Common Practice: How Human Needs Should Inform the Design of Public Space

Among Melita Rodeck’s many admirable traits were her keen sense of community engagement, her social awareness and activism, and her recognition of others’ needs. Her commitment to educating and encouraging citizenry to be active participants in shaping their environments was a defining characteristic of her life’s work, as evidenced by several article clippings and her personal writings.

In the early 1960s, Rodeck became involved in grassroots community organizing and commons-building projects. This, just when the applications of social theory to architecture (and the environmental impacts of design planning on urban communities) were starting to be theorized. These projects were spearheaded by architect-psychologist Karl Linn, whose initial efforts to reflect community needs in common living spaces expanded across multiple cities and transformed into a non-profit called Neighborhood Commons. Rodeck formed part of his team as his Assistant Director when working to revitalize several  neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area. The projects were innovative in that they depended on an active corps of volunteers and sponsors, often drawn from the communities themselves, but also in their creative re-purposing of old building materials.

It’s safe to say that Rodeck became a student of (and later, a full-blown advocate for) responsive design, and, indeed, how architecture functions as environment and structures human relations and communication patterns. In 1969, she co-authored a short guidebook called People Space, to help community leaders cultivate a sensibility for how public and private spaces are structured and how they serve (or perhaps disserve or underserve) their inhabitants. In its introduction she writes about the following design ideal : “the process must be seen as organized space flowing from public to private to public space, rather than as a collection of unrelated piles and emptinesses” (1). According to this statement, public and private spaces should be informed by continuity rather than fragmentation. The guidebook is filled with fairly detailed instructions and questions for leading and developing discussions. It’s divided into several parts, such that participants can create and merge various functional profiles for their city or town.

 

Several years after the publication of the modest People Space, Rodeck wrote yet another piece – this one returning to her earlier work on the Neighborhood Commons projects in a kind of postmortem analysis. One can sense some of her frustration as she’s since returned to several of these “Commons” spaces, only to find them abandoned and neglected. She reflects on some of the shortcomings and difficulties of implementing and maintaining the beautification schemes for urban open spaces, and on the historical developments and sweeping social changes of the 1960s that influenced their lack of upkeep, while still reaffirming the underlying values that the projects represented. In fact, she illustrates a very interesting tension in her report: the occasional ambivalence and indifference of inner city residents to the projects, and the dissonance between what they perceived their needs to be and what architects believed their needs to be.

Her questions and meditations are remarkably timely insofar as our society is becoming increasingly urbanized. Fraught questions surrounding concepts like urban renewal, revitalization, gentrification, and population displacement are being posed with greater frequency and urgency. Her offerings broach the complexities inherent in approaching and sustaining such projects. They certainly give cause for deeper reflection on the “sense of interdependency of people in a defined space.”

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Season’s Greetings from the Elarths and Friends

If your blogger’s mailbox is an accurate barometer of popular culture, it seems the days of the holiday greeting card are steadily waning. With social media and email keeping us in constant contact with even the most distant acquaintances, many no longer feel the need to buy a card, write a brief note in it, and post it in the mail. To be sure, there are still those among us who send dozens of cards a year, but as a whole, we seem to be sending fewer cards. There was a time, though, in the not-so-distant past, when the holiday greeting card was an annual rite for many.

Unless they include lengthy personal messages, greeting cards are generally of little research value in a manuscript collection. The addresses on the envelopes can help in establishing a person’s whereabouts at a particular time or in simply confirming that two people were acquainted, but for the most part, greeting cards are of little interest to researchers. An exception is when a greeting card includes personal information on the sender’s activities or when the card is handcrafted. In the manuscript collections of Herschel and Wilhelmina Elarth (Ms1969-004 and Ms1984-182), a number of handcrafted cards from professional artists can be found. If, like me, you’re seeing a dearth of greeting cards in your mailbox, you may enjoy a look at a few of these unique cards.

