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The Stationary Traveler

Jamiroquai and Dune¹

Cecil Elliott, long-time chair of my department and a friend of this project despite having died three years before its beginning, often spoke of his ideal retirement habitat: as the proprietor of a hybrid bar, bookstore, and travel agency. Well, we have little need for travel agencies these days and the on-line site that dare not speak its name has virtually eliminated independent neighborhood bookstores, so if he were alive today, Cecil would be operating one of the world’s oddest drinking establishments. And that would be me on the second stool from the end.

He possessed a peculiar sort of mind, the kind that could satisfy an appetite merely reading a recipe in a cookbook or epicurean magazine. From our conversations, I know that he could also travel without moving, through evocative writing by the likes of Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or Jan Morris. I recall one of our earliest conversations; a discussion of London — a passion we shared — and an obscure restaurant near the V&A: Daquise, a Polish restaurant with a French name. Just talking about it transported each of us back to that place and to a meal savored a second time. No thanks to British band Jamiroquai or the “Holtzman Effect” of folding space in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Cecil and I both enjoyed the benefits of traveling without moving.

I can visit Agincourt, despite its non-existence, as often and whenever I like: during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies that punctuate my dreams, or the tedium of an especially pointless meeting. [Dr Bob has warned about packing for the move, however, and calling United Van Lines.] I wrote the death notice and obit for Maud (Mrs B. F.) Adams during one of those impromptu transmigrations. And I could “see” The Obelisk on axis with one of the entries to Asbury Methodist Church as I designed the building and imagined its context. Portions of the city are that vivid. Some are sketchy at best; others terra incognita.

All of this is overture to a current enterprise: writing about Mesopotamia, that flood-prone neighborhood in Agincourt’s southwest quadrant which seems precisely the kind of place my friend Howard would have known as a boy. Now, if my writing were only half as good as Jan Morris, I could take you with me.

¹ Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it.

Cecil (on varying the monotony)

Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.

The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:

  • Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
  • A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
  • The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
  • 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
  • 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).

These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.

Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.

A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.

Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured;  corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained  fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.

Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.

In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.

300 Lime in the foreground and 220 West in the center distance offer contrasting case studies in “varying the monotony”.

It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.

Cecil (on travel and tourism)

As we prepared for the Department of Architecture’s first foreign study experience — the landscape program hadn’t been established yet — we met several times to discuss the audacity of what we were about to do. I recall at one of the early sessions the sort of counsel that made Elliott the go-to-guy when virtually any problem reared its head. Remembering that there was no downtown campus then and that students were disinclined to set foot beyond Twelfth Avenue North, he advised:

If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new or see something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to go to Europe.

In other words, being a tourist doesn’t consist of what you’re looking at; it constitutes the simple act of looking. So many years have passed, I can’t recall how we reacted to such a simplistic notion, but in hindsight I wish he’d challenged us to actually do it.

When Elliott arrived mid-year 1975, I knew little more than he had come from Detroit and that he’d taught architectural history. I had been doing that since the fall of 1971 and was still unsettled in the job fate had dealt me. The jig is up, I thought; he’ll see through me in short order.

I recall one afternoon in the coffee room at the end of the hall in our shoebox on campus, the home we quickly outgrew. Cecil and I were talking about travel. “My ideal retirement,” he admitted, “would be a combination bar, bookstore, and travel agency,” at which point I knew there was a future for me at NDSU. And that future became borderline rosy when we spoke of our favorite travel destinations and the Napoleonic truth that all great armies travel on their stomachs.

London. We agreed on London — at least the London of the 1960s, a very different city than it’s become in the last half century — as the place we most enjoyed all round: architecture (Hawksmoor), bookstores (Foyle’s), museums (the V&A), parks (Hyde and Kensington), music (The Albert Hall for live performance; Tower Records, otherwise). And then there was food. Someone just reminded me of Blackfriars, for pub lunch and a pint. [Thanks, Mr Hulne.] But I have in mind another place on the other side of the city.

The first of my several trips to London had occurred in 1971, the summer before my arrival in Fargo. And quite by accident rather than design, I had stumbled upon a tiny restaurant while on my way to the V&A: exit the District & Circle line at South Kensington, proceed to the principle exit, bearing right and right again, onto Thurloe Street. Proceed past the shop fronts to the last of them on the right, #20, and enter Daquise, a French-named Polish-themed restaurant that had been a watering hole for expatriate Poles since the end of WWII. I thought immediately to tell Cecil about it, hoping I might have a scoop. “You know, (dramatic pause) my favorite restaurant in London is near the V&A just outside the tube stop,” I offered. And his immediate reply? “Oh, you mean Daquise.”

Family-owned and operated, the Daquise ambiance was simple, like the food, and the staff spoke their English with more than a hint of Central Europe. I happened on the place just after the lunch crowd and settled in for the one meal dictated by my very limited budget. Probably the most authentically Polish item on the menu was (and still is!) szrazy, a piece of beef pounded thin, rolled around a combination of  bacon, pickle and prunes, and then poached in heavy cream; the French would call it a roulade. Traditionally served with buckwheat and beets, this is Polish comfort food — the kind I’d been deprived by a Polish grandmother who hated to cook. And now to discover that what had grown to legendary proportions in my recollection was the favored restaurant of my new department chair was the foundation of a relationship I could never have imagined.

