[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
HAMBLIN SMITH, M. J. [1871–1936; British]
“On the Move”
four-color woodcut / 6 inches by 7.5 inches / #6 of 50
Hamblin Smith is one of the collection’s mystery artists, attested by the paucity of biographical information available. It is possible he was the son of James Hamblin Smith, a life-long Cambridge tutor and author of texts on mathematics. Among Smith’s four children is a son named Maurice—who is plausibly the “M” in M. J.—though the latter’s career was spent in criminal justice as the superintendent of England’s Dartmoor Prison. It is tempting to imagine the administrator of a notorious detention facility like Dartmoor relaxing with chisels and a piece of soft wood—a hobby that would have been denied his inmates.
The pace of village life such as he might have encountered in Devon a hundred years ago is convincingly portrayed here with muted tones and stark contrast. We hear the whiney of a horse near retirement. We feel the weight of the teamster’s load. All is calm. It simply requires the arrival of Miss Marple.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
DENISENKO, Oleg [Oleh Denysenko / Олег Денисенко] [[born 1961; Ukrainian]
etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #79 of 100
etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #93 of 100
“The etchings of Ukrainian print artist, Oleg Denisenko, delight the imagination with their fantastical themes and complex, intricate detail. The fineness of line and rich imagery reflect the very strong and active print tradition of Eastern Europe and Russia.”
Another on-line blog waxes about Denisenko with even more enthusiasm:
“Sometimes artists can be self-consciously quirky in an attempt to be ‘different’ and carve a niche for themselves. Other times, though, artists are simply quirky because the are. I think Ukrainian artist Oleg Denisenko falls into the latter category.
“His delightfully bizarre prints of fantastical figures in elaborate armor, often sporting wings and accompanied by armored horses, arcane astrolabes, strange musical instruments, wheels, levers, charts and diagrams are filled with wonderful bits of texture and line. The monochromatic prints have a remarkable sense of being colorful because the variety of textures and line-filled areas have some of the same space-defining feeling as areas of color might in a painting.
“Though the images carry a sense of medieval times, Denisenko was born in 1961. [Another source gives 1959.]
“His images spill over with objects from his mental and emotional attic. Wheeled toys, wind-up keys, jester hats, and Da Vinci-like diagrams for nonsensical Renaissance machinery mix with textured amalgams of dragons and birds.
“Through it all is a wonderful graphic exuberance that makes you think that as soon as he stopped on one image, he would immediately begin the next just because he was having so much fun.”
These two delightful prints came to Agincourt as an exchange between Denisenko and NIN art faculty member Mason Glore, who has graciously placed them with us on extended loan. Though the scale is vastly different, in content they compare favorably with the lithographs and drawings of Robert A. Nelson.
Six or seven years ago someone recommended that I get an external hard drive to replace the garland of miscellaneous jump drives around my neck. So I did. And within three weeks it died a horrible and irretrievable death, and with it so did most of the early files from the Agincourt Project. Revisiting a blog entry from 2011, I was surprised to be reacquainted with Abel Kane, who I see now, with ten years’ hindsight, was shaped by my recollection of an old friend.
Like Gaudeamus Tennant, who had a virgin birth, Kane’s mother E. G. Fromm became a mother without benefit of marriage. Agincourt seems built on a deep vein of illegitimacy, which I frankly can’t explain. Until further notice, it is what it is.
His name is an obvious contradiction in terms, similar in a way to Agincourt’s palindromatic grave digger Neil Klien, but Neil’s case was a very sad one. Kane, I suspect, had a more fundamental and long lasting influence on the community.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright who had a dominant mother figure during his formative years, in addition to being surrounded with sisters, Kane’s father was never identified—his mother picked the surname out of thin air—and his mother E. G. Fromm presented a gender-neutral public face to the world, at least through the name she used as a writer. Abel must have got his voracious reading habits from her. And that fits with the people we know he kept as close friends—people like Hal Holt. It’s a good bet he was a member of The Why and hung out in their repurposed water tower.
One wonders if he had a correspondence beyond Agincourt, perhaps even internationally.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” — Robert Frost
I can attest that building types vary in their degree of difficulty, and that in my case the more problematic are 1) structures for religious use and 2) single-family houses. The first because a “church” is supposed to look like the one we knew as children; the second because “home” is identified with our own, to the extent that we may have lived at one address for some length of time. A criticism of either is personal affront.