But first, a bit of background on the couple in whose collections these cards are found:

Born in Rochester, New York, Wilhelmina van Ingen (1905-1969) was the daughter of Hendrik van Ingen, a well-known architect, and the granddaughter of Henry van Ingen, a painter of the Hudson River School (and perhaps the subject of a future blog post). After graduating from Vassar in 1926, Wilhelmina earned a master’s degree in art history and classical archaeology from Radcliffe College. She later earned her doctoral degree at Radcliffe and taught art history at Wheaton College.

In 1942, Wilhelmina married Herschel Elarth (1907-1988), a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma. The couple moved to Canada in 1947, and both taught at the University of Manitoba. In 1954, Herschel accepted a position at Virginia Tech, and the Elarths moved to Blacksburg. While Herschel taught, Wilhelmina remained active with the American Association of University Women, the Blacksburg Regional Art Association, and the Associated Endowment Fund of the American School of Classical Studies.

Elarth001 The Professors Elarth

With their backgrounds in art, it’s of little surprise that the Elarths would have created their own cards, rather than purchasing them at a store:

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Even before they were married, Wilhelmina and Herschel sent personally crafted Christmas cards to friends and family. In the examples above, we can see Wilhelmina drawing on her background in classical studies for her 1932 card, while Herschel’s 1928 card displays his interest in architecture and statuary.

After their marriage, the Elarths continued to make and send their own cards:

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The Elarths’ 1946 card (top) featured a woodblock print of an imposing gothic cathedral, while their 1954 card (bottom), a simple pen-and-ink sketch sent during their first Christmas in Blacksburg, reflected an appreciation for the natural beauty of their newfound home.

Their mutual interest in art led the Elarths to maintain a wide circle of friends in the art world, and they regularly traded holiday greetings with a number of their artistic friends.   Many of these cards reflect the style and development of the individual artist.

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Among the Elarths’ longtime friends were Richard and Peggy Bowman, whom they likely met while Richard Bowman was teaching at the University of Manitoba. An abstract painter, Bowman is credited with being among the first artists to use fluorescent paint in fine art. Among the cards sent by the Bowmans are two woodblock prints and an original abstract painting.  As the Herschel Elarth collection contains other examples of Peggy Bowman’s poetry, we can assume that she provided the brief poems in the two cards above. The painting at bottom, meanwhile, illustrates Richard Bowman’s use of fluorescent paints.

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Herschel Elarth likely met painter and muralist Eugene Kingman through the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, Nebraska), of which Kingman served as director and Elarth helped design. For many years, Kingman annually sent the Elarths a card bearing a woodblock print he’d made of a rural Nebraska scene, like this one from 1946.

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Painter and printmaker William Ashby “Bill” McCloy (1913-2000) and his wife Patricia (“Patty”) also remembered the Elarths at the end of each year. The couple incorporated  Bill McCloy’s work into limited-print cards, including those above: an untitled, undated print; “The Greeting,” (#17 of 65 limited prints), 1961; and an untitled 1958 print (#48 of 100 printed). (“Pax vobiscum nunc” translates from the Latin as “peace to you, now.”)

Canadian painter Takao “Tak” Tanabe (1926- ) was also likely an acquaintance of the Elarths from their time in Manitoba, Tanabe having been a student at the Winnipeg School of Art from 1946 to 1949. Tanabe sent the Elarths a number of beautiful cards through the years. Though he later became known for his paintings of British Columbia landscapes, the work displayed in his cards from the 1950s is much more abstract.

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Takao Tanabe’s 1951 card opens to reveal an abstract rendition of New York City skyscrapers. At the time, Tanabe was studying at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art.

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An abstract Christmas tree is featured in this undated card from Tanabe.

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This undated card from Tanabe included an original work entitled “Mother and Child” on a canvas panel.

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One of the most unusual cards received by the Elarths is this selection from architect Caleb Hornbostel and family. In it, the architect plays with the card form by using it to provide recipients with instructions on building a model of a home he had designed.

