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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 architectural history plays a decreasing role in preparation for an architectural career in North America? Courses treating architecture of the past are still integral parts of professional curricula (barely) but two other considerations speak to its marginalization: 1) history is inevitably hyphenated now 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, though teaching architectural history and design rather than pursuing licensure, I’ve sought other ways both to 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 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 anything which might be built. This reality often encourages me to generate design problems for my own mental exercise. Twelve years ago a random thought developed well beyond its immediate context and birthed the Agincourt Project.

AGINCOURT, not just a battle any more

Thinking about American architect Louis Sullivan [1856-1924], his late career during 1900-1920 was dogged by personal demons but then blossomed briefly in a series of exquisite small-town banks he called “jewel boxes.” Bracketed between 1908 and 1919, they coincide with (I noted with intense interest) 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 his banks. One fascinating question arose: Sullivan was engaged in the right place and time with an appropriate 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 inevitable follow-up: What would a Sullivan-designed public library look like? How would he have approached a problem that, by the time of his potential; 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 evolved and 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.


The most recent iteration of Agincourt has been a third-year design studio set in a five-year M.Arch curriculum. It offered 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 chosen period. Geography is an aspect of the last factor, since each architect is associated with a particular place or cultural context. 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 in my thinking. The three-dimensional matrix of style, name and building type, however, 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 were 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 style from those years: those that are #1) Historically Based, #2) Progressive, #3) Arts & Crafts, #4) Modernist, and #5) 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. The Art Nouveau, on the other hand, only marginally touched the U.S. and that largely in the decorative arts.

HISTORICALLY BASED: Arthur Beresford-Pite (#2 from an alphabetical list below); Sir Edwin Lutyens (#12); Bernard Maybeck (#15); McKim Mead & White (#16)

PROGRESSIVE: Peter Behrens (#1); Louis Singleton Curtiss (#3); William Richard Lethaby (#10); George Washington Maher (#14); Purcell & Elmslie (#18); Louis Sullivan (#21); Frank Lloyd Wright (#24)

ARTS & CRAFTS: Michel DeKlerk (#4); Wilson Eyre (#5); Greene & Greene (#7); Sir Edwin Lutyens (#12); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (#13); Bernard Maybeck (#15); Eliel Saarinen (#19); C.F.A. Voysey (#23)

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

ART NOUVUEA: Hector Guimard (#8); Victor Horta (#9); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (#13); Lars Sonck (#20) Louis Sullivan (#21); Henry van de Velde (#22)

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 a tendency toward clean lines, simple massing, and crisp non- or minimally historical detail.

  1. BEHRENS, Peter [1868-1940; Berlin]
  2. BERESFORD PITE, Arthur [1861-1934; London]
  3. CURTISS, Louis Singleton [1865-1924; Kansas City]
  4. deKLERK, Michel [1884-1923; Amsterdam]
  5. EYRE, Wilson, Jr. [1858-1924; Philadelphia]
  6. GILL, Irving John [1870-1936; Los Angeles]
  7. GREENE (Charles Sumner) & GREENE (Henry Mather) [1868-1957 and 1870-1954] [Pasadena]
  8. GUIMARD, Hector [1867-1942; Paris]
  9. HORTA, Victor [1861-1947; Brussels]
  10. LETHABY, William Richard [1857-1931; London]
  11. LOOS, Adolf Karl Viktor Maria [1870-1933; Vienna]
  12. LUTYENS, Sir Edwin Landseer [1869-1944; London]
  13. MACKINTOSH, Charles Rennie [1868-1928; Glasgow]
  14. MAHER, George Washington [1864-1926; Chicago]
  15. MAYBECK, Bernard Ralph [1862-1957; Berkeley]
  16. McKIM MEAD & WHITE [New York City]
  17. PERRET, Auguste [1874-1954; Paris]
  18. PURCELL (William Gray) & ELMSLIE (George Grant) [1880-1965 and 1869-1952] [Minneapolis and Chicago]
  19. SAARINEN, Gottlieb Eliel [1873-1950; Helsinki]
  20. SONCK, Lars Eliel [1870-1956; Helsinki]
  21. SULLIVAN, Louis Henry [1856-1924; Chicago]
  22. Van de VELDE, Henry [1868-1957; Brussels]
  23. VOYSEY, Charles Francis Annesley [1857-1941; London]
  24. WRIGHT, Frank Lloyd [1867-1959; Chicago]

Several names may be unfamiliar outside the United States: brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene (Southern California), Bernard Maybeck (San Francisco Bay), Louis Singleton Curtiss (Kansas City), Purcell & Elmslie (Minneapolis), George W. Maher (a Chicago contemporary and competitor 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; a difference in appearance may not necessarily reflect a difference in content.

