Denim Day: A Triumphant Return

My job here at Virginia Tech is Community Collections Archivist & Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator for the University Libraries. I forgive you if you got lost in all that. Essentially, the part of my job that is archival in nature is to engage with traditionally marginalized communities around their histories. I help them preserve and make available documentary evidence of their existence so that history will better reflect the full human experience. This post is about a project that fell squarely within that scope – and helped me really see what doing this work can mean.

Nancy Kelly smiling
Nancy Kelly, “The Instigator”

About a year ago, I got a request for a meeting with Nancy Kelly, a lesbian alumna who wanted the university to acknowledge the early history of the Gay Rights Movement at Virginia Tech. At the time, I assumed this would be a fairly standard discussion with a potential donor about materials they had and whether Special Collections would be interested in adding them to our collections. I was wrong. Nancy, certainly had some wonderful documents and we talked about the donation process. But, Nancy had a vision. She wanted us to document her experience as a lesbian at Tech during the birth of the publicly visible LGBTQ+ community here. And, she wanted it done on video. And, she wanted us to document the experiences of all of her friends and fellow alumni from that same time period. And she wanted the university as a whole to celebrate the events of 40 years ago and publicly display support for the LGBTQ+ community here. This seemed an impossible dream at the time.

Having some familiarity with the events of January 1979 from the coverage in the Collegiate Times, I wasn’t about to say no. It’s a fascinating exploration of late-1970s attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. At the time, I had no idea how I would make a video oral history project a reality. I had no personal experience as an oral history interviewer. I also knew we had limited storage space and that video files are huge! Still, this was a project with potential, so I said yes. No conditions. No mentioning all the potential issues. I just said yes. Luckily, the university made Kaltura available institution-wide for video hosting about the time I needed to put the interviews online.

What happened over the next year was a mixture of serendipity and perseverance. Working with Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Luis Garay Director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, we held an oral history workshop in late November specifically targeted to the LGBTQ+ community and preservation of its history.

Oral History Workshop banner ad

At that workshop, I found out that Joe Forte, Shelving Supervisor with the University Libraries (and an amazing DJ for Stacks on Stacks, the University Libraries Radio Show), and Slade Lellock, PhD candidate in Sociology, were very interested in recording some interviews. I also met Adri Ridings, a student who was similarly interested in helping to document LGBTQ+ history.

From there, we began recording interviews with alumni who hadn’t engaged with the university in 40 years. It was emotional. It was cathartic. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. Nancy did the work to engage them and tell them we could be trusted. Without her, there would be no interviews because these alumni had no reason to trust someone from Virginia Tech to care about their experiences and sharing them honestly.

While I worked with the alumni to preserve their stories, Luis Garay, from the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Latanya Walker, Director of Alumni Relations for Diversity and Inclusion, Mark Weber, from the Ex Lapide Alumni Society, students from Hokie Pride, the LGBT Faculty and Staff Caucus, and more were all working on putting together an amazing schedule of events for a 40th anniversary commemoration of Denim Day combined with Pride Week and Queer in Appalachia, an annual event celebrating what it is to be queer here in appalachia.

Pride Week 2019 calendar

Meanwhile, we were busily recording and transcribing as fast as possible to get as many interviews online as we could before Pride Week and the planned #VTDenimDayDoOver. I worked with our media folks to create a cool promo/intro video (linked below – click on the picture) for the collection.

Screenshot of a video player showing the starting shot from the Denim Day 2019 promo/intro video.

As the Denim Day events grew near and we had recorded almost all the scheduled interviews with the alumni from 40 years before, I worked with Susanna Rinehart, Chair of Theatre and Cinema in the School of Performing Arts on content for Jeans Noticeably Absent: The Story of Denim Day 1979 which combined theatre students reading newspaper articles and letters reacting to Denim Day with clips from the oral histories.

Overall, this experience has been amazing and triumphant. We gathered great oral histories and engaged the community. Nancy and her fellow alumni were celebrated by the university that had once ostracized them and called them an embarrassment. We were in the VT News, and the Roanoke Times. We were on the home page of the university – for 2 days running so far!!!! (see picture below)

Screenshot of the vt.edu homepage featuring the VT News article.

We had the main university Twitter account tweeting about us.

Screenshot of Tweet featuring a short video of the VT Denim Day Do Over event.

We had departments from across the university sending out messages of support even though they couldn’t attend our coordinated commemoration photo.

Screenshot of a tweet from the VT Department of Dairy Science.
Screenshot of a tweet from VT Rec Sports.

We also got more members of the community to sit down and record their own stories for our collection.

There’s still a ton of work to do to process the material we’ve gathered related to these efforts. There’s also a ton of work needed to engage the parts of the community not represented by the story of Denim Day: those members who aren’t white, cisgender, gay, or lesbian. Hopefully, the work we’ve done here will be a step toward showing that we care enough to do this work honestly and with respect.

To see the collection we built about Denim Day (in progress) and our broader documentation of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech visit here and here.

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History of Women at Virginia Tech: A Digital Project Begins!

