Introducing CARLA: Pioneering Technology in Urban Planning

The Beverly Willis Architectural Collection, open for research at Special Collections and University Archives, holds many treasures: sumptuous drawings, correspondence, and photographic materials documenting the work of one of America’s great twentieth century designers. One such project we’ll be highlighting here shows Willis and Associates, Inc.’s (WAI) work on an early land analysis program called “CARLA.” CARLA, or Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis, was a program developed by the firm in the 1970s that was on the vanguard of employing computing applications in site development.

The program’s aim was to reduce construction costs by instrumentalizing and automating much of the initial planning process and environmental impact research. To this end, the firm enlisted the skills of a young urban design grad student, Jochen Eigen, to study and model the architectural planning process. His work aggregated and analyzed data on the proposed project’s user needs and the site’s zoning and topography (via a client-submitted map), which was then correlated with an internally developed database that contained information on thousands of residential sites and floor layouts – planners would iterate through the process repeatedly to determine ideal land allocations for building.

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At the time of CARLA’s advent, land analysis was a fairly lengthy ordeal. It would take companies 4-6 months using traditional methods before they would be able to properly estimate financial cost and environmental impact. Implementing and using this new tool reduced that timeline to about three weeks. The process would result in a site perspective, analysis of soil and natural drainage patterns, areas of a plot suitable for development and areas in need of cut and fill. The program allowed easy comparison of design solutions and their respective costs.

While CARLA was specifically geared toward site analysis, it is still ancestrally linked to modern computer aided design programs. Its primary function was to optimize land use by determining the best planning unit, its placement on a parcel, the cost of doing cut and fills, etc., and these are all necessary design considerations that are layered into modern CAD/BIM software (the “BIM” stands for Building Information Modeling). The program turned a time-consuming, bespoke research process into something comparatively data-driven and efficient, enabling Willis’s firm to maintain its competitive edge during the recession of the 1970s. At the time of its implementation, its aim was to get more contracts for lucrative housing developments, while it also addressed another fundamental need, namely, environmental considerations in urban design.

The first such development WAI used the software for were condominiums commissioned by the Alpha Land Company, to be located on a sloping 9-acre beachfront property. In her book Invisible Images, Willis writes about the beginning of her work on the Pacific Point Condominiums—the inadequacy of available tools for assessing cost and estimating damage to existing ecosystems. Early iterations of mapping and topographical analysis programs were created by the government during World War II and later adapted for use by oil companies for industrial use; by 1971, the Kansas Geological Survey department at the University of Kansas had developed a mapping and contour program called SURFACE II. This program would form the backbone of Eigen’s/WAI’s land analysis software. Willis recalls,

With these tools I carefully planned stepped terraces on the bluff side of the site downward toward the ocean and designed a bridgelike entry to the three-story building’s mid-section. My design used diagonally placed interior walls that slice through the apartment facades, elongating one side like a fan. These subtle diagonal wall planes direct the eye to a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean.

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Top: presentation drawing for Pacific Point Condominiums; bottom: photograph of development, found in Invisible Images

The history of CARLA’s development is further documented here. Some of the firm’s internal documentation of the software’s development is available in the Beverly Willis Architectural Collection and will soon be digitized and made available online as part of the library’s new digital platform.

The Life and Architecture of Smithey & Boynton

After several years, I recently finished processing the Smithey & Boynton, Architects & Engineers Records, Ms1992-027. Partner in the firm, Kenneth L. Motley purchased the firm in 1992 and donated the firm’s historical records in 1992 and 1994. About 30% of the collection was made available before I arrived at Virginia Tech in 2014, but the oversize, rolled architectural drawings and blueprints were not (although I must thank my predecessors for labeling and locating the rolls, which helped me significantly). Over the past four years, I arranged, described, and boxed up nearly 1,500 project drawings, totaling over 220 cubic feet and including over 920 boxes. (This isn’t even the largest collection we have in Special Collections!)

Louis Phillipe Smithey and Henry B. Boynton formed the Smithey & Boynton partnership in 1935. Smithey & Boynton built and renovated thousands of buildings throughout the state of Virginia. They designed Lane Stadium and several other buildings on the Virginia Tech campus, buildings for the Norfolk & Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern), and the Lyric Theatre and Armory Building in Blacksburg. The firm became best known for building public schools, even using the same basic layout for numerous schools. They had nearly 150 school design commissions from 1945 through 1953 in at least 19 counties and 10 cities in Virginia.

