Black Mountain College Project
Photographs: North Carolina State Archives, Black Mountain College Papers (Studies Building and Robert E. Lee Hall); Black Mountain College Project (Lake Eden -- Mae West)
Architecture at Black Mountain College is primarily about education. It is about the education of the architect as well as the liberal arts student and the faculty. It is about a planning process in which the entire community was the client. It is about learning to think in real situations and applying that knowledge. It is about risk-taking, accommodation to existing conditions, compromise, initiative, and imagination. It is about the temporal and the lasting; the ideal and the pragmatic. It is about the relationship between structure and the needs of those individuals who inhabit that structure. It is about landscape. It also is about the creation of ever-changing forms relevant to the present time.
From 1933-41 Black Mountain College was housed in YMCA buildings rented from the the Blue Ridge Assembly. Robert E. Lee Hall, the central building with a large lobby and rows of dormitory-like rooms on either side and on the second and third floors both reflected and reinforced the college's communal ideals. It was a fulcrum through which everyone passed as they went to and from classes, from their studies and dormitory rooms to the dining hall, or to other activities. Classes, lectures and concerts were held in the lobby. Mailboxes were there as was the bulletin board (in the hall nearby) on which schedules, notices of lost items, commentaries on various college issues, and many other notes were published. When Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer were commissioned to draw plans for the Lake Eden campus, a large gathering room with a fireplace was considered a necessity.
The decision in the first year that faculty without children would live in Robert E. Lee Hall reinforced the idea that faculty and students would not be two separate classes of people who came together for classroom instruction but otherwise led separate lives. A degree of privacy and a sense of being apart from the students was provided by housing the faculty together in the same wing. They were given the larger rooms for their offices which often served as classrooms. In the first year there were so many rooms in Lee Hall that it was decided that each student would have his or her own study, although they would share rooms for sleeping. Throughout the college's history the importance of each individual having a space where he or she could pursue his or her studies was given highest priority.
Had Black Mountain College been able to obtain a long-term lease for the Blue Ridge property or to purchase it, undoubtedly it would have remained there indefinitely. In 1937, as insurance against a sudden ouster and in hopes of gaining a greater sense of permanence, the college purchased the Lake Eden property northwest of the village of Black Mountain. The property was owned by the Corporation of Black Mountain College, i.e., the faculty. When individuals left, they lost all claim to the property.
There was a sense of grandness about Robert E. Lee Hall, situated as it was on the side of a mountain with a magnificent view of surrounding mountains and an every-changing sky. In contrast, Lake Eden was nestled on a plateau in the Swannanoa Valley. The visual center of the property was the artificially-damned lake, which like the lobby of Lee Hall, was a spiritual and visual focal point. The dining hall on one side of the lake and the Studies Building on the opposite side were the nerve centers of college life. The dining hall also served as the concert and lecture hall, as the theater, and as recreation space for parties and other events. Site plans for long-range development placed all educational activities around the lake. Postwar plans for a theater which would attract outsiders placed it near the entrance of the property.
Although philosophically suited in its layout to the communal ideals of Black Mountain College, Robert E. Lee Hall, a plantation style mansion named for a Civil War general, was in its appearance at odds with the progressive, modernistic ideals of the college. With the purchase of the Lake Eden property, the community was presented with a challenge: how intelligently to plan for its development. Xanti Schawinsky, former Bauhaus student who was teaching art and theater, started the discussion with a class on architecture and a community lecture. The college was put in touch with architect A. Lawrence Kocher, editor of The Architectural Record, who suggested a collaboration between the college faculty, including Schawinsky and Josef Albers, and Walter Gropius, who recently had arrived in the United States to teach architecture at Harvard University.
Gropius visited the college in December 1937 to discuss plans for the building, and in the winter and spring of 1939 he and Marcel Breuer, who had recently formed a partnership, drew plans based on a list of needs outlined by the college community. Unlike colleges which selected eclectic, pattern-book styles such as Gothic, Classical or Colonial to create a particular academic environment, Black Mountain decided that its campus would be modern in appearance to reflect its progressive ideals.
It was estimated that $500,000 would be needed to build the entire complex of buildings, and in January 1940 the college launched a publicity and money-raising campaign for $75,000 to construct the first building. It found, however, that donors were not willing to make large contributions to a school without trustees and with no guarantee of purpose or longevity. In the spring, after the college was notified that the YMCA had a new tenant and that it would have to vacate the buildings by June 1941, it was clear that it would be necessary to move to Lake Eden in simpler buildings. While the Gropius-Breuer campus would have been one of their first commissions in the United States and a major architectural structure, the college could only have raised funds had it adopted a more conventional structure and more predictable educational program.
