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Whether to Wither or Bloom


“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken

Consider the scarab.

Two weeks from tomorrow, I shall enter a classroom, introduce myself and suggest that our task for the following sixteen weeks will be gaining some appreciation for architectural history. I have done this forty-seven times already but fear that I can’t do it again with any conviction whatsoever. To imagine we can deal other than superficially with architecture from prehistory through the Middle Ages in that short time is folly; I once thought it possible, but no more.

Texts have come and gone; I must have used eight or ten so far. This semester we’re using one by Richard Ingersoll. [If it were Robert Ingersoll, I might feel more confidence, but don’t ask why.] With the author’s guidance, we’ll use nine or ten chapters to investigate chronologically the standard sequence of styles in the Western Tradition—with occasional asides (parenthetical insertions) of comparative matter from other non-Western cultures. The problem may be that I’m no longer interested in the canon of orthodoxy; heresy is my preferred point of view these days.

Frankly, I’m having difficulty building any enthusiasm whatsoever for tracking the evolution of Gothic cathedrals, from their Romanesque origins to, say, Beauvais or Köln. I can and will do it but I’d really rather not. It would be far more beneficial (and, probably, far more fun) to analogize the hierarchy of Gothic rib types to those rudimentary names we give two-bys in Western Platform framing: it’s the inclination of our species to organize things into ranked systems that students should appreciate, because learning whether a lierne fits into a tierceron or vice versa will serve them very little beyond the first exam. Or perhaps we should explore the philosophical question of why Mies van der Rohe is any more “logical” than Bruce Goff.

FaceBook reminded me of something I’d written a few years ago about how easily I can be distracted by shiny things in my peripheral vision. Searching for some arcane bit of information the other day—a google image search for what I cannot now recall—I stumbled almost literally upon an image of the Scarab Club in Detroit, Michigan, a 1928 Arts & Crafts building by architect Lancelot Sukert. Who the hell was Lancelot Sukert and why should I not invest several hours answering that possibly pointless question?

Quite aside from a mysterious architect—mysterious solely because I am ignorant and do not wish to be—it also raises other interesting issues, like Detroit’s economy which encouraged such architectural flights of fancy a hundred years ago and its “fall from grace” that cannot provide an economical water supply to all its residents today; or how this inner-city neighborhood has changed during the club’s ninety years. Or how Mary Chase Perry Stratton’s Pewabic Potery plays into the Scarab story. Or why we can no longer afford brickwork like this. Or, most importantly, why I would much prefer to devote an entire class period to exploring those and many other questions of little if any consequence with a room full of people who may need their curiosity stoked. Life is too short not to follow your instincts and mine is getting shorter each day.

In Agincourt, I’d been looking for masonry precedent that would help me complete Asbury United Methodist church, a 1920 building influenced by Dutch Modernism (though God knows by what mechanism), and I’d found a German example from about 1925 by an architect who, it turned out, had actually interviewed to become Hitler’s architect but failed the entrance exam. Imagine what you’d have to do to achieve that dubious historical status. When here it was all the time, at 217 Farnsworth Street, Detroit, MI 48202. Dutch Modernism or German Expressionism (a la Chile Haus in Hamburg by Fritz Höger) are the places I needed to explore but who has time in a sixteen-week ARCH 321 chronology of Western architecture to consider them, when I barely have time to mention wattle and daub.

There are those who have implied, indirectly, that I’ve misspent my time here on Planet Earth. Properly directed, I could have achieved Full Professorship twenty years ago and, just maybe, be more than an academic hanger-on lurking in a place I clearly do not belong. And don’t try to contradict me, because I know the truth of it.

So there’ll be a third and very likely final Agincourt exhibit in October, to which you are all invited, though I can’t say what precisely there will be on the walls to make the trip worthwhile. Maybe, just maybe, there will be an acknowledgment that Lancelot Sukert drove through town on his way to Omaha, stopped for pie and coffee at the Bon Ton, and sketched something on a napkin that I retrieved from the trash.

“One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
― James Joyce, Dubliners

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
― C.S. Lewis

“You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”
― Garrison Keillor, Pontoon

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