Drawings of the Armory Building in Blacksburg, designed by Smithey & Boynton:

Louis Phillipe Smithey (1890-1966)

Smithey graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 1910, before attending both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was an engineer for Virginia Bridge & Iron Company from 1916 to 1920. He then opened his own practice, before partnering with Matthews H. Tardy, as Smithey & Tardy from 1922 through 1932. Smithey again had his own practice, occasionally working with Henry B. Boynton, before they partnered as Smithey & Boynton in 1935. Smithey was a registered architect in Virginia and West Virginia, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and served as president of the Virginia chapter of the AIA in 1940. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War I and World War II. Smithey married Dorothy Terrill in 1938, and they had one daughter.

Photos and drawings of the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, designed by the firm of Louis Phillipe Smithey:

Henry B. Boynton (1899-1991)

Boynton graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1923, before taking classes at the University of Illinois (now the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign). He worked for Carneal & Johnston, Architects & Engineers, from 1924 to 1928. (We previously wrote about Carneal & Johnston on this blog in “A New Collection and a New Look at Virginia Tech’s Architectural Style.”) Boynton joined Smithey’s practice in 1929, becoming a partner in Smithey & Boynton in 1935. He was a registered architect in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania; held several positions of the Virginia chapter of the AIA; and served as the Governor’s appointee to the State Registration Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors from 1962 to 1972. Boynton also served on the VPI Alumni Board of Directors from 1969 to 1979 and the VPI Education Foundation, Inc.’s board from 1978 to 1982. He also served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the World War II. (Special Collections also has the Henry B. Boynton Papers, Ms1992-002, which include some records from Smithey & Boynton.)

Drawings of the Norfolk & Southern Railway’s General Storehouse in Roanoke, designed by Smithey & Boynton:

For more, I recommend reading “Smithey and Boynton and the Designing of Virginia’s Modern Architecture” by Mike Walker, which is about Smithey & Boynton’s work and includes photographs of some of their buildings, primarily in Covington, Virginia.

Trajectories of an Architect’s Design Sensibilities: From Student to Practitioner

Model of architectural design project.
Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The beginning of the fall semester and the nearly overnight return to a bustling and lively campus provides a good opportunity to reflect on the essential thing that we do, which is to educate. Student works are common discoveries in the collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) and can tell us either about an architect’s own practice or their methods of classroom instruction. This post will focus on the former, with an eye to the role that archival collections can play in examining design sensibilities within the context of a developing architectural practice.

Drawing showing elevation and site plan sketches.
Concept drawing, Bahamas Nursing School, c. 1985.

One of the most profound ways to understand the progression of the aesthetic sensibilities of a creative professional is to examine their works (including inspirational materials, writing, and sketches) across their career. Looking at materials that span years—or even decades—offers a glimpse into how their style evolved, was refined, stayed constant, or in some cases shifted radically. With architects it is possible to trace the development not only of their design considerations, but also the changes in drawing techniques, enhanced observational skills, and a deeper understanding of spaces. It is often possible to see how they refine and expand their understanding of the outer world, visual culture, and the impact of spaces on the people who inhabit them.

Photograph of architectural model.
Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The Exhibition Hall—Variable—Transportable project was completed by Dorothee Stelzer King while she was an architecture student at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Berlin, Germany. Completed the same year that she received her degree, the project was based on a first-year design exercise involving the enlargement of a simple shape to create a complex design without adding extra material to the final structure.

Document outlining requirements and development of the project.
Description and requirements of the award-winning portable exhibition hall project.

 

Drawing showing interlocking shapes.
Concept drawing showing how a basic triangle is repeated and extended to create interlocking stars and circular forms that in turn interlock to create flexible, modular shapes.

 

Elevations, site plans, and details.
Elevations, site plans, and detail drawings for Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel.

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The Dorothee Stelzer King collection also contains works that the architect completed at various points during her professional career, allowing researchers to study the progression of her designs over time. The series of concept drawings and plans for the Bahamas Nursing School in Nassau, Bahamas, shows King’s attention to understanding how educational spaces and their inhabitants interact. While the drawings show a move away from the more experimental design work seen in Exhibition Hall—Variable—Transportable, they showcase a greater understanding of the practical nature of educational facilities and the importance of proper acoustics, seating, structural elements, and paths of movement through interior spaces.

 

Site plan drawing.
Location plan, Bahamas Nursing School, April 16, 1985.

 

Construction photos.
Construction photographs showing exterior and interior spaces, including structural elements, of the Bahamas Nursing School project.

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Many other student and professional design projects and records can be accessed in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech. The finding aid for the Dorothee Stelzer King Architectural Collection can be viewed online at Virginia Heritage. The collection is currently being digitized with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and will be available in full through the Virginia Tech digital library.

