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Central but Silent

“…viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire).”

To say the Agincourt Project is the most creative thing I have ever done (or probably will do) is a statement of self-perception rather than fact. I’d be pleased to have you believe it with me but it isn’t required. It has been gratifying to have so many enthusiastic participants — there’s always room for more; remember the time frame is open-ended and that prequels and sequels are equally possible — but as the project has evolved, I’ve become more conscious of the intuitive processes which lie behind or within it.

Agincourt’s foundation began an exploration of the relationship between narrative and design; between story-telling and place-making. Every truly great place holds the power to accommodate great stories, memories, if not actually provoke them. In a comparable way, the very best of our story-tellers invite us to imagine the location where their action occurs. As children — before our educational system has got hold of us and channeled that creativity into more practical and productive pursuits — we had the ability to work in both directions. Even before we could read, the stories read to us by parents, grandparents, and others took us to places that exist only in the mind. And playing in my bed, a patchwork quilt covering my legs, I made stories to fit the folds of landscape, where princes were slain and dragons rescued. And like sleep, I could pass between reality and a dreamlike state, seamlessly, at will, as time and circumstance permitted.

As a purported architectural educator, I mourn the hamstringing of that childhood ability and the loss of the visual language that was and ought to be a part of professional education, but which finds no designated place in the curriculum. As an undergraduate during the early 60s, I encountered, without knowing it, a modified version of the “Vorkurs” or foundational design course that had been established at the Bauhaus, that radical German experiment in the cross-disciplinary education of designers: our freshman studios began with the most basic of design elements — proportion, scale (of the human variety), balance, color and texture — in increasing complexity and comprehension. The genius of it (I realized decades later) was its reconsideration of those ideas during the first semester of the fourth year: a return to origins and a reminder that notions of, say, scale will lasting value long after we presume to have “grown up” as para-professionals, too sophisticated for such childish things. If the students I’ve known have been exposed to a basic design vocabulary, it has been catch-as-catch-can and piecemeal.

And so it is no wonder that students invited to play in the sandbox of history have difficulty projecting themselves into design contexts so different from their own; places where they lack a vocabulary to explore how, for example, the World War I years are like our own time and how they are different in architectural terms. Socially and technically, if not even in more abstract visual terms. I would like to have been an educator working toward that worthy goal, though that is unlikely in the two semesters that remain in my so-called career.

Last night, which thinking at length about these issues, I wrote my epitaph. There have been several iterations of it through the years, filled with retrospection, insight, and snark in varying degrees. The current version i think may be the best of the lot: “And he used the subjunctive.”

sub·​junc·​tive | \ səb-ˈjən(k)-tiv  \
of, relating to, or constituting a verb form or set of verb forms that represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)

Typical for me, I’ve taken the long way round the barn. But as Andy Dufresne writes to his friend Ellis “Red” Redding, in “The Shawshank Redemption”, “…if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.”

CENTRAL BUT SILENT

That ability to find images in words, to allow the story to conjure its setting, is important for environmental designers, architects and landscape architects, and ought properly to be a part of their education; perhaps it is in some quarters. So what occurred to me early this morning (after the dog took me out at about 3:30) was an idea for a seminar based on a paper I conceived poorly and presented even less well a couple years ago at a conference: “Central but Silent: art and architecture as character in fiction” [As a side issue, I can say that my best work as well as my worst has occurred in public settings like conferences of the academic sort. And I can assure you of this, because I was there, listening dispassionately to myself and doing a critique. The worst presentation of my academic career was delivered in Bismarck, a town where I will never go again because someone is bound to recall that Titanic performance. The best, on the other hand, happened in the Student Union at the University of Wisconsin at Madison at a “Breaking New Ground” conference sponsored by the state historical societies of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I presented my finest public performance: “Who was Albert Levering and why are they saying all those terrible things about him?” If you think I exaggerate, ask Steve Martens, who was in the audience.] Somewhere toward the negative end of this scale — Bismarck to Madison — the “Central but Silent” talk was more Bismarck-ish; not the worst, but nearly. Unlike the Bismarck episode, however, this is one I want to dust off and rehabilitate as it should have been. The point of this essay has been the outline of what I had hoped to achieve; the proposition to revive it as a seminar during my last semester; and an invitation for your input to its content.

“Central but Silent” is based on an experience I had with Hawksmoor, a novel by British author Peter Ackroyd. Drawn loosely from the life of the real 18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, this story is structured in the alternate-chapter style, shifting between the time of architect Nicholas Dyer in the early 18th century and Scotland Yard detective Nicholas Hawksmoor. Without giving the plot away (I encourage you to read the book), the six churches of the actual architect become the scenes of occult ritual in both centuries; Dyer commits them and Hawksmoor investigates their 20th century doppelgangers. The twist and for me the hook is that there is a seventh ritual-crime at a seventh Hawksmoor church — a building that does not exist but which was so carefully conjured by Ackroyd’s story-telling that I dreamed the building the night I finished the book. I read it, but the way, in two days. Following the path through London that Ackroyd delineates I turned a corner and saw, in my mind’s eye, that seventh church. [You should know that I have seen all six of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s churches, each of which survives sufficiently to grasp their original appearance. There was a church co-authored by Hawksmoor and another architect, but that doesn’t figure in the story, nor does it exist.]

There are any number of films which have used real places as the settings for their action:

  • Bladerunner Rick Deckard lives in a apartment which is actually Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis house of 1924.
  • “The Black Dahlia” was filmed in the 1926 Sowden house in Los Angeles, a place where the crime may actually have been committed.
  • We are given a fleeting glimpse of a staircase and a bathroom in the Tugendhat villa at Brno, in the Czech Republic, a 1928 design by Mies van der Rohe.
  • A scene in “L.A. confidential” was shot at Richard Neutra’s Lovell “Health” House of 1929.

But it’s one thing for architecture to be the scene of something, the background for an event or encounter; quite another for that structure to play a more central “active” role in the story, so integrated with plot as to have become a central but silent character in the telling. In this case, I think of the house actually built for “Practical Magic” or the house which makes a cameo appearance in “The Forsyte Saga” or the eponymous house in “Howard’s End”. Each of these is so much more than a mere piece of construction or backdrop that the story could not be shown without them. And in each case, the author’s imaginary house became reality through the medium of an imaginative director or scenographer or a collaboration between them. My notion at this point is to ask each student enrolled in the seminar to propose a work of literature which they have read, a work where some imaginary building or chunk of cityscape is so powerfully depicted textually that it became real in the reader’s mind. Then, show me what you saw. And how it grew naturally from the text.

My question to anyone reading this is simple: Have you encountered such a piece of writing? Did it have that effect of you? Would you be willing to share the experience?

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