The Role of Design in Cultivating and Enhancing Spiritual Connection

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

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Melita Rodeck, Consolata Missions Seminary, 1959.

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

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

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

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Melita Rodeck, Church Interior, Conceptual sketch

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

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

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

 

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

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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.

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Addressing Architecture’s “Woman Question” Then and Now

Forty years ago the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective took shape under the editorial hand of Susana Torre. While the work arose out of an exhibition meant to expose the undervalued contributions of women to the built environment, it evolved into a discursive response to a series of dogged and complex questions concerning the roles of women in society, the exclusions of educational and professional culture, and the ideological underpinnings of “tradition.” (Torre’s papers are held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture here at Virginia Tech and the collection contains a wealth of research material related to her work on this exhibition and book project.)

Yet after two-fifths of a century have passed, a few questions linger: Have women made appreciable gains within the profession? Did Women in American Architecture’s 1977 publication herald a sea change in the attitudes of practitioners and architectural culture writ large? The answer may effectively be found in a book published just last year called Where Are the Women Architects? by Despina Stratigakos: while significant advances have been made, yes, equity (in pay, recognition, representation, etc.) has yet to be achieved. Indeed, in an interview with The Architectural League just four years ago, Torre commented that she had hoped sexism in the field would have become an artifact of the past: “I would have hoped that by now this topic would have become entirely passe…that it would be a quaint reminder of another time.”

In certain respects, women are still battling a culture that lionizes the “exceptional one:” a culture that valorizes individualism–the “lone genius”–while erasing female collaboration and one that lauds exceptional women to justify the marginalization of other women architects (paraphrase of Torre’s words). The “lone genius” archetype is partially a product of the narrative structure of many architectural histories (I’m looking at you, monograph). Stratigakos re-examines this emphasis on “stardom” and its underlying assumption “that the best architecture is created by mavericks.” Alongside assumptions that persist in mainstream treatment of architecture, Stratigakos looks at the bare fact that young women still confront woefully high professional attrition rates and a lack of visibility in educational curricula, the analog historical record, in online content, and among online content creators.

Digitization and Representation: Strategies For Winning Over Hearts and Minds?

Part and parcel of rectifying gender imbalance involves the activist approach of “consciousness-raising,” which partially entails the documentation and recovery of a cultural past that is often unrecognized or invalidated in historical works. The IAWA, founded in 1985, was itself borne out of Milka Bliznakov’s frustration that the historical record for architecture remained so lopsided: as many women grew old or died, evidence of their work was quietly being relegated to the ash heap of history. In some ways the digital era has presented new challenges regarding historical incompleteness.

In recent years, the internet has played a profound role in shaping cultural memory and, in some cases, reproducing bias–where ample content can be found and accessed so easily, many people erroneously believe that most information resources have been made available online and, following from this assumption, (mis-)perceive an absence of online content as a positive demonstration of triviality or non-existence. As Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner noted in their digitization report “Shifting Gears,” “in a world where it is increasingly felt that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist, we need to make sure that our users are exposed to the wealth of information in special collections.” The current CLIR grant-funded project to digitize the IAWA’s holdings is underway and one of its express goals is to combat the notion that women architects didn’t exist or didn’t contribute much to the built environment. For those of us working on the project, it’s our belief that the work of changing hearts and minds can begin with something as (seemingly) simple as visibility. Check back in another forty years.

 

 

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.

Ephemera as evidence: Uncovering glimpses of women in design history

The International Archive of Women in Architecture includes over 2000 cubic feet of unpublished primary sources (manuscripts, photographs, drawings, correspondence, business records and more). Researchers visiting Special Collections at Virginia Tech also have access to hundreds of published books, catalogs, documentaries, and encyclopedias about women in architecture and design. Many of these publications are scholarly or autobiographical in nature, but our growing collection of supporting materials also includes published ephemera (follow this link to learn more about the research value of ephemera) which shed light on the hidden contributions of women to design.

Publications like trade cards and catalogs, advertisements, and event posters represent fragments of evidence for the work of pioneering women architects and designers. The bulk of our resources in this realm reflect the contributions of women in the United States of America, working in an era where women had limited access to formal architectural education and licensure. These materials rarely divulge biographical details about their subjects, but suggest future possibilities for intrepid scholars.

Here are three examples that hint towards hidden contributions of women:

Vintage catalogs of house plans

Early 20th century designers in the US advertised their house plans by distributing colorful, eye catching catalogs to homebuilders, lending agents, and manufacturers. The Garlinghouse Company was founded around 1910 by homebuilder Lewis F. Garlinghouse of Topeka, Kansas. Advertising for decades under the tagline “America’s Pioneer Home Planning Service,” Garlinghouse Company was among the first and most prolific seller of home plans in the US. Iva G. Lieurance was the company’s principal house designer, and her plans appear in several catalogs through the 1950s. We know little about her work beyond what we can glean from the catalogs. She may have worked for the company as early as 1907, traveling around the country to document attractive homes and adapt their floor plans for customers in the midwest. An application with the Maryland Historical Trust calls Lieurance “the only known woman credited for design work associated with the mail-order house movement.”

