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Christianity and the Social Crisis

“In a few years all our restless and angry hearts will be quiet in death, but those who come after us will live in the world which our sins have blighted or which our love of right has redeemed.”
Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis

February 26th, 2019

My mother was a Congo. I like saying that, reminding myself where the spiritual foundation of my life was laid.

I don’t recall attending church with Marge, In fact I recall very little before the age of eight. But after she left, our neighbors the Millers took charge of my spiritual welfare. They, too, were members of what was then the Congregational church, now the United Church of Christ, and took me with them and their daughter Andrea to Sunday service in the building pictured above. Where was Roy, you ask? On his way to open the gas station; for Roy there was no day of rest.

In the mid to late ’50s the Congregational service was an echo of New England puritanism, I was about to say that every woman in the pews was ancient, dressed in dark tailored suits, wearing veiled pillbox hats and white gloves; each and every one a clone of Mamie Eisenhower. I was about to say that until I realized you have absolutely no idea who I’m talking about; Mrs Eisenhower’s name conjures no image, no sense of decorum or reticence.

The Millers moved to LaGrange Park (1030 Sherwood Drive; Fleetwood 2-6762—I remember shit like that) and with their departure my attendance at church came to a halt. Which distressed me not in the least.

It has taken decades for me to understand the religious heritage represented by Congregationalism, part of the Reformed tradition. Merged in 1957 with two other Protestant sects, it became the United Church of Christ, “…an extremely pluralistic and diverse denomination.” And though I no longer consider myself a Christian, it gives me considerable satisfaction to say that the UCC has, along with Unitarian-Universalists, become the most liberal denomination of any size. I only mention that because another mainstream denomination, the United Methodist Church, voted today to reverse its progressive attitudes on LGBTQ issues.

Two thousand nineteen is the centennial year for the building of Asbury United Methodist Church, and now a major schism in their denomination may threaten the celebration planned for the summer. I suspect Rev Candace Varenhorst is saying something about this right now.

Defeat

Defeat

As in “snatching victory from the jaws of….”

After several failed attempts, I admit complete inability to design The Square, companion to The Commons at the heart of Agincourt. Together, they’re the community’s yin-yang (which in Chinese means “dark-bright”) and I suppose, in some respects, representative of male and female, but also more representative of the distinction between formal and casual; rigid or flexible. In such a binary universe, my loyalties are clear.

Yin 陰 or 阴 Noun: negative/passive/female principle in nature; the moon; shaded orientation; covert; concealed; hidden; negative; north side of a hill; south bank of a river; reverse side of a stele; overcast; sinister; treacherous

Yang 陽 or 阳 Bound morpheme: positive/active/male principle in nature; the sun; open; overt; belonging to this world; [linguistics] masculine; south side of a hill; north bank of a river

In light of the present discussion, there is also the pairing of Victory with Defeat, I suppose. But it’s too simple to equate them with the notions of winning and losing, and I’m not wired to think that way.

STRATEGIES

The block in question—Block A-2 in the original townsite—is typical, 300 ft by 300 ft but flat and featureless. Wouldn’t it had been a stroke of good fortune to have found archaeological evidence of Native American occupancy, a camp ground, like Gnostic Grove, for example. So physically we’re given nothing to grasp as a basis for design. Even the points of the compass are unremarkable: nothing but the cardinal points of the Jeffersonian Grid. So for any abstract inspiration there is little beyond mathematics of the square, a masculine shape at least. Or is it the right angle that suggests masculinity? The upright? The erect?

If the Square had been designed all at once, the product of a single mind, the task might be marginally easier. But I’d hoped to watch the space evolve during a hundred and fifty years; experience the open-ended process of accumulation.

Attitudes toward War differ from time to time and place to place. As a product of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, I’m disinclined to find any glory in war, so Maya Lin’s eloquent statement of loss—of our humanity, not of face—represents something quite different from the WWII memorial recently dedicated east of the Capitol in Washington. Words like bloviating and pompous spring to mind. But that’s just me.

So I’m back at the beginning, or nearly there, identifying the sequence of memorials and trying to understand the cultural context for each of those wars and sublimating my own views—which is, after all, what designers do.

E. van der Willige [19th century]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

van der WILLIGE, E. (19th century, second half)

“Zandschuiten” / “Sand Barges”

circa 1880

oil on board / 6 inches by 9 inches

Van der Willige’s painting came to American in the trunk of Dutch immigrant Maurits Braaksma, one of the original colonists of the agricultural settlement at Grou in the late 1880s. Its origins prior to that date are unknown, except that similar work by an artist of the same name appears on some on-line art auction sites. “Zandschuiten” had been on long-term loan from the family but was given in 1988 to commemorate the Village of Grou centennial.

Flat-bottomed sand barges were used in Dutch flood control projects and were a common sight in the canals and rivers of Friesland.

