Park was and remains an island low density and affluence. Lot sizes were generous, especially near the university; a lack of alleys (rear lanes in the U.K.) requires access from the street.

Streets east and north of the university are a virtual directory, a Who’s Who, of the city’s more prominent architects, including Wright and his contemporary George Maher. Other styles ranged from Craftsman and Progressive to “Jacobethan” and Renaissance Revival.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses for the Robins and Hellers are there, more notably the former at 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. Mrs Robie had been a university graduate and wished to maintain her campus connections. For Mr Robie it was a convenient commute to the Loop six miles north on the Illinois Central. The city’s elevated railway (the “L”) edged the south and west sides, less costly access to and from the city.


° Those who fault what seems a Eurocentric point of view raise a valid issue, to which I offer two responses and a mea culpa: 1) the defined period (in this case, 1900-1920) is, indeed, focused on the lineage of European cultures and their styles; 2) different time brackets would invite, even necessitate, other, larger world views—the years 1950-1970, for example, with a growing awareness of vernacular and non-Western traditions. Ultimately, however, the proposition offered here comes from a septuagenarian White architectural historian whose students have come predominantly from comparable backgrounds.

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