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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, serving as an armature for technical and socio-historical courses which become its ribs, tendons, and musculature. Depending on 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 wholistic 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 the scenario. The creation of a fictional place, an imaginary town in Iowa, has become 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 the client is not them.]

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 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 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-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 reflections of that movement in Europe. 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 purged of all but 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 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 choice, there are a number of other architects who might have “made” the list, except for the paucity of information available for analysis. Some of these might also be selected by a student, or another name altogether suggested as an alternative. Consider these additional characters, an more egregiously jaundiced list 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. 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. Organic Mediaeval cities grew up 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.

“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 exist 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
“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


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 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 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.

#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 entry 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 embedded in the context of social uplift and improvement, perhaps to a stronger 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 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.

#OPTIONAL: 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.

° 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.

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