Graphic Design

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.” —Paul Rand

By invitation, I once brought Agincourt to a group of graphic designers—emphasis on the word “invitation”, because I try to not stuff the Agincourt Project down the world’s collective gullet. You also know full well how unsuccessful I’ve been; if I had been, you’d see evidence here. I was unable to persuade anyone in the aforementioned group to participate in the project.¹ [Ordinarily I’d ask a rhetorical question at this point, except you might actually answer.]

Graphic style—the ways we shape out letters and configure our words on the page; the number and placement of non-verbal material; the palette of colors and textures— all of these give graphic images their unique character. And that uniquity (I just invented a word, on purpose) helps to establish a sense of time and place. Certain advertising pieces have become iconic, representative of moments in history. I think of British railway posters, from a time before the nationalization of their system when competition was a factor, and the artists who created them.

Frank Brangwyn, for example (Belgian-British artist who I think of working in oil-on-canvas, etchings, and lithographs, as well as ceramics and carpets) was enticed to prepare this powerful image for what I’m guessing may have been the fastest route for travel from London to Scotland. It would be interesting to do a forensic analysis of Brangwyn’s poster, which is rich with imagery that references multiple aspects of British history, well beyond a “simple” message to “take the train to Scotland”.

But Brangwyn was not the most prolific contributor to the genre of advertising art. Another popular graphic artist was Fred Taylor, “whose work … features block colours, thick black lines and a strong focus on shadow and light.” For a selection of his work, visit this Pinterest page.

Consider also A. M. Cassandre’s Jazz-era advert for Dubonnet, a French aperitif. Any of these three components might stand alone, but together they make a three-second movie suggesting the effect Dubonnet will have on your body, not to mention your outlook.

Cassandre was the pseudonym of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, born in Ukraine of French parents and a prolific designer of advertising pieces such as this.

Another graphic-in-motion is the opening credits of Otto Preminger’s 1965 film “Bunny Lake is Missing” by graphic designer Saul Bass. This is still one of my all-time favorite films and I think part of its success for me is the integration of this wonderful introduction, pairing the graphics of Bass and the musical score of Paul Glass. [A remarkable rhyming pair, don’t you think?]

Agincourt only succeeds to the extant that others come to play in the sandbox of history.

“Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” —Joe Sparano

¹ Indeed, from where I was standing, I’d never experienced a response so underwhelming. Very discouraging—but not enough to stop me.

 

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When is an art a knack?

There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”—The Hitchhiker’s Guide

On the Art of Writing

I think there may be a metaphor in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide for the knack of writing, at least as I practice it.

The Agincourt blog is proof positive that I insist on writing (albeit in 600 to 700 word chunks, my limit, apparently) and fail miserably; at least I do it with a high degree of consistency. I throw my self at the ground again and again and have yet to achieve flight.

Then I recall the old adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re likely to get a lot of unsolicited advice.” Still waiting.

The Community Chapel at Grou

Sunderland Point, the inspiration for the current project, is a Lancashire landscape appreciated only by those who contend with the sea. The very name, Sunderland, is a clue; sunder, as in asunder, because it’s accessible only by causeway at low tide. As ocean levels rise, how much longer can it persist? Without the assistance of the Dutch, that is. Read Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland to understand the peculiarities of such a place.

George Drew’s painting “Fens at Twilight” (above) portrays a landscape on the other side of Britain—more land than water and probably the sort in Graham Swift’s novel—but similar on a much smaller scale to the picturesqueness of Sunderland Point. Could that have been what drew (no pun intended) the Dutch to that part of Fennimore county: fertile land in need of draining? A map for the county, whether political or geologic, has yet to be produced. It’s the “community chapel” that concerns me this evening.

1938

It’s the year 1938. Anson Tennant is safely returned from his amnesiac twenty-one years in Euskadi. Memory restored, Anson himself restored to the family, he has reconnected with the community, but differently than when he left them. An architect in his former life, work in his father-in-law’s furniture shop in Spain had recalibrated Anson to the scale of woodworking, as his first commission upon returning attests: the table and chairs for Miss Rose Kavana. But a year or so after his return, another architectural job had fallen his way: a chapel for the people of Grou sponsored by a confederation of Agincourt churches. Imagine a scenario like this:

  • Emboldened by the success of the federated summer chapel at Sturm und Drang, several denominations¹ agreed to serve a chapel at Grou on a rotating basis, if it could be built economically. “The Community Chapel” would function at other times like a town or recreational hall.
  • Like St Ferreolus referenced above, this, too, would be developed on the skeleton of an underused farm building, a pole barn approximately 28′ by 50′.
  • Is it more than coincidence that Tennant had been architect for the seasonal lake chapel twenty-six years earlier? Either Anson is altruistic to a fault or I’m in a rut.
  • The contextual parallels are William Halsey Wood (at Mantoloking), George Hancock (at several places in Dakota Territory), and Paley & Austin (at Sunderland Point). The stylistic parallels are 1) pole barn prototypes, the sort from County Extension pamphlets, and 2) the Australian-vernacular-inspired houses of Glenn Murcutt. My challenge is the amalgamation of such disparity: Victorian Era Gothicism, the functional necessities of the Depression, Anson’s new orientation to furniture-building, and the admirable work of Pritzker-Prise-winning architect Glenn Murcutt.²

