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ARCH 771, Fall 2020

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
― Plato

25 April 2020 / updated 15 August 2020

RE: ARCH 771 / Fall Semester 2020

Greetings, Everyone:

Yes, I know it’s a little early to be communicating with you about a class next semester, but these are unusual times and we’re learning to expect the unexpected. I’m already strategizing how we can effectively stage a studio design class through “remote” means (while I clumsily finishing ARCH 272 yet this term). So I want to share a few thoughts: 1) my gratitude for your confidence — or abject sense of adventure — during your last year at NDSU by signing onto this experience [I note only three of you as familiar from earlier studios, probably 371]; 2) some thoughts on conducting “remote” studios; but most of all, 3) a little more information on the course and what I hope we can accomplish. I’ll address them in reverse order.

I understand full well that ARCH 771 runs parallel with Thesis Programming, which is likely to occupy proportionally more of your time than Fall semester studio; I’ve seen it happen again and again, though not with every student in every semester, but often enough to bring the topic up. Selfishly, the 2020-2021 academic year will be my last in the department (as it will also be yours), so I’m anxious to make the most of our opportunity to work together. But work toward what? you may well ask. That’s a reasonable question, given the one-page promo that Cindy circulated for your consideration. And from that you can guess it will be history-based — whatever the hell that means — and linked with the long-term Agincourt Project. [Mr Gutowski has already ventured into that swamp several semesters ago; apparently this is an itch that needs scratching again. Good to see you, Mr G.]

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards” —Lewis Carroll, The Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass

NDSU’s architecture curriculum is a cumulative experience; each year builds on the previous, adds to your knowledge base, while increasing complexity, comprehensiveness, and sophistication. You’ve already figured that out. What I’m asking you to do is another thing altogether, since it involves “forgetting” or putting aside some information and taking on some that will be new, even unfamiliar.

I’ve found personally that a good way to understand what I know is to put myself in a situation where I’m not supposed to know it. In this case, we will be working in time periods earlier than our own and trying to understand the conditions which operated there and then. Case in point: the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) was passed by Congress in 1990. So by designing for, say, the WWII years circa 1943, it won’t apply to you, and in the process you may become more aware of its meaning and intention. By not having to meet its standards, i.e., forgetting it, you may have a heightened appreciation for the societal issue Congress will try to address forty-five years into that future. Their future is our past. [Something similar might also be said if our altered frame of reference were set today but in, say, Botswana or Thailand, places with cultural norms we aren’t used to and may not understand.]

“What’s past is prologue” —William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

The overall goal for the Fall semester is twofold: #1) immersing ourselves in one project (type to be negotiated) in a late 19th or early 20th century context. Research both the building type and its historical context exactly as you would any studio design exercise and proceed accordingly. Try to be true to both the aesthetic and other circumstances of that place and time [which may vary among you] and, as I’m inclined to say, play in the sandbox of history. It may well be that some of my colleagues, past and present, see this as a waste of time. I do not; otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting yours. Frankly, I don’t have that much time left to invest poorly myself.

Goal #2 for the semester involves bringing the Agincourt Project to some state of “completion” and adapting it as a website. Thankfully, we will have a computer specialist to guide that process. And I suspect all of us will benefit from that.

The second of my initial three points — running a “remote” studio — is likely to involve a lot of give and take between and among us, more even than a traditional studio or laboratory might. Why? Because working in another time frame and its aesthetic sense necessitates understanding a different set of design principles (scale, proportion, balance, solid-void relationships, color, and especially ornament), not to mention older and more conservative (but not necessarily less sophisticated) structural systems. You’ll find, I think, that there will be a set of defaults operating which will make the process easier than it might sound right now. But doing this remotely is something I’ve not attempted before.

And because you will be working within a century-old set of circumstances — I’d say anywhere from ca1880 to ca1950 — the computer ought not play a role (other than background research). So, perhaps, my most challenging request is that you draw, initially in pencil and then in ink, throughout design development and presentation. To get a taste of what this looks like, I invite you to visit the Architecture Library [if/when conditions for actually doing that are determined, given social distancing] and inspect the collection of drawings displayed there. They’re intended to be inspirational rather than daunting.