Through the years, I’ve learned that over-familiarity with the single-family house also stands in our way as designers because buildings fit us like an old shoe, soft and comfortable and put on with ease and little forethought. It accommodates every bone and bunion, as do our homes, and “functions” with the same unconscience ease: things are simply where they ought to be; they’re at hand without thinking, like walking into a dark room and reaching for the light switch.
I designed a house once for an elderly couple in Breckenridge, Minnesota, in their early sixties. [I am much older now than they were then, you should know.] Visiting them once, gathering information about what they wanted (often at the expense of what they might need), I observed her answer the phone in her kitchen, bowl of cookie batter in hand, and without a hitch in her motion, answer it, place the receiver betwixt ear and shoulder, sit with her hip on the kitchen counter, reach for a pencil and jot down a number for Joe to call when he got home, all without ever setting down the bowl. In those few seconds she told me more about what her new home should be than hours of interview and shoeboxes of magazine clippings.
As you might imagine, housing accounts for the clear majority of building stock in any community, varying perhaps with decade and region in the United States. And, as I’ve written before, our houses come from a wider range of sources than you might imagine: yes, architects design them, but those are often not worth our notice. Others come from stock plans through builder-contractors or the lumber yard. But as a kid I was a devotee of plan books available at news counters and magazine racks; today those are likely to be found on-line. And material manufacturers and suppliers were inclined to suggest plans which specified their products. While other collections of plans were responsive to one or another of the issues of the day. All told, you’d really have to work at avoiding all house plans and allowing your new home to spring forth full-blown from the brow of Zeus. It simply doesn’t happen.¹
Considering the evolution of Agincourt, I have a good idea which neighbords developed a particular character; who lived where and why. And since the town plan is divided in symmetrical quadrants those neighborhoods developed with a measure of independence. The north-east, for example, had the highest elevation, was least flood prone and likely to have attracted greater wealth and socio-economic status. By contrast, the southwest came to be called “Mesopotamia” and was inclined to flood from both the Mighty Muskrat and Crispin Creek. They might as well have been on different planets.
What follows are — in no particular order and hardly inclusive — reference to several other blog entries where I’ve rambled about the house as a general architectural matter and one particular to Agincourt. I hope they might be helpful to the would-be designer of a memorable house in this imaginery place.
¹ Having just written this, I’m reminded of something once said about architect Bruce Goff: that he designed each of his homes as though it were the first one in the world. Looking at them, you might think so. And in many cases you’d be mistaken.
[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
GRANT, Gordon Hope [1875-1962]
lithograph / 9 inches by 12 inches (image) / edition of 250
Best known for his marine paintings, watercolors, and etchings, Gordon Hope Grant was born in San Francisco and educated in Scotland. He then studied at the Heatherly and Lambeth Art School in London and returned to San Francisco where he worked as an illustrator for local newspapers until 1896, when he moved to New York as an illustrator for both the World and Journal. In 1899 Grant was sent as an artist-correspondent to South Africa by Harper’s Weekly to cover the Boer War. From 1901 to 1909, he was an illustrator for Puck.
In the years following service during World War I, Grant concentrated on marine subjects, producing paintings and etchings, and illustrating books with nautical themes. He also created a series of highly regarded views of Manhattan. A member of numerous professional societies, his work is held in important collections nationwide, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gordon Hope Grant died in New York.
“Reflection” is one of several seascapes in the Collection. The oblique three-quarter profile of the larger boat compares favorably with both the John Edgar Platt prints.
Chicago industrialist John J. Glessner approached the renowned Boston architect H. H. Richardson with the commission for a house. Glessner had written with modesty, almost apologetically, since Richardson’s other Chicago buildings were both large and prominent. Why Glessner imagined his own home would be less noted, notable, or notorious is anyone’s guess.
At any rate, Richardson’s reply has become legend, attesting his own humility as well as setting the bar for the “worthiness” of a client or commission. He wrote: “I’ll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s what I do to make a living.” Not an ounce of Calatrava or Gehry-esque hubris there. And, though Richardson designed an unbuilt cathedral project for Albany, New York, that coop commission eluded his all too brief forty-eight years with us.
I’ve wanted for some time to assign a studio project in the spirit of Richardson’s light hearted jest-ure, but time’s awasting ’cause there aren’t many semesters left to me.