In the spirit of the LGBTQ History at Virginia Tech and the Black History at Virginia Tech exhibits, I’ve been part of a project working on another underrepresented community for quite some time now. Working with the Women’s Center at VT, faculty, retired faculty, students, and other volunteers, since 2015, the History of Women at Virginia Tech (http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/) has been a digital humanities project in the making. We started back in 2015, digging into the history that we knew, and went from there. Over the course of the last few years, contributors on the project have begun collecting oral histories, dug through boxes of former administrators’ papers, flipped through photographs, digitized and described items, and learned A LOT! This March, in honor of Women’s History Month events on campus and the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Center, we are excited to launch the site! As we move toward the 100th anniversary of the admission of women to what was then VPI (which occurs in 2021) and the 150th anniversary of the university (coming up in 2022), we will be adding more content and features to the site, including integrated oral and video histories. Here’s what it looks like now:

At the moment, the site contains more than 75 items (many of which include multiple photos, documents, clippings, and other files). The homepage (pictured above), shows recently added items, a rotating gallery of “featured” images, and a link to the interactive timeline. There are also ways to browse and search items. There are a few collections of materials where we have grouped items. For example, there is a collection for The Tin Horn that contains pdfs of the yearbooks created by women students for themselves in 1925, 1929, 1930, and 1931 (women students did not appear in The Bugle until 1941). Another collection brings together items digitized from Special Collections’ Historical Photograph Collection. We expect, as we add to the project, that new collections will be needed to help organize materials, too.

While we are trying to highlight many of the “firsts” for women on this campus, this project has wider goals. We are using primary sources to tell the story of the many roles that women have had in the history of Virginia Tech, both before they were students and since then! We’ll also use primary sources to help contextualize events, places, and people connected to women in VT history. (There are a LOT of stories to tell!) One way we are doing that–other than through the items themselves–is through an interactive timeline (screenshot below, but you can go to it live here: http://vtwomenshistory.lib.vt.edu/exhibits/show/timeline/timeline-womens-history):

The timeline is something we will continue to expand, but for now, we’ve added about 20 events, some of which contain links to digitized content and more information, like the excerpt from the Board of Visitors minutes pictured above. Timeline points with a related item or items have a “learn more” link in the description to take you to those resources.

Our hope for this project is that people will learn some new things about campus history and women’s history and perhaps be inspired to learn more. Did you know that although women were admitted in 1921, there was not a dedicated women’s dormitory on campus until the opening of Hillcrest Hall (aka the “Skirt Barn”) in 1940? So, where did women live between 1921 and 1940? (Hint: Some of the documents in the project site might have some answers!) We encourage you to explore now, help spread the word, and to come back and visit the site often, as we continue to expand the project. In addition, if you are a part of the VT community and you have history you think belongs in the project, we welcome your input! We are happy to talk about donations to the project and/or to Special Collections, to hear your stories, and to learn about women’s history on campus together!

On a related note, if you want to know more about what’s happen on campus for Women’s History Month 2019, “Celebrating Milestones,” the full calendar of events is online. Other than our project launch, there will be presentations, discussion groups. film screenings, exhibits, and performances.

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.

Ms2013_023_B001_F020toF024_002_BahamasNursing_Scrap_120Ms2013_023_B001_F020toF024_002_BahamasNursing_Scrap_118

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.

Carmen Venegas, VPI’s First International Woman Graduate

Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Carmen Venegas (1912/1914? – 1991). She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech and, according to the July 15, 1945, profile about her in the Los Angeles Times, she is the first Latin American woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in the United States.

The first international male student came to Virginia Tech in the 1874,  and the first women matriculated in 1921. But, it took much longer for the first international female student to enroll as Venegas joined the student body in 1935. (It would be another 18 years before the first Black male student matriculated in 1953 and another 31 years for the first Black women to enter VT in 1966.)

Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.

Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle
Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle

A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.

Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle
Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle

In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!

Following her time at VPI, Venegas went on to a long and varied career as an engineer, performer, and painter. She married Meade A. Livesay and moved to Los Angeles, where she studied music and art at UCLA. Venegas went on to perform dancing and singing under the name Carmen Lesay.

You can read more about the first women to graduate from Tech and the legacy they left behind in the blog posts linked above as well as on the archived Special Collections’ women’s history section of the 125th Anniversary of Virginia Tech website.

(This post was updated Nov. 9, 2018, with corrections and additional information about Carmen Venegas after her time at Virginia Tech. Thank you to Ivannia Diaz for her corrections and sharing resources with us!)

“History Is Not a Meritocracy:” A Deep Dive Into Confronting Gaps on Wikipedia

In honor of next week’s Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

“History is not a simple meritocracy.”[1] So goes the opening salvo of Despina Stratigakos’ “Unforgetting Women Architects,” an essay on writing women practitioners back into the historical record. We’ve touched on this topic in previous blog posts about the history of women in architecture and the importance of making their work visible, especially online. Yet in advance of the Women in Architecture and the Arts Wikipedia edit-a-thon next Wednesday March 28th, it seemed an opportune time to take another look at the troubling lack of female representation on Wikipedia and within the architectural profession.