[As if this projects weren’t already driven by personal interest and choice, there are a number of other architects who might have “made” the list, except for the paucity of information. Some of these might also be selected by a student, or another name altogether suggested as an alternative. Consider these additional characters, an even more jaundiced list than those above: Erik Gunnar ASPLUND [1885-1940]; Ralph Adams CRAM [1863-1942]; Kirtland CUTTER [1860-1939]; Cass GILBERT [1859-1934]; Walter Burley GRIFFIN [1876-1937]; Károly KÓS [1883-1977]; Robert MALLET-STEVENS [1886-1945]; Erich MENDELSOHN [1887-1953]; and Clough WILLIAMS-ELLIS [1883-1978].

BUILDING TYPES and their rationale:

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, are 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 instructive 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.

“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, but can also be found in rural communities.

“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 than it does today. In addition to from 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 reasons: convenience and public health.

“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. Center city becamew a nexus of transit lines and a logical transfer point among them.

“H”— A World War Memorial: After 1919, an astonishing 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.

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.


Here, then, is a matrix of building types and styles, with the names of architects linked in situations which (we hope) will elicit design responses that are inspired rather than imitative.

NAME  Historical Progressive Arts & Crafts Modernist Art Nouveau
“A” 16 1,3,10,24 4,7,12,13,15,19,23 6,13 7,9,15,20,22
“B” 15 14 5,12,15  6 21
“C” 2,12,15,16 1,3,10,24 4,5,7,12,15.19,23 6,11 9,15,22
“D” 2,12,15 1,10,14,18  5,12,13,15,23 6,11 7,9,15,20,22
“E” 12 1,3,10,24 4,13,15,19 6,13 7,9,15,20,22
“F” 2,12,16 1,3,14  7,12,13,15,23  11 15,22
“G” 15 1,3,14,18,24 4,19 6,13 7,9,20
“H” 2 10,14,18 13,19 13 15,20,22



#01: 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 elements 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 of 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 Robies 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.

#02: Consider the case of Adolf Loos, whose early work consisted largely of interiors, most of them residential and retail. Only late in his career did he design complex independent structures. So his designs are both spatial and volumetric. How might he have approached a problem differently, whether it was free-standing or adaptive use? For Loos, I’m adding a special case: an netry in the Weissenhof Estate at Stuttgart of 1927, somewhat outside the general bounds of the project.

#03: Consider the case of William Lethaby, known more, perhaps, for his work as an educator. Lethaby’s design philosophy is embedded in his writings and lectures and incidentally in the limited number of works that he produced. In this scenario, what he said may be as important as what he did.

#04: Consider the case of Dutch modernist Michel deKlerk, participant in a socially-driven context and “Progressive” in the best sense of the word. Most of is work is imbedded in the context of social uplift and improvement, perhaps to a stonger degree than might be expected in the United States. Something similar might be said of both Horta and to a lesser degree of Van de Velde.

#05: The case of Auguste Perret, among the youngest of the architects in the matrix, offers the opportunity to explore the newest material of the 20th century for architectural exploitation: reinforced concrete or what the French call beton brut. Both Perret and the slightly older Frank Lloyd Wright invistigated concrete at about the same time, chronologically, drawing somewhat varied conclusions.


° Those who fault what seems a Eurocentric point of view raise a valid concern, 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 Eurocentric architectural historian whose students have come predominantly from comparable backgrounds.

The Smock Mill at Clymping

The Smock Mill at Clymping

smock mill at climpingIf I were a Briton, I’d likely know a good deal more about windmills. So when the architectural drawings for adaptation of the smock mill at Clymping on the Sussex coastline appeared at the on-line auction site that dare not speak its name, my ignorance made manifest encouraged an immediate need to know.