For those who know the traditional ARCH 272 design project (a birdhouse in the styles of renowned architects, most of which have little to do with the starchitects in question), I’d propose a slight variant: a chicken coop, say, in the style of C.F.A. Voysey or Adolf Loos. Now there’s a scary notion: Loos and chickens. Loos would certainly appreciate the “modernity” of the egg’s shape [read “Ornament and Crime” sometime] but I can’t imagine him handling the thing that made it. It’s far easier to conceive Karl Friederich Schinkel’s response.
So last night during reruns of the impeachment hearings [must-see TV], I googled some information on coop-itecture and, then, this morning for a half hour or so this is what I concocted. The vehicle is supposed to be William Halsey Wood, largely because I’ve begun to know his work pretty well, while most others haven’t a clue who he was. Gives me a slight advantage. It’s a long way from completion but I thought you might enjoy a peek.
There’s a joke about a Scot and a Spaniard.
Discussing differences in their languages, the Spaniard inquired: “We have a word in my country —”mañana”— which means tomorrow or some unspecified time in the future. In practical terms, though, it means whenever we get around to it. Do you have anything like that in Scotland?” After considerable introspection, the Scot responded in a thick Glaswegian accent: “No. We dunna have a word that quite describes that degree of urgency.” I learned firsthand about the Scots sense of time on my first visit to the Isle of Skye.
The train from Glasgow dropped me at a miniscule depot that marked the end of the line for our two-car train. From there I could see the ferry ticket office, which would get me across the strait to Skye, innermost of the Hebrides; I could just see the island through the morning mists. Trundling those few yards with one large bag, I inquired of Charybdis the Ferryman when the boat would leave for the island. His reply, delivered straight-faced and without a second’s hesitation — “Oh, about ten minutes after it gets here” — then turned to resume his morning tea.
Time in the Highlands and Islands moves with less regularity than it does elsewhere. Notions of timeliness or punctuality are foreign to the northern disposition. Tapping your foot achieves nothing. All things happen in their own good time. And, indeed, the ferry did depart about ten minutes after its arrival.
For the next two weeks I learned to appreciate the joke about the Spaniard and the Scot.
Summer service on the NITC line ran from the trackside shelter at Fahnstock to the Station-Store on Sturm und Drang between Memorial and Labor day. And some weekends before and after. That’s about eight miles, not accounting several curves and swerves which lengthened the trip to just over eleven. But the fifteen-to-twenty minute ride could take a bit longer when the driver was inclined to honor unofficial flag stops along the way. NITC was “user friendly.”
The end of the line was a loose accumulation of buildings of muddled character and mixed (which it to say miscellaneous) use. The station-store was a story-and-a-half wood farmhouse, gable end toward the water. The former living room had become a grocery-cum-hardware emporium; the dining room, a restaurant seating no more than eight on mismatched furniture that had seen better days; kitchen with wood-burning stove; and an office that was home to a taxidermed menagerie. Upstairs, three hotel rooms, strictly “European Plan”. Wash basins were provided, but the toilet was downstairs, as was the shower — bracingly cold for free; hot water ran an extra fifteen cents. Homemade lye soap could strip paint. Your hosts, the Prikleighs, Edith and son Ivor, had run the operation since the death of Mr P some time in the mid-Eighties.
Widow Prikleigh stood barely four feet tall, which was also her circumference, but Ivor was a lanky lad and must have taken after his dad. Edith was also postmistress for the area — named “Resort” — and Ivor ran a launch that served the lake’s other hostelries, Bagby’s, Moody’s, and Smith’s, the latter approximating a hotel in the accepted sense. Their limited conversational exchanges were delivered in a friendly Down East accent which hinted at New England origins; I never asked. But the food was hearty, farm fixin’s and seasonal fare, depending on what was in the garden or in Ivor’s traps; you could never quite identify the principal ingredient in her stew, though it stuck to the ribs and left you wondering why your mother hadn’t cooked like that. Herbs and spices came from just outside the kitchen door and were rumored to’ve been fertilized with night soil — if you know what I mean.
The bench on the lakeside porch arrayed a changing cast of characters, though conversation rarely strayed from a limited range of topics: 1) the weather, 2) whatever war had just concluded, or 3) a catch-all category I’d call “Back in the Day”. Politics were off limits, and any attack on persons not there to defend themselves would get you sent packing. If Mr Zuckerberg had some of Edith Prikleigh’s common sense, social media would be a good deal less contentious.
