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ARCH 725: Forensic Architecture


ARCH 725 / History-Theory Seminar / Spring 2020 / Ramsay


“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward.” — the Red Queen

The word “forensic” is used more often in two quite different contexts than I intend here: 1) the investigation of crime and its prosecution, and 2) in speech and debate tournaments. Narrowly applied to architecture, it often concerns industrial accidents and any resulting liability. And while I’m loathe to suggest a link between architecture and criminal intent, I would like to think that our understanding of architecture as both process and product can be sharpened through a forensic lens.

Toward that end, I propose a series of exercises, investigating architecture as a CSI specialist or an epidemiologist from the CDC might. I’m asking you to be Gil Grissom. How, from just the evidence at hand, can we intuit the whole from the part? The intent from its consequence? The idea behind the iteration? How through informed intelligent observation and analysis might we begin to understand architectonic design as both a generic, even universal, process and also one that is rooted in intense personal experience? Does a forensic approach, in fact, require us to step outside ourselves, even if for just the moment, to understand “the other”?

“Our contemporary understanding of the Parthenon and the symbolism that has been constructed for it from the Enlightenment on had everything to do with the self-image of those who have described and interpreted it. There is a natural tendency to see likeness to oneself when approaching a culture as foreign as that of Greek antiquity. How much more so this is when looking at a monument that has become the icon of Western art, the very symbol of democracy itself. With these labels comes a projection onto the Parthenon of all our standards of what it means to be civilized. In looking at the building, Western culture inevitably sees itself; indeed, it sees only what flatters its own self-image or explains it through connection to the birthplace of democracy.”

— Joan Breton Connelly, The Parthenon Enigma


If experience accounts for anything, my approach to the history of architecture (or what I prefer to call architectural history; there is a semantic distinction) has been analytic in nature, long before television programming made “forensics” familiar, if not an actual household word. It is more obvious when looking at the distant past, like a Romanesque church, for example, or at material culture alien to our own: a Mongolian yurt or an Indian bungaloo. Less obvious when looking at a single-family detached house: say a Usonian house of the 1940s by Frank Lloyd Wright or a townhouse of the ’60s by I.M. Pei. An over-familiarity with 20th century middle class domesticity (or the illusion that it must have been like our own) enables us to project and presume more similarity than difference. But LOOKING isn’t SEEING. And a NOTION of what something is or once might have been is only a temporary substitute for KNOWLEDGE, until and unless those notions are challenged and confirmed. Yet enlightened speculation must lay a foundation for more accurate data which remains to be found and should be the basis for only tentative conclusion.


A CASE STUDY: Consider the 1682 plan for Philadelphia laid out by William Penn’s surveyor general Thomas Holme. Given that the plan has been studied by multiple generations of scholars as an example of applied Enlightenment thinking, what can be said about it that hasn’t already been said? [Hint: it comes from asking the right questions.]

“In drawing, one must look for or suspect that there is more than is casually seen.” — George Bridgman

With these observations in mind, here are our five challenges:

EXERCISE #1: A 3.5 by 5.5 inch black-and-white real photo postcard shows a late 19th century public school in rural Illinois. It’s safe to assume that it was typical of its time and place; that given enough time we might locate other examples similar in size and even configuration. Yet within that family of comparables there will be differences, even if two buildings came from the same hand. Still, it is possible to generate a plan from this image, through intelligent speculation about the shape, size, and placement of classrooms; the likely location of circulation (corridors and stairs) and auxiliary functions. In teams of two/three, generate a plan for this building. Add a written analysis and rationale for your conclusions. What do you conclude that you cannot see; why do you believe it? Present your interpretive plan(s) at one-eighth scale on 11 by 17 sheets.

“Seeing the obvious is often harder than seeing the hidden!”
— Mehmet Murat Ildan

EXERCISE #2: Architectural drawings of various sorts often convey information far beyond their intention.¹ This is especially true of working drawings or construction documents. Perspectives present an idealized view of what might be there; while WDs are layered with information, a good deal of it unintended but historically useful. Once again, in teams of two/three, choose one of the antique drawings hanging in the Klai+Juba+Wald Architecture Library and analyze what you see. Tell us what you find and how you found it; process matters.

