Architecture and Community

What’s the Story?

A rather aggressive coworker from many years back always greeted me with the line, “What’s the Story?” (Yes, he spoke in title case.) This greeting was followed by a critique of my response, which was generally along the lines of “No story today, John.” Annoying.

I suppose some of the KU Architecture students whose projects I reviewed yesterday may be thinking of me as I thought of John.

The program for the projects being reviewed consisted of a cultural interpretive center, auditorium, and auxiliary uses to be set in Nicodemus, Kansas. Nicodemus is a virtual ghost town today, with 11, or 14, or 17 current residents depending on which group of students was doing the presentation. But it has a powerful history that derives from one of the great stories of the ongoing evolution of the United States – namely the question of the meaning of human liberty in our nation’s laws and culture.

Briefly, the town was settled by freed African-American slaves following the end the Civil War. Established in 1877, it is the oldest and only remaining all-Black town west of the Mississippi. It is now a National Historic Site designated by the National Park Service. It represents a unique aspect of the larger story told by Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, of which I am a Trustee.

In other words, the students were challenged to design a building that embodied a powerful, even epic, story.

Of the four groups whose presentations I heard, three made mention of the Nicodemus story by way of background, then described how the various programmatic components were conceived in relation to one another and to the larger site – the usual architectural crit stuff.

All the projects succeeded to varying degrees in resolving the architectural tasks that the students set themselves in their choice of conceptual frameworks. It was heartening to see a high level of design competence in the making.

But only one of four was able to articulate an architectural vision of the historical struggle that created the place and that defines its national significance. That group lead off with a description of a long, underground, uphill path from parking lot to the site culminating in a “light at the end of the tunnel.” They described their main organizing axis as a “spine.” The forms of their building repeated the motif of upward sloping rooflines gesturing toward the historic town site.

They were the only group that was happy to hear me ask, “What’s the Story?”

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5 Responses to What’s the Story?

  1. Steve Padget says:

    Nicely said Dave.
    How many times did I emphasize the importance of the “Purpose” (roughly the same as “story”) of the project in a vain attempt to keep their attention on the real reason such a project would be done. But in the end their first attempt at developing their schemes beyond the schematic level usually expected in studio took over almost all of their time and attention.
    They did a better job earlier in the semester when visiting the site, talking with park rangers and residents and establishing project objectives were still fresh.
    So I agree with you but also know why it happened. Wall sections (and all the design decisions that means) being done for the first time gave them some sort of amnesia.

  2. David Dunfield says:

    Thanks Steve. Context always helps.

  3. Sunyoung Kim says:

    Thanks for your being on the review. Your comments were very helpful to think about the context of this project design purpose. I am afraid that I couldn’t give you a satisfactory answer of your question. However, I hope my intention of discovering the potential of Nicodemus as a place to share its previous historical meanings and to create common experience with descendants to sustain its historical value in the future was delivered properly.

    Thanks again,
    Sunyoung, M. Arch Candidate 2013
    School of Architecture, Design & Planning
    The University of Kansas | 785.865.6554

  4. I don’t know if the school would let me be on a review. It’s been a few years since I talked to the chairperson. A comment to Dennis Domer was that I must have learned something in my years in KU Arch since I passed the complete licensing exam and NCARB exam upon the first attempt in 1981 – 1982, without having finished the program due primarily to some kind of glitch with then Dean Lucas.

    I am glad to see licensed architects helping with juries I do not recall that in my day other than faculty – more of whom were licensed back then. I am sure that your input is very good David. I really like the way the Carnegie design evolved as an example of your work.

  5. the design studio in American universities varies quite a bit I believe. my own experience was just two full years a long time ago in the 1970′s. Later I was surprised to find out that some universities allow an undergrad program where the students do not begin ‘design studio’ until their third year – so that they have only the same amount of studio time as myself, which I for a long time thought very unusual. Now, some universities allow a master’s with sometimes only one year of studio although most programs have two years. I find this erosion in studio time not a good thing and wish that the profession would return to a five year Bachelors Degree program. I feel that i was a victim of turbulent times at KU between 1970 and 1975 and do not really forgive Max Lucas for his ‘torture’ of my set of circumstances. We’ve had an excellent dean recently and I hope that emphasis on design studio continues in the future.