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Architecture Section



Black Mountain and Asheville

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Lawrence Kocher classes. Left: Don Page (left) and Lawrence Kocher (right). Drafting tables constructed by students. Right: Class on terrace of Studies Building. Photos courtesy BMC Papers, North Carolina State Archives.

Mary Emma Harris

Small House Exhibition

From 1940-43, when Lawrence Kocher was at Black Mountain, the college achieved its ideal architecture curriculum: basic courses in design and color taught by Josef Albers, site planning, discussion of the college's needs, design of buildings, fund raising, courses in architecture, and construction. Kocher was assisted at times by four young architects who were to have influential careers: Willo von Moltke (fall 1940), a German immigrant and graduate of architecture from the Technische Hochschule in Berlin; Howard Dearstyne (1941-42), an American who had received his Diploma from the Bauhaus in 1932 and subsequently studied privately with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Anatole Kopp (1942-43), a young French immigrant who was completing his Master of Architecture degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Lou Bernard Voigt, a landscape architect and graduate of the Harvard School of Design.

It was only when Kocher was at Black Mountain that there was a prearchitectural classroom curriculum. He offered basic courses in Contemporary Architecture, Contemporary Architecture Drawing, Mechanical Drawing, Elements of Architecture (Design), Intermediate Design, Advanced Design, Structural Design, Postwar Planning, and the History of Architecture. After Kocher left the college there were sporatic courses in architecture by faculty and even students including H. McGuire Wood, a designer-builder, who taught some basic courses in small house design and construction, and Paul Williams, who had taken some courses in architecture at MIT. Walter Gropius and others lectured at the summer sessions, and visiting architects were called on for lectures and discussions.

Essentially the Black Mountain curriculum was the ideal program Gropius would have liked to have had at Harvard, where he had to combat a deeply entrenched beaux arts program. It combined basic courses in the fundamentals of design taught by Josef Albers, classroom courses, and construction experience. It taught not just information but a way of thinking and working. Gropius invited Albers to teach at Harvard as a guest lecturer but he was never able to secure for him a tenured position. Albers, on the other hand, appreciated the freedom he had at Black Mountain, and it is questionable whether, had such a position been offered, he would have accepted.

Albers's basic courses in design and color opened the students eyes to the nature of form and to the relativity of perception. In the design class there was an emphasis on the relative appearance of materials as well as their constructive qualities, essential training for the architect. Along with these courses there were workshops in weaving and textile design, woodworking and printing in which students worked on practical assignments in direct contact with materials.

Although the architectural courses were elementary, the involvement of students in the total architectural process was exceptional. Although the decision in the spring of 1940 to expand the work program to include construction was born of necessity, students, especially those who were later to choose architecture as a career, recalled the value of constructing buildings from beginning to completion. Two students -- Robert Bliss and Claude Stoller -- were appointed job captains for small houses. Such an intensive and encompassing practicum was in essence vastly different from the usual practical experience in which an architecture student participates in a construction project for a limited time, primarily following he directions of a contractor or architect. Paul Beidler, who designed and constructed a small music practice cubicle with students and faculty, pointed out that the experience was reminiscent of  the master-apprentice relationship when design its realization in form were not divorced and when architects learned through building.

Kocher's designs were both experimental and conventional. In designing the Studies Building, he employed new materials and inventive construction methods. In designing the barn at the farm, however, he drew on his knowledge of traditional design an construction. He felt deeply the responsibility of the architect to design small, affordable houses for Americans, many of whom were living in substandard housing. Before coming to Black Mountain he had designed both a canvas house and a house built of plywood, a relatively inexpensive new building material at the time. The shacks in which many in western North Carolina lived the time were a catalyst for an emphasis on design of modern small houses. (Small House Exhibition) In 1942 he wrote:

“... It is a curious inconsistency in modern life that the architect contributes so little to the devising of statutes or other instruments of action which would further the elimination of squalid-slums in cities and withing the shadow of factories. Also, can we justify the almost total neglect of housing for agricultural workers?