Both Elarth collections contain much more than greeting cards. The Herschel Gustave Anderson Elarth Papers contain his artwork, materials relating to his teaching career, several of his more significant architectural projects, and his experiences in the 826th Engineer Aviation Battalion during World War II. You can view the collection’s finding aid here. The Wilhelmina van Ingen Elarth Papers, meanwhile, contain her extensive diaries (including those maintained while traveling in Europe), a substantial postcard collection, artwork of her father and grandfather, and a few pieces of ancient Aegean and pre-Columbian artifacts. More information may be found here, in the collection’s finding aid.

The Role of Design in Cultivating and Enhancing Spiritual Connection

“In the arts, one may find peace and contentment, for we may use our ability to transform our inner energy in a satisfying manner.”
—Melita Rodeck, AIA

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Melita Rodeck, Consolata Missions Seminary, 1959.

Architect Melita Rodeck established the Regina Institute of Sacred Art in the late 1950s—shortly after forming her own architectural firm—with the purpose of bringing together design professions to help establish a set of standards for the quality of sacred art. A large part of the organizational mission involved “educat[ing] parishioners about the psychological need and emotional impact of good design.” The institute also helped parishes to realize the significance of these ideas by participating in their efforts to redesign and redecorate religious spaces. (IAWA newsletter, no. 8, Fall 1996)

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Melita Rodeck’s proposed sanctuary design for the Holy Comforter Church includes clean lines and minimal forms for the space and the furnishings that are both beautiful and functional.

Perhaps more significantly, one can look at Rodeck’s work with religious architectural spaces within the context of a much longer history dealing with what sacred art, architecture, and design should be expected to accomplish. Of particular relevance is the history of Catholic artistic engagement, with its strong implications that a sense of sacred beauty was essential to the message of eternal life and divine bliss. (Saward, John. “The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the Liturgy.The Institute for Sacred Architecture 31 (Spring 2017).) This same notion is supported in the work of the Second Vatican Council, which dealt at length with religious art in the 1963 Sacrosanctum Concilium. Among the many doctrinal concepts outlined in this document were notions such as “of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands.” The document further directed that such arts should “seek for noble beauty rather than sumptuous display.” (“Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium. Second Vatican Council, 1963.)

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Melita Rodeck, Church Interior, Conceptual sketch

The Sacrosanctum Concilium further specifies that art can and should be reflective of the times and acknowledges that all manners of artistic styles have been embraced throughout the history of the Catholic church. This bears heavily on Rodeck’s approach to architectural design in these spaces, which is extensively modernist in its execution and carefully uses light, form, color, and scale to shape the experience within the space.

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This reflects a modernist sensibility of human-space interactions, moving away from a dependence on highly narrative interpretations of religious interiors in favor of evoking emotional responses to elements of the built environment. This approach also reflects a concern with religious harmony, and a tendency to encourage slightly decentralized expressions of devotion through the acts of meditation and contemplation, which are not necessarily rooted in any particular religious tradition. This is the emotional impact of good design that Rodeck spoke about—it has the power to elicit a palpable and immersive connection, to invite parishioners to examine their own relationships with the mysterious, the sacred, the divine, and the spiritual.

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In The Role of Religious Art Over 50 Years: An Assessment, James Hadley concludes that “the power of religious arts of the past 50 years has been their capacity to invite us to gaze more intently into the fragment, the incomplete reality we feel has seized us, and there begin to perceive the possibility of human psycho-spiritual and physical wholeness restored in the divine.” (Hadley, James. Faith & Form: The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art, and Architecture 50, no. 3 (September 1, 2017).) This sentiment is certainly reflected in Rodeck’s approach to creating spaces that are beautiful and minimal, that in their simplicity encourage meditation, connection, and reflection, and that are capable of stirring profoundly complex experiences.

 

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Materials from the Melita Rodeck Architectural Collection can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Virginia Tech Libraries.

The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement

Have you ever thought about the history of LGBTQ rights in the United States? Did you learn about historic figures and events in the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement in elementary school? middle school? high school? college? Did you ever learn about these important figures and events in US History? For the majority of people, the answers will be “no”. It’s a sad reality that this topic isn’t covered in most schools and that most students will not be exposed to this history unless they choose a course of study in college that requires a course about LGBTQ people.

