A Professor, An Art Barn and A Lifetime of Enjoyment

Liberal Arts educations are often derided in the popular press today.  Today the reason for a college education seems to be to find a job not to find a life or a vocation.  I’ve never regretted the broad liberal arts education I got at St. Olaf College.  Sure, it gave me skills to function in the workplace but more than that it gave me insight in how to live an enjoyable life, in finding a vocation.

When I look back at my college time from the perspective of 50 years the one course that stands out, providing me more lifetime enjoyment than any other, was a history of architecture course taught by Arnold Flaten.   I would never have taken without class the distribution requirement.  I was not particularly looking forward to taking this class.

I chose it because Professor Flaten participated in teaching an interdisciplinary “Honors” course that was part of the test bed that eventually became the St. Olaf Para College.  It was a course in how people transmit and receive knowledge and it included art, music, and literature, another memorable course.  I also knew Flaten’s work because every day when I went to work at WCAL I saw his carvings in the beams of Studio A.  (See my post “Remembering WCAL.”)

Flaten’s architecture course taught me to open my eyes and look.  Look at the buildings, the landscaping, the construction techniques, the site and the historical and cultural context.  My work has taken me to places all over the world.  I attribute my ability to appreciate Aya Sofia in Istanbul, High Gothic in France, the Venetian outposts along the Adriatic in Croatia and Montenegro, Turkish Mosques, the Chicago skyline or New York Art Deco to Professor Flaten.

Because of the tools he gave me I have an appreciation of buildings not even imagined in his lifetime — the I.M.Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the Bibliotheca Alexandria in Egypt, or a summer cabin on the St. Croix inspired by the Prairie School of architects.

Professor Flaten’s course, taken under mild protest, has given me great pleasure over the course of almost half a century.  When I see a particular kind of building I think of the “eclectic clutter” he taught us to question.

When I heard St. Olaf was building a new Science Hall the one thing that concerned me was the loss of the Flaten Art Barn, which Flaten and a colleague John Berntsen, the superintendent of grounds and buildings built for the fledgling art department.  It was decorated with art carved by Flaten and his students in 1932.

Pete Sandberg, Assistant Vice President for Facilities told my son Kevin, before the building was taken down, that he would personally save as much of it as he could and, if he had to, re-erect it himself.

He was true to his word.  On this trip to St. Olaf we saw the New Flaten Art Barn near the wind turbine.  It is a new building, erected by faculty members, using traditional wood frame techniques learned at the North House Folk School in Grand Maris, Minnesota.  It is not the old building, but is inspired by it.

The archive photo of the Art Barn is from the St. Olaf College Digital Collections. 

©St. Olaf College.

The Flaten Art Barn includes many of the original carvings, including the Dragon Portal, itself inspired by Norwegian stave churches.  It shows creatures from Norse mythology being held at bay at the door of the church.

According from the St. Olaf Website http://wp.stolaf.edu/blog/reconstruction-of-flaten-art-barn-turns-old-into-new/ , from which I took some of the information for this post, the building was a collaborative effort by faculty members, much in the spirit of the original Flaten Art Barn.  It will be used for Environmental Studies and Folk School courses.  It is built to have a low energy impact.  And, from what Kevin and I saw, is built to last.

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