Notations in Passing: Fragments, studies, and artistic awareness

Architectural drawings and sketches in a folder
Folder with drawings from the Olive Chadeayne Architectural Collection, Ms1990-057

Architecture is a visual field that, much like other creative endeavors, invites both introspection and observation. It often exists conceptually in the space between technical precision and creative daring, while reflecting a thorough understanding and negotiation of actual spaces.

Before getting to finished technical drawings, or even to initial concept sketches, however, many architects are observing and recording the world around them through sketchbooks, notations, drawings, and paintings. These records are often traces of their movements through the world, representing something that struck them in a moment, and that may—or may not—influence their own architectural work later on. Studies of form and dimension, urban landscapes, interiors, buildings, and even the quick suggestion of a corner, roofline, or some transient detail all reveal something about the thoughts—and the processes of learning, inspiration, and working through problems—that inform their work.

A stack of sketches of room elevations and details, drawn on transparent paper.
A stack of architectural sketches from the Susana Torre Architectural Collection, Ms1990-016

Researchers commonly use archival materials to study people, places, and topics, to inform or interpret history, but an accidental effect of looking is often inspiration and personal connections drawn from the objects themselves. Just as we emphasize outside research as a personal process in writing, looking through a visual archive can be useful as a journey of inspiration, with no particular destination in mind.

What have I learned? Content is everywhere. Our ideas are shaped by the formal works we examine and by our surroundings when we stop to look closely—to study the world unfolding in front of us. Inspiration comes from formal works like paintings, documents, or buildings that we encounter and also from things such as the rolling hills, flat plains, rocks, plants, trees, or waves that we see in the landscapes where we live or travel. It comes from the sensations and character that embody the spaces we navigate, and often fully formed ideas come from an intersection between analysis and experience.

Landscape painting of a waterway with trees, shoreline, and a gray boat.
Watercolor and ink, from the The Martha J. Crawford Design Papers, 1961-1974, Ms1994-016

Looking at both the formal and more informal sketches and photographs—the notations in passing that often predate an idea—can be instrumental to understanding the depths of an architectural practice. These studies, which are sometimes fully rendered and sometimes just bits of marginalia, are the visual equivalents of fragmentary thoughts. You can see glimmers of the development of skills, or concepts, or simply a way of understanding spaces and moving through the world. You can piece together the development of a project or the beginnings of artistic practice, and you can learn something about how ideas, technical skills, and perspectives have evolved.

The following selection of drawings, paintings, and photographs from several collections in the International Archives of Women in Architecture (IAWA) presents just a fraction of the available material that illustrates these ideas.

E. Maria Roth:
Along with architectural project materials, Roth’s papers include drawings and sketches from her high school and college years, in addition to a grammar school geography notebook that was completed in 1940 in Hitler-era Germany. These documents showcase the processes of observation, artistic discovery, skill development, and aesthetic understanding in an evolving creative practice.

roth3
Studies from Cooper Union life drawing Sketch book, 1955, E. Maria Roth Architectural Collection, Ms2007-009

roth1

Martha J. Crawford:
An architectural interior designer by training, Martha Crawford was also an artist and writer, which is heavily reflected in the materials in her collection. Many studies of landscapes, interior rooms, and everyday objects capture the ways that she was observing and recording the world.

Dorothy Alexander:
In addition to her architectural work, Dorothy Alexander has worked as a professional photographer for a number of publications. A mockup of her 1974 work, White Flower, which was published in a finished form in the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective, provides a compelling look at the way Alexander was examining the urban landscape and both recording and puncturing the sense of time and place.

Grid of photographs showing an urban landscape and four abstracted white flowers.
White Flower, 1974, Dorothy Alexander, from the IAWA Small Collections, Ms2009-054

The document includes photographic images placed in a grid, revealing a street scene where time is frozen, moving forward in jumps and starts when a car or leg suddenly enters the scene. The contact sheet layout seems to suggest some linearity, like what you might experience through a sequence of events captured on a roll of film. On inspection, however, this linear timeline is ruptured by the interruption of flowers (a brief mental wandering) that contrast with the cold lines of the concrete and by the car entering the frame. This vehicle doesn’t move across the space fluidly, but rather enters, sits, and disappears. Further, the flowers seem to be a photograph of a drawing or painting, which is reinforced by the inclusion of the edge of the picture frame in some of the images. Reality is abstracted here, or is at least shifting and a little surreal.

More significantly, in the document held by Special Collections the gridlines, notations, and calculations are visible. It’s an object in process where the hand of the creator is still very present and it offers an insight or informal connection that is further removed in the finished piece.

The IAWA is full of the kind of documentation noted here, and offers a rich source for study. Through the support of a grant, “Women of Design: Revealing Women’s Hidden Contributions to the Built Environment” (one of the 2016 Digitizing Hidden Collections grants awarded by the Council on Library and Information Resources), 30 collections will be scanned and put online to facilitate greater use. These collections will become available through the Virginia Tech Special Collections digital library as they are scanned  over the next two years. As always, the physical materials are available to view in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech.

A New Collection and a New Look at Virginia Tech’s Architectural Style

Glass plate negative of a drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad. The design of the current Upper Quad construction is based on these original designs.
Glass plate negative of a drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad. The design of the current Upper Quad construction is based on these original designs.
The same drawing with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.
The same drawing with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.