R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller. This name is probably familiar to most people in the United States. It conjures images of futuristic domed cities of the type typical to a mid-20th century vision of the future.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, also called Bucky, was a celebrity. He was an engineer, an architect, a veteran, an environmentalist, a philosopher, and a poet. He was a celebrity because of these things rather than in spite of them. He was born July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. He went to Harvard University for two years but did not finish. He later went to the United States Naval Academy (1917). He was an officer in the United States Navy during World War I.

For me, Fuller is a legendary figure. I grew up with cultural references to “bucky” balls, images of domed cities in speculative fiction, and knowing conceptually about the structure of fullerenes. So, when I was wandering through the archives looking for something to post about this week, I was excited to see a box labeled “R. Buckminster Fuller Collection 1949-1978” (Ms1975-007). Opening it up was like opening a present.

Our collection includes one folder of correspondence from and to Fuller, three folders containing copies of things Fuller wrote, six folders of things written about Fuller, and two oversized folders containing some rather large items within those categories. Looking through the materials, they aren’t like what most people expect to find in an archives. They aren’t handwritten. They aren’t really old. They aren’t deteriorating. They’re just extremely fascinating.

The letters are from November 1953 – December 1962. Most are from Fuller’s time working on his business Geodesics, Inc. They are typed. They are unsigned. Yet, for a fan of his work, they are exhilarating to read. The first one I laid eyes on was written while Fuller was with the Department of Architecture at the University of Minnesota. As if these being Fuller’s own words wasn’t enough, a connection to Minnesota biases me in favor of something from the start.

In the letter, Fuller is telling Tyler Rogers of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Co. about the challenges and modifications of his designs that have been necessary because of a lack of  the necessary facilities to safely employ fiberglas in their construction. The letter is a finely crafted plea for assistance from this fiberglas manufacturer, and, according to a note added at the end, the plea was successful leading Owens-Corning to supply all the fiberglas used in the project to construct Fuller’s dome.

Take a look. Maybe you’ll find it as fascinating as I do:

Fuller Letter 1Fuller Letter 2Fuller Letter 3

Digging further into the materials, even just glancing, I learned much more about this mythic figure from my childhood. Had he been alive today, I am confident Fuller would have been viewed as an activist. His engineering ideas were rooted in his conception of the need for humanity to work together to support itself. He felt that domes could solve world housing problems. He also felt that industrialization had led the world to war and that as long as income inequality was creating “energy slaves” we would inevitably progress into further wars. Dipping into our small collection yields evidence of these views quite quickly.

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An illustration created by Fuller in 1927.

The above illustration hints at Fuller’s environmentalism and highlights his concern for housing the population of the Earth. It reads:

26% of Earth’s surface is dry land
85% of all Earth’s dry land is here shown
86% of all dry land shown is above equator
The whole of the human family could stand on Bermuda
All crowded into England they would have 750 sq feet each
“United we stand, divided we fall” is correct mentaly and spiritualy but falacious physicaly or materialy
2,000,000,000 new homes will be required in next 80 years

An example of his analysis of the world’s energy economy and its effect on the incidence of world conflict appears on the same folded sheet:

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This graphic is from 1952 and is titled “The Twentieth Century.” His analysis reads:

World Industrialization: Its rate of attainment as an industrially objective advantage to individuals. i.e. When 100 inanimate energy slaves* are in continual active service per each and every family existing in governing economy and those energy slaves are primarily focused upon regeneratively advancing standards of living and in articulating amplifying degrees of intellectual and physical freedoms until critical point is reached majority of world men are “have nots” and are incitable to socialism by revolution against the seemingly ever more unduly privileged minority after 1972 majority are “haves”.
* One energy slave equals each unit of “one trillion foot pound equivalents per annum” consumed annually by respective economies from both import and domestic sources, computed at 100% of potential content

Overall, it’s an interesting plot. His analysis, while raising the specter of Communism as villain (typical of the early 1950s), shows global instability and a trend toward possible conflict through 1972. That tipping point is supposedly when most people in the world will go from being “have nots” to being “haves”. His predictions may or may not have been accurate (I’ll leave the correlative analysis up to you) but they certainly are interesting.

The last thing I’ll share is a portion of something I found somewhat interesting from among Fuller’s writings. Most of his writings in our collection are reprints of articles he had published. From a publishing standpoint, I find them interesting because of how they are printed. They are self-contained. In the case of the one I will share, an entire page describing articles in the publication is present but the only one that is printed with full clarity is the one by Fuller – the others have been “blurred” via the addition of slight pixilation of the ink in the printing process. I have yet to actually read this article, so I won’t go into depth. I also won’t share the entire thing here because I really don’t want to make the publication if came from mad at me. Also, just to be clear, I’m reading it for the article (I mean, really, that’s all that’s even here!).