As part of our efforts to collect and highlight archival material about the LGBTQ+ community, our partnership with the LGBTQ+ Resource Center at Virginia Tech, and in support of LGBTQ+ History Month (October), we arranged to host an exhibit from the ONE Archives Foundation highlighting archival material from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries. The exhibit is titled The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement.

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The start of the “The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement” exhibit on display at Virginia Tech. The exhibit is on display from right to left due to the normal traffic patterns in this part of the library, so a sign noting the start of the exhibit is helpful.

The exhibit consists of 39 panels that are 24 x 36 inches. We had them printed on adhesive vinyl and put them up in the hallway outside the library’s new digital humanities classroom. The exhibit includes information on early “gayborhoods” in the 1940s, the Lavender Scare during 1950s McCarthyism, the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the push for marriage equality in the 1990s and 2000s, and more.

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We first posted the exhibit during LGBTQ+ History Month and invited attendees at our LGBTQ+ History at Virginia Tech archival exhibit to take a look after viewing documents from local LGBTQ+ history. Since then, many people have stopped to read through the exhibit panels.

In November, Aline Souza, a graduate student in Creative Technologies and Architecture, took some time to look through the exhibit. After reading through the panels, she said “I like the exhibit because it gives me a chance of a transformative experience on my way to class. I find it unique because it combines good graphics and colors with information about things that happened that I’d never know about.”

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The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement exhibit was put up on on October 16, 2017 and will be on display through December 21, 2017 on the first floor of Newman Library (from the cafe, head up the ramp and turn right at the bathrooms). If you’re on campus, take a moment to stop by Newman Library and take a look.

Ansil T. Bartlett & A Bird

In April 1865, a young man named Ansil T. Bartlett was in Farmville, Virginia (or, as he put it, Farmsville). From what we know, Bartlett enlisted with Company D of the 58th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry in early 1864. Although he spent less than 18 months in service during the war, his regiment was involved in action at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the fall of Petersburg, among other places. On April 15, 1865, he wrote a letter home to his father.

58th in camp at Farmsville
April 15th 1865
Dear Father
I now seat myself to write you a few lines top let you know that I am alive and well and hope to find you enjoying the same pleasure it is a very hard place here. Sheridan’s Cavalry has made havoc in and about the houses. they took all that they had to eat and in some places all of the women’s clothing. that taking clothing I don’t think was just right they took everything even to the babies clothes. it looked rather hard. I am on guard at a house now while I am writing these few lines to you. give my love to all and take care of yourself and not get sick for I want you to live and see your son when he gets home and then we will try to live and enjoy our self for the rest of our life. it is a very pleasant country around here it is planting time but the niggers are all leaving for the north. I heard that General Curtain was giving no discharge all of his boys in 4 months. and I heard that Grant said that the volunteers army would all be discharged in 6 weeks but you cannot believe all that you hear this is all that I can think of now this is from your son good bye yours truly

Ansil T Bartlett
Co D 58thRegt Mass. Vet. Vols
Washington
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give my love to all and tell them that I expect to be at home by the 4th of July there is a good time coming

Written only days after Lee’s surrender, Bartlett cautions his father against believing any rumors about when he might be discharged, though his own post script suggests he thought 2 months wasn’t unreasonable. His letter is not uncommon in many senses: he reports on his current activities, recounts what he has witnessed around him recently, and looks forward to a life after the war. (Bartlett was actually discharged in late July of 1865.)

What really struck me about this letter the first time I saw it, though, was what came at the end–Bartlett’s drawing of a bird. 152 years later, we don’t have any clue as to why he drew it or what it symbolized to him. He doesn’t comment on it and it looks almost like an afterthought, tacked on to the close of his letter. But, it’s also write on the heels of his final reminder: “there is a good time coming.” Perhaps it was a reminder of that, and an image that represents a good future. Perhaps is meant to be an eagle, a bird used by many regiments on their flags and, at the time, at least part of the country. Perhaps it meant something specific to his father. Or maybe it’s just something he drew to fill the space at the close of his note. Whatever the case, it certainly makes Bartlett’s letter something unique.

