For those unfamiliar with Sanborn fire insurance maps, they are a source of considerable and varied information, facts that would be valuable for someone underwriting a fire insurance policy. Lumber yards are obvious; hardware stores somewhat less so, though they often store combustibles like turpentine and oil-based paints, or flame-driven ovens for baking. Even less obvious are candy manufacturing facilities, cauldrons of molten sugar kept boiling 24/7 and often unattended.
In the 19th century, a substantial portion of confections were produced locally. Large manufacturers (like Hershey or Mars today) had begun to form, but even some of their products were produced at secondary facilities. A town like Agincourt — with a late-19th century population under 10,000 — would certainly have had a candy shop with its busy back kitchen. Sadly, the Duchess Chocolate Shop in Warren, Ohio (pictured above) is not that place.
Few institutions embody the essence of early 20th century small-town American life like the corner malt shop, offering a mirrored, tile-floored, wood-paneled intimacy where sweets of all sorts were proffered to all ages. Van Kannel’s Sanitary Drug at Broad and James had a lunch counter with a fuller menu than Burt’s is likely to have enjoyed. So I suspect there’s room in the story for a specialty store such as this — perhaps even a void long needing to be filled — purveying locally made candy.
“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They can be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.”
A few months ago I had the silly notion to award a certificate of honorary citizenship to friends who have contributed to this project well beyond the normal course of events; who have naïvely strayed and stayed with enthusiasm, and who continue to believe there is purpose in its continuation. Writing the text for such a formal certificate is not as easy as it might seem — all those “whereas” paragraphs preceding a pompous “therefore”.
For the majority of Agincourt’s existence I’ve tried to make it hyperreal, more real than real; a product of the imagination, rather than of fantasy. But it is a mistake to think that Agincourt is Everytown. It may evidence the places of your youth, nostalgic references to playing kick-the-can or sledding dangerously behind autos driving slowly down your street, but on more careful examination it may have more to do with the Trieste conjured by Jan Morris.
So as I pursue sources for language that is stately without being stilted, feel free to offer your own suggestions for its text. In the meantime, I’m happy to report that Ms Morris is still with us, at age 93. Perhaps she can help.
“…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.”
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?
‘B-but, Mr Jimson, I w-want to be an artist.’
‘Of course you do,’ I said, ‘everybody does once. But they get over it, thank God, like the measles and the chickenpox. Go home and go to bed and take some hot lemonade and put on three blankets and sweat it out.’
‘But Mr J-Jimson, there must be artists.’
‘Yes, and lunatics and lepers, but why go and live in an asylum before you’re sent for? If you find life a bit dull at home,’ I said, ‘and want to amuse yourself, put a stick of dynamite in the kitchen fire, or shoot a policeman. Volunteer for a test pilot, or dive off Tower Bridge with five bob’s worth of roman candles in each pocket. You’d get twice the fun at about one-tenth of the risk.’
Eugene Raskin’s Architecturally Speaking treats basic aspects of design rarely encountered these days in undergraduate education; notions of scale and proportion, for example, discussed in light-hearted fashion as are the book’s illustrations by cartoonist Robert Osborn. This one (with apologies for the splice; the drawing spans the book’s gutter) offers a corrective to notions of originality: what was true in the 1950s is equally true today, if somewhat less obvious. Far too many architects are trying to be different but all in more or less the same way. Where’s the fun in that? While reading the Joyce Cary novel (of a decade earlier than Raskin) The Horse’s Mouth, eccentric hardly describes the principal character Gulley Jimson, whose point of view Cary exemplifies with the passage above.
His point is simply that all those folks who’ve convinced themselves of their originality haven’t got a clue. “you should be different, just like me!”
Incidentally, I think the Community Collection has a painting by Jimson. Damned lucky if they do.
If the populace of Agincourt, Iowa and the Muskrat Valley were entirely from my experience, it would be a fairly homogenous place. Happily, friends have come along and volunteered their relations to the cause. Such is the case with Wendelin Wangler, an emigrant from Odessa in the Ukraine, whose relationship with a third-year architecture student is a little foggy in my mind.
Photos like this crave identification. In this case, nothing is known; neither people nor place. And so it is vulnerable to invention, such as the identification of the elder Mr Wangler [1876-1949] with one of the builders taking a break from their work. With a little photoshopping, the image can be darkened a bit and some contrast added. Would that I knew how.
Stay tuned for the story of this house and all those connected with it.