Beginning on the KJW Library’s west wall and moving clockwise, the candidate drawings for your choice are: 01-International Correspondence School (6 drwgs); 02-House at Littlehampton, West Sussex (2 drwgs; these are now in the “Special Collection” Room); 03-Southport Bank-A (2 drwgs; see #11); 04-Two Banks; 05-Hebrard Beaux Arts Analytique; 06-Stockton Church; 07-Spokane Storefront (might be combined with #16); 08– NP Depot Cafe; 09-Skelton Church; 10-NP Depot Roof; 11-Stockport Bank-B (2 drwgs; see #03); 12-South Framingham Depot; 13-Detroit Plaza; 14-First Lutheran Church; 15-W.F.Kurke. Then in the “Special Collection” Room, clockwise from the door): 16-Kearney Storefront (might be combined with #07); 17-Abbey at Mandan; 18-Clinton OK Bank; 19-Glasgow Tenement. There are also several drawings not currently hanging, especially a group by Jaeger & Stravs. Plenty to go around.

“Eyes sense what mind sees.”
— Toba Beta, My Ancestor Was an Ancient Astronaut

EXERCISES #3A–F: Buildings in Series

EXERCISE #3A: Chicagoan Louis Sullivan [1856–1924], credited with giving the skyscraper its first legitimate expression, fell into decline after 1900, dogged by alcohol and drugs. He rebounded briefly during 1910–1920 to produce a remarkable series of banks for small Midwestern towns: Owatonna, MN; Cedar Rapids, Grinnell, and Algona in Iowa, among others.

EXERCISE #3B: During the last five or six years of his life, architect H. H. Richardson [1838–1886] designed a number of small suburban rail stations serving the Boston metropolitan area; nine of these commissions were for the Boston & Albany Railroad, three for other lines. [Drawing #12 above is not one of them.]

EXERCISE #3C: Like Richardson, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness [1839–1912] designed a number of train stations scattered in the Philly suburbs and larger stations farther afield for the Reading and the B&O. [I’d concentrate on the smaller examples like Mount Airy and Gravers Lane, which are similar in scale to the Richardson depots. Indeed, they make an interesting contrast with Richardson.]

EXERCISE #3D: As long as we’re considering buildings in series, investigate the small public library designs of Richardson in Greater Boston (Woburn, North Easton, Malden, and Quincy) and also farther afield (Ludlow, MA; Burlington, VT, and possibly New Orleans, LA). These formed a prototype for many subsequent libraries across America.

EXERCISE #3E: There are occasions when an architect does so many buildings for the same client that they create a virtual corporate image. Such was the case for Chicagoan S. S. Beman [1853–1914] who served as “in-house” architect for Christian Science, the new church founded (unintentionally) by Mary Baker Eddy. Beman designed dozens of them throughout the Midwest and beyond—including Fargo, by the way.

EXERCISE #3F: For variety (and maybe a little MCM spice), consider the six synagogues of Erich Mendelsohn (architect-refugee from Germany), paradigms of mid-century Modernism: University City, MO (1946), Cleveland, OH (1946), Baltimore, MD (1948), Grand Rapids, MI (1948), St Paul, MN (1950), and Dallas, TX (1951).

In teams of two or three, analyze the group of buildings identified with Sullivan, Richardson, Furness, Beman, or Mendelsohn. Abstract, if you can, a parti in the Beaux Arts sense which might be common to them all. Then perform an analytique (again in the Beaux Arts tradition) for each example (one per student in each group), abstracting in words and graphics its architectural character regarding space (generally) and plan; the presence and relation of functional, i.e., program, elements; its use of ornament and other materials; the presence of proportional systems or defaults and other visual characteristics you discern. Present your analysis in a uniform sheet size, medium, and scale (coordinate among yourselves). Imagine they would be viewed together, as a group, in a book or exhibition. The Hebrard drawing in the KJW Library might serve as a model. Think of this exercise from a forgers perspective: What information would be useful in crafting a fake bank / depot / library / synagogue that might have a shot at fooling snooty academics?

