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.

Ms2013-023, Dorothee Stelzer King, Folder 3Ms2013-023, Dorothee Stelzer King, Folder 3

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.

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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:

Fuller graphics 2.jpg

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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Elarth010

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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.

Elarth012

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.

Elarth013Elarth014Elarth015

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.

Elarth002Elarth003

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)

Ms1992_028_F002_001_HolyComfort_Dr_001
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.)

Church
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.

Ms1992_028_F002_021_ArchbishopChapel_Dr_001

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.

Oh, it is a Long Story


Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builder’s” Women in Construction issue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, “Here is the architect” and promptly shook her father’s hand:

“They are congratulating me because of my daughter!” He was almost in tears.
“Well … no. They think you are the architect.”
“Why would they think that?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Let’s go home.”’

And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyan’s work within the broader architectural profession.

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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday, October 31, 1986
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Daily Pacific Builder, Friday,October 31, 1986.

I have been encountering—in part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of late—an abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhaus—an institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that “long story” that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural field—of nearly any field—also encourages reflection on how past decades of women’s experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.

Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, “My reaction of ‘how stupid’ has not changed in 22 years!” To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.

 

For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.

In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.

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In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that “she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.

L1002In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that “I do not “challenge” contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement…” and later notes “occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.”

L1005The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience of being yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development  supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.

L1023Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.

Many more records can be found in the Marie-Louise Laleyan Architectural Collection.

Beyond Laleyan’s success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, “the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on.” It’s arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.

Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyan’s work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, “What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.”

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One of many drawings related to the numerous public housing remodeling projects that Laleyan completed during her lengthy career.

The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.

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.

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

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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.