Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Practical Magic

One thing is clear today, as I approach the midpoint of my forty-ninth year in academe: If I were applying for a position today—even the very position that I’ve occupied all these years—I would fail the application-interview-hiring process. Whatever it is that I bring to the academic table, at best, it’s the equivalent of lime jello marshmallow cottage cheese surprise. Little matter that I actually like that stuff.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“A Moral Stain on the Profession” by Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes) focusses on the job market, the interview process, and the lack of preparation job candidates may have. For me that’s water under the bridge. My dilemma is fundamentally different: the skills I possess are not the skills that are either required or even valued. I’m simply not an academic, a sad realization after a half century of hoping to blend.

Then a curious thought came to me within the last few weeks: In 48.5 years at the podium, one person has asked me to teach them 1) what I know and 2) how I came to know it. The crucial part is the latter. One person. I’ve shared that belief with only one of my colleagues, and didn’t wait for a response, which I can imagine going in one of two directions. Either, “they issued you a podium, not a platform” or “you actually think you know something?” So, as I prepare for the last week of the semester—a last history lecture on Tuesday, and a studio project review on Friday—I’ve decided to use one of those as an opportunity to explain the operational intent of the Agincourt Project, whether they want it or not. It boils down to practical magic.

The Sandra Bullock-Nicole Kidman film, based on Alice Hoffman’s novel, gets mixed reviews. This surprises me, since it ranks high on my personal list of second-rate films, like “The American President” (which I’ve seen fifty times or more) or guilty pleasures like “Dodgeball”. Practical Magic suggested itself for a blog entry here about the actual, measurable, demonstrable, entirely justifiable reasons for continuing to imagine a place that doesn’t exist.


I’m supremely grateful that so few of my friends attended one of the two worst public presentations of my life. Without getting into revelatory detail, it was a disaster, one for which I shall bear scars unto death.

The idea grew from a general observation I’d made about the use of famous works of architecture in film, more than to merely reinforce character or an aspect of plot. Consider the gruesome film “Hannibal” when, early in the film, Inspector Pazzi interviews Dr Lechter, who is in disguise as a librarian-archivist in Florence. The fictitious institution is the Capponi Library, which Pazzi approaches, walking diagonally across a piazza toward a colonnaded facade. He climbs a short flight of steps and we see his finger reach for a doorbell. The square is the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata and the facade belongs to Filippo Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital. How many people in the theater realized that? It doesn’t matter. What does is the character of the space and the building and how they establish an appreciation for Lechter’s ability to blend into the highest levels of culture, no matter what the locale.

Another even more obvious example is Hawksmoor, a novel by Peter Ackroyd, which snared me because I so admire the work of English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The book is only vaguely about him, though. There is an 18th century architect (Nicholas Dyer), but there is also a 20th century detective (named Hawksmoor). The former commits ritual murder, that is, sacrifice, at each of the churches he has designed. The latter investigates a series of murders freshly committed at those same churches, 250 years into the future. What fascinated me is that the real architect Hawksmoor designed six churches, yet the fictitious architect Dyer designs seven. I devoured the book in three days and was so enamored of a seventh Hawksmoor church — which does play a crucial role in the book’s culmination — that I dreamt it into existence. I awoke the next morning with such vivid impressions of the building I had seen in the dream that I rushed to school, taped a large piece of tracing paper on a draughting table, and drew it from those memories.

There are, it seemed to me, works of fiction and film which depend on a central character that just happens to me mute and immobile — because they are works of architecture. Consider the house “Robin Hill” which is so central to the relationship between and among three characters in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. That house is so much more than an architectural commission; its design and construction play so powerful a role in the love triangle that it has virtually become a character, central but silent to the advance of character and plot. Dare I suggest that it had become a “love child”? And the same is true for the house in “Practical Magic”. My point is this: that architecture, its making and consequent place in any community can be essential to the tale being told. Which is just one of several aspects of the Agincourt Project that have maintained my interest.

So this evening I wish for two things: #1) the ability to convey this, for me, reality to a room full of students who could care less about the academic delusions of an aging professor, and #2) the energy to rewrite “Central but Silent” and redeem a shard of my repute.

The Armenian Genocide

We can be touched by something, the faintest brush with world events, and still be “marked” by them. Such it is with the Armenian Genocide.