In the rural North Carolina . . . [a] declaration of noble purposes of architecture becomes hollow and inadequate. Throughout the South (where approximately half of the farms of the United States are located) the only architecture that closely touches the lives of white and Negro farmers is housing. A survey of North Carolina indicates that the Negroes’ houses are from one to three rooms, mostly crowded, while the white farmers’ houses average four rooms. In the mountain districts, the houses have one or two rooms, with only one-fifth having more than four rooms. Most appalling of all, the families sleep four or more persons to a bedroom.... (The New Republic, 24 August 1942,p. 237-238).

After the war the college was disappointed in its efforts to resume its building program and design and construction were sporatic and without a cohesive plan. Although the college's slow decision making process was a contributing factor, the major problem was its inability in the postwar construction frenzy to attract a full-time architect to teach and direct construction. Hopes were raised when Paul Beidler taught briefly in the spring of 1945 and worked with students on the design and construction of a music cubicle, but to the disappointment of the community, he left to resume prewar contracts. When the college hired The Architects Collaborative to design a women's dormitory, they anticipated that one member would be in residence to direct construction, but the newly founded group felt that their own sense of cohesion would be compromised by the absence of one member.

In 1947, a group of students frustrated by the failure of the college to go ahead with an architecture program, formed an architecture study group, and drawing on the knowledge of members who had taken some basic courses in architecture, they designed and constructed the Minimum House. This initiative, which would never have been allowed in most colleges, received faculty approval. In 1949 Robert Turner designed and constructed a Pot Shop. Paul Williams, who had been instrumental in the design of the Minimum House, designed a Science Building to replace the one that burned in 1948. When he left, however, and appointed students to build the structure, he found that such labor without supervision was not successful. He returned in 1953 to oversee completion of the building.

Even those plans which were never constructed were part of the educational process. When Gropius and Breuer were commissioned in 1939 to design a buildings for Lake Eden, the entire community took part in the discussions of the college's needs and the relationship between their educational ideals and the forms that would house the community. After the war The Architects Collaborative was commissioned to design a women's dormitory. When the plans were presented to the community, a group of students presented an alternative plan for several small units combining sleeping and study space. Their plan, in turn, was challenged, and the discussion was the catalyst for an exhibition of the history of architecture at the college and a discussion of the relationship between college ideals and architectural form.  Finally, the community reached a compromise: several small dorms with only sleeping space and a common room in each unit for socializing. By the time the compromise had been reached and new plans drawn, FHA buildings had alleviated the housing shortage, and the dorms were never constructed. When the architect Bertrand Goldberg offered to design and provide the materials for a small art building as a memorial to his first wife, one reason that the plans were never realized was the college's hesitation to have construction directed by Goldberg from a distance.

Peter Oberlander in an article comparing the curriculum at Harvard and Black Mountain noted that both stood in opposition to the prevailing eclecticism and that both, rather than teaching merely problems and solutions, sought to instill in the students an approach and a "way of thinking." (Architectural Design, April 1948) Claude Stoller, a student who became an architect and teacher, recalled that when he enrolled at Harvard, many of the students had more advanced skills in drafting and other technical aspects of architecture. Although initially he had to struggle to match those skills, the experience of directing the construction of a small house at Black Mountain was irreplaceable and invaluable to his more advanced studies.

In the 1943 announcement of the Work Camp for "Students in Architecture and Those Interested in Building"

"THE STUDENT receiving training in Architecture requires practical field experience in construction to supplement his drafting board and class room instruction. The idea of field work in the building crafts is a corollary to the thoughtful concept of formulating the architect as 'builder'. It can, probably, be considered as indispensable to the full development of the student. In this time of war, such experience affords opportunity for the development of resourcefulness, practical judgment and the ability to cope with certain kinds of emergency. Students learn that materials have limitations and laws of their own and that working with them requires discipline and technique. Some students at the work camp attain a fair degree of skill in various types of work involved; and for most students the firsthand acquaintance with modern architectural thought and materials is a valuable experience."


The Black Mountain College Project gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Graham Foundation
for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for a study of architecture at Black Mountain College.