Three months of The Season couldn’t have been enough to keep the Prikleighs through the winter. So Edith wove rag rugs and did a brisk mail order business year round. Ivor tanned the hides of those critters in the stew and fashioned them into the most durable gloves you’ve ever worn. And folks drove out or came by trolley for the Friday fish extravaganza set up under a canvas awning along the hotel’s south side, served family-style on trestle tables and benches borrowed from Saint Ferreolus chapel. [Now that I think about it, it may have been the chapel that borrowed Edith’s benches.] Whatever way it was, you were guaranteed a full stomach and a good time. The coffee was strong and her iced tea hinted of an ingredient restricted by Prohibition. The pies were made by one of the Borogove sisters — I forget which one, but she went to Chicago and opened a pretty fine restaurant.
Fidgety young folks could always fish or go for a swim; teenagers could borrow a boat and spoon. But it didn’t take much persuasion for Ivor to get down his guitar. Before long, it all seemed like camp meeting without the exhortation and personal testimony — no bad thing on a Friday evening — and lasted long past sunset. The NITC ran a special late car on those days — kind of a “designated driver” — so the party continued on into the Agincourt depot as people drifted homeward.
Those were simpler days. You could slow time and even wind back the clock to relive life’s better moments. Just like I’m doing here.
“So you want to be a writer
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.”
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 diminishing 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 with theory, the latter now 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, serving as an armature for technical and socio-historical courses which become its ribs, tendons, musculature, and nervous system. Depending upon the program, the studio sequence (or more accurately the laboratory, for that indeed is its ideal) extends from three to five years; these are the petri dish for holistic or integrated 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 such a scenario. The creation of a fictional place, an imaginary town in Iowa, became a way to weave architectural history into this narrative. [I hold that no architectural thesis or capstone projects will be better than the student’s ability to imagine a client — and to keep in mind that they are not that client.]
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 truth often encourages me to generate design problems for my own mental exercise and enjoyment. 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 a moment’s 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 possible involvement, had already become formulaic — Sullivan’s own work being anything but that, if the bank series is evidence.
What began as a personal quest morphed 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 beyond my hopes. 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 and its socio-economic and cultural context. Project types are all common, 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-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.
ARCHITECTS and their STYLE(S):
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 emergence of Modernism. Also, 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 reflections of that movement in Europe. The Art Nouveau, on the other hand (whether non- or anti-historical), touched the U.S. only marginally and that through the decorative arts.
HISTORICALLY BASED: Arthur Beresford-Pite (#2 from an alphabetical list below); Sir Edwin Lutyens (#13); Bernard Maybeck (#16); McKim Mead & White (#17)
PROGRESSIVE: Peter Behrens (#1); Louis Singleton Curtiss (#3); Josef Hoffmann (#9); William Richard Lethaby (#11); George Washington Maher (#15); Purcell & Elmslie (#19); Louis Sullivan (#22); Frank Lloyd Wright (#25)
ARTS & CRAFTS: Michel DeKlerk (#4); Wilson Eyre (#5); Greene & Greene (#7); Sir Edwin Lutyens (#13); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (#14); Bernard Maybeck (#16); Eliel Saarinen (#20); C.F.A. Voysey (#24)
MODERNIST: Irving Gill (#6); Adolf Loos (#12); Auguste Perret (#18)
ART NOUVEAU: Hector Guimard (#8); Victor Horta (#10); Charles Rennie Mackintosh (#14); Lars Sonck (#21) Louis Sullivan (#22); Henry van de Velde (#23)
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 purged of all but crisp non- or minimally historical detail.