Black Mountain often functioned most efficiently in a crisis when there was little time for discussion, disagreement or considered reservations. In the summer of 1940, faced with the necessity of a move to Lake Eden in less than a year, the college turned to A. Lawrence Kocher. The Kocher building with four wings included student studies, a large art room and an exhibition hall, a library, administration offices, faculty apartments, and "conversation rooms" for social gatherings. Whereas the Gropius-Breuer buildings had been located on the south side of the lake which would have necessitated the demolition of the dining hall, Kocher located his building on the opposite side so that the college would have continued use of existing structures.
From 1940-43 when Kocher was in residence at the college, Black Mountain achieved it ideal architectural program with classes in basic architecture and practical construction experience. Students at Black Mountain were involved in the entire process of planning, design decisions, fundraising, and construction. Two students who later were to become architects -- Robert Bliss and Claude Stoller -- were put in charge of construction of small houses. The construction of the Studies Building, one of the four wings of the Kocher complex, captured the imagination of the press and articles appeared in newspapers and journals throughout the country.
Efforts by Black Mountain to renew the architecture program after the war were largely unsuccessful both due to the slow decision making process in the community and to the college's inability to attract a resident architect to teach classes and oversee construction. Nevertheless, the planning process, even when the buildings were not constructed, was for the students as well as the faculty part of the learning experience. When the Architects Collaborative plans for a women's dormitory were rejected in favor of small dorms, not only were the plans subjected to scrutiny by the entire community, but the decision making process at the college was examined. What if the "good idea" comes after the plans are drawn? Does one go ahead with the plans because of the investment in them or does one start over? "When is a decision a decision at Black Mountain College?" (Mary Gregory) By the time new site plans were approved and plans for a small dormitory completed, the college's postwar housing problems had been solved by the construction of seven barrack-style buildings provided by the Federal Housing Authority.
At times small student initiated projects provided the most effective learning experiences. In the fall of 1947 a group of students, frustrated by the college's failure to move ahead with a construction program, formed their own study group and designed and constructed, with the approval of the faculty, a small Minimum House. For those students, several of whom were to become architects and designer/builders, this experience of taking initiative and accomplishing a goal was invaluable. Paul Williams, a member of the group who had left Black Mountain to take some architectural courses at MIT, designed a Science Building to replace the one that had burned. Another student-initiated project was construction of a dual-use tobacco barn and beef shed.
For those Americans and European refugees who struggled for a new vocabulary and spirit in architecture in the United States, Black Mountain College was a spiritual oasis. At a time when colleges and universities in the United States were looking to eclectic styles and conventional construction, Black Mountain allied itself with those who advocated forms that encompassed contemporary design and construction methods. It is remarkable that the small school -- isolated in the mountains far from a major city or university -- attracted as teachers, designers and advocates of its educational methods major architects and promising architectural students. Among the visitors to the college in 1940-41 when the Studies Building was being constructed were Marcel Breuer, Josť Luis Sert, Christopher Tunnard, John Burchard, Philip Goodwin, and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Young teachers and apprentices included Anatole Kopp, Willo von Moltke, Lou Bernard Voight, and Howard Dearstyne. Walter Gropius and John Burchard were on the Advisory Council, and Gropius taught at three Summer Art Institutes. Gropius invited Josef Albers to teach seminars at Harvard University and encouraged his students to study with Albers at Black Mountain. Buckminster Fuller taught at two summer sessions and attempted to raise his first dome at the college.
Visually the rustic Dining Hall on one side of the lake and the modern Studies Building on the other reflected the dynamic synthesis between the American experience, on the one hand, and European Modernism, on the other, which were the essence of the college's vital educational experience. Although Black Mountain would have preferred a visually coherent modern campus, small building projects that met specific needs were more suited to its financial limitations and unconventional structure. Through all aspects of building -- maintenance, plumbing, fence building, small house construction, repairs, remodeling, and planning -- students learned through "doing," an essential concept of the progressive movement in education. Like the college, projects were modest in scale and large on ideas. Its success lay not in the construction of major monuments but in process and experience.
The Black Mountain College
Project gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Graham Foundation