At slightly more than a month from my seventy-fifth birthday, I grew up innocent (i.e., ignorant) of the slaughter of almost an entire people by the Turks during 1914-1923. Some voices would like to characterize it as just one of the many regrettable aspects of WWI. But this human tragedy stands apart from the War and presents us with its own special horrors. I was whopped up the side of the head yesterday by a FaceBook post by my friend Sabrina Hornung, with whom I have slightly more than a passing acquaintance. I hadn’t known of her family’s connection with Armenia, however, until the U.S. denial of the event was brought about by a truly reprehensible N.D. politician, who shall for the time being remain nameless.

I suddenly realized that I, too, had a remote connection with this special point of history and wanted to write Sabrina about it. And, then, to wonder how Agincourt might have been aware of it in the midst of WWI. I wrote:

Dear Sabrina: You and I have an odd connection through a print I own which happens to be by an early 20th century British artist named Bertha Hornung. I like to think she may be a distant relative of yours and that art flows more generally through Hornung veins. Now you have given me, as of yesterday, another link.

Thank you for sharing your family’s connection with the Armenian Genocide—and the reprehensible North Dakota politician suppressing our acknowledgment of that tragedy. It reminded me of an experience I had more than fifty years ago.

In the spring of 1967 I was a fourth-year student of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. One Saturday I drove to Oklahoma City, intent on visiting the shop of Bogosian & Keshishian, dealers in oriental carpets and rugs. I was greeted by Mr Keshishian, the junior and I presume surviving partner in the business. He was seated at a large frame, repairing a worn carpet with carefully matched thread, hand-tied with his thin nimble fingers. Mr Keshishian invested two hours with me, teaching me about regional variants in Middle Eastern carpet weaving, the use of vegetable dyes, the patterns, and other things which he shared with someone less than a third his age and unlikely to invest in his wares.

My eye was caught by a Kerman runner, about three by eight feet, in colors of teal, orange, and camel. It was well beyond my means but I wondered if buying on installments was possible. We settled on a down payment and three successive monthly payments. I left the shop both happy and better informed.

Each month I would drive to the shop and make my payment personally and gain a little more knowledge. On the third installment, he allowed me to take my carpet on faith that I would complete our transaction honorably. At that point, I knew nothing of the Armenian Genocide, but hindsight and the story of your own family tells me that he was of the right age to have been a child-survivor of the Turkish killing of his people. Sadly, it’s too late for me to ask.

I am now the age he was when we met and we have all come to know of the tragic circumstances which are likely to have brought his family to our country. I have personally honored his memory as an old man who shared his knowledge with someone whose aspirations clearly exceeded his finances. Today I have another greater reason to think of him each time I walk on the carpet that, like me, has become an antique. And I thank you for that opportunity.

hinter • land

Byron Bay


1890, originally in geography, ‘a region behind and inland from a port city that is closely tied to it economically,’ from German Hinterland, from hinter ‘behind’ (see hinder (adj.)) + Land ‘country’ (see land (n.)). What in English would be called the back-country. George G. Chisholm, in ‘Handbook of Commercial Geography,’ translated the German word as hinderland, supposedly first in his 1888 edition, and Hinder-land also was used from 1881 by Richard Burton and others to translate an Egyptian hieroglyphic for ‘Syria.’ Hinterland came to prominence in the language of European colonialism in reference to an inland region behind a port along a coast that was claimed by a state.” — from https://www.etymonline.com/word/hinterland

If “hinterland” is related to Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”, then technically we haven’t had any for at least a hundred years or more. Rather, it seems a relative term. Yet I’m hard-pressed to imagine some place that doesn’t have anything “behind” it. From the viewpoint of the Twin Cities, for example, I live in its hinterlands. But I’m also able to glance over my shoulder and see even behind-er than where I stand. There are degrees of behindedness.

A couple of entries here are devoted to the notion of “lake life”, to leaving Agincourt’s relative urbanity for the leafy solitude of resorts along the shores of Sturm & Drang, the twin lakes about fifteen miles west of town but easily accessible after 1909 by a spur from the NITC mainline. Before then, places like Smith’s Hotel or Bagby’s “Last Resort” were comparatively remote, even rustic; telephone service was unavailable. So folks like Doc Fahnstock had to make special arrangements in the event of medical emergency. But as the resort area developed, it began to lose those qualities that had made it so attractive: peace, quiet, a slower pace, fewer demands on our time, remembering that here, too, all things are relative.

