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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 broach the topic. 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 — but only taking it on for the time being.

I’ve found from first-hand experience 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.


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, if not what.


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