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these theses

the⋅sis

noun; plural, thē⋅sēs (thee-sees)

  1. a proposition stated or put forward for consideration, especially one to be discussed and proved or to be maintained against objections:
    He vigorously defended his thesis on the causes of war.
  2. a subject for a composition or essay.
  3. a dissertation on a particular subject in which one has done original research, as one presented by a candidate for a diploma or degree.
  4. Music. the downward stroke in conducting; downbeat.
  5. Prosody.
    • a part of a metrical foot that does not bear the ictus or stress.
    • (less commonly) the part of a metrical foot that bears the ictus.
  6. Philosophy. See under Hegelian dialectic.

Our end-of-the-academic-year festivities are complete — tests graded (except mine, of course); projects reviewed; awards presented — and with them, a sure sign of summer.

During the last four days each of us (faculty) served as outside or “blind” reviewers (because, in theory, most of us have had no direct connection with the thesis process). In my case, there were three projects assigned to me, but we often sit in on others, hoping to be informed or out of a perverse curiosity; I did some of both. And during the week there is also a good deal of water cooler conversation, in hushed tone among two or three of us, about the general level of their quality this year and inevitable comparisons with previous classes.

This year my review of fifth-year students was complemented by an invitation to do the same with a section of second-year design (ARCH272) projects. And that review has raised two observations I’ll make here (or somewhere else, but this forum is handy): #1) I saw second-year work whose trajectory, if unimpeded during the next three years, will result in an epic crop of theses for the Class of 2021; and #2) a sense of wonder about the thesis process itself, and concern whether I could accomplish anything comparable to our new graduates. Consider the first of these as having been officially asked and answered: I saw remarkable work in at least one section of ARCH272 — fifteen students — concluding their first year of design work, and look forward with relish to their accomplishments next year and beyond. My second observation requires a few more words.

The thesis is a two-semester process which actually begins at the end of fourth-year with thoughtful consideration of the project topic. A lengthy manual or guide has evolved over many years to help students focus on a topic that is: a) appropriately architectural; b) suitably complex; c) sufficiently worthy of a year-long investigation; and d) encompasses a philosophical issue larger than the project itself, i.e., the project type is a vehicle. So, a single-family lake cabin for Aunt Harriet won’t cut the mustard.

Frankly, I admit there are projects hanging on our fifth floor that make little sense to me, but that’s different matter for another time. Instead, I’ve begun to wonder what my own thesis would be in such a framework: What topic would I propose now for that year-long exploration of a significant architectural issue? During a pit-stop at a colleague’s office late this afternoon, I suddenly had an answer — but you’re not going to like itA copy of the actual Thesis Manual isn’t at hand, so the following is (subject to modification) a preliminary statement and what I might consider an argument for its acceptance.

THESIS: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours

TITLE: A Carnegie Era Public Library in the Style of Architect Louis Sullivan

BUILDING TYPE: A public library typical of those underwritten by the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie during the period 1909-1919

SITE: A Midwestern community of a size approximate to those receiving a median Carnegie grant

PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION(S) (and certain propositions to be tested): 

1) What is the relationship between a specific building type (in this case, a public library) and the socio-economic matrix of its time and place? 

  • Throughout history, but especially during the years between the Civil and First World wars, architects have innovated, as leaders in cultural progress. The Protestant church building in the United States is evidence of that phenomenon in the later 19th century [I might just as reasonably propose the design of an Akron-Auditorium church]; the public library exemplifies the early 20th.

2) What role has the public library played in the cultural life of the United States? Especially, how can the infusion of massive philanthropy influence, even redirect, the genesis and evolution of a particular building type? 

  • Cultural institutions, government programs, and private philanthropy have been and are likely to remain agents of architectural change.

3) What is the relationship between imaginative design and the materials available for their execution (presuming this is a dynamic relationship)?

  • Generally, the relationship between the architect and the material manufacturer-supplier has reversed from its status early in the 20th century. A century ago, manufacturers were capable of accommodating specific design requirements—such as ornamental cast iron and terra cotta. That relationship circa 1910-1920 was essential to Sullivan’s aesthetic.

4) Is it possible to identify the actual process of architectural design? How has it evolved, say, during the last century; is it also possible to simulate a particular architect’s process? Specifically, given that the American public library became almost formulaic during the first quarter of the 20th century, how might a renowned architect like Louis Sullivan — who designed just one library long before the era of Carnegie funding — have approached an unfamiliar building type late in his career?

  • A massive academic study of architectural creativity was conducted in 1958-1959 by the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research at the University of California, Berkeley. In a Freudian sense, it may be possible to retroactively apply those methods to architects no longer living — Michelangelo, for example, or Frank Lloyd Wright — and attempt to understand their creative processes posthumously. Louis Sullivan is the case study I propose.

Yes, this may not be in the current NDSU ALA Thesis Manual format; just a guess on my part how I might propose the founding question of the Agincourt Project as a thesis topic. And despite criticism from some quarters (that the project has marginal legitimacy), I’d be proud to place this proposition in the evaluation-approval process. Would it be approved?

And then, of course, there’s the unspoken question: Would I be able to do it?

PS: I was tempted to create a tongue-twister, like “seize these theses” or “these theses seethe” but resisted. Sometimes it’s best to leave bad enough alone.


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