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Friedrich Fröbel, Frank V. Irish and Gertrude Stein

What could a 19th century German crystallographer, an American grammarian, and an expatriate American poet possibly have in common?

Until this afternoon [Saturday, 27 August 2022], I had only known the first sentence of the following quote from Gertrude Stein. The remainder is even more engaging — not to mention being typically Stein, in that she often makes more sense when spoken aloud, rather than simply read in “the mind’s ear”:

“I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences. I suppose other things may be more exciting to others when they are at school but to me undoubtedly when I was at school the really completely exciting thing was diagramming sentences and that has been to me ever since the one thing that has been completely exciting and completely completing. I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves. In that way one is completely possessing something and incidentally one’s self.”

I quote it here at length from the “Taos Journal of Poetry & Art” blog, which I recommend. And, not incidentally, would anyone like to diagram it?

diagram from Clark’s Practical Grammar (1853)

The period 1830–1880 was rife with systems to provide visibility to the abstraction of grammar. Beginning with Barnard’s Analytic Grammar with Symbolic Illustrations (1836), S. W. Clark’s A Practical Grammar (1847), and Reed & Kellogg’s Graded Lessons in English (1875), the scene was set for Frank Irish to offer Grammar and Analysis Made Easy and Attractive by Diagrams in 1883-1884. [link] It’s nigh unto impossible that any architect coming to practice in the 1880s had not been exposed to such visualization of grammar as part of their elementary education. And after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, it was increasingly unlikely that they had likewise avoided Friedrich Fröbel.

[Not incidentally, try diagramming that paragraph above by Stein!]

From: Rom´e de L’Isle, Essai de Cristallographie (1772)

To an architect wannabe, the link between Fröbel and Frank Lloyd Wright is clear in standard Wright studies. The German educator’s quest for the underlying organizing principles of the universe served as the basis for Fröbel’s invention of kindergarten in 1830. And Wright’s mother’s discovery of the Fröbel display at the Centennial Exhibition led to his exposure at the advanced age of nine. Wright himself extolled its influence decades after the fact — a rare instance of the egocentric architect giving credit to anyone.

Staying focused on Fröbel, but backing away to reveal the larger context, it is evident that he was one aspect of a larger mid-19th century focus on the geometric discipline of all natural science, biological and otherwise. Bart Kahr, a chemist at NYU, reminds us that

“Froebel’s background in crystallography infused every aspect of his conception of kindergarten, especially the self-actuated learning devices or “gifts” that were the centerpiece of his curriculum. Froebel kindergartens spread rapidly throughout Europe, the United States, and Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Crystal engineering was thus a primary occupation of millions of children in the first several kindergarten generations.” [link]

Some years ago I had the notion that Fröbel had been part of the larger 19th century world of the physical sciences, especially the emerging science of particle physics. The word “valence” struck me as having a lateral connection with architectural design — the use of spatial and Venn diagrams during the early programming phase of most projects, for example — and the affinity of one type of space to be near another. I checked the OED many years ago and (as my increasingly faulty memory serves me) the earliest use of “valence” in this sense of sub-atomic particle affinity was in a science journal about 1884. Today I stumbled on a language blog with some additional observations:

“The original source was Latin valentia meaning ‘bodily strength, vigor’ or ‘capacity, endowment’. According to the OED, in the 15th century it was  borrowed into English as valence meaning ‘an extract or preparation (of some herb) used in medicine’. In the 17th century, it appeared as both valence and valency, meaning ‘valour, courage’ or ‘might, power, strength’. In the late 19th century, both valence and valency were used (along with quantivalence and atomicity) to translate German Quantivalenz, meaning ‘The power or capacity of certain elements to combine with or displace a greater or less number of hydrogen (or other) atoms’.” [link]

Not only do these several ideas — sentence diagramming, kindergarten, and particle physics — reinforce one another, it’s my growing contention that a fourth, albeit tangent, idea circa 1880 is the Akron-Auditorium church: an architectural phenomenon utterly dependent on the concurrent notions of cellularity, affinity, and hierarchic subordination of component parts. “In that way one is completely possessing something and incidentally one’s self.”

[Further reading on the history of crystallography can be found here.]

Our Proper Place

I don’t want to get all existential on you, but the last few years have been invested in finding some degree of comfort in my own skin. Indeed, I’m reminded each fall semester during the first two lectures in ARCH 321, wherein we treat Christian Norberg-Schulz’s opening gambit on primitive cultures’ attempts to establish their proper place in the cosmos.