Now, will you ever be asked to do this in a professional setting? Probably not. But will this experience contribute to your arsenal of skills? I hope so; I genuinely believe so. Which brings me to the first of my three points: This expression of faith for what I’m proposing and your willingness to venture into uncharted territory with me as your guide. Thanks for that. [I know my way around there a little and can help you find yours.]

If this hasn’t scared the crap out of you — which is not my intention — I hope you’ll email me during the summer with questions, concerns, and/or insights. All I ask, really, is that you engage this process sincerely and seriously as we play in that aforementioned sandbox of history.

Archilocus tells us that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα” (The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing). May you all may be foxes.

Regards,

Ron Ramsay

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”
― Heraclitus, Fragments

PS [15AUG2020]: There has been an Agincourt blogsite since 2015, with currently more than 1,400 entries, many of which are highly personal and won’t make a lot of sense to you regarding this semester’s work. It is also not a terribly friendly site in terms of search capability (we can blame WordPress for that). But throughout the semester I’ll be posting links to specific entries or whole groups of them which may relate to a particular topic under consideration. In the meantime, however, some pages—the Who’s Who and Gazetteer—that may be useful in providing an overview of at least who and where.

 

Narrative Research

This morning sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 I began a letter to my sister. One of those why-am-I-here-what-am-I-doing missives that go way beyond the bounds of sibling responsibility. It’s in the fine print on your birth certificate. Such things are way beyond the ken. My mid-life crisis happened thirty-five years ago, anyway, so this fits in the “Age and Stage” category. I’ll share part of it here, because it pertains to Agincourt. Doesn’t everything?

It’s just possible I am one of the lest well-educated college professors within a goodly radius. Which is to say, I have a job for which I was ill-prepared but didn’t fully understand the implications of that at the time of hiring: I am tasked with teaching architectural history, but am neither an architect nor an historian. And so I have, as they say, grown into the job during the last forty-nine years. It’s worth noting that in the current academic environment, I’m totally unqualified to apply for the job I’m paid to do. If I were doing it poorly, they’d have brought it to my attention, don’t you think?

My evolution in higher education goes something like this: Graduating from high school in 1963, I set out to become an architect. Growing up in greater Chicago, that might have been inevitable — seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple before the age of eight; hanging out in Chicago neighborhoods (where I ought not to have been) in search of obscure early buildings by Wright, Louis Sullivan, and other less well-known figures in the Chicago School — so I set out in the fall of that year to the University of Oklahoma, where the philosophy was “organic”, and also had the benefit of being 800 miles from “the breast, the nest, and all the rest”. During my seven-year stint in a five-year program (do the math), it was obvious that I would have become an exceptionally bad architect, not in the sense of technical ineptitude or poor artistic judgment, but from the standpoint of architecture as a profession requiring client contact, social savvy, and a keen business sense. I possess none of those skills.

Part of the undergraduate curriculum at OU required  ten semester credits of architectural history, four courses that were more than tolerable; they were downright enjoyable. I had also become aware of the then-new academic field of historic preservation and applied to the graduate program at Columbia University. If I wasn’t going to actually make architecture, I could at least preserve some that already existed. And to accomplish that, a foundation in architectural history was no bad thing. My current employment grew from such beginnings.

As an academic naif with no preparation for actual teaching — undergraduate architectural education provides several bad role models but no experience — I recall being literally pushed into my first classroom, where I clung to a draughting stool like a prop, fully prepared to defend myself with it should the students suddenly turn on me like the lions did on Johnny Weismuller’s B-grade movies from Saturday morning WGN TV. Hindsight offers no clear point when that classroom setting became comfortable; it never did, really. At least it doesn’t hurt.