Inclined as i am to repurpose borrowed images for Agincourt application, this wondrous pile appeared for the second or third time in my life. But this time it arrived with intent: I’d been looking for something to serve as an orphanage (introduced in a post titled “The Night They Raided Pinsky’s” nine years ago) but hadn’t found anything that would suit my purpose; suddenly here it was on my doorstep!
“The Oaks” was a private club in the Chicago suburb named Austin, later absorbed by the city and surviving as a neighborhood; it’s the area immediately east of the much trendier Oak Park, home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Austin Boulevard is the line between the two areas and there is no doubt when you cross from one to the other. The Oaks is, obviously, long since gone but once anchored the intersection of Waller Avenue and Lake Street.
It was built from the plans of Austin architect Frederick Schock, thirteen years older than Wright and a respectable designer in the Queen Anne mode. Schock’s own home is still located just two diagonal blocks away. The Oaks, however, has been replaced by mid-rise apartments. And though the Oaks clubhouse is perhaps a bit grand for an orphanage, I think its story is still plausible. It only remains to photoshop the adjacent church out of the image and modify the narrative written several years ago.
O.K., so it’s more complicated than I thought it might be.
In the parlance of model railroading, “traction” means two different kinds of running stock: trolleys (i.e., streetcars) and interurbans (something between a trolley and a train in size and service; as you might guess, they run between towns). The N.I.T.C. provided both levels of service; the NITC cars ran between Fort dodge and Cherokee — with the intent of pushing on toward Sioux City — while the Agincourt City Line traversed a lopsided figure-8. Both used the NITC depot at Broad and Louisa as a principal stop and interface for transfer.
When the company incorporated in 1909, its stock offering was quickly subscribed. But those were reasonably heady times; emigration was high and the gaps between the Midwest and Rockies were filling with farmers and ranchers, despite their incompatibility. In North Dakota, where I live, the western part of the state enjoyed the Second Dakota Boom. Frank Lloyd Wright “eloped” to Europe in 1909 with his inamorata Mrs Cheney, the wife of a client. Meanwhile in Agincourt, there was the fiftieth anniversary in 1907 of the city’s founding and the vacant county orphanage at the edge of town became Northwest Iowa Normal School, one of the state’s teacher colleges. The future seemed bright
I’m no historian of transit — though I can lay claim to having ridden the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban on its last day of service on 20 January 1963 and I recall riding Chicago streetcars with my mother while they still ran and before she did. So the joys of transit are integral to who I am, even though I may know little about the actual history of the movement.
Designing the NITC depot was great fun, taking inspiration from postcard views of other similar stations and concluding that cars would not simply sidle up to the building; they would pierce it through a glazed greenhouse-tunnel. “A trolley runs through it!” It also afforded an opportunity to imagine the capitalist notion of making money: people using the station might like to snack while waiting for the next car; they could arrive weary and in need of accommodation; once refreshed, they could buy a newspaper or get a shave and haircut. A facility such as this would have served as a hub of activity from early morning until the last car at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. This would be one of Agincourt’s most diverse centers of activity, one I could have fun with.
For one of the exhibits I had optimistically believed a model could be built. But it’s a good thing it got postponed, because the one-eighth or one-quarter scale would have missed a wonderful opportunity to more fully understand the building and its multi-faceted purposes: why not include an actual piece of rolling stock? It was then I realized that HO model railroading is scaled 1:87 and, happily, that converts to one inch equalling 7’–3″, slightly larger than eighth scale and considerably smaller than quarter. The model, of course, would differ in that regard from any other models built for the project. So be it.
Shopping for cars and track has been fun. It was also a time for learning: the 45-degree passageway allowed sufficient turning radius for the cars — I thought. But I’d failed to understand the implications of a long wheel base and now must do a recalculation: the opening may not be wide enough, which means redesigning either the building or the streets that flank it.
The answer to that question is twenty-one.
The evolution of architecture as a profession during the last 250 years is both complex and simple. Complex because it happens at the local level and varies widely through space, time, and circumstance. Yet also simple because it is the slow but inevitable process of a trade becoming a profession. The more readily documentable portions of the process occurred during the 150 years between 1850 and 2000, roughly.
