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Entries in vernacular (2)

Monday
Jun232014

Black Mountain College

A. Lawrence Kocher, Studies Building, Black Mountain College, Lake Eden, North Carolina. 1941

Black Mountain College, North Carolina, started an interdisciplinary summer arts school at Lake Eden in 1944 during a war, when things rarely start, and continued to throw artists, musicians, dancers and experimental types together through the 1950s.  One of these was Buckminster Fuller who had done his startling dymaxion work in the 1920s and 30s and by the late 1940s mostly taught, did workshops and mentored people.  One of these was Jeffrey Burland Lindsay, an engineer-industrial designer in Montreal who headed up the Buckminster Fuller Research Institute, a grand name which turns out to be Lindsay and Ted Pope in a small space on the Plateau.  One of the summers Fuller was at Black Mountain, Lindsay too was there: the practical fellow to Fuller's inspirational stuff.  They built a 48' geodesic dome in 1948, called by Elaine de Kooning the Supine Dome, as it failed, gracefully.  From the pictures it looks like they were building it out of ribbon.

One Black Mountain listing says 'the college played a formative role in the definition of an American aesthetic and identity in the arts during the 1950s and 1960s'.  It must have done, it appears to have been stacked with emigrés from the Bauhaus, plus Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers; there were poets, there were painters, all was possible.  Students included Ray Johnson, Noland, Rauschenberg, Twombly, John Chamberlain — these are the ones I know, there are many others I don't know, but it was clearly seminal, formative, an essential part of American postwar modern art. 

The college was located on Lake Eden, planned in 1938 by Gropius and Breuer but development was suspended during WWII, and then after the war Lawrence Kocher took over the design of the main building. It was built by students and faculty from 1940-41, plus, for sustenance and extra cash, there was a farm and a mica mine.

This is a curious episode in American architectural history, one senses that money was tight, creativity and optimism high, materials were often found, the country itself was in the grip of a military-agricultural complex.  Kocher's austere, Gropius-influenced, minimal campus building, the stamp of which is in Frey's canvas house of the 1930s, and so similar to a wartime barracks, is also not unlike a North Carolina tobacco-drying shed: wood frame, clad in corrugated galvanised steel.  And it has aged like a tobacco-drying shed, leaving behind its bauhaus modernity and revealing its deeper connection to a local vernacular.

This series of images, taken in 2007 at the Lake Eden Campus of the Black Mountain College, focuses on the Studies Building. Designed in 1940 by A. Lawrence Kocher, the building was completed in 1941 and is the largest structure built by the college.

 

Friday
Nov292013

Steven Holl, Knut Hamsun Centre, 2009

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009A slightly tilted box, sheathed in tarred wood, based, according to Holl on Norwegian vernacular of wood stave churches, sod roofs and windows placed to receive low sun.  Conceptually, the skin peels back in places for staircases, windows, tiny decks: tiny lesions that humanise an uncompromised, black three-storey building.

There is, of course, controversy.  Hamsun (1859-1952) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; he is known as the father of the modern novel for his use of such things as flashbacks and fragmentation, his plain prose, his love of nature and beauty.  He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels and was a member of Quisling's National Unity Party.  Quisling delivered Norway to Germany, more or less.  This has compromised Hamsun's literary legacy.  

The Hamsun Centre opened on the 150th anniversary of his birth.  He had a hard childhood, much poverty, little schooling; his first book was Hunger in 1890, written in straitened, but for Hamsun, normal circumstances after he returned from an itinerant turn around the American midwest in the 1880s.  With the success of his novels he bought a farm in Nordland, married, had a family and continued to write.  As Jonathan Glancy wrote in his review of the Hamsun Centre 'The Nazi episode poisoned this well of beauty.'
Although Holl claims that a museum dedicated to a single writer should contain everything, good and bad, just the existence of a Hamsun Centre enrages many Norwegians and particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which, evidently, has been fierce in its attack on Norway for validating Hamsun's life.  

Glancey found the building beautiful, complex and unsettling, appropriate to the contradictory life that was Knut Hamsun's.  The site is beautiful, the story both tragic and frustrating.  How, we think, can anyone have gone so terribly wrong as to support Hitler.  Yet the Germany of Hamsun's youth was the European centre of culture: of music, literature, history, philosophy; he was a germanophile, Norway was a colony, Nordland was a distant periphery.   Not only did the Nazi episode poison Nordland's well of beauty, it poisoned Germany. This is a terrible narrative to try to encompass with architecture if architecture is supposed to take sides, which if it did, would no longer be architecture but some form of 3-d propaganda.

I can't speak about the building as I haven't seen it, other than in drawings, models and photos.  It seems brave: the little details that cling to the black box are like flies: fragile, annoying, but also clean.  I'm interested in black buildings right now, and this was one of them.  The more I look at it, the more necessary it is that it is black, not because this is some sort of Norwegian barn vernacular, but because it is a building that holds great social and political tension, and has to bear the weight of twenty-first century vengeance.  The blackness will be re-inscribed when Hamsun is taken up by Brevik and his ilk.

Steven Holl, The Knut Hamsun Centre. Presteid, Hamarøy, Norway 1994-2009