Garlinghouse Company catalog, "Sunshine Homes", feat. designs by Iva G. Lieurance. (1938)
Garlinghouse Company catalog, “Sunshine Homes”, feat. designs by Iva G. Lieurance. (1938)

Lieurance’s credentials and her relationship to L.F. Garlinghouse may be lost to history. According to the 1940 census, 53 year old Iva G. Lieurance lived with her elder sister in Topeka, Kansas as head of the household. Her occupation is recorded as “Designer of Home Plans” and she reported working 50 hours per week. The census worker recorded 8th grade as the highest level of education she had completed. The 1954 Topeka, Kansas City Directory lists her as a designer for L.F. Garlinghouse, indicating a long and prolific partnership with the company.

Other collections in the IAWA suggest that residential design was more accessible to American women in the early 20th century than industrial or large-scale commercial work. Like Iva G. Lieurance, many pioneering women represented in the IAWA managed to apply their trade through creative partnerships that worked around credential barriers.

Browse specific titles in our collections featuring Iva G. Lieurance (including recent acquisitions not yet cataloged).

Trade Cards

This blog has previously featured the Coade Lithodipyra or Artifical Stone Manufactory Trade Card, a 200 year old advertisement for a manufacturing company in England run by Eleanor Coade (1733-1821). This trade card is probably the oldest item in the IAWA, although it is not the oldest item in Special Collections!

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Coade’s Lithodipyra or Artificial Manufactory Trade Card

World’s Fair Posters

The Town of Tomorrow and Home Building Center Souvenir Folder, a collection of ephemera from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, offers another glimpse into the historic contributions of women to design. Documenting an exhibition of 15 model homes, the collection of brochures features a design by one Verna Cook Salomonsky. Unlike Iva G. Lieurance, Verna’s contributions are somewhat well known. She first practiced architecture with her husband Edgar. Continuing as a solo practitioner after his death, she designed and oversaw construction of hundreds of homes in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California. She also wrote extensively about Mexican design traditions with her second husband, Warren. Her archives are maintained by the University of California at San Diego. Having partnered with a spouse or family member before branching out on her own, Verna Cook’s career reflects another common path for pioneering women architects.

Demonstration Home Brochure No. 12, "Town of Tomorrow" Model Village, New York World's Fair, 1939. Designed by Verna Cook Salomonsky.
Demonstration Home Brochure No. 12, “Town of Tomorrow” Model Village, New York World’s Fair, 1939. Designed by Verna Cook Salomonsky.

To learn more about World’s Fair related materials in Special Collections, see https://vtspecialcollections.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/summer-of-the-white-city/

The Art and Travels of Sigrid Rupp

When she wasn’t designing offices for Silicon Valley giants like Apple and IBM, Sigrid Rupp was busy traveling around the world, writing and sketching the scenes that caught her eye. From 1966 to 2003, she visited over 30 countries, traveling extensively throughout North America, Europe, and East Asia. With an eye for design in environments both natural and built, she meticulously documented her many travels in photographs, diaries and sketchbooks. Maybe a little different from the typical contents in our many collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture, but I think they help show who Sigrid Rupp was- always curious, always creating.

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Sigrid Rupp sketching the view from an overlook in Guanjuato, Mexico.

Rupp developed her fascination with architecture and the built environment as a child growing up in post-war Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Much of Europe was in the process of rebuilding from the devastation of World War II, and Rupp got to witness first-hand how modern architecture and urban planning could transform communities. At age 10 she moved with her family to California, and at 17 she enrolled at UC Berkeley to study architecture. In 1976, 5 years after receiving her architectural license, she founded her own firm, SLR Architects, in the San Francisco bay area, where she served as president until she closed the office in 1998.

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An excerpt from one of Rupp’s travel diaries, complete with a view out her tent on a lake in Alaska in 2002.

Rupp traveled and sketched extensively throughout her career, but after her retirement, she devoted more time to travels and to watercolor painting. Her watercolors of bay area landscapes were featured in several juried shows of the Pacific Art League of Palo Alto. She also began hosting a rotating art show at the Ravenswood Medical Clinic in East Palo Alto, where she had previously worked as project architect.

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Architectural details of La Paroquia in San Miguel Allende, Mexico
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Rupp’s sketch of a yurt during her visit to Mongolia in 2000

Rupp kept traveling and sketching until late 2003, when she was diagnosed with gastric cancer. After a six month battle, she passed away on May 27th, 2004, at age 61. In her obituary, her family writes that she was “was the life of the party at family functions where she told stories from her extensive travels and loved her champagne.” Though her adventures were cut short, her passion for seeing the world lives on in her travel diaries and sketchbooks, which can be seen in full in our reading room. The finding aid for the Sigrid Rupp Collection contains an extensive list of all the sketches, photographs and recollections from her travels. You can see a small sampling of items from her collection, including some of these drawings, on our IAWA digital collections site. Happy travels!