Hayter Preston wrote an accessible study of windmills in 1923, directed more toward a popular audience, I suspect, than a scholarly one, so ideal as an introduction for someone like myself. Today, however, it may be more collectible for its illustrations by Frank Brangwyn than the text by Preston–though he was certainly my sort of writer, or the writer I might prefer to become. An Anglo-Welsh artist of Belgian birth, Brangwyn is known for his loose aggressive style often employed in the service of working-class topics of the early 20th century: shipbuilding, steel manufacturing, and other industrial topics and of those who laboured among them. There is more than a hint of Socialist Realism represented here. Which makes perfect sense, since Belgium’s early industrialization may have been in advance of Briatin’s, and its labour movement at least as well organized and comparably Socialist. A romanticized presentation of 19th century milling in Britain and on the continent seems in keeping with Brangwyn’s artistic and inferred point of view.

Preston’s examples were chosen from many countries with coastline and their reliable supply of wind energy. Britain’s Channel coast was dense with them at one time, but the survivors today are substantially picturesque tourist destinations where more selfies than informational brochures are taken. Who chose which mills would be illustrated is unremarked, though Preston does get second billing, which may be a clue to the book’s origin. Nor does it say how Brangwyn worked; from photographs or actual site visits. By the time my secondhand copy arrived, the architectural drawings had come and I knew a bit more than the auction description provided.

The mill’s location was given as Littlehampton, a coastal town with a small harbor on the River Arun which might have served a modest fishing fleet in the 18th and early 19th centuries but which had become a resort by the time the mill was converted as a weekend retreat. The names both of the architect and the client are noted on the drawings; they were contract drawings after all, intended for construction and elegantly informational, as working drawings once were. These two were acquired for a collection driven by precisely that point of view: that the representation of beauty and knowledge are not mutually exclusive. [There had been an exhibition of the older collection (numbering close to forty) some years ago, but the beauty of these mill drawings encourages me to propose another based on recent additions.]

The client was Sir Richard Garton, who I learned had been a key figure in creation of the League of Nations. Surely somewhere in Britain there is a blue medallion on one of his residences; otherwise I wonder if his name would register at all on history’s Richter Scale. Finding him took little effort; finding out about him has proved more challenging. Likewise for his architect, one of the also-rans of architectural history who’ve been lost in the shadows. 

John H. Howard practiced from the Surrey town of Haslemere at the time of the Garton commission. But so far the internet has yielded very little biographical material about him, other than his death in January 1940. The client may have known him through a business or family connection, or as someone recommend by another client as a specialist in country house design.

An aerial view of the Clymping mill shows the current state of affairs, very sad, and not boding well for its future. Soon our drawings may be its only record.

So why do I bring any of this up, you ask. There’s no easy answer to this. There rarely is.

First, there is my ongoing interest in architectural drawings, a rarer commodity these days than it was in the early days of on-line auctions. But there are other more obtuse intentions at work. Windmills, for example, and the likelihood that there are multiple examples in the Agincourt story: one on the grounds of the Fennimore county courthouse, for example, converted from pumping water to the nobler purpose of “Memorial”. There is also likely to be a genuine windmill out at Grou, the Dutch settlement ten or twelve miles northeast of Agincourt.

No, the real underlying motive for this post is the Preston-Brangwyn book of 1923, and its connection with my ongoing interest in series designs—Sullivan’s banks, for example; Richardson’s railroad depots in suburban Boston; or the 18th century churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor. Clusters of a particular building type in an architect’s oeuvre interest me greatly, to the extent that I want to add my own to each category, a “what if” exercise. In this case, it’s Frank Brangwyn’s windmill illustrations: The mill at Clymping, for example, is discussed in the Hayter Preston text, yet it is one of very few that were not illustrated. Given that Brangwyn painted a dozen others, might it be possible to render the Clymping mill in Brangwynian style? Would that I were such a one.


The play’s still the thing.

Ideas for the Project come thick and fast. Then there are those long dry spells, probably linked with my bouts of depression, when an old notion comes back to haunt me, cries out for attention, and I discover its been eight years since I last engaged with it! That’s the case with Seamus Tierney and his theatrical career in Agincourt.

I last wrote about Seamus in 2011—at any length, that is, though tangentially—but hadn’t realized that when I started writing something today about Reinhold Kölb’s fusion of Japanese Noh theatre and Austrian psycho-drama, a therapeutic technique he used at his clinic out on Thoreau Avenue.