“And what are the books you have under your arm?” Louis replied: “Books I was told at the American legation I would need.” “Ah, yes, let me see them.” He took the books, selected a large work on Descriptive Geometry, and began to turn the pages. “Now observe: Here is a problem with five exceptions or special cases; here a theorem, three special cases; another nine, and so on and on, a procession of exceptions and special cases. I suggest you place the book in the waste basket; we shall not need of it here; for here our demonstrations shall be so broad as to admit of NO EXCEPTION!”

— from Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea

EXERCISE #4: There was an architectural phenomenon of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a unique (I contend) contribution to the long history of Christian church architecture. It was called the Akron Plan — inaccurately in my estimation, but we’re stuck with it — and closely linked with the Protestant movement called the Social Gospel. A fuller explanation of the Akron Plan takes more space than we have here; suffice to say there is a large and exceptionally diverse stock of these churches throughout North America, in both the U.S. and Canada, and as far as China and heavily represented among Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, and a few other non-liturgical denominations. [Catholics, most Lutherans, and the Orthodox church avoided it like plague. Though, oddly, aspects of the Akron Plan attracted considerable interest for the design of synagogues.]

I should also tell you that the Akron Plan phenomenon has been poorly treated by art and architectural historians, who have variously dismissed, disliked, or disdained it. It has, therefore, been under-reported in scholarly literature. How, then, you might well ask, are examples to be found and identified? Happily, I’ve done that leg work for you and created a database of more than 8,000 candidates, predicated on an assumption that a large enough pool will inevitably generate patterns. I guarantee it.

One probable reason for such widespread ignorance has been the issue of style. Since the same functional arrangement of elements could have been “clothed” in any of the styles popular during the years 1880-1920 (and frequently was), their external diversity, their outright disparity has confounded an appreciation for their internal consistency, at least in utilitarian terms. My question to you is this: Are there graphic means to cut through the dilemma of style and represent the essence of Akron-icity; to minimize the obfuscation of style, and make a more cohesive and simplified (without being simplistic) presentation of the idea itself? [“Pretty” often gets in the way.] Might there be other mechanisms for exploring the topic? I have two in mind: 1) the development of an algorithm for the design of A-A churches, and 2) another based on the techniques of Friedrich Fröbel, inventor of kindergarten. [I’ve tried this technique twice, found it worthwhile (for me), and invite you to look at an example posted at two entries in this blog; #1 and #2.]

“To see we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at.”

— Claude Monet [but I bet it sounds better in French.]

EXERCISE #5: Some of these and other forensic exercises are made difficult by complex, convoluted, or contradictory information. This final exercise involves information which is absent and can be reconstructed only partially and with a good deal of conjecture, i.e., enlightened speculation.

Nineteenth century architect William Halsey Wood [1855-1897] was a near contemporary of Louis Sullivan, but unlike Sullivan Wood did not live long enough to fully engage the technical innovations and muddle through the stylistic confusion of his time. Yet there are a few — primarily Ralph Adams Cram and critic Lewis Mumford — who suggest the direction of American architecture would have been profoundly different if Halsey Wood had lived a few more than those forty-one years.

One of his more remarkable forward-looking designs was the house built in 1890 for his new wife and their eventual three children. The house he named “Winmarleigh” once stood at #538 Summer Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. Sadly, the family sold the house shortly after his death and a subsequent owner used the house as a private hospital until it burned in the 1930s. It is fortunate, however, that some documentation survives: 1) at most a dozen photographs taken when the Woods still occupied the property; 2) its footprint on Sanborn Insurance and other urban maps; and 3) two written descriptions in a newspaper article and a popular periodical of the ’90s. The challenge here is fundamental: to what extent and with what degree of accuracy can the plan of “Winmarleigh” be reconstructed from these limited resources? I hope we may find an answer to that question.

“Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.”