Elliott was the kind of person who could derive as much pleasure from reading a recipe as eating the completed dish. Our conversations often turned to food, especially the foodways that brought us to interesting and exotic places like Budapest and Prague and Stockholm — or, for that matter, Kansas City or Milwaukee or Chicago. Food (and drink) and the travel it punctuates were the mainstays of our relationship for more than twenty years. And for each of us I think, it became a refuge from the routine of teaching and the rigor of administration at a place where the food was, frankly, pretty unremarkable.

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Cecil (on institutional memory)

institutional 1

 

There is a sociological phenomenon called Institutional Memory Theory, which Wikipedia introduces this way:

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations, and by extension in entire cultures.

I’ve worked at one of those places for forty-five years and I can tell you I.M. has not always been valued. The ability to identify policy, pinpoint its implementation, who created it, and how it has been applied can be “inconvenient” for administrators, who prefer to invoke precedent only when it serves their immediate purpose.

In the 1980s [oops!] when Cecil Elliott was our chair, “policy” was often whatever any two administrators remembered, and it just as often sounded like Tommy Flanagan (the SNL character played by John Lovitz; not the Scottish film director) making it up on the spot and giving away his stream-of-consciousness lie with the phrase: “Yeah….that’s the ticket.”

Cecil attended meetings — many of them with our dean at the time; an engineer who supported Intelligent Design! — and would then return to his office, review his notes, and write a memo to others who had been present, saying essentially this: “Thanks for contributing to our meeting this afternoon. These are my recollection of what we discussed, the decisions reached, and the action(s) to be taken. If they differ from your recollection, please reply as soon as possible so we can resolve the difference and move on.”

The department made headway during the “Elliott Years” because he played the administrative game better than they did.

 

Cecil (on contemporary architecture)

Once or twice a week Cecil Elliott’s name surfaces in the context of the department (teaching and administrative issues) but also the odd connection with cooking, drinking (alcohol, that is), popular culture, politics, and most recently religion. Cecil may have been the most intensely anti-religious person in my acquaintance. It’s one thing to be irreligious — “not religious; not practicing a religion and feeling no religious impulses or emotions” — and another to be openly, actively, and enthusiastically hostile to it. What do you suppose he’d make of Citizen Trump?

I spent part of today tracking down a quotation about architecture that Cecil invoked when he was researching Book Number Three on the history of the architectural profession during the last two centuries. After more than fifteen years, my recollection is faulty, but I think it came from a German participant in the Expressionist movement of the 1920s; someone like Hugo Häring. I’ll paraphrase the heck out of the quote and butcher its ironic snark:

There are but three major divisions in Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Cake Decorating, of which Architecture is but a subsection.

There are a great many architects of the late 20th century for whom Elliott had only scorn. Chief among them may have been Philip Johnson, both notable and notorious. In the 1930s, for example, Johnson flirted with Fascism. I have my own axe to grind about the considerable delay in his coming out, when his admission might have made a difference in the Gay Rights movement. But the thing Cecil despised more than any of Johnson’s many foibles was his stylistic changeability: far more egregious than simply being fickle, Phil ran after every stylistic train chugging from the depot, shouting “Wait for me! I’m your leader.” Miesian, Neo-Neo-Classicist, Post-Modernist, De-Constructivist; he couldn’t make up his mind.

When Johnson got the commission for the building that would house the  University of Houston’s architecture program, he found a nifty drawing by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, (when Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeue were being rehabilitated by architectural historians).

PJ@houston Ledoux@houston

Modernist that he was — remember that Elliott was one of Walter Gropius’ students at Harvard — the abuse of history as a Post-Modernist grab bag offended him. And when students were even the slightest bit guilty of imitation, he saw a double standard in chastising students for the same behavior that Johnson received adulation. It’s that fine line betwixt inspiration and imitation that interests me at present and brings Cecil’s cake decorating quote to mind.

One of William Halsey Wood’s unsuccessful competitive designs — his scheme for St Agnes’ Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — was an inspired piece of work and far superior to the designs of three other competitors that I’ve been able to locate. It’s futile to second guess the jury of any architectural competition and doubly so when it all transpired one hundred and twenty-five years ago. As with others of his unsuccessful designs, it may well have been budget that bit him in the ass. I’m reacting only to their aesthetics.

While researching another issue with regard to Halsey Wood’s career — his entry in the competition for St John the Divine — I stumbled on another late 19th century competition (which shall remain hidden for the time being), one of whose entries was clearly related to Wood’s concept for St Agnes; the plans are nearly interchangeable. Yet further analysis demonstrates what distinguishes few architects from the majority of practitioners: Wood, like his near-contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (just a dozen years separate them), was fully capable of absorbing an iconic architectural idea and making it entirely his own. I’m not suggesting that Wood and Wright have more in common than being toward the end of the alphabet. But I am oddly reassured that my interest in rehabilitating Wood’s memory is not entirely misplaced.