It’s a goodly distance from ancient Delphi and Agincourt’s Commons. About as far culturally as it is from Kyoto to Vienna. And goodness knows I have no business trying to imagine what Kölb had concocted and how Tierney might have been exposed to it as a young boy and what that could mean for the Project’s future.

Probably nothing.

Epistle to the Alexandrians

The “Epistle to the Alexandrians” is a second century text of curious origin and doubtful authenticity. Its author unknown, the text is found in just one source, an unverified manuscript in a private collection in Alexandria, Egypt. The text has been understood to be of Gnostic origins.

Greetings to you, brothers and sisters in the Spirit. All of you are never far from my thoughts, especially in these days of strife and struggle. I write you today in brotherhood as one who shares your passionate quest for Truth and your concern about those who would remove the liberty we enjoy. Remain firm in your path toward Justice in this life and Fulfillment in the life that is to come. The path I tread is not yours but our goal is the same: return to our origin, the perfect place from whence we have come.

Do not be led like sheep. They will take you to slaughter, disguised as the comforting reward of green pastures and full bellies. Nourishment of that sort is easy enough and those who would lead us there are wolves, killers of the mind who offer the downward way. They will numb your senses with platitudes, confuse you with convenient answers to those questions which require a lifetime, nay sometimes multiple lives, to find Truth. The keys to the pleroma are not to be found there.

Do not settle for the comfort of the valley, when Truth can only be found on the steepest and most inaccessible slopes and in the most rugged of storms, where only goats are able to thrive. Be of good cheer for it is in such storms that bolts of understanding and insight will illumine your steps. Be firm in the quest for Justice in this life and Fulfillment in the next. Recall and be strengthened by the words of the One who has gone before us: The pathway ahead lies within.

A clumsy translation in contemporary Greek reads thus:

Χαιρετισμούς σε εσάς, αδελφούς και αδελφές στο πνεύμα. Όλοι δεν είστε ποτέ μακριά από τις σκέψεις μου, ειδικά σε αυτές τις ημέρες διαμάχης και αγώνα. Σας γράφω σήμερα στην αδελφοσύνη σαν κάποιος που μοιράζεται την παθιασμένη αναζήτηση της αλήθειας και την ανησυχία σας για εκείνους που θα εξαλείψουν την ελευθερία που μας αρέσει. Παραμείνετε σταθεροί στο δρόμο σας προς τη δικαιοσύνη σε αυτή τη ζωή και την εκπλήρωση στη ζωή που πρόκειται να έρθει. Το μονοπάτι που τρέχω δεν είναι δικός σας αλλά ο στόχος μας είναι ο ίδιος: επιστρέψτε στην καταγωγή μας, τον τέλειο τόπο από όπου έχουμε έρθει.

Μην οδηγείτε σαν πρόβατα. Θα σας οδηγήσουν στη σφαγή, μεταμφιεσμένοι ως την ανακουφιστική ανταμοιβή των πράσινων βοσκοτόπων και των πλήρων κοιλιών. Η διατροφή αυτού του είδους είναι αρκετά εύκολη και εκείνοι που θα μας οδηγήσουν εκεί είναι λύκοι, δολοφόνοι του μυαλού που προσφέρουν την καθοδική πορεία. Θα μπερδέψουν τις αισθήσεις σας με φαντασιώσεις, θα σας συγχέουν με βολικές απαντήσεις σε εκείνες τις ερωτήσεις που απαιτούν διάρκεια ζωής, μερικές φορές πολλές ζωές για να βρείτε την Αλήθεια. Δεν υπάρχουν τα κλειδιά στο πρηνρόμα.

Μην εγκαταλείπετε την άνεση της κοιλάδας, όταν η Αλήθεια μπορεί να βρεθεί μόνο στις πιο απότομες και δυσπρόσιτες πλαγιές και στις πιο ανθεκτικές καταιγίδες, όπου μόνο οι κατσίκες είναι σε θέση να ευδοκιμήσουν. Να είστε ευτυχισμένοι για να είναι σε τέτοιες καταιγίδες ότι τα μπουλόνια της κατανόησης και της διορατικότητας θα φωτίζουν τα βήματά σας. Να είστε σταθεροί στην αναζήτηση της δικαιοσύνης σε αυτή τη ζωή και εκπλήρωση στο επόμενο. Θυμηθείτε και ενισχύστε με τα λόγια του Εκείνον που μας πέρασε: η πορεία μπροστά βρίσκεται μέσα μας.