 

Mission Church, Sunderlad Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Austin & Paley, architects (1894)

Section of a residence design by Glenn Murcutt

¹ Ministers of the Gospel aren’t always inclined to coöperate. Case in point an organization of that sort in Fargo, during the last days of Dakota Territory: Romans, of course would have nothing to do with it, and, perhaps, for similar reasons the Episcopal church was absent from its rolls because the priest/rector at that time was himself an Anglo-Catholic, which put him at odds with both ends of the spectrum. Howard has written here before of the boundary between St Ahab’s and St Joe’s that bespoke a friendliness untypical. So, for the time being, I imagine Agincourt’s Association to have included Methodists, Baptist (of the Northern sort), Presbyterians, and possibly Lutherans, who were a late arrival and anxious to blend.

² On our tour last May, Mr Johnson and I encountered an Australian father-daughter pair. The father was an architect and (if memory serves) it was he who invoked Murcutt and happily claimed to be from a “Murcutt-Free Zone” in his homeland. It would seem that Mr Murcutt is not universally appreciated by his countrymen—the Pritzker notwithstanding.

Romans 8:18

The Way Things Work: A lesson in Agincourtiana

My grandmother Clara lived through the Great Depression; my father Roy was shaped by it. That may be the reason I have only an intellectual grasp on its miseries: Clara endured it (and what I’ve learned was a miserable marriage), preferring to put it in the past, while Roy did all in his power to spare me his experience. Trying not to speak for my generation, I will say this: as a young man graduating from high school and preparing to depart for college, my horizon offered nothing but hope. I stood on a platform that would gradually rise and take us with it — all of us. Progress seemed the order of the day, and I could only imagine a world’s ever-improving the condition. Leaving aside that panglossian view—shit, I was seventeen or eighteen and it was long before I’d learned of Candide and Dr Pangloss — I want to understand the Great Depression as a shared experience in Agincourt and its hinterlands.

Enjoying a new monograph on the careers of 19th century British architects Sharpe, Paley & Austin (whose names I barely knew) I learned of a modest church of their design more powerful that many larger and superficially more sophisticated churches of those years: the Mission Church at #3, The Lane, Sunderland, Morecambe, LA3 3HS. At first glance, it’s hard to connect a respected 19th century architect with such humility, particularly a firm held in very high regard by none other than Nikolaus Pevsner. Ask me about Sir Nikolaus some time.

Mission Church, Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Paley & Austin, architects (1894) / Yes, this is the work of an architect, a damnably good one.

Given the incidental nature of this church in the huge output of the Paley & Austin practice, I’m surprised this building rated even a single image in the British Heritage monograph. Their comment, in fact, contrasts it with a signature P&A church of the same time, which brought me to a parallel with Halsey Wood and the series of modest churches he designed in New Jersey at about the same time he was about to engage the comparable “signature” design of his career, Saint John the Divine. More to the point, it inspired me to adapt the Mission Church (more chapel than church) as a project during the Great Depression in rural Iowa, and an opportunity to bring Anson Tennant back to the drawing board for one more work in his limited architectural output.

It brought to mind the rural village of Grou twelve miles or so northeast of Agincourt, a place of Dutch settlement but with more diversity by, say, 1938. Imagine the A&P Mission Church reinterpreted as a pole barn in the spirit of Romans 8:18.

“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” — Romans 8:18 (KJV)

Mission Church, Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancs., UK / Paley & Austin, architects (1894)

Sunderland Point is precisely the sort of place I’d not only visit, I would happily rent a cottage there for a few months and get down to serious writing. Our friend Cecil Elliott did much the same thing in a couple quite different ways: I recall once when he drove down to Alexandria, checked in to the Holiday Inn on the I-94 exit, and composed his way through a blizzard; Technics & Architecture was born that way. Then there were the series of his nearly-annual winters in Mexico—usually not the better known tourist destinations; the hotel staff came to know him.

As I write this, I had flashbacks to last week’s lecture in ARCH 322 on “Mannerism”: Robert Venturi’s “Fire Station #4” is, in my view, a fine and approachable example of that late Renaissance style, and this humble chapel in Lancashire has its own kinship with Mannerism, fore and aft; with both Michelangelo and Bob.

But there are other allusions to be made. With the comparable modesties (does modesty have a plural?) of both Halsey Wood in his Jersey Shore churches and in the exactly contemporary Dakota churches of emigrant British architect George Hancock. There’s a thread here pleading to be woven.

The hamlet of Sunderland Point from the north / image from 2016

PS: See the isolated white house just above and left of center? The chapel is across the road in the copse. Would I have had the modesty to design such a thing?