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?”