— Robert S. Wieder

ONE MORE OPTIONAL CHALLENGE: [Are we having fun yet?] When John J. Glessner wrote renowned Boston architect H. H. Richardson concerning the design of his home, he approached Richardson with hesitance, almost apologetically. Richardson’s reply stands as a paradigm of practice for architects today: He wrote, “I will plan anything a man wants, from a cathedral to a chicken coop. That’s the way I make a living.” While he did design a cathedral, an unbuilt scheme for Albany, NY, so far as I know he never coped with a coop.  In the spirit of H. H. Richardson, design a chicken coop in the style of an architect of your choice from the list below:

01) Michel deKlerk / 02) Irving Gill / 03) Greene & Greene / 04) Sir Edwin Lutyens / 05) Adolf Loos / 06) Charles Rennie Mackintosh / 07) Bernard Maybeck / 08) McKim Mead & White (Stanford White) / 09) Purcell & Elmslie / 10) C. F. A. Voysey

I’ll admit that this list was carefully chosen: a) from characters who are familiar to me, i.e., from a period of architectural history that has special meaning for me but which may hold little fascination for you; but b) names selected with primary intent, i.e., offering a special or particular challenge. [Bernard Maybeck, for example, was arguably more eclectic than others on the list; but his work is deceptive, suggesting easy analysis. G&G, Mackintosh, and Voysey are known for their furniture and other decorative arts on an almost equal plane with their buildings (now there’s a hint!). De Klerk was part of the Amsterdam School, renowned for execution in brick masonry, hardly a material choice appropriate for chickens. Some names are strategically absent (like Gaudí, Sullivan, or Wright) because the temptations to imitate (i.e., cut & paste) are too strong [at least they would be for me; forgive me for projecting.] But since this exercise is decidedly optional, feel free to offer a candidate of your choosing.

Your strategy here may not be obvious; I’d be surprised if it were. The first hurdle, I suppose, is the question: would your architect have even accepted the commission? And if so, in what spirit? It’s hard to think of Adolf Loos having a sense of humor. Then there is the matter of finding a foothold among their works: their range of scale and clientele; their attitude toward materials and detailing. And eventually, how would they present a solution? In drawings or model? And at what scale? This project may offer the biggest challenge for getting into the mindset of another designer. So I offer it to the hardiest of you and those in sympathy with my notions of “play”. May we all play deeply.

“Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking become one, there is no room left for other thoughts.”

― Diane Ackerman, Deep Play


fingerprint matching.jpg

SCHEDULE (a proposal both tentative and cautious):

WKS 01-02:   Introduction and Orientation: The (mis)reading of architectural drawings: case studies of works by H. H. Richardson and Frank Lloyd Wright; finding the pattern. Forensics in action. [See the fingerprint analysis above] [Thomas Holme’s 1687 plan for Philadelphia]

WKS 03-04:   Exercise #1: Archetypes: the discovery of both patterns and presumptions; be wary of the “familiar”. [WHW; HHR; LHS; G&G]

WKS 05-06:   Exercise #2: Architectural Representation: identifying, extracting, and articulating layers of meaning.

WKS 07-09:   Exercise #3: Architectural Abstraction: finding the common denominator; observing minds in motion. [The villas of Andrea Palladio] [HHR; LHS; FF]

WKS 10-12:   Exercise #4: Architectural Innovation: a case study of invention, evolution, and cultural diffusion. [Lawrence Buck: What does an architect do?]

WKS 13-16:   Exercise #5: Architecture as Cultural Artifact: reading “Winmarleigh” as both manifest domesticity and personal expression.


As you might imagine in such a hybrid topic as this, there is a wide variety of resource material in print and on the web.

  • The German group “Forensic Architecture” are developing an innovative approach to the resolution of complex political situations, especially those involving questions of human rights violation. There are multiple references to them everywhere from Wikipedia to YouTube. I highly recommend this presentation.
  • Seeking sources for “pattern in architecture” is complicated by the use of the word architecture in development of software. On the other hand, there is a large amount of material related to Christopher Alexander‘s book Pattern Language, which may have more application to what we’re about.
  • Algorithms are a technique for computer programming. Many years ago, someone wrote a program for the design of Palladian villas or country houses. Though the computer disc exists, software can no longer read it. Might it be possible to generate an algorithm (or critical decision tree) for the design of Akron Plan churches? In a similar way, considering A-A churches as a “kit of parts”, could the design process be reduced/concentrated to become a game? In much the way one might consider the design evolution of Romanesque or Gothic churches? I can begin to understand algorithms as an organic process, but its nature in computer science is a mystery.
  • Since each of these exercises derives from a project of my own, I shall take care to be a resource for information and a guide toward understanding (rather than a dogmatist); my familiarity with the problem might become a limiting factor, which is not my intention. Mea culpa.
  • I’ve also put several links on the BlackBoard site that may prove useful.