I recall being at a garage sale once many years ago, probably in the 70s, when a friend’s eye was caught by a set of cutlery with pastel plastic handles. “Oh, wouldn’t that make great lake stainless”. At that point in my life, lake life was only for the well-to-do, and I seriously wondered if there weren’t a place on the map labelled “Lake Stainless”, where the cabins were palatial, the lawns maintained to the standard of putting greens; where an Izod wardrobe was required, and all the accoutrements of city life had their weekend doppelganger—a doubling of everything at home replicated at “the lake”. Hence, lake stainless. I seriously doubt the plastic-handled stuff at the yard sale was up to standard.

One summer my friends the VerDoorn’s, Jim and Sharon, rented a cabin for the summer at a lake about forty-five miles east of our town. While they used it on weekends—to great advantage, I assume, since they were independent business people and needed the time away from the store—they were kind enough to allow me weekday access. So, while Highway 10 was clogged with “lake people” on the way back to town, I drove unimpeded in the opposite direction to a hinterland nearly drained of summer people.

The cabin was an icon of plain living: two rooms and a bath. But, significantly, there was no television (the computer hadn’t been invented then, and my phone was dumb, rather than “smart”); not even a radio. Neither was there running water. This turned toilet habits into a genuine ritual, requiring that I step outside the cabin, regardless of weather, to pump the bucket of water necessary to “flush” the commode. Forgetting had its consequences. Likewise for cooking and dish washing.

Having no communication with the “outside world”, and with my principal exercise limited to pumping buckets of H20, it was amazing what I accomplished. I read. I wrote. All by the light of a 40-watt bulb sans shade. I considered the sadly declining condition of human kind, which was considerably better then than it has become today, in the throes of impeachment. And my drive back to town, again against the grain of urban lemmings rushing to small scattered bodies of water so they could mow the lawn just as they’d just done at home, was unfettered. The difference was that I had relaxed more than I could possibly have imagined possible.

M. J. Hamblin Smith [1871-1936]

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

HAMBLIN SMITH, M. J. (1871–1936; British)

“On the Move”

four-color woodcut / 6 inches by 7.5 inches / #6 of 50


Hamblin Smith is one of the collection’s mystery artists, attested by the paucity of biographical information available. It is possible he was the son of James Hamblin Smith, a life-long Cambridge tutor and author of texts on mathematics. Among Smith’s four children is a son named Maurice—who is plausibly the “M” in M. J.—though the latter’s career was spent in criminal justice as the superintendent of England’s Dartmoor Prison. It is tempting to imagine the administrator of a notorious detention facility like Dartmoor relaxing with chisels and a piece of soft wood—a hobby that would have been denied his inmates.

The pace of village life such as he might have encountered in Devon a hundred years ago is convincingly portrayed here with muted tones and stark contrast. We hear the whiney of a horse near retirement. We feel the weight of the teamster’s load. All is calm. It simply requires the arrival of Miss Marple.

Oleg Denisenko [born 1961]

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

DENISENKO, Oleg (born 1961; Oleh Denysenko / Олег Денисенко)

“Old Vine”


etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #79 of 100



etching / 8.5 inches by 6.25 inches / #93 of 100

“The etchings of Ukrainian print artist, Oleg Denisenko, delight the imagination with their fantastical themes and complex, intricate detail. The fineness of line and rich imagery reflect the very strong and active print tradition of Eastern Europe and Russia.”

Another on-line blog waxes about Denisenko with even more enthusiasm:

“Sometimes artists can be self-consciously quirky in an attempt to be ‘different’ and carve a niche for themselves. Other times, though, artists are simply quirky because the are. I think Ukrainian artist Oleg Denisenko falls into the latter category.

“His delightfully bizarre prints of fantastical figures in elaborate armor, often sporting wings and accompanied by armored horses, arcane astrolabes, strange musical instruments, wheels, levers, charts and diagrams are filled with wonderful bits of texture and line. The monochromatic prints have a remarkable sense of being colorful because the variety of textures and line-filled areas have some of the same space-defining feeling as areas of color might in a painting.

“Though the images carry a sense of medieval times, Denisenko was born in 1961. [Another source gives 1959.]

“His images spill over with objects from his mental and emotional attic. Wheeled toys, wind-up keys, jester hats, and Da Vinci-like diagrams for nonsensical Renaissance machinery mix with textured amalgams of dragons and birds.

“Through it all is a wonderful graphic exuberance that makes you think that as soon as he stopped on one image, he would immediately begin the next just because he was having so much fun.”