This is just a hint of what’s in our R. Buckminster Fuller Collection (Ms1975-007). I plan to delve into it more myself to satisfy my curiosity about this fascinating man. Please stop by and do the same! And, if you want even more Buckminster Fuller content, Fuller donated his full archive to Standord University in 1999 where it is available as the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection.

 

 

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:

Elarth005Elarth008

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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Elarth007

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

Elevation drawing
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.

Building the Builders: Egalitarian Pedagogy and Sustainable Design

When taking part in Frank Lloyd Wright’s preeminent architectural school known as the Taliesin Fellowship, Lois Gottlieb came to understand architecture as a kind of Lebensphilosophie, in that she came to consider it a mode of living that touched on and derived inspiration from all aspects of life. Hence the title of her account of her apprenticeship A Way of Life, which deftly highlights the interplay of the rarefied and the mundane, the interdependence of humans and their natural surroundings, and the fluidity between the concreteness of day-to-day living and abstract worldview. Furthermore, it presents art as an act of cultivation and sustained effort, rather than a quasi-mysterious realization of personal genius.Gottlieb005

It’s of note that Wright’s teaching style deviated significantly from the norms of his time and tended to subvert the traditional master-apprentice relationship. His radically egalitarian approach to pedagogy came to inform Gottlieb’s own teaching style and her outlook on the ways humans shape and control the environment. Her first major publication, the book Environment and Design in Housing, first workshopped as a series of lectures at UC – Riverside, articulates the effects of design on both the micro- and macro-scale, i.e., the way the “[physical] environment we each create for ourselves and our families does affect every part of our lives” [1] and the implications of poor design in terms of ecological sustainability and financial cost. In her view, humans have an unrivaled capacity to adapt the environment to their needs – a capacity that is problematic at scale and exacts high tolls, both from the land itself and from people affected by landslides or other natural disasters (see picture below). In light of these concerns, she advocates a more thoughtful approach based on client needs and leveraging the natural assets of building sites rather than the one-size-fits-all attitude of traditional design. (As a side note, Julius Shulman, famed architectural photographer, worked with Gottlieb on this book as photography consultant. The work itself features many of his gorgeous black-and-white photographs, prints of which are available for viewing as part of Gottlieb’s architectural collection here at Virginia Tech. Two copies of Environment and Design in Housing are also available for research as part of Special Collections’ selection of rare books – the captions and broader expositions provide invaluable context for the photographs.)

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Gottlieb’s caption: “The result! The gadgets in the kitchen no longer matter.”[2][3] Photographer: Julius Shulman.

Design and Gender Norms

A notable feature of this book is its emphasis on practice and its demystification of architectural knowledge. While much of Gottlieb’s approach is informed by cultivating self-knowledge and considering the dwelling as a vehicle for personal expression, it tends to balance this view with injunctions to draw on the specialized knowledge of experts – lending itself to a kind of tempered humanism and recognition of personal limitations. This methodology, I think, can also be traced to Gottlieb’s time spent at Taliesin, which, for the time, was certainly unique in its combination of self-reliance and communal dependencies.

A different, but related, novelty of the school’s social structure was its disregard for gender norms. It is generally recognized these days that, historically, there have been gender-inflected labor divisions in both the public and domestic sphere. At Taliesin, these “traditional” divisions were not enforced – men would often perform tasks like preparing dinner while women would thresh wheat. “Homemaking” was not the strictly circumscribed domain of women, nor was outdoor labor the exclusive domain of men. While her work’s primary focus isn’t on cultural assumptions regarding women, Gottlieb clearly has thoughts on the connections between gender and under-recognized labor. On the subject of domesticity, design, and value, she offers the following observations:

“Another attitude toward the occupation of homemaking is that it is ‘nothing’ or of little importance. An answer to the typical question ‘What does Jane Doe do?’ is ‘Oh, nothing,’ or ‘She doesn’t work, she is just a housewife.’ Yet this housewife is supposed to do most of the buying for the family, keep them all in good physical condition, keep them attractively housed and clothed, see to it that the children are educated, and so on and on.

“In other situations any of these tasks is considered a field of specialized knowledge…But the homemaker is supposed to have absorbed and be all these things at once, a sort of twentieth-century version of the Renaissance man” (without any of the credit for doing so, presumably).[4]

 

It’s clear that Environment and Design in Housing is at least partially intended to serve as a practical resource for homemakers. It’s also clear that the book is meant to bring analysis to typically underserved segments of society and to address real (if hidden) needs.

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Gottlieb-designed home – a great example of California Mid-Century Modern architecture. Photographer: Morley Baer.

References

1. Lois Davidson Gottlieb, Environment and Design in Housing (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 1.

2. Gottlieb, 5.

3. Lois Davidson Gottlieb Architectural Collection, Ms1997-003, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

4. Gottlieb, 231.