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What an architect does

February 1931 cover of House Beautiful magazine by Elizabeth Lewis

As our current fifth-year class prepares to enter the world of work, I often reflect on the profession I once hoped to join. Researching (to the extent one can) the modus operandi of historical figures, and watching current practice vicariously through the experience of recent graduates, I understand it was a good thing to not have joined the fray. Given that architecture is an art, a science, and a business, I might have had some success in one of those areas, been tolerably good in another, but a dismal failure in the third. So, all things considered, the world is far better off as I watch from the wings. Which does not mean that architecture has not been the focus of my life. It has. It will continue to be — for the time remaining.

Quite outside what constitutes the nature of architectural practice — and there is a wide interpretation on that score — there is the compounding factor of public perception. Even the college-educated segment of the populace have only a remote and often distorted appreciation for the design profession. They’re quite aware of the skill set required for brain surgery, and the plumbers craft is clear enough (shit continuing to run downhill), but I could retire on the nickels collected for each utterance of “…my architect just drew up the plans.” Clarifying my understanding of the design-construction spectrum won’t alter that popular understanding. So why do I go one about it here? Probably because venting is no bad thing and reflection has its merits.

Anson Tennant, my avatar in early 20th century Agincourt, died when I was twenty-three. I could have known him. And if our paths had crossed, what questions might I have posed? When did you know what an architect was? When did you decide to become one? What were the influences on your growing sense of design? But most important, When your returned home from an amnesiac twenty-one year absence, why didn’t you also return to the profession that you’d loved? Anson Tennant enjoyed a three-year professional life, at most; the “honeymoon” was barely passed. And his architectural commissions, until others come to light, can be numbered on one hand: the remodelled Wasserman Block, which included his studio; the Agincourt Public Library and Tennant Memorial Gallery; and Saint Crispin’s Chapel, added to St Joseph-the-Carpenter Episcopal Church. Why did he decide to quit while he was ahead?


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