First, he identifies the increasing sense of “place” as the threefold point, path, and domain. Somewhat later, Norberg-Schulz speaks of the five great themes of Christian religious architecture, though I find them distributed much farther afield than the architecture of Western Christianity. He identifies them as: 1) the path or axis, 2) the cruciform intersection of two axes, 3) the dominant sense of centeredness thereby established, 4) the “basilican” section, shifting into the third dimension, and my personal favorite, 5) “multiple levels of enclosure”, the sense of being within something that is within something that is…, well, you get the point. In architectural terms, #5 is expensive and, thereby, less often encountered.

In my remarkably short list of unfortunate encounters, there was the incident now several years ago when a colleague, discussing likely candidates for a minor administrative slot, observed, “Well, then, there’s Ron. But we know his talents lie elsewhere”. My reaction then was “well, fuck you, too” and I may yet get my comeuppance.

My most recent encounter with placedness was on Friday afternoon in the great divvy of students for the thesis class of our fifth-year students. My position in the hierarchy is one I prefer, frankly, and have learned to relish, despite being out of step with what might be expected of a traditional academic — which I am decidedly not.

I write this as preface for the section of thesis students who will be allocated to me on Monday morning. It will be my distinct pleasure to be their thesis “coach” for the next thirty weeks.

[See my next entry on Forensic Architecture as a point of departure.]

Maurice Lapp [1925–2014]

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

LAPP, Maurice [1925–2014]

Abstract Cityscape


oil on masonite / 27 inches by 33 inches

Chicago-born and educated at the Art Institute there, Lapp received both a Ryerson Fellowship and Fulbright Grant for advanced study. He settled in Northern California about 1952 and eventually joined the faculty at Santa Rosa Junior College in 1956. This painting was acquired by William and Maureen Bendix and hung in their MCM home in Agincourt’s Riverside Addition. It was donated to the Community Collection by their children.

Micah Schwaberow, also represented in the collection, was among Lapp’s students at the College.

William Walcot [1874–1943]

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

WALCOT, William [1874–1943; Scottish-Russian]

“An Etruscan Temple — Jupiter Capitolinus”


etching and aquatint / 5 inches by 7 inches / signed

Scottish-Russian architect, artist and etcher, William Walcot was born in Odessa, now in the Ukraine, and practiced a refined Art Nouveau style in Moscow for about six years. This rendering of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus shows the original wooden Etruscan temple which stood on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, now the site of Michelangelo’s Capitol.

This etching was a gift to the nascent Community Collection some time during the 1920s in memory of Agincourt architect Anson Tennant — at a time when he was thought to have gone down with the Lusitania. The source is unrecorded.

As is the origin of an additional memorial album, Walcot’s Roman Compositions, published in 1921 by the Architectural Press in London.

Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel

Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel [1782-1852] is hardly a household word these days. Yet he may become more familiar as we approach the year 2030. For it was in that fortuitous year that Fröbel (or Froebel) invented kindergarten.

Fannie Kachline, Paper Folding, kindergarten exercise ca1890, from the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (gift of Norman Brosterman)

Perhaps it’s the realization that I was deprived in childhood of kindergarten as a foundation for my worldview, but certainly since my late teenage years and through my undergraduate education in architecture I’ve come to understand the enormous contribution Fröbel has made to the world of design. To my recollection, limited as that may be, my earliest reference to the German educator was his influence on Frank Lloyd Wright — whose birth in 1867 was a full fifteen years after Fröbel’s death. And as a Chicago native and someone who hung out in Oak Park by the age of twelve, his influence on the young Wright was no surprise: it’s evident in Unity Temple, the first Wright building I recall seeing, possibly when I was eight years old and shopping with my mother. A recent book, Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman, opened my eyes to the much more pervasive influence Fröbel had had on late 19th century art and design, including many figures connected with the Bauhaus and deStijl movements and even the Swiss-French architect LeCorbusier. Who knew? It’s nothing that appears prominently in books about Corbu — at least those in English.

So, my point here is simply that the bi-centennial of Fröbel’s invention is creeping upon us. If I can last just eight more years, it will be my purpose to assure that any architecture students within reach of my influence will not remain ignorant of the event.

Stephen Brook [British, contemporary]

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

BROOK, Stephen [contemporary British]

“By the River” / “Westminster I” / “Westminster II”


oil on panel / 6 inches by 6 inches (each)

Three related paintings present late afternoon views along the Thames Embankment near the Houses of Parliament. Brook has a special affinity for layered atmospheric effects in urban landscapes.

These were a gift to the Collection in memory of Agincourt’s dealer in out-of-print books, British-born Hamish Brooks — no relation to the artist.