The finding aid for this collection is available online. In addition, it has been digitized. You can see these two pages, as well as the third (which includes an addresses and some calculations) online.

Quick Announcement Re: November 17, 2017

Just a quick announcement from our staff: Newman Library will be closing early at 4pm on Friday, November 17, 2017, for a donor appreciation event. This includes Special Collections. We will open at 8am, as usual, but we be closing an hour early. We will re-open at our usual time on the following Monday morning (November 20, 2017).

Have a Happy Halloween with Edward Gorey in Special Collections

Happy Halloween, Ghouls and Ghosts!

Last week, I was listening to the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast’s recent episode on Edward Gorey, and I wondered if Virginia Tech University Libraries had any of his work. Fortune looked brightly on me – not only does the Libraries have numerous texts, but Special Collections actually has three rare books illustrated by Gorey! And since it’s Halloween, I decided to make this week’s post about a modern master of the macabre, author and illustrator Edward Gorey!

My first exposure to the work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was from the opening sequence of PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery!, which has been used since 1980, but he may be best known for his book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), an alphabetical book about the deaths of 26 children. Gorey studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, before joining the U.S. Army during World War II and eventually graduating from Harvard in 1950, where he befriended the poet Frank O’Hara. They, along with other Harvard friends, founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge. In 1953, Gorey began working at the Art Department of Doubleday, illustrating numerous classics, and that same year Brown and Company published his first book The Unstrung Harp. He published his first anthology Amphigorey in 1972, and the next designed a set and costumes for a Nantucket production of Dracula (see more below). In 1979, Gorey moved to Cape Cod and became involved in local productions, even writing his own plays and musicals, and he lived there until his death in 2000.

Let’s take a look at the earliest book we have, Son of the Martini Cookbook by Jane Trahey and Daren Pierce, illustrated by Edward Gorey and published by Clovis Press, 1967. The book includes a handful of food recipes, ordered by how many martinis you’ve had and thus of increasing simplicity. (However, I recommend cooking before you drink, to be safe!) The authors include fictional biographies, but are likely advertising executive and author Jane Trahey (1923-2000), who’s book Life with Mother Superior was adapted into Ida Lupino’s film The Trouble with Angels, starring Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, and author and interior designer Daren Pierce (1922-1984), who founded a store dedicated to needlepoint designs, according to the New York Times. Clovis Press was a bookstore in New York, which closed its doors in 2006.

Next is The Rats of Rutland Grange by Edmund Wilson with drawings by Edward Gorey and published by Gotham Book Mart, 1974 (original in Esquire Magazine, December 1961). A long poem of rhyming couplets by Wilson, the story is about rats who steal the family’s food and destroy their things. On Christmas eve to kill the rats, the children of Rutland Grange put out poisoned chocolate, which bodes poorly for dear, old Santa (spoiler: don’t worry, Santa survives to live another Christmas!) The book indicates only 1,000 copies were printed, including 100 signed by the authors and 26 specifically for Gorey and Gotham Book Mart. (Sadly, our copy is not signed.) Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a literary critic and author. The Gotham Book Mart was a New York City bookstore, owned by Gorey’s friend Andreas Brown, who heavily advertised Gorey’s work and published several monograph, according to the New York Times.

Finally, we have Dracula: A Toy Theatre, sets and costumes designed by Edward Gorey (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979). This books contains drawings based on Gorey’s designs from the 1979 Broadway production of Dracula, a revival of the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston and based on Bram Stoker’s novel. The intention is for the book owner to produce the play by cutting out the costumes and sets, using the book as the backdrop for the set. It also lays out a synopsis of the play and cast. According to the Internet Broadway Database, this production of Dracula ran from 1977 to 1980 and earned Gorey the 1978 Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for Best Scenic Design. Frank Langella portrayed Dracula, earning his own Tony nomination for the 1978 Best Actor in a Play award.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the works of Edward Gorey, and remember that you never know what awesome, spooky works may be in Special Collections!