SCHOOL DAYS

Who knows why I woke yesterday morning with the lyrics of “School Days” running through my head. If you’re younger than, say, fifty, you won’t know it:

School days, school days / Dear old golden rule days / Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic / Taught to the tune of the hickory stick / You were my queen in calico / I was your bashful barefoot beau / And you wrote on my slate, / “I love you, Joe” / When we were a couple of kids

Because a description of my life might be summarized as “reading and writing and rhetoric”. Though I’ve not done nearly enough of either the first or second and far too much of the third. So, in developing a game plan for what time remains, I am making a concerted effort to accomplish these goals:

  • #1—Read only those things that seem to contribute one way or another to the projects outlined in the points below. Recreational reading often turns out to be essential, while many of the books and articles I’ve tracked down, thinking they will solve every research issue, sometimes turn out to have been a waste of time.
  • #2—Prioritize my research agenda (don’t you love academic-esy sounding phrases like that?) and put my waning energy into the most important of them. Now determining “importance” is no easy task; what are the criteria for claiming that “The Episcopal Churches of Dakota Territory” are a greater contribution to scholarship than, say, “William Halsey Wood—American Gothic”? Somewhere in the mix, personal satisfaction must come into play; it has to feel good inside before it can benefit the outside.
  • #3—Write! Write like there is no tomorrow. Because one of these days there won’t be one. Elliott set the goal of writing 1,000 words each day. More important, it was a goal with a reward: he wouldn’t allow himself “a perk” until that 1K goal had been achieved. This also means having a means of showing progress: a timeline, a chart, a bar graph with daily performance recorded—and rewarded.
  • #4—Rhetoric. By which I mean teaching. In this “new normal”, the way the I’ve been a delivery system, a mechanism for information exchange, will obviously be different, and may challenge me in new ways—just as the shift from 35mm slides in carousel trays went the way of the T-Rex and I found myself in the Land of PowerPoint. And now even that seems to be shifting into technical areas beyond my (current) skill set. To be successful in this job, it will be necessary to “interact” with students differently, which does not mean the sacrifice of inter-personal contact—it seems to me. How will I identify those new ways and how will I assess their success?
  • #5—Bring the Agincourt Project to some sort of “fruition”. But I have no idea what that may entail.

And so I’m reading books and articles in the area of “narrative research” — “Narrative research is a term that subsumes a group of approaches that in turn rely on the written or spoken words or visual representation of individuals. These approaches typically focus on the lives of individuals as told through their own stories” — and learning a great deal about character and its development. After all, Agincourt would be merely a chess set of physical forms if there were not someone there to move them.

And once again I am off in a region unknown to me, a diversion from all those bulleted points above and an easy excuse for not fulfilling them.

John Edgar Platt [1886-1967]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa.]

PLATT, John Edgar [1886-1967]

“The Giant Stride”

1918

color woodcut in eight colors / 6 5/8 inches by 16 3/16 inches / xxi from an edition of 150

Perhaps Platt’s most iconic print, “The Giant Stride” is among the earliest additions to the collection’s foundation established in 1915. It and two other Platt works — “Building the Trawler” and “Pilchard Fishing, Cornwall” — comprise three of our finest works by one of its best known artists.

Mottos

For some time now, Agincourt has needed an official seal, something lofty, noble, and, of course, in a dead language. It says a great deal that my first inclination was the Addams family motto: Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc, or in English, “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us”. There is a difference of opinion about the correctness of the Latin, however, a quite learned analysis proposing something quite different.

On a higher plane, my second thought was the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wren is, in fact, interred in the cathedral crypt, more appropriate for him perhaps than many of the other worthies spending eternity there. The plaque on the wall modestly advises: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Given the place and the reverence felt in Britain for Sir Christopher, I have to believe the Latin here is exemplary. It’s English translation never ceases to bring a lump to my throat: “If ye seek a monument, look about you”, for what greater memorial to Wren could there be but St Paul’s.

Lofty or evocative phrases of this sort aren’t new to the project. When thinking about the public cemetery at the east edge of town, The Shades, I asked a friend Carol Andreini to compose the correct Patristic Greek equivalent for the admonition I’d envisioned at the cemetery entrance: τεθνήκαμεν. σώζετε δάκρυα ζώσιν or “We are dead. Save tears for the living”.

Which brings me to the requirement du jour: Agincourt needs a motto. My own hometown Chicago boldly (or is that baldly?) states “I Will”, though those words could describe civic pride as well as political chicanery. What, do you suppose should represent Agincourt’s aspiratory reflections? Recommendations will be gratefully received.

Joel Janowitz [born 1945]

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa.]