Course syllabi should include a rubric for evaluation. Those are easier to provide in courses where the content is fact-based, however. Some skills are far easier to show, to demonstrate, than they are to quantify. From my point of view as the perpetrator of this seminar, I believe those conditions apply here. Please see me if you know another way. That being said, let me suggest some criteria which will influence my decision-making with regard to a final grade:

  • Attendance is essential, but being in a classroom is not the same as engagement with the process at work there. So the shy student runs the risk of being identified as disengaged or disinterested. Speak up. Offer an opinion, a strategy, a different way of asking the question. Or a different, more pertinent question altogether.
  • Though this isn’t a design studio-laboratory, it is a place where design is foremost: we may not create designs, but we will analyze them; take projects apart, examine their components, seek common denominators, abstract principles, so as to speculate intelligently about their very nature. And, in that process, to understand the motives and methods of the designers in question. Is this a species of psychoanalysis?
  • Involvement with course content comes in various forms. Attendance and participation are one way. But so is the craft of presentation, the care we take in creating non-verbal materials, such as the analysis of a building type or a series of similar buildings or the creation of a Beaux Arts analytique.
  • Self-evaluation and peer evaluation are also methods that could prove interesting, at least, if not actually useful.
  • And remember that each of us is an accumulation of life experience and skill. I will learn from you and you will learn from one another. A grade is one measure. But the satisfaction that comes (not often enough in my experience) of a job well done — of “deep play” in the terms of Diane Ackerman — ought to have far more import. Do everything as though it were to be displayed as part of an exhibit to the general public, with your names prominently attached. Take pride in what you do and how you do it.

A VERY PERSONAL NOTE: In fifty-plus years of engagement with architectural education, I have rarely been as enthusiastic about a course as I am for this one. I also suspect it may be one of the more difficult challenges we will face in education for the profession, simply because it’s not quantifiable and also because it may seem to focus on issues infrequent in the professional world. On that second point, I would make a case that we may be in error: Design is design, and any opportunity to engage it offers potential for growth. [I’ve looked at birdhouses in the style of famous starchitects and similar exercises and been underwhelmed. It is far too easy to be superficial and/or cosmetic.]

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is.” Benjamin Brewster (subsequently Episcopal Bishop of Maine)

AND A POSTSCRIPT: In her wisdom, Professor Urness has assigned me a section of ARCH 771 next Fall semester (my 99th!) — the design studio everyone ignores because it parallels Thesis Preparation. That studio will also be a history-based proposition, akin to this seminar in several respects. Since many of you will be in 771 next year, keep me in mind — if you haven’t already had your fill, that is.² Look at it this way: you’ll already have a leg up on the process. But remember I’m a pragmatist, not a theoretician.

Stay tuned: this document is likely to change in minor ways, but never in its overall intent. I may be an old dog, but this is a new trick.

¹ During 1989 and extending into 1990, The Plains Art Museum [now the Rourke Art Museum] hosted an exhibit for which I was curator: a celebration of the North Dakota centennial seen through eighty architectural drawings which represented its history from territorial times to the 1990s. The exhibit was in Moorhead for six weeks, then in Grand Forks for about four, and finally in Bismarck for another two months. I hung out at the show quite a bit, curious how the public would react to drawings which ranged from preliminary sketches, to design development, and ultimately working drawings. You’ll be surprised to learn that it was the latter category which attracted the most intense scrutiny: the art-going public were simply fascinated by the beauty of what is for all intents and purposes a legal document.

² You can preview the syllabus for that studio on-line at the Agincourt blog. Search for “What If?

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