A survey of 2015 counted nearly 110,000 architects in the United States, a tabulation from the several state registration boards which regulate the practice of architecture “in the interest of public health and safety.” Licensure of anything, from brain surgery to cosmetology, is a state function within our federal system. The definition of a “profession” was set by Abraham Flexner, an early 20th century social scientist, more focused on social workers than architects, but his criteria apply equally well,
Flexner identified six characteristics of a profession and its professionals: (1) “professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility”; (2) “they derive their raw material from science and learning”; (3) “this material they work up to a practical and definite end”; (4) “they possess an educationally communicable technique” (their own language); (5) “they tend to self-organization”; and (6) “they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation.” [Thoughts on Flexner and Professionalism, 1915-2015]
Insofar as architecture is concerned, that process can be compartmented in three periods of approximately fifty years each: 1850-1900—organization of the profession for the passage of legislation regulating practice, effectively licensing the use of the term “architect”; 1900-1950—the half century required for enabling legislation in all fifty states; this actually required fifty-two years, from 1899 (Illinois) to 1951 (Wyoming); and 1950-2000—fifty years, more or less, of regulated inter-state practice, coming to the next logical consideration: questioning the societal value of such regulation, and consideration of its elimination in favor of other marketplace controls. I have been interested in the middle years of these three phases, particularly as evidenced in the presence of architects in the Great Plains.
A map of the U.S. overlain with the dates of each state’s passage of architectural registration is curiously chaotic and seems unrelated to “the interests of public health and safety”, the nearly knee-jerk phrase linked with each state-by-state effort. Were that the case, that public interests prevail as motivation, then we should logically see the issuance of licenses in state with high population, large urban areas, and densities where poor design and/or construction put large numbers of our citizens in jeopardy. Yet New York State did not regulate architectural practice until 1915, while Arkansas did in 1901. Indeed the pattern of professional registration follows no obvious pattern, if we limit our understanding to the mosaic of state boundaries. Overlay the geography of jurisdiction, however, with the network of passenger rails which would enable an architect to extend his/her practice beyond the immediate market area and another motivation suggests itself. New Jersey’s law preceded New York’s by thirteen years; North Dakota’s was enacted four years prior to Minnesota. If “public health and safety” were the motivation, it ought to be the opposite.
The pattern of registration laws in Canada offer a simpler geographic pattern and another possible rationale. Consider the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, insulated, if not actually isolated, from incursions from other provinces by mountains and huge areas of unsettled land. Their pattern of settlement had been from east to west, excepting British Columbia. So we would expect architecture to be regulated in accordance with the arrival of urban concentrations. Yet the pattern is opposite: Alberta (1905), Saskatchewan (1911), and Manitoba (1940). It is difficult to avoid the possibility that architects in each province were protecting themselves from “poaching” by architects in provinces that had been established earlier. Why should professionals in Alberta, for example, find themselves competing for work with their brethren from Saskatchewan? Then, prevented from seeking work to their west, Saskatchewan architects sought to protect their clientele from poaching by Manitobans. It has seemed to me that “turf” may have been as significant a motivating factor as more altruistic public concerns.
What has this to do with Agincourt, Iowa? you may well ask. Very little, as concerns the simple question of professional registration; Iowa did not enact professional registration for architects until 1927, so the period of my particular interest (the years around WWI) were unregulated. But Agincourt was subject to exploitation from other larger communities. Its early architectural services would have come from Des Moines, Sioux city, Omaha, and well beyond that; perhaps even Chicago.
“A chair is still a chair, even when there’s no one sittin’ there
But a chair is not a house and a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight.”
Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this lyric was sung by Dionne Warwick (before her days as shill for the Psychic Friends Network) as the theme for a 1964 movie of the same name. I was nineteen and the film, about the life of (in)famous 20s madam Polly Adler, must have made an impression, because I can still hear the melody in my mind’s ear. But it’s simple message is all too true: I’ve been in several houses that weren’t homes and vice versa. The evocative real-photo postcard above seems the ideal combination, and so I’ve conscripted it for Agincourt’s housing stock.
Long observation tells me that designing a home is one of the two most difficult tasks for a student of architecture. Such projects ought not be assigned casually nor undertaken with a presumption of success. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the same house, my home despite the dysfunctional family who lived there. And its idiosyncrasies are imbedded in my memory, as much as those of the family that dwelt in it. It’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. And so I accept both as the comfort of old shoes; long since gone from fashion, they fit in all the proper places.
Another important lesson, a revelation, really, but falling in the category of “forensics”, comes from the act of interpreting the interior of the house: what is likely going on in there that can be intuited from its exterior features? Visual clues come from the overall mass and proportions of the house, its pattern (rhythms) of door and window openings, and an understanding of domestic life from the period in question; expectations of space and functional relationships vary with time, location, and social standing. One could anticipate differences in these patters to be reflected in the housing stock of a community like Agincourt — presuming a degree of typicality.
That, I suppose, remains to be proved.