When we talk about representation of women on Wikipedia, we actually talk about two distinct, yet intimately connected, issues. One issue is a gender asymmetry in the site’s content, the other is an asymmetry in the site’s contributors.[2][3][4] Myriad and complex factors contribute to both. Wikipedia’s structure and ideology, the fact that many of its veteran editors are white and male, the perceived lack of importance and cultural relevance of issues significant to women implicit in Wikipedia’s criteria for “notability,”[5] sometimes ruthlessly enforced by the site’s self-appointed gatekeepers; these and other factors[6] cause significant lacunae and stark attrition among female editors (who account for 13% of contributors)[7][8] in an encyclopedia that purports to be the “sum of all human knowledge.”

In fact, some quick research demonstrates the widened scope of notability criteria where men and men’s interests are concerned. As a much-circulated New York Times article from 2011 points out[9], and indeed accounts from (sometimes expert) women contributors writing about women[10], there can be a lot of pushback on articles addressing women’s interests: nitpicking about sourcing and whether an article’s subject is “notable” enough to warrant inclusion on the site; indeed, articles on women are often flagged as not even adhering to Wikipedia’s neutrality guidelines. Yet there are lengthy articles and sub-articles about video games, video game characters, male-dominated television shows, and, of course, biographical articles on men in many fields that are often published without challenge.[11] To this point, a research article addressing gender bias in Wikipedia’s content has found that women on Wikipedia are, on the whole, more “notable” than their male counterparts, indicating that one must reach a higher threshold of accomplishment as a woman in order to be deemed important enough to merit an article – a threshold that the article characterizes as “the glass ceiling effect.”[12] Also of note, the article presents evidence that certain topics are overstated in women’s biographies and tend to receive more attention than their work, i.e., their personal relationships and family status.[13]

Wikipedia culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a microcosm of culture writ large and its participatory homogeneity mirrors that of other kinds of open online forums that depend on user-generated content. The way the site reproduces bias, however, may be exacerbated by its claim to neutrality that is meant to bolster its reliability and credibility. This principle, when coupled with a lack of diversity in its user base, is problematic in that neutrality then comes to be synonymous with a white male point of view. This likely explains much of the resistance and flags that women encounter when they attempt to publish pages about other women.[14] They claim that women should write their gender out of their entries;[15] this may very well be because male editors have become accustomed to perceiving their own form of gendered analysis as the default – it is not, however, neutral.

Many scholars and practitioners (Susana Torre, Denise Scott Brown, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Dolores Hayden, Despina Stratigakos, Lori Brown, and Gabrielle Esperdy, to name but a few) have worked to challenge and dismantle pernicious myths about the architectural profession.[16] Institutions like the International Archive of Women in Architecture and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation have made the collection of women architects’ papers a top priority and have helped to “recover a cultural past” and properly historicize the conditions of women’s professional exclusion.[17] Additionally, in recent years scholars, information specialists, and architects have worked to ensure greater representation in online environments – enhancing discoverability of otherwise underappreciated or forgotten historical figures.[18][19][20] Unfortunately there isn’t space here to fully unpack all of these women’s various contributions to the field and its literature. Please join us next Wednesday in the Multipurpose Room at Newman Library to engage with their analysis more fully and to rewrite digital history! RSVP for the Women in Architecture Edit-a-thon here.

References

1. Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 21 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603

2. Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times, 30 January 2011. Accessed 21 March 2018.

3. Gardner, Sue. “Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (In Their Own Words),” Sue Gardner’s Blog, 19 February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2018.

4. Wagner, Claudia, et al. “Women through the Glass Ceiling: Gender Asymmetries in Wikipedia.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24.

5. Davidge, Tania. “How to be ‘notable.'”Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture website, 24 April 2015. Accessed 22 March 2018.

6. Gardner, 2011.

7. Cohen, 2011.

8. Bear, Julia B., and Benjamin Collier. “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 5, 2016, pp. 254-265.

9. Cohen, 2011.

10. Vigor, Emily. “Down the Rabbit Hole: (Miss)adventures in Wikipedia.” Environmental Design blog, UC Berkeley, 3 April 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

11. Ibid.

12. Wagner et al., 2016.

13. Ibid.

14. Vigor, 2015.

15. Gardner, 2011.

16. Torre, Susana, 1944, and Architectural League of New York. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977. Scott Brown, Denise. Having words. Vol. 4;4.;. London: Architectural Association, 2009. Berkeley, Ellen P., and Matilda McQuaid. Architecture: A Place for Women. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington [D.C.], 1989. Hayden, Dolores. “What would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. S170-S187. Stratigakos, Despina. Where are the Women Architects?. Princeton University Press, in association with Places Journal, Princeton, 2016. Brown, Lori A. Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Ashgate, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2011. Esperdy, Gabrielle. “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/120910

17. Torre, 1977.

18. Moritz, Cyndi. “Project Aims to Raise Profile of Women Architects on Wikipedia.” Syracuse University News, 1 June 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

19. “The Year Five Campaign.” Art + Feminism. Accessed 22 March 2018.

20. “Welcome to Parlour.” Archiparlour. Accessed 22 March 2018.

The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Gottlieb008
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.

Gottlieb010
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.