- BEHRENS, Peter [1868-1940; Berlin]
- BERESFORD PITE, Arthur [1861-1934; London]
- CURTISS, Louis Singleton [1865-1924; Kansas City]
- deKLERK, Michel [1884-1923; Amsterdam]
- EYRE, Wilson, Jr. [1858-1924; Philadelphia]
- GILL, Irving John [1870-1936; Los Angeles]
- GREENE (Charles Sumner) & GREENE (Henry Mather) [1868-1957 and 1870-1954] [Pasadena]
- GUIMARD, Hector [1867-1942; Paris]
- HOFFMANN, Josef [1870-1956; Vienna]
- HORTA, Victor [1861-1947; Brussels]
- LETHABY, William Richard [1857-1931; London]
- LOOS, Adolf Karl Viktor Maria [1870-1933; Vienna]
- LUTYENS, Sir Edwin Landseer [1869-1944; London]
- MACKINTOSH, Charles Rennie [1868-1928; Glasgow]
- MAHER, George Washington [1864-1926; Chicago]
- MAYBECK, Bernard Ralph [1862-1957; Berkeley]
- McKIM MEAD & WHITE [look them up; New York City]
- PERRET, Auguste [1874-1954; Paris]
- PURCELL (William Gray) & ELMSLIE (George Grant) [1880-1965 and 1869-1952] [Minneapolis and Chicago]
- SAARINEN, Gottlieb Eliel [1873-1950; Helsinki]
- SONCK, Lars Eliel [1870-1956; Helsinki]
- SULLIVAN, Louis Henry [1856-1924; Chicago]
- Van de VELDE, Henry [1868-1957; Brussels]
- VOYSEY, Charles Francis Annesley [1857-1941; London]
- WRIGHT, Frank Lloyd [1867-1959; Chicago]
Several names may be unfamiliar outside the United States [I’m writing this for a potential British audience]: 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 both 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 preference, there are a number of architects who might have “made” the list, except for the paucity of information available for analysis, though on-line sources may have changed that. Some of these may also be selected by a student, or another name altogether suggested as an alternative. Consider these additional characters, an even more egregiously jaundiced selection than those above: Erik Gunnar ASPLUND [1885-1940; Sweden]; Ralph Adams CRAM [1863-1942; Boston]; Kirtland CUTTER [1860-1939; Spokane]; Cass GILBERT [1859-1934; NYC]; Walter Burley GRIFFIN [1876-1937; Chicago]; Károly KÓS [1883-1977; Budapest]; Robert MALLET-STEVENS [1886-1945; Paris]; Erich MENDELSOHN [1887-1953; Berlin]; and Clough WILLIAMS-ELLIS [1883-1978; Wales].
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 also 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 comparatively few houses, especially the late ones, are stiff and formal, more country club than house — frankly not very domestic. 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. Mediaeval cities grew organically around such places.
“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. [For inspiration I recommend the mission church at Sunderland Point, Morecambe, Lancs., U.K. (1894) by Paley & Austin, or the summer chapel-of-ease St Simon’s-by-the-Sea at Mantoloking, New Jersey (1886) by William Halsey Wood.]
“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 probable.
“D”— A House for a University Professor: Professorship connoted a different social standing a hundred years ago than it does today. In addition to 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 and children, while the “men folk” transacted business.
“G”— A Transit Station or Hub: The trolley and interurban were a common means of transport before the automobile. Center city became a nexus of transit lines and a logical transfer point among them. It served as a place to meet as well as a gateway. And not incidentally, it was often the only public toilet in the CBD.
“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. This could be a large, urban stand-alone memorial or a battlefield cemetery in a more rural setting.
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 have 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, yet they existed in large numbers.
DESIGNS IN SERIES: There are any number of designs “in series” which fascinate. The eight banks of Louis Sullivan are a case in point. But there are others in both architecture and art: 1) the detached single-family houses of Adolf Loos; 2) the six English Baroque churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor; 3) the 1920s “textile block” houses of Frank Lloyd Wright; 4) the Paris Metro stations of Hector Guimard; and in art, 5) the watercolor windmills by Frank Brangwyn which illustrate the 1923 book Windmills by Brangwyn and Hayter Preston. What would the next in any of these series look like? On the other hand there are unique structures crying out to be part of a series (in my estimation), such as the 1902 Bülowstraße U-bahn station in Berlin by architect Bruno Möhring. How might Möhring have approached a second? A third?
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|
CASE STUDIES (some guidance from the seat of my pants):
#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 are 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, among others. 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 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue. Mrs Robie had been a University of Chicago 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, providing less costly access to and from the city, but more plebeian.
What questions would be useful in approaching this design opportunity?
- What was the social role of a university professor a hundred-plus years ago? What age might we presume? What aspects of his (he would probably have been a male) teaching might involve the home?
- What was the role of a woman in that context? As wife, homemaker, mother, and member of the community at large.
