March 12: the graduate

2012/03/12 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1873 Nathan Clifford Ricker (1843-1924) received his graduation certificate.

This was not just any diploma.  It was the first-ever architecture degree awarded in the United States!  And Ricker was not just any architecture student.  As one of the first to sign up at the University of Illinois (which founded its architecture program just a smidgeon after MIT founded theirs–although MIT took longer to award diplomas), he was also a de facto professor for his fellow classmates; immediately upon graduation he took the position of department chair, which he held for almost four decades.  He also was called to serve as administrator of the College of Engineering and campus architect for the quickly expanding land grant university, a position that presented lots of opportunities to build.  Among other projects, he completed Library Hall (now Altgeld), the Chemistry Building (Harker Hall), Military Drill Hall and Men’s Gymnasium (Kenney Gym), and the Natural History Building.  He published like mad, mostly on technical subjects like roof structures, and put his language skills to use by translating pivotal French and German texts into English for the use of students at Illinois.

Ricker’s education, and the program he nurtured, was colored by the university’s bent toward the practical, and the fact that his program’s first professors were German-educated architects.  Ricker himself was sent to Berlin to study at the Bauakademie by the university administration.  He went to other countries but, significantly, not France to see the Ecole (making Illinois a rarity in the architecture educational landscape for not being a version of that French school).  Ricker’s architecture, and teaching, was based on the ideals of sound, rational construction manifest in comprehensible form that was more “traditional” than “historic.”  The teaching curriculum at Illinois followed this guide by demanding students’ understanding of mathematics and history before they finally entered the design studio in their fourth year.  The flavor of the program served generations of architects, and as the school grew to be one of the largest in the country, it had a strong influence in shaping the development of architecture in the US and abroad as American practices extended their global reach.  Later administration has not always been as keen to build on the great strengths of the Ricker tradition as they might have been, although Illinois continues to prepare legions of future professionals in the program that remains (at least partly) housed in the Charles Platt-designed Architecture Building.  Elevated on the second floor and central to the building–as it was to the program founded by its first graduate–is the  wonderful library that was given his name in 1917.

read a great essay on the history of Ricker and the foundations of architecture at Illinois here

image: Hall of Casts, Architecture Building, ca. ea. 20th century (from this source)

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