JANOWITZ, Joel [born 1945]

Teapot

monoprint on paper / 29 1/2 inches by 41 1/4 inches (plate)

1989

Joel Janowitz was born in 1945 in New Jersey, and lives and works in Boston, MA. Janowitz’s work has been exhibited in 1973 Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Osaka Foundation of Culture in Japan, the Drawing Center (NYC) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His paintings, prints, and drawings can be found in the collections of major museums, colleges, and corporations in the US.

Janowitz can also be found in the collection of Agincourt’s restaurant The Periodic Table. It was purchased during a buying trip to the East by restauranteur Rosemary Plička and is on loan to the Community Collection.

Charlie Thysell [1950-2020]

Charles Thysell had been Agincourt’s semi-unofficial poet laureate for several years, though he didn’t know it. Now it’s too late to tell him. He left us yesterday afternoon, Monday, April 6th, 2020, at about 4:30 in the afternoon CST.

The closest thing to a bio we could find is something from the Angela King Gallery in New Orleans, though it was at the Rourke in Moorhead that most of us got to know him. A local boy, born in the west-central Minnesota town of Hawley, you knew he was destined for something big. Yes, you can take the boy out of the country but in this case trying to effect the opposite was doomed from the git-go.

In the next few weeks, I’ll try to post some of Charlie’s short poems for you edification—they have that kind of power. Without seeking permission, here is a sample:

“Art, and every myth we’ve made on earth
– about nature, gods, ourselves, each other –
is an expression of our freedom of form, personified.
It wasn’t taught or brought to us.
It was born here. This is what it resembles.
And this, in the end, is what makes it – and us
so very interesting.” — Charles Thysell

algorithm 1.2

GAMES

Puzzles are, I suppose, games that you play by yourself. As an only child — you’d think by now I’d have beaten that horse to death — puzzles kept me out of trouble and I’ve continued to love them well into my old age. Sudoku are among my favorites but word games, crosswords, and the now disappeared double-crostic that was a mainstay of the old Saturday Review are favorites as well. Though it’s the abstraction of numbers and shapes which fascinate even more. It may well be that I chose architecture as a career because I see design — the manipulation of numbers and shapes; doing my own and appreciating those of others — essentially as a game.

Our department I.T. specialist and I had a long conversation yesterday afternoon (with requisite social distancing) about algorithms, which are games of a sort. Understanding their rules of behavior is essential for solving the puzzle at hand. [What I especially like about puzzles is that you solve them, rather than “win“; winning has never been particularly important for me, which may account for my indifference to academic promotion.] And so our discussion, Ben’s and mine, turned to games.

He told me of one that I should have known, “Cathedral”, which seems to be a lot like Tetris but without a computer. I like it, of course, because its wooden — like me.

Design as Game

Our students, any students of design for that matter, ought to understand the nature of the design process is fundamentally a game, an exercise in strategy (or should I say strategies), a game in James Carse’s sense of collaborative coöperation rather than combative competition. [If you don’t know Carse, you should.]

For most of us, the process of designing involves a nested series of decisions, choices which may, at the moment, be unranked, but whose prioritization will soon become clear. And as we assess our opportunities, weigh the plusses and minuses of each choice, we tend to move from the large to the small; from gross (large-scale) decisions to progressively more and more intimate ones. And with each choice from an array of possibilities, we make an educated “guess” which of those arrayed before us will yield an optimal result. Choices and consequences.

The merit of each choice — each strategic move — can and often is guided by the input of others. It’s a game and we all win when each of us “wins”, understands that we, too, have a stake in the result. That, I suppose, is the nature of the workplace; even academe counts in that regard.

Essentially, our process is deductive in nature: it moves from the general to the specific, the large to the small, the overall concept to the detail. There is an opposite sort of reasoning which doesn’t come into play: induction, which moves from the special case to the general principle. In design, I liken it to the Köhler faucet commercial, where the client pulls from her purse a faucet and proposes to the architect that he “design a house around this!” I’ve often wanted to issue a studio project of this sort: present each student with a residence, for example (perhaps a bad one), as the ultimate goal. But then challenge them to design the building outward from an object chosen at random; a door knob, for example, or a hinge, or a light switch. Two semesters from “retirement” doesn’t give me much time to try this strategy. But it might be worth investing my last semester in such an enterprise.

So, if design in general is a series of nested decisions, how might such a studio operate? And, by extension or implication, what in hell does this have to do with algorithms?