These two delightful prints came to Agincourt as an exchange between Denisenko and NIN art faculty member Mason Glore, who has graciously placed them with us on extended loan. Though the scale is vastly different, in content they compare favorably with the lithographs and drawings of Robert A. Nelson.

Abel Kane

Six or seven years ago someone recommended that I get an external hard drive to replace the garland of miscellaneous jump drives around my neck. So I did. And within three weeks it died a horrible and irretrievable death, and with it so did most of the early files from the Agincourt Project. Revisiting a blog entry from 2011, I was surprised to be reacquainted with Abel Kane, who I see now, with ten years’ hindsight, was shaped by my recollection of an old friend.

Like Gaudeamus Tennant, who had a virgin birth, Kane’s mother E. G. Fromm became a mother without benefit of marriage. Agincourt seems built on a deep vein of illegitimacy, which I frankly can’t explain. Until further notice, it is what it is.


His name is an obvious contradiction in terms, similar in a way to Agincourt’s palindromatic grave digger Neil Klien, but Neil’s case was a very sad one. Kane, I suspect, had a more fundamental and long lasting influence on the community.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright who had a dominant mother figure during his formative years, in addition to being surrounded with sisters, Kane’s father was never identified—his mother picked the surname out of thin air—and his mother E. G. Fromm presented a gender-neutral public face to the world, at least through the name she used as a writer. Abel must have got his voracious reading habits from her. And that fits with the people we know he kept as close friends—people like Hal Holt. It’s a good bet he was a member of The Why and hung out in their repurposed water tower.

One wonders if he had a correspondence beyond Agincourt, perhaps even internationally.

The Place of Houses

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” — Robert Frost


I can attest that building types vary in their degree of difficulty, and that in my case the more problematic are 1) structures for religious use and 2) single-family houses. The first because a “church” is supposed to look like the one we knew as children; the second because “home” is identified with our own, to the extent that we may have lived at one address for some length of time. A criticism of either is personal affront.

Through the years, I’ve learned that over-familiarity with the single-family house also stands in our way as designers because buildings fit us like an old shoe, soft and comfortable and put on with ease and little forethought. It accommodates every bone and bunion, as do our homes, and “functions” with the same unconscience ease: things are simply where they ought to be; they’re at hand without thinking, like walking into a dark room and reaching for the light switch.

I designed a house once for an elderly couple in Breckenridge, Minnesota, in their early sixties. [I am much older now than they were then, you should know.] Visiting them once, gathering information about what they wanted (often at the expense of what they might need), I observed her answer the phone in her kitchen, bowl of cookie batter in hand, and without a hitch in her motion, answer it, place the receiver betwixt ear and shoulder, sit with her hip on the kitchen counter, reach for a pencil and jot down a number for Joe to call when he got home, all without ever setting down the bowl. In those few seconds she told me more about what her new home should be than hours of interview and shoeboxes of magazine clippings.

As you might imagine, housing accounts for the clear majority of building stock in any community, varying perhaps with decade and region in the United States. And, as I’ve written before, our houses come from a wider range of sources than you might imagine: yes, architects design them, but those are often not worth our notice. Others come from stock plans through builder-contractors or the lumber yard. But as a kid I was a devotee of plan books available at news counters and magazine racks; today those are likely to be found on-line. And material manufacturers and suppliers were inclined to suggest plans which specified their products. While other collections of plans were responsive to one or another of the issues of the day. All told, you’d really have to work at avoiding all house plans and allowing your new home to spring forth full-blown from the brow of Zeus. It simply doesn’t happen.¹

Considering the evolution of Agincourt, I have a good idea which neighbords developed a particular character; who lived where and why. And since the town plan is divided in symmetrical quadrants those neighborhoods developed with a measure of independence. The north-east, for example, had the highest elevation, was least flood prone and likely to have attracted greater wealth and socio-economic status. By contrast, the southwest came to be called “Mesopotamia” and was inclined to flood from both the Mighty Muskrat and Crispin Creek. They might as well have been on different planets.

What follows are — in no particular order and hardly inclusive — reference to several other blog entries where I’ve rambled about the house as a general architectural matter and one particular to Agincourt. I hope they might be helpful to the would-be designer of a memorable house in this imaginery place.

Your Solar House

The Place of Houses

Aidan & Cordelia Archer


¹ Having just written this, I’m reminded of something once said about architect Bruce Goff: that he designed each of his homes as though it were the first one in the world. Looking at them, you might think so. And in many cases you’d be mistaken.