An important bit of Virginia Tech history came through our doors recently in a unique form- a collection of 8 x 10 glass plate negatives of architectural drawings and artist renderings that were made by the architectural firm Carneal and Johnston. These designs were made for several campus buildings in the 1910’s, including the original McBryde Hall and the original library building. In addition to the campus buildings that were built, some of the glass plates depict drawings for proposed buildings, including an alumni hall and new dormitories for the Upper Quad- projects that wouldn’t be taken up until nearly 100 years later, and, in the case of the Upper Quad, are actually being built as we speak.

A drawing of a proposed alumni hall designed by Carneal and Johnston in 1916
A drawing of a proposed alumni hall designed by Carneal and Johnston in 1916
Floor plan of the proposed alumni hall
Floor plan of the proposed alumni hall

 

The glass plate negatives were made using the silver gelatin dry plate process- a direct forerunner of roll film- in which the glass plates were treated with emulsion and allowed to fully dry long in advance of actually exposing them in a camera. This technique, developed in the 1870s, was a huge improvement in convenience over the wet plate process, in which the emulsion on the plate had to be wet when it was exposed, meaning the photographer had to apply the emulsion right before taking the photograph, (and you can imagine how much of a hassle that might be if you were photographing out on location somewhere).

 

These particular dry plates were made as copy photographs of the original architectural drawings made by Carneal and Johnston as well as artist renderings made by Hughton Hawley for the architectural firm and probably served the purpose of what digital scans do today- to make high-quality renderings of the original image in another format that can be preserved as well as easily copied and shared. As relatively large and thin plates of glass, they are extremely fragile, yet amazingly, other than a few chips, most of the 23 glass plates have survived intact over the past 100 years.

A prospective drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad.
A prospective drawing of a proposed dormitory building in the Upper Quad.
What the same negative looks like with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.
What the same negative looks like with the colors inverted to make it a positive image.

William Leigh Carneal, Jr., and James Markam Ambler Johnston (a VPI alumnus) began their firm around 1908 after spending a year working independently out of the same office space. The firm went on to become one of the most prolific and long-established architectural practices in Virginia, surviving after the original architects retired in 1950 up until 1999, when the firm merged with Ballou Justice & Upton, Architects, and ceased to use the name Carneal and Johnston. These designs from the mid 1910’s were made very early in the firm’s career and possibly represent the very first of what would be many design projects for Virginia Tech (then known as VPI)’s campus.

 

President Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Jr., whose term lasted from 1913 to 1919, likely had a hand in commissioning these early designs from the firm. President Eggleston saw architecture as a way for the struggling young college to build its own unique identity, and the Carneal and Johnston’s design of the original McBryde Hall would set the standard for all campus buildings that were built over the following half century- a dramatic collegiate gothic style clad entirely in our signature grey hokie stone. The gothic hokie stone buildings gave the VPI campus a radically different look and feel from the red brick neoclassical style present at most of Virginia’s college campuses, and remains a unique and integral part of our identity even today.

This collection of glass plates negatives is currently being processed and will be available both online and in physical form soon!

Leonard Currie and Six Moon Hill

The papers of architect and former Virginia Tech faculty member Leonard J. Currie (1913-1996) have become my great challenge. Not the papers themselves, per se. All things considered, they are in good condition. We have received Currie’s papers in four accessions over time, the last two arriving since I came to VT. There are more than 11 boxes of papers, photographs, negatives, and artifacts and it continues to be an on-going process making them available. There are a number of reasons for that, but it isn’t the point I’m making today. Determining what to process when is ever-changing in an archives. Leonard Currie’s papers weren’t necessarily on the top of that list and, if not for happenstance, I might never have decided (happily!) to make it my project. The truth is, it started with a reference question about Six Moon Hill. More specifically, about 16 Moon Hill Road.

16 Moon Hill Road
16 Moon Hill Road, Lexington, Massachusetts

Six Moon Hill was a community of houses built by architects in The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Currie, who received his Masters from Harvard in 1938, was among this group of young designers. 16 Moon Hill Road was his design and residence. In 2011, I caught a reference question about the house, around the time the last donation of papers arrived–someone was looking for plans and photographs.

We didn’t have more than two dozen images, but I had to go digging to find them. Along the way, I found hundreds of photographs and negatives from Currie’s travels (he spent a great deal of time working in Central and South America) and from his work in the Blacksburg/Southwest Virginia area. I was fascinated and decided it was time someone started processing. (That someone being me, of course.)

After Harvard, Currie worked with Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. From 1956-1962, he worked here at Virginia Tech, before going on to become the dean of College of Architecture and Art at the University of Illinois, Chicago. When he retired in 1981, he returned to Blacksburg to live and work. He designed homes, churches, schools, and other buildings throughout the region until his death in 1996. When he and his family lived here the first time around, he designed “Currie House I,” a home on the National Register of Historic Places. (We have plans from that house, but that might make a great future post.) On his return in the 1980s, he designed what he refers to throughout his collection as “Currie House II.” There are hundreds of photographs of the latter in his collection.

(On a side note, we also contain some papers from Currie’s wife, Virginia M. Herz Currie, among our IAWA materials. You can see the finding aid here: http://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=vt/viblbv00538.xml.)

Currie’s papers remain, at the moment, a work-in-progress. To date, the photographs and negatives are organized and the paper files (received in no particular order) are underway. We don’t have a finding aid online for the work done so far, but if you’d like to visit us and take a look, we can show you what we have.