#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 free-standing structures. So his designs are both spatial and volumetric. Loos referred to this as the “plan of volumes”: plan and section drawings are simply insufficient to understand the enfilade (spatial sequencing) which is going on. [Two visits to the Villa Moller in Vienna convinced me that Loos’s methodology was successful.] 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 entry in the Weissenhof Housing Estate at Stuttgart of 1927, somewhat outside the general bounds of the project, but possible, since he was on the original list.
#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, so there is limited precedent In this scenario, what he said may be as important as what he did.
- Lethaby’s clients were few in number. Is it possible to determine anything about them as a group? Qualities they may have shared? Even qualities shared with Lethaby?
#04: Consider the case of Dutch modernist Michel deKlerk, socially-driven and “Progressive” in the best sense of the word. Most of his work is embedded in the context of social uplift and improvement, perhaps to a stronger degree than might be expected in the United States during those same years. Something similar could be said of Horta (whose clients included both industrialists and Socialist labor movement) and to a lesser degree of Henry Van de Velde.
#05: Auguste Perret, among the youngest of the architects in the matrix, provides an opportunity to explore the newest material of the 20th century for architectural application: reinforced concrete or what the French call beton brut. Both Perret and the slightly older Frank Lloyd Wright investigated concrete at about the same time, chronologically, though drawing somewhat different lessons.
#06: Among these names, several are unfamiliar, I’m sure, people like Bernard Maybeck and Louis Singleton Curtiss. Curtiss was a Kansas City architect little mentioned in history surveys, yet his work is interesting — primarily residential but also some commercial work — and in a style one might almost classify as Secessionist, i.e., Viennese. Look him up. Curtiss might well be considered in the context of “buildings in series”, because of the series of railroad depots he designed in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas.
#07: Also consider the breadth of design media represented here: Horta and Van de Velde were graphic designers; Mackintosh, Voysey, Lutyens, and others designed furniture. Josef Hoffmann founded the Wiener Werkstätte and produced designs for its manufacture. This was an era when the boundaries between various areas of design were blurred, if they existed at all. How might that understanding influence your own thinking?
#OPTIONAL: Though this appears at the end of this narrative, the following “case study” might very well become an introduction to the semester; a warm-up exercise to get us in the spirit.
When John J. Glessner wrote renowned Boston architect H. H. Richardson concerning the design of his home, and approached Richardson with hesitance, almost apologetic, Richardson’s reply stands as a paradigm for architects today: He wrote, “I’ll plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s the way I make a living.” In the spirit of H. H. Richardson, design a chicken coop in the style of an architect of your choice from the list above. Don’t think of this as “extra credit” but, rather, as one more chance to design.
¿POURQUOI? Why do I propose an architectural design studio/laboratory which is historically based? First, I would maintain that every architectural design opportunity is (or ought to be) grounded in history: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” says George Santayana. But my rationale goes beyond that fundamental position.
When I began my so-called career at NDSU (more years ago than I care to count), the history of architecture was a required course; everyone took it because they had to. Today, I wonder what percentage would if it were merely an elective. As I began this essay (with an observation about the declining centrality of architectural history for professional development, an observation with more than a little cynicism), I ought to have mentioned that historic preservation was a new and often untrod path for architects then, especially in the U.S. Midwest and in smaller communities, where it was seen as snooty and high falutin. One city planner summed up the local opinion: “How are we going to support all those ‘old house’ museums?” Now who’s being cynical?
Since those early days, preservation has become an independent academic discipline. And, though I doubt you’ll be involved with pure restoration in your careers, I suspect that any number of design challenges will come your way which involve adaptive re-use and/or sympathetic addition to buildings of even modest architectural merit. Such work can be accomplished within any number of viewpoints, from literal imitation to outright contrast. But all of them can be fulfilling. And their success depends, I contend, upon the designer’s awareness of and sensitivity to the building at hand and the program to be accommodated. Not all shoes fit every foot.
I’ve crafted these exercises (and I do mean crafted) to take you outside your comfort zone and present a challenge drawn from the perspective that permeates this brief, believing sincerely that you will learn more about who you are and what you know by understanding who you aren’t and what you don’t — or what you shouldn’t. If that doesn’t make sufficient sense, then we need to have coffee or a beer some time and talk it over. Oh, and if it does make sense, that offer of beverage and conversation is still open.
° Those who fault what must seem 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 an eccentric white septuagenarian Eurocentric architectural historian whose students have come predominantly from comparable middle-class backgrounds. I rest my case because it may be that I have none.